Roger Tory Peterson

(This column was first published in the February 10, 1992 issue of The Buffalo News.)

 

      On Sunday evening the public television series, Nature, will be devoted to Roger Tory Peterson, the world renowned naturalist, artist, and author who was born 83 years ago in Jamestown and who spent his youth studying the insects, birds, flowers, and mammals of southwestern New York State.

      It is difficult for all but the oldest of us interested in natural history to conceive of what it was like "Before Peterson," that is before the late 1930s when the first edition of his A Field Guide to the Birds became popular.  Until then the best of the few available bird books, like the Reed Bird Guide, had separate pictures of single species with accompanying text that gave little help in differentiating one bird from any other.  For all but the most distinctive birds they were not useful for identification.

      As a boy Peterson had read Ernest Thompson Seton's Two Little Savages, in which another youngster found mounted ducks in a museum and drew their silhouettes, distinguishing them through the use of arrows pointing to their unique features.  Peterson remembered this and, when he wrote his bird guide, combined this technique with his own superb talents as an illustrator to produce what has come to be known as the Peterson identification method.

      Today this method has been applied in over 40 Peterson Field Guides to everything from mammals to mushrooms, reptiles to rocks, and shells to stars.  And every other field guide today has been influenced by Peterson's approach, even including military manuals for distinguishing aircraft and ships.

      Now with little effort amateurs can identify most of the natural objects about them.  As a result interest in natural history has burgeoned and the secondary effect of this increased interest on conservation has been widely recognized.  Today's world would be measurably different were it not for Roger Tory Peterson.

      Most naturalists think of Peterson only as an artist and fail to realize how good he is as writer and teacher.  The text of his books is equal in quality to his illustrations.  In less than 100 words he describes a bird at rest and in flight, special features that separate it from similar species, different plumages, voice, range, and habitat.  If you think that is easy, try it yourself on a familiar species like a song sparrow.

      When the 19 year old Peterson boarded the train from Jamestown to New York City to study art in 1927, few outside his family knew him by any other name but "Nuts."  He was a shy loner.  He had obtained permission directly from the police chief to stay out to collect moths past the strict town curfew for teenagers.  He didn't date.  With one or two friends he had wandered the countryside in search of wildlife.  "Nuts" was a suitable name, the townspeople thought, for this other-worldly young man.

      But 50 years later when he was approached by Lorimer Moe, Clarence Beal, Carl Hammerstrom, and a few others to assign his archives to Jamestown, "Nuts" Peterson remained loyal to this community.  The Smithsonian Institution had held these archives temporarily and now placed a strong bid to retain them.  Yale University offered a building already available on campus.  Even against the cogent arguments of his wife Virginia, a Connecticut Yankee who supported the Yale offer, Peterson stood firm for Jamestown.  And so the Roger Tory Peterson Institute is being built there.

      Now we can celebrate once again next Sunday this native Western New Yorker, easily the best known naturalist in the world today, and the man who was even chosen by the citizens of his home town (but by just one vote over Lucille Ball) - as the most famous person to have ever come from Jamestown.-- Gerry Rising