Recalling RTP, the most famous birder of all
(published 2-3-09)

In the history of American birdwatching, two names stand out: John James Audubon and Roger Tory Peterson. They were the giants, each belonging to a different era. Audubon lived from 1785 to 1851. He was a painter, not a birder as we think of birders today, but he raised the public's appreciation for birds. And of course his namesake organization remains a positive force on conservation issues.

Peterson passed away in 1996 at age 87. He invented the modern field guide in 1934 and spent his life perfecting it. Along the way he established himself as a multitalented bird man, sharing his considerable skills as a writer, painter, photographer, public speaker, ornithologist and educator. Peterson's later years were filled with honors, including the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 from Jimmy Carter, an avid birder himself.

In 2008, birding magazines celebrated the 100th anniversary of Peterson's birth. Numerous articles appeared by people who knew Peterson well, and some by people who met him just once and never forgot the encounter. I read them all, attempting to satisfy a personal craving for more information about the man who helped introduce so many of us to the world of birds and nature.

Just the name Roger Tory Peterson recalls my “nature boy” days in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. My favorite magazine then was Ranger Rick, and each year its publisher, the National Wildlife Federation, issued a set of nature stamps. I collected those stamps with a passion, affixing them in the paperback booklets and then placing each year's booklet in a handsome wine-colored album from NWF.

The stamps and supplies were well worth my allowance money because the featured artist was Peterson. How I admired his work and reputation! Though I'd never seen RTP in person or on television, on the hero scale he was right up there with my baseball idols, Roberto Clemente and Brooks Robinson.

Naturally I knew about Peterson's field guides, too. Our home in Ohio contained several from the series, including the one for eastern birds. I used the checklist in the back to record my sightings. Today I keep one Peterson bird guide at home and one at the office. Neither one stays closed for very long.

But while the field guides exhibit the talents of the author and artist, they don't reveal much about Peterson the man. For being such a legendary figure in the fields of birding, ornithology and nature publishing, Peterson kept a low profile. He related well to people and (like Audubon) enjoyed his celebrity status. But RTP had a shy and reclusive side as well.

I only know these things because I just finished reading an outstanding new biography called “Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson.” Researched and written by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, this is a book birders have been waiting for. It goes way beyond all the magazine tributes, taking us inside Peterson's remarkable life.

Without taking her subject down a notch, Rosenthal shows us RTP's human side. We learn about his deficiencies as a husband (three wives) and his shortfalls as a father—neither surprising given his workaholic ways and a global travel schedule that included 18 trips to Antarctica to study penguins, his favorite bird family. We're told that he sometimes procrastinated, ate too many sweets and could be a little tight with money.

We also discover that Peterson was not keen on getting up early—quite a liability for a birder! He was a night owl, preferring to work late in his Old Lyme, Connecticut, art studio.

Peterson always had a lot on his plate. He was consumed by projects, including constant updates to his many field guides—eastern birds, western birds, wildflowers, butterflies and more. An unfinished page to the fifth edition of his guide to eastern birds was on his painting easel when he died, which shows how Peterson pushed himself to the very end. We should all be so driven, and our talents so in demand, when we approach 90 years old!

For more information about “Birdwatcher,” visit And be sure to read the book—you'll be glad you did.

Also worth noting is the new “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America,”also released in 2008 and the first time eastern and western species are covered in a single Peterson volume. So, more than 12 years after his death, RTP's body of work continues to grow.

Appropriately, the new guide's cover features a Northern Flicker, the species that sparked Peterson's interest in birds as a boy. His encounter with that woodpecker lasted only a moment, but what a career that moment inspired.

Copyright 2009 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.