Did You Know: Before the Peterson Field Guides

Did you know that before the Peterson Field Guides, it was common practice to kill a bird so that the specimen could be identified? After identification, the “skins” of the birds were preserved with arsenic. Some of the skins exist today. In fact, you can see many of them at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute (RTPI) in Jamestown, New York.

Peterson grew up in Jamestown, NY. Located near Lake Erie, equidistant from Buffalo and Erie, NY, Jamestown was a perfect tangle of fields and forests for a boy as indifferent to formal education as Peterson. He roamed and explored on his own, satisfying his curiosity about all sorts of plants and animals. The only problem was that he couldn’t get close enough to make an identification of the birds he saw.

That wasn’t the most pressing issue on his mind. At least not until the day he reached out to touch what he thought was a dead woodpecker. Rather than yield to his touch, it flung its wings wide, revealing brilliant color and igniting what became Peterson’s lifelong fascination with birds of every type.

An avid artist, Peterson sketched birds and noted the markings he could see from a distance. These would become known as field marks and their use in the books Peterson wrote would result in birders being able to identify birds without having to kill them. The result was a deeper interest and appreciation of birds and nature by the average American as well as a large step forward in the conservation movement.

The first Peterson Guide was published in 1934. Today there are Peterson Guides for all sorts of animals and plants. Each of them is designed for quick identification by an amateur at a distance. In solving the problem of identification, Peterson came up with a solution that changed the way people around the world interact with nature to this day.


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