Words of a feather
Roger Tory Peterson is the man who brought birding to the masses.
Fri, Dec 01, 2006 at 08:30 PM
TWEET, TWEET: Roger Troy Peterson wrote All Things Reconsidered: My Birding Adventures.
In the past century, we’ve become a nation of birders. Bird fanatics (sometimes called “twitchers”) travel to the most remote corners of the world, compiling impossibly long “life lists” of birds they’ve sighted. And while birds were once considered the domain of bespectacled, binocular-toting dweebs, avian motifs have in recent years found their way into the mainstream, with boutiques and chain stores everywhere filled with T-shirts silk-screened with images of bluebirds and robins.
In the early part of the 19th century, most ornithophiles believed that the only identifiable bird was a dead bird. The modern birding movement (when birders stopped shooting birds and started observing them) began in earnest in 1934 when, at the tender age of 26, Roger Tory Peterson published A Field Guide to the Birds. It was a radical departure from the shoot-then-study school: Peterson developed a system of illustrations that allowed someone armed with nothing more than a pair of binoculars to identify a bird in its natural habitat. Although he was trained as an artist and best known for the illustrations and photographs of birds in his guides, Peterson was also a writer. All Things Reconsidered is a collection of the columns he wrote for Bird Watcher’s Digest from 1984 until he died in 1996 and photographs he took throughout his career.
Nonbirders take heed: Peterson’s intended audience was birdwatchers — and some of the pieces read that way. But even those who don’t dwell on birding minutiae will find that the depth of Peterson’s obsession makes for some good stories. In one piece, he recalls hanging out at a bar in Botswana all day — not to get drunk, but to observe two kinds of swallows nesting inside. In another, he tells the story of being on a boat that capsized because of a rogue wave that no one had noticed (they were too busy looking at a flock of cormorants on the Maine shore). When the rescuers finally arrived, Peterson, who was 81 at the time, was drifting in and out of consciousness, but he was alert enough to realize that there were more interesting things going on than his own predicament. “Lying on my back, helpless, unable to move and gazing straight up into the darkening heavens, I thought I saw a Leach’s storm-petrel as it flew out of the mist,” he writes.
But above all, Peterson believed that birding was for everyone, and his populist attitude is reflected in many of his columns. Readers don’t need a degree in ornithology to appreciate his exaltation at seeing a nearly extinct ivory-billed woodpecker in 1942 (imagine his shock had he lived to learn of its reported reappearance in 2005) or his affectionate descriptions (Atlantic puffin babies look, according to Peterson, “like balls of lint retrieved from the vacuum cleaner”). Near the end of All Things Reconsidered, in a piece called “Memories of Manhattan,” Peterson reminds us that no one needs to travel around the world (or to clothing boutiques, for that matter) to find birds: “Even where urbanization has locked the green world into a sarcophagus of cement and stone, there are opportunities to watch birds — if only house sparrows and starlings.”
Story by Kiera Butler. This article originally appeared in Plenty in December 2006. This story was added to MNN.com in June 2009.