In 1934, a struggling young artist persuaded Houghton Mifflin publishers to put out a book of his paintings and descriptions of birds.
"Field Guide to Eastern Birds" was an immediate hit and its author, Roger Tory Peterson, became the de facto leader of an army of bird-watchers that has continued to grow.
Now approaching his 84th birthday, Mr. Peterson continues to paint and photograph birds. He is the subject of the next edition of PBS' "Nature" series. "A Celebration of Birds with Roger Tory Peterson" will air Sunday at 8 p.m. on Maryland Public Television (Channels 22 and 67).
When reached by telephone at his Connecticut home, Mr. Peterson was at work updating his guide to European birds.
Q: What motivated you to put out your first bird guide?
A: I thought people would want a book that they could easily use to answer the question "What is it?" In most of the guides out then, the description of a robin would start with the length of the beak, talk about the color of the head and the spots around the eyes. It wasn't until you were halfway through that it would mention a red breast.
Four publishers turned the book down before Houghton Miffliagreed to put it out. I wasn't going to get any royalties on the first 1,000 copies, which was OK with me. They printed 2,000 which sold out in the first two weeks and they scrambled to print more. Now, when they bring one of the guides out, they never print fewer than 100,000.
Q: What came first, your interest in art or birds?
A: They both arrived simultaneously when I was about 11. I had a seventh grade teacher who started a Junior Audubon club. She got some color plates of the birds of New York we were to copy. I was given the blue jay and thought I did a pretty good job with it. rTC But when they hung them up, the girl across the row from me got credit for my jay. I straightened that out quickly. The blue jay is still one of my favorite birds, though a lot of people don't care for it.
And around that same time, I went exploring some new territory up on Swede Hill, near the old reservoir in my hometown of Jamestown, N.Y. I came across this bundle of brown feathers. I thought it was a dead bird and I touched it and it came to life. It turned out to be a flicker who must have been exhausted from migrating. He had that patch of red behind his head and those light yellow wings and he looked me in the eye. There was something about the way he sprang to life, it was almost like a resurrection. From that day, to me birds have symbolized the most vivid form of life.
Q: What was the status of birdwatching then?
A: Most of it was done from behind a shotgun. It seems hard to believe now, but that was the case. People couldn't identify a bird unless they had the specimen in their hand and could measure it. In New York, I fell in with a group from the Bronx, loners who had somehow managed to find each other. They were really the first modern bird-watchers. Someone from a museum had taken them under his wing and they started figuring out how to identify birds through field glasses.
You weren't supposed to be allowed in their club unless you were from the Bronx, but they let me in because they couldn't get rid of me. It was because of the knowledge they developed that I could write the first field guide. Since I was the artist, I could put it all together. So I guess I was the lucky one.
Q: The sales of your guides and the many others in the field show that birding is more popular than ever. What do you think of its status today?
A: Well, you can approach birding in so many different ways. Like I do, as an art, primarily a visual thing. It can be a sport. It can be a science. It can be a recreation. I have a friend, a priest down in Texas who is the best birder in the lower Rio Grande
valley, and he says it can be a religious experience. And I can see how that could be the case since birds are the only creatures other than angels to have feathered wings. Birding can
even be a bore if it's done by boring people.
Some people call the sport "ornithogolfing." These are the people who will fly to the tip of a peninsula in Alaska hoping to see some little Japanese warbler trying to fly to Siberia who's been blown off course. In England, they call these people "twitchers." They are the ones who will hear of an American warbler on some shoreline and come by the tens of thousands to see it. I often think of that poor little bird, getting blown all the way across the Atlantic.
But I don't want to belittle any form of birding. They are all valid.
Q: What is the further significance of birding beyond recreational aspects?
A: Most of the real environmentalists you find started out as bird-watchers. Their awareness of the environment that eventually led to their activism started with wildlife and that usually meant birds because they are so visible.
Q: So much of the environmental news we hear these days is depressingly bad, but isn't there some good news with birds, the returns of endangered species after the banning of DDT and such?
A: There is some good news, but there is also the other side of it. Many songbirds are declining and the reasons are unclear. Some birds have gotten very used to living with us, like the house sparrow and the rock dove, and they do quite well. But others are not doing as well.
In the overall environment, the news is bad, though I tend to be an optimist. The big problem is overpopulation. There are only so many people the world can support so I fear some sort of apocalyptic event. . . .
Q: I understand you had a close call while making this film for "Nature."
A: Yes, it was after we filmed the section on the island off the coast of Maine. On the way back, a wave capsized our boat. I was on my way down, the water was all green around me. The husband and wife team who made the film -- Michael Male and Judy Fieth -- were on board. She was the only good swimmer among us so she was able to get Michael's film belt off so he could reach over and pull me up by the hair. A few more seconds, and I would have been a goner.
We managed to get to a deserted bit of the coast. We set up a little tent, but I was so cold that Michael had to lie on top of me to keep me warm. Then a group of puffin watchers -- what if I had never written the "Field Guide"? -- saw our signal and called the Coast Guard who came and got us.
I had just turned 82 when that happened. And 13 years and 13 days earlier my first wife drowned after her boat capsized on the same part of the Maine coast. I'm not superstitious but it makes you wonder.
Q: You still do go birding?
A: Oh, I enjoy birding tremendously. I'm a little embarrassed to go out with top birders because my eyes are so bad. I've had cataracts removed and have a transplant in one eye. And I have astigmatism. It takes three pairs of glasses to correct. Right now, my main interest is in photographing them. I use my
photography as a kind of therapy. You have to outwit the bird so you get the same kind of enjoyment as the sportsman, but with a camera you can shoot it 30 or 40 times. And you learn more about its habits.
I do still have a very good ear. I still hear most of the high registry, though I'm losing it a little now. Something's different in a subtle way in bird's songs, like you recognize it, but it has a strange accent. I don't hear the cedar waxwing anymore and that bothers me.