For the Birds Radio Program: Roger Tory Peterson

Original Air Date: Aug. 30, 1996

Today Laura Erickson talks about the man who made birdwatching what it is today. (4:46) Date verified.

Audio missing


Roger Tory Peterson, who the New York Times called the nation’ s guide to the birds, died on July 28. He was the author and artist who conceived and produced A Field Guide to the Birds, which has sold over 7 million copies in the 62 years since it was originally published. This book, more than any other single work, made birdwatching the sport and hobby that it is today.

He led a busy life, yet back in 1987, in response to a letter of mine asking about the kinds of birds he’ d seen mooching for food from people, Peterson personally wrote a full page of interesting anecdotes, including one about about a Brown Pelican that he saw walk right into a fish store to stand in front of the counter waiting for a handout. He spent the last years of his life working for public education about the natural world. Unlike man y of the new generation of birders who throw around technical terms and overwhelm less experienced birdwatchers, Peterson made bird identification understandable and accessible to everyone.

With Peterson’s death, the world lost more than a creative artist, renowned naturalist, and dedicated educator. We also lost one of our last links to the now-extinct, Ivory-billed Woodpecker, who once lived and breathed in the deep, rich forests of the southeastern United States and Cuba, but vanished with the destruction of its primeval habitat. Roger Tory Peterson was one of the last humans to actually see and hear this magnificent creature. In 1953, he took a 100,000 mile trip through America, his two year mission to seek out new birds and to boldly go where no man had gone before. And in the dark, humid, mosquito-infested forests of Louisiana he found his Ivory-bill. His eyes savored the boldly patterned plumage. His eardrums vibrated to the Ivory-bill’s call, a sound like a toy trumpet. His brain waves and his heartbeat responded to the thrill of the momentous encounter. Ivory-bill numbers dwindled until they were down to one, or zero, by the 1970’s, but somehow, they still existed in the eyes and ears and mind and heart of Roger Tory Peterson. With Peterson’s passing, we have lost the Ivory-billed Woodpecker all over again.

This past summer at an Elderhostel, I met a man who saw an lvory-bill when he was a boy. A professor at Louisiana State University is another witness to this vanished bird, and there are a few others still living on the planet who saw it with their own eyes. Roger Tory Peterson gave the Ivory-billed Woodpecker to me and millions of others, in the form of his field guide painting—a drawing that Peterson somehow imbued with the living spirit of this bird. Arthur A. Allen and Peter Paul Kellogg tape-recorded its call, and gave the tape to the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, so we can hear at least a technical reproduction of this sound of true wilderness. With the official declaration of extinction, there is no longer any pressing need to preserve the Ivory-bill’s unique habitat in Louisiana and Texas. The recording, photographs, and a few actual specimens will remain for centuries, but eventually everyone who has ever experienced a living Ivory-bill will be gone, and the Ivory-billed Woodpecker will become forever lost to human experience as well as extinct. I’ll always associate Roger Tory Peterson with this tragically fallen creature.

Fortunately, unlike the woodpecker, Peterson will remain alive in spirit through a tiny Peruvian owl—one of the last birds to be newly discovered on this planet—a bird whose discoverer named in honor of Roger Tory Peterson, the Peterson Screech Owl. And every time we look up a bird in our trusty Peterson field, we will be attesting to the permanent value of this generous man ‘ s contributions to the world of humans as well as birds.