Book Review
    February 2009

Birdwatcher: the life of Roger Tory Peterson

Rosenthal, Elizabeth J. 2008. Birdwatcher: the life of Roger Tory Peterson. Lyon Press. 437p.

When I first saw Rosenthal’s book, I asked myself if I really needed another Roger Tory Peterson biography. After all, I had read an earlier biography (1977) called The World of Roger Tory Peterson.  I wondered about the extent of overlap in information. The first chapter in the earlier book was entitled, “The Mischievous Boy of Bowen Street;” and the first chapter in Rosenthal’s book is entitled, “Boy Rebel to Boy Wonder.”  These headings sounded very similar.  However, it took only a few pages for me to note the vast differences between the two books.  Rosenthal’s book reflects the many changes in the “world of birdwatchers” since 1977.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who reads.  However, those non-fiction readers interested in the foundations of birdwatching probably will constitute a major segment of the target audience.  Rosenthal’s book contains much more than a platform for gaining a greater appreciation for Roger Tory Peterson’s contributions in the areas of bird ecology, bird conservation, nature appreciation, and species identification.  Roger Tory Peterson (hereafter RTP) developed into adulthood on the leading edge of the “new” conservation movement when market hunting, feathered hats, the plume trade, and recreational killing of birds were becoming unpopular and unlawful.  Rosenthal’s book takes us through the RTP-era which spanned the period from indiscriminant bird killing to the current era where birding is America’s fastest growing outdoor sport and conservation is “in season.” As she states, we could not have come this far without RTP.

Modern-day birders will enjoy Rosenthal’s detailed accounts of many of the individuals who were influenced by RTP.  The combined contributions of many have brought birding to the level where it exists today.  I enjoyed Rosenthal’s writing style as she introduced the birth of RTP in 1908 with the thought that he was born during a period when there was a lack of bird protection.  She said, “It was a gloomy time for bird lovers and of no particular interest that a boy was born on August 28....”  She went on to develop the impact of RTP’s influence with quotes from birders such as, “I carried Peterson everywhere I went, as did a million other people;” and after the guide to the birds of Britain and Europe was published, “Birdwatching in Europe changed forever.”  These statements set the stage for the magnitude of change in our birdwatching world due to the influence of RTP.  However, he did not function alone and this book highlights and informs us about the many other “movers and shakers” within and outside the birding world.

For me, it was enlightening to read about some of the changes in the birding world over the last 100 years.  Roger Tory Peterson is best known for his guides and his system of bird identification in a “field” setting.  This passion to improve our ability to identify birds makes particular sense when put in perspective -- when he was young and trying to identify a bird, there were no “modern” guides or improved optics that we take for granted today.  I was delighted to read about RTP using the “Chapman” and “Reed” guides that I keep on my “old book” shelf but wouldn’t think of using in the field today. Throughout Rosenthal’s book, we are reminded of how innovative and timely RTP’s contributions were.  This point became clear when I read that RTP’s first guide was published on April 27, 1934, and was out of print on April 28, 1934.  This grossly underestimated demand was well-recognized by the time the “western” field guide was published in 1941.  

I enjoyed reading Rosenthal’s entire book and will point out a few personal highlights. First, I was reminded of how RTP was influenced by Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages.  I felt a kinship, since I also have been influenced by many of Seton’s writings.  I was fascinated at how Rosenthal’s book explained the story of how a teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, impacted the life of RTP and then integrated this story with many of RTP’s other early experiences. I admit to finding myself just looking at the pages as I let my mind wander back to some of my own early experiences.  My first birding opportunity with RTP was in June of 1965 in the Black Hills of South Dakota.  He impressed me with his vast knowledge.  He was a veritable walking encyclopedia.  I think he was always teaching, no matter what other activities were at hand; and this concept comes through loud and clear in Rosenthal’s book.

Rosenthal informs us, in an interesting way, about RTP’s expertise as an artist, lecturer, photographer, writer, teacher, and conservationist.  The book explains that we should never underestimate RTP’s influence on the conservation movement, on eco-tourism, and on bird art, as well as his other contributions.  I learned not only about RTP but also about a host of individuals who have influenced the birding world and about their relationships with RTP.  Many of these names will be familiar to those who read about birding, bird ecology, and conservation – names like E. O. Wilson, David Allen Sibley, Pete Dunne, George H. Harrison, Victor Emanuel, Kenn Kaufman, and Lars Jonsson.

I thought I knew a great deal about RTP, but I learned much more from this book. For instance, I learned that: he served in the Army as a camouflage specialist; he served as bird artist for Life Magazine in the late 1930’s where their huge readership catapulted RTP to America’s bird ambassador status; together with Maynard Reese and Robert Bateman, he was largely responsible for the early success of Mill Pond Press which now works with hundreds of artists; and that he helped raise large sums of money for research and conservation.

This “new” RTP biography is a great book. The author obviously spent untold hours collecting and presenting information in ways that awed me (President Jimmy Carter presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to RTP); made me laugh (RTP and James Fisher birding together); and even made me shed tears (the boat wreck off the coast of Maine that nearly cost RTP his life).  If you are not convinced yet, turn to page 395 in the book and check out the list of “Who’s Who in the bird and conservation world” who were interviewed by Ms. Rosenthal. 

Good reading, Keith Evans.


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