The Foremost Naturalist
Roger Tory Peterson’s life was never the same again after the publication of his Field Guide to Eastern Birds in 1934. He might have known this when the first printing of the guide sold out in less than a month.
Soon after the publication of the guide, Peterson was hired by The Audubon Society to assist with publications and outreach. His bird watching pamphlets for the Junior Audubon Club were instrumental in increasing membership from 100,000 to 400,000.
Nearly every project Peterson became involved in seemed to benefit from his Midas touch. His columns in Bird Lore magazine (predecessor to Audubon) and illustrated articles in Life Magazine helped establish a national audience of bird watchers.
During his service in World War II he put his field guide talents to use creating plane-spotting manuals. He also worked with Rachel Carson (eventual author of Silent Spring) during the war, studying the effects of DDT on birds and animals.
This was a Renaissance man. Roger Peterson made nature films. He helped to form conservation organizations and supported conservation causes large and small. He mentored young naturalists and artists. And he traveled the world looking at birds and nature with fellow bird watchers and naturalists.
Along the way he received every major natural history award, dozens of honorary degrees, and The Presidential Medal of Freedom, which he received in 1980, from President Jimmy Carter.
Over the decades, the Peterson field guide series was expanded to include other subjects, eventually comprising more than 45 titles.
He also wrote and edited numerous other bird and nature books. One of them was the first bird book I ever owned, The Time-Life book Birds. Man I loved that book! I pored over the illustrations (done by RTP and other famous illustrators) and nearly memorized the text.
Inside the front cover of the book is written, in my mom's handwriting: "For Billy Thompson, Christmas 1969."
Just 16 years after receiving that book for Christmas, I would meet Roger Peterson in person at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania. And a few years later, in 1988, I would work directly with him as he wrote a regular column for a relatively new magazine called Bird Watcher's Digest.
His lifetime of teaching people, directly and indirectly, about birds and nature, and his continuous desire for more knowledge earned Roger Tory Peterson the unofficial title of "the foremost naturalist in the world.
For a video overview of the life of Roger Tory Peterson, please follow this link to the Peterson Field Guides site. Click on "Biography."
You may also be interested in reading the two recent biographies of Roger Tory Peterson:
The new episode of my podcast This Birding Life features a reading of Dr. Peterson's essay "Capsized by a Rogue Wave" from "All Things Reconsidered" the book of RTP's columns from Bird Watcher's Digest.
Tomorrow: Happy Birthday and the New Guide.