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The Man Who Brought Birds to the Masses

By Nancy B. Lamb. Nancy B. Lamb watches birds from her home in HollistonMass. / December 16, 1994



ROGER TORY PETERSON: THE ART AND PHOTOGRAPHY OF THE WORLD'S FOREMOST BIRDER. Edited by Roger Tory Peterson and Rudy Hoglund. Text by William Zinsser; Rizzoli, 204 pp., $50.

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WHETHER you're a newly enthusiastic birdwatcher or an experienced one with hundreds of birds on your ``life list,'' you've probably spent time with one of Roger Tory Peterson's field guides.

Peterson is known to millions of people around the world through his books - guides to identifying wild birds. The guides are filled with page after page of beautifully detailed, full-color paintings and succinct, informative descriptions. They cover regions of the United States and areas overseas and help even new observers of the natural world to distinguish, for instance, a fox sparrow from a tree sparrow - and where to find each of them.

``Roger Tory Peterson: The Art and Photography of the World's Foremost Birder'' is a celebration of Peterson's life work to date, as S. Dillon Ripley of the Smithsonian Institution writes in the foreword. It provides an introduction to a man who has been a major contributor to the study of nature for 60 years.

Peterson's ``A Field Guide to the Birds,'' first published in 1934, ``democratized birding, transferring it from the hands of a largely academic and museum-oriented elite. By converting birding into a mass activity of ordinary Americans, it helped to create the base for the environmental movement,'' concludes author William Zinsser, who wrote the main text of the book. Statistics bear out his thesis: In 1934 there were about 400,000 people worldwide watching birds, Zinsser writes. Today, there are 40 million birders - and more than 7 million copies of Peterson's guides have been sold.

This Peterson appreciation includes some magnificent reproductions of plates from the guide books, such as the dazzling parrots, hummingbirds, and orioles of Mexico. There are other spectacular bird portraits, too, such as a pair of regal white gyrfalcons set against the mountains of Greenland, and a spirited Northern mockingbird doing a wing display with a wild rose in the background.

The text gives an idea of some of the influences that have shaped Peterson as an artist. They include his seventh-grade teacher, who interested Peterson in drawing birds; John James Audubon, the famous naturalist-painter who worked in the early 19th century; and Louis Agassiz Fuertes, one of the foremost wildlife artists of the early 20th century.

More than one-third of the book is devoted to some of the wonderful photographs Peterson has taken in a lifetime of global birding, including repeated trips to Africa, Europe, Asia, and Antarctica. We're also given a taste of some of his longer writings. And there are reminiscences and appreciations from colleagues and public figures such as former President Jimmy Carter and author George Plimpton.

The chronology of his life (including his 1983 Nobel Peace Prize nomination) and lists of his works and honorary degrees at the back of the book give an idea of the breadth, high quality, and influence of Peterson's art and writings over the decades. Today Peterson devotes time to the 10-year-old Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in his boyhood town of Jamestown, N.Y., which provides training for elementary and middle-school teachers. He and his wife, Virginia Marie Peterson, continue the research needed to keep the field guides up to date. And he continues to travel and write. All of which helps keep all of us more in touch with the natural world.

``What he taught me more than anything was the importance of observation,'' recalls former US Attorney General Elliot Richardson. ``When you went out on a field trip with Peterson, you took in every movement and sound; you saw things; you took an interest in what was around you. And this can apply to other things in life - the cultivation of an ability to make the most of a situation you're in.'' This volume gives readers an opportunity to observe a remarkable career that still has more to come.