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Watching the bird watcher


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 birdwatchers 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 Mifflin agreed 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. 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 birdwatchers. Someone from a museum had taken them under his wing and they started figuring out how to identify birds through field glasses.

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.

Q. You still do go birding, though?

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.

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