For the Birds Radio Program: Roger Tory Peterson Centennial

Original Air Date: Aug. 11, 2008

This month will mark the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson. Laura talks about his life today.

Duration: 4′15″


One hundred years ago this month, the most well-known and influential birdwatcher in history was born. Roger Tory Peterson grew up in Jamestown, New York, where his seventh grade teacher, Mrs. Blanche Hornbeck, encouraged him to join a junior Audubon Club and gave him a color plate of a blue jay to copy. Throughout his life, he often mentioned Mrs. Hornbeck’s influence and inspiration. With her encouragement, he started sketching birds in the field, leading to a decision to pursue art professionally. After he graduated from high school, he moved to New York City, enrolling in the Art Student League and then the National Academy of Design. The city provided both excellent opportunities for developing artistic skills and the chance to meet and earn the respect of many leading ornithologists of the time. Peterson thought a book with simple but well-thought-out drawings of birds, on the order of Ernest-Thompson Seton’s drawings in the margins of his book Two Little Savages, would be an important contribution that he was singularly qualified to produce. He set to work making simple yet accurate drawings, highlighting and pointing out with tiny arrows the critical “field marks” that distinguish each species from all others, and writing terse descriptions. This was during the Great Depression, and publishers couldn’t imagine the enormous appeal of birds nor the need for such a work. Four of them rejected the field guide before Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish it in 1934. But even they were nervous about the unprecedented undertaking, and so they limited the first printing to 2,000 copies and asked Peterson to give up his royalties on the first thousand. But that original printing sold out in two weeks, and the second 3,000 sold out just as quickly. Now one of the best-selling non-fiction books of all time, the eastern edition of A Field Guide to the Birds has sold over seven million copies. There are many other bird guides to choose from today, but it was Peterson’s that spawned them all and continued to set the standards throughout Peterson’s long life. Today bird watching is a multi-billion dollar industry bringing joy and satisfaction to tens of millions of Americans, thanks in large part to Roger Tory Peterson and his field guide. Peterson’s formal training was in art rather than ornithology, but his exacting standards in studying birds earned him many honorary degrees in ornithology, as well as many other distinctions, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In a life filled with many accolades and distinctions, my favorite is the little poem by E. B. White, who wrote, Birds have their love-and-mating song; Their warning cry, their hating song.. Some have a night song, some a day song, A lilt, a tilt, a come-what-may song; Birds have their careless bough and teeter song: And, of course, their Roger Tory Peter song. Because of Peterson’s importance and this being his centennial, this week’s programs will all be directly or indirectly about him. Tomorrow I’ll be reviewing the newest incarnation of his Field Guide to the Birds—a merging of his Eastern and Western guides into one new guide.