Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Roger Tory Peterson, a Jamestown lad

Born: 28 August 1908
Birthplace: Jamestown, New York
Died: 28 July 1996
Best Known As: The author of Field Guide to Birds

Roger Tory Peterson was an artist and avid birder who revolutionized the world of bird-watching when he published his Field Guide to Birds in 1934. His detailed paintings and a simplified method of identifying birds helped to make birding a popular hobby. The guide was so successful that Peterson's system was applied to all manner of flora and fauna. Beginning with his 1934 Field Guide to the Birds, Roger Tory Peterson introduced literally millions of people to the pleasures of observing birds in the wild. His field guide, which has gone through five editions and sold more than four million copies, fostered an appreciation for the natural world that set the stage for the contemporary environmental movement. When Rachel Carson's Silent Spring sounded a warning about the threat to birds and their habitats in the 1960s, the Peterson field guides had already prepared the public and the scientific community to heed the warning and fight to save habitat and protect endangered species--a result that Peterson wholeheartedly approved.

Peterson was the son of Swedish immigrant Charles Gustav Peterson and German immigrant Henrietta Bader. The influx of Swedes into Jamestown during the Industrial Revolution upset the status quo of a city comprised primarily of descendants from the landed English gentry. At the time, Jamestown was a city of worsted woolen mills; industrious Swedish craftsmen soon changed it into a city of furniture factories.

Peterson's father Charles came to Jamestown in 1873 at the age of two. The family’s downward economic slide started just months later when his father died. Charles was forced to work in the woolen mills by the age of ten to support the family. With only a third grade education, Charles became the breadwinner. Later, his expectation of his son Roger was to get a high school education and then go to work in one of the city's many machine shops or furniture factories. He was hard on Roger and found it difficult to understand the boy’s curiosity about nature that occupied all of his time. As a youngster, Roger resented his father. It was not until he grew older that Roger fully appreciated "the odds that this man struggled against.”

Peterson’s mother, Henrietta (Nettie) Bader was brought to America when she was four years old. A religious woman, she attended Holy Trinity Lutheran Church with her children Roger and Margaret. When the new minister came to visit, Nettie remarked on how much Roger enjoyed birds and natural history. The minister said "Well, that makes for unbelievers." Roger seriously questioned the church from then on. He grew up at 16 Bowen Street with his parents and sister. His paternal grandmother, an aunt, and six cousins also shared the Peterson’s quarters. Some say that this was the reason Roger was forever outside exploring the countryside.

Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York. After graduating from high school‚ Peterson moved to New York City‚ where he attended the Art Students League (1927-1928) and the National Academy of Design (1929-1931). He then taught science and art at the Rivers School in Brookline, Massachusetts. In 1934 he published his seminal Guide to the Birds, the first modern field guide, which sold out its first printing of 2‚000 copies in one week, and subsequently went through 5 editions. He co-wrote Wild America with James Fisher, and edited or wrote many of the volumes in the Peterson Field Guide series on topics ranging from rocks and minerals to beetles to reptiles. He developed the Peterson Identification System, and is known for the clarity of both his illustrations of field guides and his delineation of relevant field marks.

Paul R. Ehrlich, in The Birder's Handbook, said this about Peterson:

In this century, no one has done more to promote an interest in living creatures than Roger Tory Peterson, the inventor of the modern field guide.

Peterson received every major American award for natural science, ornithology, and conservation, as well as numerous honorary medals, diplomas, and citations from America and elewhere, including the United States Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of the Golden Ark of the Netherlands. He died in 1996 at his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut. The Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York is named in his honor.


"The philosophy that I have worked under most of my life is that the serious study of natural history is an activity which has far-reaching effects in every aspect of a person's life. It ultimately makes people protective of the environment in a very committed way. It is my opinion that the study of natural history should be the primary avenue for creating environmentalists…" – Roger Tory Peterson.

Painting by Roger Tory Peterson of Snowy Owls

I was lucky enough to meet Roger Tory Peterson twice. Once when he gave a lecture in Chautauqua when I was still in high school about 1975 I think, and once in the 80s I think it was at the Jamestown Audubon Center and I gave him a pack of my note cards and he kindly thanked me. I grew up on his books as both my Mother and Father loved to use his Field Guide to Eastern Birds to identify species. My Mother still enjoys using it.



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