The man who taught how to see birds Roger Tory Peterson: His Field Guides made multitudes keen observers of nature.


ANY GOOD field guide to the naturalists would distinguish Roger Tory Peterson as a breed apart. He taught generations of Americans what to look for and how to tell one bird from another. created a genre of field guides which, along with imitative competitors, are found throughout the world.

Mr. Peterson's "Field Guide to the Birds" made him the most influential ornithologist since John James Audubon a century earlier. He was a bird-loving teacher and artist and everyone was poor in the Great Depression when he sent his book to publishers. Four turned it down. Then Houghton Mifflin took a chance on a printing of 2,000. That was 1934. By the time of his death last Sunday at 87, it and successor books for Eastern and Western birds had sold some 7 million copies and come out in CD-ROM.

Audubon had created great books of engravings from paintings for libraries and collectors. Mr. Peterson created little books for anyone to take into the field with a pair of binoculars. Audubon had traveled to the remotest swamp in the early decades of the republic. Mr. Peterson taught people to see in their back yards.

Trained as a painter, he used the painter's craft in an age of photography to emphasize the markings and shapes that distinguish one bird from another. He used language the same way, simply for clarity.

He organized the birds by resemblances to each other, where predecessors went by scientific classification. He put the needs of the bird watcher uppermost. Some say he invented bird watching as a hobby for millions. Not true, but he made it much easier to do, so that even scientific specialists took his guides into their fields.

He went on to co-author a "Field Guide to Wildflowers" and then to edit "Field Guides . . ." to just about everything that lives and some things like rocks and minerals that don't. Arguably, he was a strange duck: Naturalists said he was an artist while artists said he was a naturalist. Actually, he became an industry, his name synonymous with Field Guides.

The work of Roger Tory Peterson was never in fashion. Fads come and go. His Field Guides stay and stay. Some day, someone may make them obsolete with a better version. If so, it will be a monument to him.

Pub Date: 8/03/96

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