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Birdwatcher [Author Question and Answer]

Roger Tory Peterson Birdwatcher

A friend of mine and author Elizabeth J. Rosenthal (Liz) recently released a paperback version of her book Birdwatcher: the Life of Roger Tory Peterson. The hardcover was published in 2008 in celebration of the Peterson Centenary. I recently had the chance to ask Elizabeth (the author of Birdwatcher) a few questions about her marvelous book.

Q: Most birders know the Peterson Field Guide Series, which covers all aspects of natural history, beginning with his Field Guide to the Birds. But many people may not realize the kind of impact that the Peterson series had on birding around the world.
A: The Peterson guides did have a great impact. Roger Tory Peterson was in his early 20s when he conceptualized, authored, and illustrated the first practical, usable field guide to birds in world history, published to great acclaim in 1934. Bird texts and publications available when Peterson was young were either dense and intimidating or overly fanciful; he had the kind of sharp mind which enabled him to, as he put it, “boil down” the minutiae of bird characteristics to just the few field marks needed for the average person to identify a wild bird, and he could express these field marks clearly and precisely in writing and in art. Meanwhile, the numbers of birders grew exponentially over the decades, not just in North America, but Europe, too, where he co-authored the first Field Guide to the Birds of Britain and Europe in 1954.

Q: Roger Tory Peterson was a self-taught naturalist, wasn’t he?
A: Yes, he was. As a boy, Peterson explored birdlife as well as butterflies and botany without a real mentor. He had no scientists or naturalists in the family or who were friends of the family, and he came from a working class background. Also, Peterson had no higher education other than art school, yet within a few years after publication of his first field guide he was recognized as a scientist along with individuals possessing the most impressive academic credentials.

Q: What kind of influence did the Peterson Field Guide Series have on conservation? Was Peterson himself a leader in conservation?
A: Through his field guides, Peterson inspired the modern conservation movement. First of all, as he often pointed out, an initial step toward becoming a conservationist is being able to identify birds. Once you can identify them, you begin to care about them, he said, and then you want to protect them and their habitats. The Peterson guides brought millions of new people into birding, not to mention other aspects of natural history. The great E. O. Wilson drew inspiration from the Peterson guides and went into entomology. In fact, he has been one of Peterson’s greatest admirers. It is no coincidence that the environmental movement increasingly picked up steam in the decades following the emergence of the first Peterson guides and publication of newer editions.
Peterson also thrust himself into the middle of many celebrated causes, such as: the preservation of the Coto Donana in southwestern Spain, Lake Nakuru in Kenya and Aldabra off the coast of East Africa; the protection of the Laysan albatross on Midway Island; the need for education about the last pristine place on Earth, Antarctica; and the fight against DDT. He was also the Education Director for the National Audubon Society from 1934 to 1943, art director for the National Wildlife Federation from the late 1930s to the 1970s, and a founder of the World Wildlife Fund in 1961.
As Susan Roney Drennan told me, Peterson was a “0ne-man conservation dynamo,” a tireless lecturer through most of his adult life, educating listeners about conservation issues to succeeding generations of people.

Q: It looks like you interviewed a lot of people for Birdwatcher.
A: Yes – to be exact, 116 people from all over the world. Not just from the United States, but Canada, the UK, continental Europe, and Africa. This tells you how far-reaching Peterson’s influence was. Also, he was a friend and mentor to generations of birders. Firsthand reminiscences in the book cover the entire period from the 1930s to the time of his death in 1996. Among the people I talked to, besides his sons Lee and Tory and his second wife Barbara (who recently passed away), were Kenn Kaufman, E. O. Wilson, Susan Roney Drennan, Robert Michael Pyle, George H. Harrison, Scott Weidensaul, James Fisher’s daughter Dr. Clemency Fisher, Laurie Lewin Simms (whose father, Robert Lewin, founded Mill Pond Press), Robert Bateman, Roland Clement, Keith Shackleton, Lady Philippa Scott (widow of Sir Peter Scott), and Chandler Robbins.
I also gleaned fascinating information from papers at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, New York (where he was born), the National Audubon Society Archives at the New York Public Library, the archives at Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in eastern Pennsylvania, and the Smithsonian in Washington DC. Many people I interviewed also generously shared their own papers with me, including correspondence that I would never have found any other way.

Q: What do you expect readers to take away from Birdwatcher?
A: I think that, by the end of the book, readers will agree that Roger Tory Peterson was a giant of his time who seemed to have multiple lives, as field guide originator, artist, photographer, filmmaker, author, teacher, mentor, scientist, and conservationist.

For more information about Birdwatcher and links to booksellers, go to

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One response

  1. Marg

    Sounds like a great read!

    8 April 2010 at 8:31 am

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