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Memories of RTP

Remembrances and Praise From Friends and Admirers of Roger Tory Peterson

”As an unabashed lover of birds and a distinguished ornithologist, Roger Tory Peterson has furthered the study, appreciation, and protection of birds the world over. And he has done more. He has impassioned thousands of Americans and has awakened in millions across this land a fondness for nature?s other two-legged creatures.” — Jimmy Carter
“To want to protect wildlife and the habitats that support it, people first have to know what they are protecting. Beginning with birds and later expanding to everything from trees to tadpoles, Roger Tory Peterson has made nature accessible.” — Robert McCracken Peck, Academy of Natural Sciences, Philadelphia
“No one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide. His greatest contribution to the preservation of biological diversity has been in getting tens of millions of people outdoors with Peterson Field Guides in their pockets.” — Paul Erlich, author of The Birder’s Handbook (quoted by Brigitte Greenberg, Associated Press writer, 7/30/1996)
“By organizing the birds for us, Peterson allowed birding to become a civilized avocation. Birders share a culture of trust and integrity that is grounded in the field guide. True birders don’t lie about sightings; they err on the side of conservatism. Even in its most competitive aspects, this ethic prevails. It’s appropriate and logical that Peterson’s guide is often called ‘The Bible of Birding.” — Barbara Jones and Jane Crowley, Wild Bird News, September/October 1996, Vol. X, No. 5. Writing for Wild Bird News, A Publication of Wild Bird Centers of America, Inc.
“I would say that Roger Tory Peterson will probably be known as the person who brought bird watching and birding to the world.” — James M. Berry, President of RTPI, The Post-Journal (Jamestown, NY) July 29, 1998
“The thing I’ve known about Roger is there isn’t a time when he wasn’t aware of nature. He would identify the invisible birds migrating overhead by their chirps and lead on to the rain forest, just one thing after another.” — William Mealy, naturalist for Chautauqua Bird, Tree, and Garden Club, The Post-Journal (Jamestown, NY) July 29, 1998
“The man who turned bird watching into a super sport.” — Audubon magazine, (mentioned in various Associated Press publications 7/30/1996)
“He revolutionized birding through all of his paintings and books.” — Wallace Bailey, Director of Audubon’s Wellfleet Bay Wildlife Sanctuary, 1959-1984, Cape Cod Times (7/30/1996)
“One day I met him on Wildlife Drive and he was very intently taking pictures. I sort of chided him for being so fussy about what he was doing and he said, “I know exactly the type of picture I want, and I won’t be satisfied until I get it.” — Kenneth Stegman, News-Press, Ft Myers, FL (7/30/1996)
“[Peterson was] the one who made it possible for common everyday folks to pick up a field guide and a pair of binoculars and go out in their back yards and identify birds.” — Lou Hinds, manager of the Ding Darling refuge, from News-Press, Ft Myers, FL (7/30/1996)
“I was never into traditional sports, but he was a Mickey Mantle or a Yogi Berra. He was hero to the natural world.” — Kathleen Hoover, Indiana birder, USA News 7/30/1996
“There has been nobody in the course of history who has ushered more people into an intimacy with nature than Roger Peterson.” — Pete Dunne, Director of Cape May Bird Observatory. Quoted in Press, Atlantic City, NJ, 8/1/1996
“Peterson somehow got the whole squawking mass of North American birds into his head at once and organized it.” — John Pancake of The Washington Post. Used in Philadelphia Inquirer 8/1/1996
“The intensity of his concentration on birds just absolutely paralyzed us kids. After the service on one Sunday, we went by the pond to observe birds and he walked straight through the pond to the other side to see something. Your ordinary guy doesn’t do that.” — Bart Chapin remembering his former nature counselor at Camp Chewonki summer camp. Quoted by Meredith Gold, Portland Press Herald, Portland, ME, 8/1/1996
“Nature study is still one of the most important things that we do [at the Chenwonki Foundation]. It’s cast in stone in our mission now, and that’s a result of Peterson’s time here.” — Don Hudson, quoted by Meredith Gold, Portland Press Herald, Portland, ME, 8/1/1996
“His death is a great loss not only to birders, but to everybody interested in natural history. He helped start the whole conservation movement. He lived multiple lifetimes in one. Right to the end, his painting skills and his memory stayed with him.” — Noble Proctor, quoted by Cynthia Baran in Pictoral Gazette (Shoreliner East), 8/3/1996
“Peterson took the violence out of studying the natural world.” — Jane Eisner, Philadelphia Inquirer 8/4/1996
“What comes through again and again is how much the man knows. He will tell you enough so that, with practice, you can distinguish one species form another with confidence, by the way they look, or the way they fly, or how they hop on the ground.” — James Ahearn, Sunday Record, Hackensack, NJ, 8/4/1996
“The nearest he came to environmental organizing was rerouting a military parade around a horned lark’s nest during his Army days. He even managed to remain serene about hunters blasting away at his birds, pointing out gently that ‘duck hunters are birders, too.’” Thanks to Peterson, ‘the environment’ is no longer just a worthy abstraction.” — John Leo, Item, Sumter, SC, 8/5/1986
“With the passing from the birding scene (last week) of Roger Tory Peterson, an era has not come to an end. The changes he wrought will be with us for very long time. Peterson made the joy of birding available to a vast audience.” — Warren J Wightman, City Newspaper, Rochester, NY, 8/7/1996
“Aldo Leopold inspired us. Rachel Carson motivated us. But Peterson, thanks to his vivid artwork and his straightforward writing style, coaxed millions of nature watchers into the field to identify the creatures that inhabit the world around us.” — Scott Shalaway, Marshfield News-Herald 8/10/1986
“His legacy is the millions of people he has inspired to learn more of the natural world that we all share.” — Bud Starling, Indianapolis Star 8/11/1986
“May God have mercy on his soul and give him a grand tour of all the live birds he missed while here on earth.” — Rob Finch, East Bridgewater, Mass. Quoted in Kindness Club Notes in Daily Gleaner, Fredericton, NB, Canada, 8/14/1996
“While Peterson will always be remembered for his matchless contributions to ornithology, it is his efforts toward the conservation of all living things together with the natural systems that they inhabit which rank him among the greatest biological movers and shakers of the century, if not all time.” — Bill Fontenot, Sunday Advertiser, Lafayette, LA, 8/18/1996
“The name Peterson was to the birding world what Mozart would be to music or Lou Gehrig to baseball.” — Skip Conant, Sullivan Review, Dushore, PA, 9/5/1996
“By organizing the birds for us, Peterson allowed birding to become a civilized avocation. Birders share a culture of trust and integrity that is grounded in the field guides. It’s appropriate and logical that Peterson’s guide is often called ‘The Bible of Birding.” — Wild Bird News, Vol X, No. 5, Sept/Oct. 1996
“Our planet is a much kinder place because of Roger Tory Peterson.” — Guy Coheleach
“As he once wrote, the birds may not miss him. But we will.” — Arthur Klebanoff, Trustee and former President of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute

