A Birding Legend: Roger Tory Peterson

By Tim Gallagher
July 15, 2008
roger tory peterson - vintage photos

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What can you say about Roger Tory Peterson? He was certainly the greatest popularizer of bird study this country—and perhaps the world—has ever known. His ground-breaking 1934 book, A Field Guide to the Birds, was revolutionary. He created a simple visual system for identifying birds in the field, using a bird’s shape, pattern, and field marks. And instead of putting the species in phylogenetic order, he placed similar-looking species together on plates and pointed out the major distinctions between them with little arrows.

The book outstripped all expectations of his publisher, Houghton Mifflin. The first printing was only 2,000 copies, and it sold out in a week. Eager bird enthusiasts have since bought more than 7 million copies of his field guide.

Roger largely created the modern avocation of birding. He had an absolute genius for simplifying the concepts of bird identification and communicating them in a way that anyone could understand. He laid the foundation that thousands of people have taken advantage of over the years. And Roger was also always an enthusiastic spokesman for bird conservation and led countless people to develop an abiding interest in the well-being of wild bird populations.

Roger will always have a place in the hearts of Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff. He was an influential member of our administrative board in the formative years of this organization, and it was actually Roger who suggested the name The Living Bird for this publication, for which I’ll certainly always be grateful.

Although Roger passed away on July 28, 1996, he will be remembered eternally by the millions of eager bird enthusiasts who came to their love of birds and nature through his books and his artwork.

This coming August 28 will mark the 100th anniversary of the birth of this great man in Jamestown, New York. For information on upcoming events celebrating his anniversary, visit the web site of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute at www.rtpi.org.

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