Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Book That Changed the World

"Shotgun" ornithologists in the field collecting birds.

Up until the early 1930s, people identified birds exclusively in the hand. That is, they shot them and looked at them up close. Lacking the powerful, crystal-clear optics we bird watchers take for granted, people looking at birds could only guarantee themselves a decisive view if they brought the bird to the ground using some weapon. The shotgun loaded with bird shot was the preferred method. This was time consuming for the bird enthusiast or ornithologist and it was quite hard on the birds themselves. From this rather consumptive pastime the phrase "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" arose, presumably.

Looking at birds (really, dead specimens) in the hand also gave rise to some of ornithology's most asinine bird names. The ring-necked duck and red-bellied woodpecker are two of the worst examples, both being named for field marks that are readily visible in the hand but practically impossible to see on a wild bird in the field.

It's difficult to see the red on the belly of a red-bellied woodpecker.


In the western New York city of Jamestown, a young naturalist named Roger Tory Peterson had grown up absorbing every bit of information he could about birds and the natural world. His reference books for his nature study were long on descriptive text, short on illustrations, and better suited to use in a library or laboratory than in the field. His hunger for knowledge about birds and butterflies and wildflowers was not satisfied by these reference resources.

Happy circumstance was to merge with destiny, which helped Roger Tory Peterson change the way people looked at birds. His knowledge of birds (and curiosity about them) and his natural gifts as an artist would permit Roger Peterson to move the world beyond the realm of "shotgun ornithology."

Three of Roger Peterson's biggest influences were existing nature books. The first of these books was Frank M. Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, published in 1895. It was a scholarly tome with few illustrations, but with lengthy, minutely detailed descriptions of each bird species from bill tip to tail end. Peterson shared a copy of Chapman's book with a group of fellow birders, memorizing passages for later use in the field.

More useful in the field, but covering only some of the species, and then only briefly, was Chester A. Reed's Bird Guide to Land Birds East of the Rockies.
The Chester A. Reed bird guide.


Somewhere between these two extremes was another book, not yet created.

The third influential book for Roger Peterson was Two Little Savages by Ernest Thompson Seton, which contained a chapter titled "How Yan Knew the Birds Afar." In this chapter, the character Yan devised a simplified scheme that permitted him to identify ducks from a great distance based on basic visual clues.


Roger Tory Peterson at work on the layout of his field guide.

The concept of breaking bird identification down into easy to see and easy to remember clues lodged in Roger Peterson's brain. By the early 1930s he was gaining a reputation among his fellow birders as a careful observer in the field and a keen mind for the details of bird watching. These same friends encouraged him to incorporate his birding know-how into a book. The result was a book that changed the world forever because it gave anyone and everyone the necessary clues to identify birds at a distance.

The cover of the landmark 1934 field guide.


In 1934, A Field Guide to the Birds was published by Houghton Mifflin. It included, as the cover proclaimed: "All Species Found in Eastern North America." The initial printing of 1,000 copies sold out almost immediately.

One of the few color plates in the original Peterson guide depicted the wood warblers.


Paging through a copy of that first guide it looks incredibly crude when compared unfairly with modern day guides. This is a bit like comparing the Wright Brothers flying machine with a Boeing 777.

And yet that first Peterson guide, with its few color plates and succinct text, open the doors to nature appreciation for millions of North Americans. Eventually the Peterson system of identification would be applied to other ares of natural history, touching the lives of people all over the world.

If you'd like to learn more about the life of Roger Tory Peterson, visit the website of The Peterson Institute of Natural History. Or better yet, visit the actual institute yourself in Jamestown, New York.

I am posting about Roger Tory Peterson and his field guides all this week in honor of his birthday on August 28. Tomorrow I will discuss RTP's life after the publication of that first field guide.

If you'd like to jump ahead of the rest of the class, go to the Peterson Field Guides website and watch some of the free video podcasts created to accompany the newest Peterson Field Guide. More on these later on this week.

Roger Tory Peterson had an insatiable curiosity about birds and nature.

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