Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Foremost Naturalist

Wednesday, August 27, 2008
Roger Tory Peterson was an avid photographer for his entire life.

Roger Tory Peterson’s life was never the same again after the publication of his Field Guide to Eastern Birds in 1934. He might have known this when the first printing of the guide sold out in less than a month.

Soon after the publication of the guide, Peterson was hired by The Audubon Society to assist with publications and outreach. His bird watching pamphlets for the Junior Audubon Club were instrumental in increasing membership from 100,000 to 400,000.

Nearly every project Peterson became involved in seemed to benefit from his Midas touch. His columns in Bird Lore magazine (predecessor to Audubon) and illustrated articles in Life Magazine helped establish a national audience of bird watchers.

During his service in World War II he put his field guide talents to use creating plane-spotting manuals. He also worked with Rachel Carson (eventual author of Silent Spring) during the war, studying the effects of DDT on birds and animals.

Peterson's nature films were among the most popular in the traveling Audubon Film Series.

This was a Renaissance man. Roger Peterson made nature films. He helped to form conservation organizations and supported conservation causes large and small. He mentored young naturalists and artists. And he traveled the world looking at birds and nature with fellow bird watchers and naturalists.

Along the way he received every major natural history award, dozens of honorary degrees, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 1980, from President Jimmy Carter.

Some of the titles in the Peterson Field Guide series.

Over the decades, the Peterson field guide series was expanded to include other subjects, eventually comprising more than 45 titles.

With his own painting of a pair of peregrine falcons.

He also wrote and edited numerous other bird and nature books. One of them was the first bird book I ever owned, The Time-Life book Birds. Man I loved that book! I pored over the illustrations (done by RTP and other famous illustrators) and nearly memorized the text.

My first Peterson book.

Inside the front cover of the book is written, in my mom's handwriting: "For Billy Thompson, Christmas 1969."
The inscription inside the book, written by my mom. The book was a gift from my grandmother Margaret Thompson.

Just 16 years after receiving that book for Christmas, I would meet Roger Peterson in person at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. And a few years later, in 1988, I would work directly with him as he wrote a regular column for a relatively new magazine called Bird Watcher's Digest.

His lifetime of teaching people, directly and indirectly, about birds and nature, and his continuous desire for more knowledge earned Roger Tory Peterson the unofficial title of "the foremost naturalist in the world.

For a video overview of the life of Roger Tory Peterson, please follow this link to the Peterson Field Guides site. Click on "Biography."

Hard at work in his Old Lyme, Connecticut studio. RTP worked until the day he died in 1996.

You may also be interested in reading the two recent biographies of Roger Tory Peterson:

Roger Tory Peterson: A Biography by Douglas Carlson
Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth Rosenthal

The new episode of my podcast This Birding Life features a reading of Dr. Peterson's essay "Capsized by a Rogue Wave" from "All Things Reconsidered" the book of RTP's columns from Bird Watcher's Digest.

Tomorrow: Happy Birthday and the New Guide.


On August 27, 2008 at 10:48 PM littleorangeguy said...

These posts are lovely. Thanks for writing them.

On August 27, 2008 at 11:22 PM Bill of the Birds said...

Thanks L-O-G!
It's nice to know they are appreciated. RTP remains a hero of mine.

Happy fall birding!

On August 28, 2008 at 1:30 AM TR Ryan said...

Thanks for two fantastic posts on RTP. I have been loyal to his Western Field Guide but didn't know until now the hows and whys and the full width and breadth of all he's done for .

The recommendations on the biographies are greatly appreciated.

On August 28, 2008 at 6:45 AM Jayne said...

Such a wonderful tribute Bill.

On August 28, 2008 at 12:23 PM Kyle said...

Wonderful posts, Bill. I'm still new enough to birding to not know much at all about RTP, although I've heard his name for years. His Field Guide to Birds in Texas was my first reference book / field guide, and one of two that are quickly becoming well-worn with use.

On August 28, 2008 at 1:49 PM Beverly said...

You know, I’m a new birder and an avid reader, so of course I have purchased several field guides and different books on specific species or types of birds. Many say Sibley is ‘the man’ these days, and he IS quite good; but realizing nobody can have too many books…I recently purchased a western guide to birds by Peterson. Heck, with his reputation and standing in the birding community for sooooooooooooo long, I just knew he’d have lots to say and I'd learn a bunch of new stuff. I wasn’t disappointed. (Unfortunately, I picked up the book days before I heard they re-released an updated version.....sigh)

Your series here has been wonderful; I appreciate honoring people who deserve it and I’m very happy I picked up at least one book by The Man. Thank you so much for your good work!