For birdwatchers, Roger Tory Peterson was a pioneer. When I was a young girl, already a member of the Junior Audubon Society at age 8, Roger Tory Peterson was my hero. The 70 million birdwatchers in the United States owe a great debt to him. 2008 marks both the 100th anniversary of his birth and the 10th since his death. Born with artistic talent and a love of birds, Peterson published his first bird identification guide in 1934. Before that book, no field guides for the general public existed and birding was a rare pastime. A Field Guide to the Birds opened a whole new world. A quick look told them what kind of bird they were looking at. His guides, now published in multiple editions, are some of the best selling books of all time; although at the time of the first publication of the guide, the publisher printed only 2000 copies. It was an expensive book because of its four-color plates and the publisher was so worried that it wouldn’t sell that Peterson was not paid a royalty on the first 1000 copies.
Besides producing his field guides and other books, Peterson was a vital environmental force, alerting the public about wildlife disasters caused by DDT and other chemicals. He was an active conservationist his entire life.
In a new biography Elizabeth J Rosenthal interviews friends, family and disciples of Peterson and the book is full of quotes and anecdotes. Too many, in fact; they interrupt the narrative. One day Peterson will be treated to a biography by a better writer. In the meantime, this is a pretty good book about a great birder, a mediocre husband and father, and lousy driver. We celebrate him for the birding.