It all started with what looked like a dead Flicker. Roger Tory Peterson didn’t expect the bundle of brown feathers to move when he touched it. But it did and in that woodpecker’s flurry of movement and the associated burst of color, the eleven-year old was forever “hooked” on birds. In her biography of Peterson, Birdwatcher: The Life of Roger Tory Peterson, E.J. Rosenthal writes Peterson later reflected, “…It was like a resurrection. What had seemed dead was very much alive. Ever since then, birds have seemed to me the most vivid expression of life.”
With that intense interest in birds came an intense desire to create a way for casual observers to identify birds when out in the field. A way that would work under real-life conditions, when the amateur naturalist didn’t know the name of the bird, couldn’t get close enough to observe minute details, and needed to make the identification based on distinguishing characteristics spotted readily from afar.
In one of Peterson’s favorite books as a child, Ernest Thompson Seton’s, Two Little Savages, Boy-that-wanted-to-know was frustrated in his attempts to identify birds. He could see many kinds of ducks in the distance, even draw their silhouettes and record the spots of color visible from afar. But still, with all that information, he couldn’t learn the name or additional facts about the ducks he saw until he knew their names or had someone to ask.
As a boy, Peterson faced similar problems when he went into the field armed with Chester A. Reed’s, Bird Guide or Birds of Eastern North America, or Frank M. Chapman’s, Color Key to North American Birds. These guides had pages with sketches of beaks and feet grouped by family but unless the user knew the bird by family or name, he was left to try to find the bird he saw by leafing through the pages. This approach was rarely successful. The drawings in the books were of the birds when observed up close – a perspective rarely available to a person out for a walk in nature.
Peterson’s guides would change all that.
“The Peterson field guide has heuristic, self-teaching, aspects,” says Mark Baldwin, Director of Education at the Roger Tory Peterson Institute of Natural History in Jamestown, NY. “He was the first person to come up with a tool for laymen. “ From his very first guide in 1934, Peterson used his experience to know that an amateur, spotting a bird from a distance, would have to work from the general to the specific. From the things he would readily know to the things he couldn’t possibly spot until he was up close enough to frighten the bird away. From the beginning, Peterson guides have been arranged so the information an observer would first know – say the habitat of the bird – would be the starting point. The next thing would be what was most obvious about the bird from a distance. Say a person was walking in the woods and saw a bird in a tree. He observes it has a rounded head and long beak. With these facts, even an amateur could pick out a sketch of that bird on a page with sketches of other birds he would encounter under similar circumstances. Once an identification was made, the observer would turn to the page for that bird and read more.
In that first guide in 1934, Peterson included field marking notes with the profile sketches of his birds. For the Flicker, he has “brown back” and “white rump.” The side view of the bird shows a long beak, rounded head, speckled chest and solid back with white at the rump. Beneath the sketch is written, “Flicker.” The text on the Flicker page gives additional information about appearance, voice, and range of the bird. Reed’s 1912 guide has the Flicker illustrated on the page for Flickers in isolation from any other birds of that appearance. When looking at the illustration, the white rump is visible, but there is nothing to quickly point out the key features distinguishable from a distance – the brown back and white rump – as you thumb through the pages. The same is true of Chapman’s 1912 guide. You’ll find excellent sketches of the head and feet of the birds but they are arranged by family. The white rump and brown back of the Flicker are not at all evident in the illustration in this guide.
By his 1947 guide, Peterson had added arrows pointing to the field marks, and silhouettes of the birds. These solid black sketches of the entire bird in profile, arranged with the silhouettes of other birds likely to be spotted under similar circumstances, are displayed on pages titled, “Roadside Silhouettes,” “Shore Silhouettes,” and “Flight Silhouettes,” among others. Select the silhouette, note the number beside it, find the number in the table that’s part of that page and you’ll learn the name of the bird. All that’s left then is to flip to the one-page index at the front of the book, find the bird name, and turn to the page listed beside it. It’s as simple as that.
Peterson’s guides give the amateur an experience as close to his as possible. Nancy Shute, Contributing Editor at US News & World Report, recalls what it was like to accompany Peterson on a National Audobon Society annual “Birdathon” in 1984. “It began at midnight… You would just hear birds in a tree and he would say, “Oh, it’s a this or it’s a that. He would need just a few notes to identify the bird.” Today there are 53 Peterson Guides covering everything from birds to wildflowers to butterflies. Each of them allows the amateur naturalist to easily identify what he sees.
And it all started back in 1920 with that atypical Flicker.
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