A New Peterson Field Guide


(This 918th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on October 26, 2008.)



The New Peterson Field Guide


Roger Tory Peterson died twelve years ago but a brand new Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America has just been published. It is a superb book and Peterson himself would have been pleased.


As youngsters Peterson and I had access to the same two bird identification books. The first was Frank Chapman's Handbook of Birds of Eastern North America, published in 1895. I still have my copy, the edges of its leather cover frayed, its pages browning with age. It contains few illustrations, one of them is a photograph of a song sparrow and a swamp sparrow, obviously museum-mounted birds.


Opening Chapman's book at random I find the following description of a mourning dove: "Adult male – Upper parts olive grayish brown; forehead vinaceous; crown bluish slate-color; sides of the neck with metallic reflections, a small black mark below the ear; middle tail-feathers like the back, the others, seen from above, slaty gray for the basal half, then banded with black and broadly tipped with ashy and white; breast vinaceous; belly cream-buff." It then goes on to describe the adult female. No picture is included.


Compare that with the description in the new Peterson:


"The common widespread wild dove. Brown; smaller and slimmer than Rock Pigeon. Note pointed tail with large white spots." On the opposite page the mourning dove and five similar doves are illustrated.


Chapman was describing a bird in the hand, almost certainly shot. And he used vocabulary that was beyond me then and still presents a problem for me. Vinaceous? My dictionary defines that as "the color of red wine" but the color plate in Chapman shows it as a light brown.


Although his book was of no use to me for bird identification it did include summaries that I continue to refer to for comparison with today's records: lists of spring and fall migration dates and dates of earliest nesting.


The other book I had in those days was much more useful to me in the field. It was Chester Reed's Bird Guide to Eastern Land Birds. That pocket-sized book fell apart long ago, but I recall that it contained paintings of each species on separate pages. The accompanying descriptions I found of little value and I never did own Reed's guide to water birds.


So when I was finally able to purchase Peterson's first Birds of the Eastern United States in about 1938, it changed birding for me completely. (The book had been published four years earlier.)


Peterson's excellent art - mostly black-and-white in those early editions - focused on field marks that separated the species: an arrow directed at that mourning dove's pointed tail, another to the tree sparrow's central breast spot. I recall spending hours memorizing characteristics of the different warblers on the one colored plate.


Today there are dozens of field guides. Most experienced birders now use The Sibley Guide to the Birds, but many local observers also use books by Stokes and Kaufman as well as the National Geographic and Golden guides. There are still others, including guides to families of birds - thrushes, for example - and to regions like New England.


But Peterson remains the bird book I recommend for beginners and the book I still use (with my copy of Sibley) in the field. And this new edition with forty additional paintings by contemporary illustrators is a major contribution to the modern birders' armamentarium.


Just as important and available to all is an associated website, www.petersonfieldguides.com, that provides supportive videos - family overviews, species profiles, tutorials and a Peterson biography - for viewing or downloading.


How I would have loved to have had these videos available to me when I was so excited about birding in those teenage years. I watched a number of them in preparing this column and even this jaundiced veteran enjoyed every one. They are expertly prepared.


But I too was fortunate as a beginner. I was helped by veteran Rochester birders, most long dead, and I attended a museum series taught by Fred Hall, who later became director of the Buffalo Museum of Science. Like Peterson, Hall was a wonderful artist and I retained his pencil sketches for many years.-- Gerry Rising