Who would you say the local townspeople in the small city of Jamestown, New York voted for in 1975 as their most famous native daughter or son? If you guessed the world-famous television star and comedienne Lucille Ball, you’d be wrong. Although Lucille Ball was indeed born in Jamestown, the townsfolk chose Roger Tory Peterson as their best-known local resident.
Yes, this man with a handsomely-craggy face and—by many accounts—a somewhat obstinate personality—was then known to some 20 million birdwatchers around the nation as simply “Peterson”—as in “quick, look it up in your Peterson”. You see—in 1934—ardent naturalist and profound wildlife artist Roger Tory Peterson published his first of many field guides that kicked off a long-lasting trend in the dissemination of natural resource information that sold millions of copies throughout the US.
Born on August 28, 1908 in Jamestown, Peterson seemed destined to be anything but a famous artist and writer. He was known to his teachers and other townsfolk as a constant troublemaker—always pulling pranks and raising hijinks. But Peterson’s epiphany occurred at age 11 when he joined the local Junior Audubon Bird Club. Once he latched onto his first birding field guide and pair of binoculars, his wayward days ended and a life-long passion began.
Peterson’s interest in art also kicked in when—as a young adult—he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York City and also studied at the National Academy of Art Design. Along the way during this educational process, Peterson was heavily influenced by a bevy of serious young birders—including Joe Hickey, Allan Cruickshank, and John Aldrich.
In his early twenties—while he was struggling to make a living as an artist—Peterson’s two life passions first merged into his psyche. He began to notice that each bird species had distinctive field marks that obviously set them apart from other—even closely related—species. He realized from these initial observations that he had discovered a way for birds to be quickly identified—even at a distance.
Barely able to contain his excitement, Peterson set to work drawing and writing his first book, A Field Guide to the Birds, which was first published in 1934. Since then—through more than forty-seven total re-printings—over seven million copies of his two primary birding field guides—Guide to the Eastern Birds and Guide to the Western Birds—have been sold. Even after his birding guides became huge successes, Peterson continued to boost public interest in wild birds by writing articles for popular publications that bridged the gap between professional ornithologists and amateur backyard birdwatchers.
Roger Tory Peterson at work on his magnum opus, “A Field Guide to the Birds”.
Peterson’s 1948 book, Birds Over America, also demonstrated his depth and breadth as a dedicated conservationist. While primarily describing birds and birdwatching across North America, this book also packs wallops in the arenas of both ecological principles and environmental ethics. In particular, Birds Over America features the interconnected web of all living things, how hunters and farmers affect conservation, the ominous threats posed by invasive species, and the importance of protecting endangered species and the critical habitats they depend on.
For the 50 million folks that regularly watch birds in the US, Peterson is now known as the “Father of the Field Guide”. Birders everywhere now always carry these trusty pocket-sized books that provide vital field mark clues for accurate bird identification. Plus the bird paintings included in his first field guides also earned Peterson the most appropriate acclaim as “The Audubon of the Twentieth Century.”
In fact, during the entire 20th Century‚ no one did more to promote interest in nature and the environment than Peterson. His entire series of Peterson’s Field Guides—including everything from amphibians to butterflies, fish, reptiles, wildflowers, and even seashells—fostered an appreciation for the natural world and helped set the stage for ramping up the US Environmental Movement during the Sixties and Seventies. It became impossible to find someone who was interested in the environment that didn’t have at least ten or more Peterson Field Guides on their home or office bookshelves.
Although never a professed activist, Peterson always maintained his dedication to environmental protection and dogged opposition to environmental hazards—like the use of DDT—throughout his career. In fact, when Rachel Carson’s 1962 Silent Spring[i] boomed its warning about pesticides’ threat to bird habitats, the Peterson Field Guide Series had already called on the American public and the scientific community to heed the battle cry and fight to save habitat and protect endangered species.
Following his move to Old Lyme, Connecticut, Peterson continued to write and publish an array of field guides and other books and was rewarded by many public accolades; including the American Ornithologists’ Union Brewster Medal, the Gold Medal of the New York Zoological Society, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Linnaean Society of New York’s Eisenmann Medal, and the Order of the Golden Ark of the Netherlands.
Also catering to the serious nature photographers of the world in 1994, Peterson invited a cadre of world famous outdoor photographers, editors, vendors, and authors to his institute in Jamestown, New York for the founding of the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA). NANPA is now the world’s only organization devoted solely to practitioners of outdoor photography. I am very proud to say that I am a Charter Member of NANPA—having joined in 1995 at the first “Nature Photography Summit” in Ft. Myers, Florida—while also serving on NANPA’s Board of Directors from 2009 to 2015.
Peterson also received nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize as well as honorary doctorates from several universities. Since he passed away in 1996 at his Old Lyme home, the Roger Tory Peterson Institute has continued to publish and promote his field guides, display his fine art paintings, and carry on his work in conservation and education.
In the final analysis, it can be said that Roger Tory Peterson—a troubled youth with seemingly no discernible drive or sense of direction—started a revolution in the field of environmental education that has continued to this day. He brought the study and understanding of the natural world out of the halls of academia and into the farms, fields, meadows, and mountains of North America. This is exactly the type of educational effort that will be required to create the groundswell of public support that will truly make a difference in the Climate Change movement.
“The philosophy that I have worked under most of my life is that the serious study of natural history is an activity which has far-reaching effects in every aspect of a person’s life. It ultimately makes people protective of the environment in a very committed way. It is my opinion that the study of natural history should be the primary avenue for creating environmentalists.”
– Roger Tory Peterson
Text excerpted from book: “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change” written by Budd Titlow and Mariah Tinger and published by Prometheus Books. Photo credit: Copyright Shutterstock (2).
Author’s bio: For the past 50 years, professional ecologist and conservationist Budd Titlow has used his pen and camera to capture the awe and wonders of our natural world. His goal has always been to inspire others to both appreciate and enjoy what he sees. Now he has one main question: Can we save humankind’s place — within nature’s beauty — before it’s too late? Budd’s two latest books are dedicated to answering this perplexing dilemma. “PROTECTING THE PLANET: Environmental Champions from Conservation to Climate Change”, a non-fiction book, examines whether we still have the environmental heroes among us — harking back to such past heroes as Audubon, Hemenway, Muir, Douglas, Leopold, Brower, Carson, and Meadows — needed to accomplish this goal. Next, using fact-filled and entertaining story-telling, his latest book — “COMING FULL CIRCLE: A Sweeping Saga of Conservation Stewardship Across America” — provides the answers we all seek and need. Having published five books, more than 500 photo-essays, and 5,000 photographs, Budd Titlow lives with his music educator wife, Debby, in San Diego, California.