For the Birds Radio Program: Book Review: Peterson Field Guide.

Original Air Date: Feb. 22, 2002 (estimated date) Rerun Dates: Feb. 22, 2007

Laura grew up not knowing that there were books that could help her identify birds. Her first field guide, the Peterson Guide, was her portal into a new universe. His updated edition was even better. Now, after he has died, a new updated edition is being released this spring, which he had been finishing when he died.

Duration: 5′23″


When I was in the Chicago Loop one day when I was in high school, I found a small bird on a busy sidewalk. It was small with a delicate beak and pinkish legs, an olivish brown back, and white underside marked with clear spots on the breast. The most remarkable thing about it was its head: it had a perfect circle of tiny white feathers around its black, lifeless eyes, and a beautiful orange crown with jaunty black feathers that highlighted the orange.

I had no idea what it was. I was actually headed for the Chicago Public Library, but I had no idea that within its walls were books that could solve the mystery. I had no concept that there was such a book as a field guide to the birds.

Five or six years later, on Christmas in 1974, I opened a small package from my mother-in-law to discover a little green-covered book, Roger Tory Peterson’s Field Guide to the Birds. I riffed through the section with colored drawings, amazed at the colors and beauty. And suddenly my thumb stopped on one page, and there was a drawing of that exact bird I’d seen in Chicago, only vividly alive, its black eye sparkling. It was identified as an Ovenbird, and I looked it up in the text part of the book to learn it was actually a common bird of the woods, with a loud, ringing sound. I looked at the range maps in the back of the book and Chicago was right smack in the middle of its range. According to this magical book, I could find a living, breathing Ovenbird come spring right there in any Chicago forest preserve!

Just happening to open that third edition Peterson guide to that particular page set my course for the rest of my life–it was my portal to an entire universe,. Reading its introduction, I learned about other resources–Joe Hickey’s Guide to Birdwatching, National Geographic’s two-volume set jam-packed with photos and life history information about birds, recordings I could check out of the library, and the Golden Field Guide, which became the one I used for birding in the field. But I treasured my little green book from my mother-in-law, and still have it today. Six years later, Peterson published a new edition to his guide, with more color plates and a format similar to the Golden guide, with the plates and text facing each other so you didn’t need to go to a different page to learn about the birds in the pictures.

That fourth edition to his field guide, published in 1980, was the last eastern field guide Peterson published in his lifetime. He died in 1996, so naturally I thought that was his final, definitive field guide, but it turns out he was hard at work, and almost finished, with a beautiful new edition when he died.

Twenty-two years after the fourth edition was released, a spanking new fifth edition is being released this spring, to sprout up on bookstore shelves like an unexpected wildflower.

There are plenty of competing field guides out there already now, thanks to the enormous success of Peterson’s original. This new guide is almost an inch taller and wider, and has 48 more pages, so it’s not quite as convenient in the field. Knowledgeable and somewhat anal-retentive birders will delight at the improved plates, though the old ones weren’t all that bad. Of course this one has the famous Peterson identification system–the little arrows pointing out the most important field marks, which have been described as the greatest invention since binoculars–but several of the newer competing guides now have little lines serving the same purpose. The new Peterson guide has one great improvement over older editions, tiny maps on the same page with the plates and information, as well as the larger, detailed maps that so distinguished the Peterson guides.

I’m something of a field guide junkie, and like having all the field guides available, but I think even if l weren’t, I’d have wanted this new Peterson guide. It marks the ultimate achievement of Roger Tory Peterson, his final vision of what he wanted his field guide to look like. The illustration of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker may be the last drawing of this species ever painted by an artist who actually saw a living, breathing Ivory-bill with his own eyes. I’m emotionally bonded to my Peterson guides—every edition that I have–and will treasure Peterson’s final gift to birders for the rest of my life.