Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
A Field Guide is Every Bird Watcher’s Companion
August 15, 2009
by Steve Grinley
The thirteenth anniversary of the passing of Roger Tory Peterson was a couple of weeks ago. The release of the North American edition of his Field Guide to Birds this past year prompts me to re-look at the man who revolutionized field guides and the effect that he had on birders like me.
Roger Tory Peterson was my birding companion almost since I started watching birds. No, I never met the man, but his Field Guide to the Birds has traveled with me since I started my quest for birds more than 40 years ago. I received my first “Peterson” from my sixth grade teacher, Mr. Beach, who sparked my interest in birds by taking me on a field trip. I, like so many other birders, carried it everywhere.
Peterson was the Audubon of the twentieth century, a brilliant painter of birds. His attention to detail and true-to-life depiction of shape and color was remarkable. More than just painting birds, he carefully noted what made one bird different from another and he developed a system of field marks to help the average bird watcher differentiate species. Peterson developed the first field guide in 1934 and it quickly became the “Bible” for most bird watching enthusiasts.
Peterson’s layout of putting similar birds on a page and pointing out field marks to differentiate them is still the easiest reference I have found. His field mark system helps the most novice birder quickly recognize the differences between birds. I comfortably recommend the Peterson Field Guides to people who just want to learn their local backyard birds – it is that simple. Yet, I know a few experienced birders who still use it today. There have been several more detailed field guides published since. The Sibley Guide to Birds, considered now to be the newest “Bible” for birders, depicts more plumages and flight views. The National Geographic Guide is valued by experienced birders, especially for the number of subspecies that it covers. But few equal the ease and simplicity that Peterson demonstrates in his books.
In my original second edition field guide, Peterson has a note in the front of the book regarding making the field guide a “personal thing” He writes “It is gratifying to see a copy marked on nearly every page, for I know that it has been well used…I have seen many copies with home-made oilcloth jackets; I have seen copies torn apart, reorganized and rebound to suit the owner’s taste; others have been tabbed with index tabs, or fitted with flaps or envelopes to hold daily check-lists.”
My copy has, indeed, a homemade oilcloth cover, a pocket for checklists, and many pages, though falling out, are marked upon from years of use. I should have it rebound one of these days. Though Peterson revised the guide (the fifth revised edition is now in print), and the publishers released the new North American edition which combines East and West Guides, I still carry my personalized second edition in my car. I believe that Mr. Peterson would approve.
More than anyone else, Roger brought bird watching to where it is today – one of the most popular pastimes. He also is responsible for developing the field guide concept. In addition to his Field Guides to Birds of Eastern and the Western United States, and his co-authored Mexican Birds and Birds of Europe, he edited a comprehensive series of field guides covering everything from butterflies and insects to trees, wildflowers, fish, mammals, and even animal tracks. I have a personal set of leather bound copies of over 35 titles in the Peterson Field Guide series.
My first field guide is still the one I treasure most. In the front of my guide, Mr. Beach wrote an inscription, “I hope this book helps not only to identify birds, but also to know them.” I now know what Mr. Beach meant. I have him and Roger Tory Peterson to thank for helping me to know birds. And although both gentlemen are gone, I still take them with me. They are still my bird watching companions on most every bird trip I take.
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