“I consider myself to have been the bridge between the shotgun and the binoculars in bird watching. Before I came along, the primary way to observe birds was to shoot them and stuff them.” Quoted by The Buffalo News 7/30/1996
“Birds are eloquent expressions of life and vitality, and watching them makes you a bit more alive. And they have wings— that gives them a mobility, a freedom, we’d give our souls to have!” Quoted by Bruce Fellman in Standard-Times North Kingstown, RI, 8/8/1996
“Reluctant at first to accept the straitjacket of a world I did not comprehend, I finally, with the help of my hobby, made some sort of peace with society.” — Writing quoted by Sheboygan Press 8/7/1996
“It is my opinion that the study of natural history should be the primary avenue for creating environmentalists.” — Quoted by Brigitte Greenberg, Associated Press writer 7/30/1996
About Birdwatchers
“Whether they are princes, tycoons, housewives or kids, they tend to be a bit more civilized, a bit more aware, than most nonwatchers.” — Quoted by Richard Severo The New York Times 7/30/1996
In Praise of Peterson
Pete Dunne on Roger Tory Peterson (1908-1996):
Roger Tory Peterson is the once and forever ‘grand master’ of North American birding. Author, illustrator, teacher, and naturalist, he ushered in a new age of bird study with the publication of his first field guide in 1934, A Field Guide to the Birds. The first two thousand copies sold out within three weeks. Now in its fifth edition, the Peterson field guide and its western companion volume have sold over ten million copies.
Peterson never claimed proprietary rights to the breakthrough that made his Field Guide to the Birds so useful. In his first edition, he acknowledges the catalytic influence of Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages and the “pattern charts” drawn by Seton (attributed to one of the book’s characters) that depict ducks seen from a distance. The illustrations show the bold plumage patterns that distinguish them — what Seton called “uniforms” and birders today call field marks.
What Roger Peterson did was to take the field mark approach pioneered by Seton and apply it to all eastern birds, codifying in his depictions and text the marks that distinguish one species from another. Peterson did not discover all of the field marks described in his book. There were a number of other eager minds trying to solve the riddle of bird identification during the first decades of the twentieth century — among them Peterson’s fellow members of the Bronx Bird Club. What Peterson brought to the table was a winning blend of artistic talent, communication skill, a cutting-edge understanding of his subject, and a utilitarian vision of a purpose that to this day others have merely refined (and in some cases obscured).
When experienced birders recommend a field guide, they most often suggest the one that they themselves started with — because that is the one with which they are most familiar, and the one whose process they have wittingly or unwittingly made their own. I did not start with Peterson’s, but I wish I had. Through my experience with beginning birders, and through my efforts to increase my own identification skills, I have come to appreciate the utilitarian ease of a Peterson field guide.

There are several reasons why this guide serves beginning birders well. First, the text is simple and friendly, written with the beginning birder in mind. Second, the illustrations are very thoughtfully laid out to make comparisons with similar species easy. Third, the text and the illustrations were crafted by a single mind, so there is perfect accord between what the author wanted to say and what the illustrator wanted to depict. Most of the popular guides are committee efforts.
The needs of the birding community, like its skill levels, are vast. No guide can hope to do it all or satisfy everyone. But for most people, for my money, the guides that serve the beginning birder (even the intermediate birder) best are the eastern and western Peterson field guides. Roger Peterson grew up and learned his skills in the formative years of birding. His skills advanced as birding advanced, but his grounding is very much in the age where seeing a bird close and well was the challenge. It’s the very same challenge that beginning birders face today.
The books, like the man who crafted them, are mated to that fundamental challenge in simple, sympathetic accord. Users don’t have to understand why these guides work so well, but like the millions of users before them, they cannot help but appreciate them.