Book Review: Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal

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Elizabeth Rosenthal’s Birdwatcher is a comprehensive, entertaining, and informative biography of the man who, if he didn’t invent birding, might as well have. It’s all here, virtues and (minor) warts, from his teenage days with the Bronx Birding Club, through his (brief) starving artist days, all the way to his status as “Great Man.”

From the point when he saw and touched a sleeping flicker at age 12 until his death at age 89, honored all over the world, Peterson was obsessed with birds. Some said he would talk only about them, though closer friends knew of his similar passions for butterflies and the whole natural world. But many good naturalists share these obsessions; Peterson changed the world. He combined the “no shotgun, eyes only” ability of Ludlow Griscom, an early mentor, with the ideas expressed on a black-and-white plate of ducks in Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages and, in a brilliant flash, synthesized them and invented the modern field guide.

Elizabeth Rosenthal seems to have interviewed everyone with deep ties to Peterson, so he sometimes seems to be the “human oxymoron” a friend called him. He was a driven perfectionist who missed deadlines and a more-than-influential artist who worried about not doing enough “painterly” painting; a man who could be cool and remote to members of his family while being utterly without snobbery and helpful to acquaintances (as I can personally attest!). He wanted his proper recognition as a field man as well as an artist and was upset when his hearing failed on warblers. He detested getting old.

I would guess this will be the definitive work on and celebration of Roger Tory Peterson’s life and career, done when many of his friends are still alive. If I have one small criticism it is that the timeline wanders; each section—for instance the one on conservation and the fight against DDT—goes over each subject from early to late, and the chronology can be confusing. But it’s a minor fault. Serious birders will enjoy this book.

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