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Hero of Birdland

According to the US Forest Service, 70 million Americans call themselves bird-watchers, making bird-watching one of the most popular leisure activities of our time. It hasn’t always been so. A century ago, bird-watching as it is practiced today didn’t exist. There were no field guides to help identify birds and binoculars were clumsy, expensive, and optically primitive by today’s standards. The records people kept of the birds they sighted had no credibility. To prove you’d seen a bird you had to shoot it and prepare it as a specimen. Amateur enthusiasts gathered information about birds but largely through the now outlawed hobby of oology—egg collecting. For the oologist, the rarer the bird, the more desirable was its clutch of eggs. Oologists contributed to sharp declines in several species, including the peregrine falcon.

More benign ways of enjoying birds began to spread into popular culture in the early twentieth century. Previous centuries had seen grotesque abuses of nature in the US, such as the “side hunts” organized during the Christmas season as aimless competitions, the winner being the person who killed the most birds without regard to size, appearance, or potential edibility. Frank Chapman, an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History, responded to this outrage by proposing that people celebrate the holidays by counting birds instead of killing them. Thus originated the Christmas Bird Count in 1900 when twenty-seven observers took to the field to count birds in twenty-five locations across the country. A century later, the Christmas Count at the end of 2000 drew 52,471 observers to count birds in 1,823 localities in seventeen countries.

Without a doubt, the person who contributed most to this change was Roger Tory Peterson. For half a century, he was probably the best-known and most revered naturalist in the US. A modest man who carried himself with a quiet, informal dignity, Peterson brought multiple talents to a lifelong obsession with birds. He was first and foremost an artist, but in his later years turned to writing, lecturing, and photography. He became known to the American public upon the publication of A Guide to the Birds in 1934. The first printing of two thousand copies sold out in one week, an indication of the public’s interest in birds. Peterson’s guide was not the first illustrated bird book. Frank Chapman had written one more than a decade earlier. What was so appealing about the Peterson guide was the impeccably accurate artistic quality of his colored illustrations and what later became known as the Peterson Identification System, the practice of adding small arrows to the drawings to flag key features that distinguished one species from another. The system immediately caught on and launched Peterson into a career of writing and overseeing the production of field guides. More than seventy guides in the series that bears his name are now in print, covering not only birds but vertebrates, invertebrates, and plants—even the stars and minerals. Among the many offerings of the series, there is something for nearly everyone; the titles include, for example, A Field Guide to Advanced Birding and A Field Guide to Feeder Birds.

The field guides were the public work of an essentially private man. I met him as a teenage bird-watcher near Washington, D.C., and was thrilled to accompany him a few times when he led small groups along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, a favorite birding venue of local residents. His tall frame and wavy shock of snow-white hair made him the natural center of the assembled acolytes. Attentive both to the birds singing around us and to the members of our group, he responded to each question with a patience and kindness that relieved the anxiety of those in awe of him. Here was the man who had done more than any other to redirect America’s encounter with nature from nineteenth-century killing fields to today’s more appreciative and tolerant attitudes toward wildlife.

Peterson complained of the tedium of long hours spent behind the drawing board producing plates for the many guides he illustrated, but when he wasn’t in his studio he led an enviable life of travel and bird-finding with some of the world’s most distinguished ornithologists and nature photographers. With his British coauthor James Fisher, he drove across North America from coast to coast and back again, compiling observations for their book Wild America. In Europe he was able to savor the continent’s best birding spots with his fellow artist Peter Scott and his coauthor Guy Mountfort. Research for his Field Guide to Mexican Birds brought him intimate acquaintance with the rich and varied avifauna of Mexico. East Africa was on the itinerary, as were summer sojourns at the Audubon Camp in Maine.

Late in life, from 1984 until his death in 1996 at eighty-seven, he contributed a regular column, “All Things Reconsidered,” to Bird Watcher’s Digest. During these years he was still traveling actively, in part to indulge his passion for photographing birds. These travels carried him back to many of the places he had visited forty or fifty years earlier. The essays recount stories of his travels and traveling companions and his perceptions of changes in the environment of our continent and its bird populations over nearly half a century.

The essays, which have been collected in the anthology under review, each tell a story, and Peterson was a master of the art. His prose mirrors my recollection of his voice: clear, calm, and understated. In sentences of simplicity and directness, he brings serious points about nature and conservation into accounts of his adventures and misadventures. He evokes the sound of the forest at dawn:

Awakening from a doze, we heard a cardinal sing. In a few minutes the air was ringing with the chants of cardinals, Carolina wrens, and titmice. The lesser voices were drowned out, but when the first burst of song had subsided, we could hear the weak, sibilant jargon of gnatcatchers, the sweet song of yellow-throated warblers, and the ascending buzz of the parulas. The striking blue-gray and gold prothonotary warbler was there, singing its emphatic tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet-tweet in the cypress sloughs.

Always self-effacing, he scrupulously avoids controversy and negative comments. When he is witness to nature in decline, the mood is sadness rather than outrage. The essays go by swiftly and painlessly, holding the reader’s rapt attention.

The text is printed on glossy paper and pleasingly embellished with photographs and line drawings, about one to a chapter. But the publisher has overlooked a disconcerting number of typos, roughly one every ten pages. And the errors are all of a kind: inappropriate words correctly spelled, suggesting that the text was “proofread” by a “spell-check function” and not by a human being.

The period of Peterson’s retrospectives was a time of countercurrents for American wildlife, a time of simultaneous recovery and decline. Wildlife populations had hit bottom in the US at the beginning of the twentieth century after three centuries of unrestrained exploitation of anything edible, aggravated by widespread deforestation and horizon-to-horizon plowing of the prairies. Bison, elk, wolves, and mountain lions had been all but extirpated east of the Mississippi. The clouds of waterfowl that darkened the sky in the time of Captain John Smith had been greatly diminished. The passenger pigeon, Carolina parakeet, heath hen, and ivory-billed woodpecker (rumors of its continued persistence notwithstanding) all vanished in the first half of the century. Even the now ubiquitous white-tailed deer had been brought to the edge of oblivion over much of the East, so that the US Park Service was obliged to import a breeding herd from Wisconsin to stock the Shenandoah National Park when it was established in 1935.

Until wildlife conservation laws began to take hold in the early twentieth century, birds of any sort were fair game, if not for their flesh, then for their feathers or eggs or just because they made inviting targets. Egging was prevalent along the entire east coast. (Egging refers to the collecting of eggs for consumption, whereas oologists collected full clutches, often with the nest included, as quasi-scientific specimens.) The great auk, a flightless, penguinlike diving bird of the North Atlantic, was exploited to extinction by eggers in 1844. Other species declined into rarity and survived to breed only on remote and rocky islets far from the coast. The now superabundant herring and black-backed gulls that roost on parking lots and swarm at landfills and sewer outflows had been reduced to rarities. In 1900 there remained only one colony of herring gulls on the Maine coast. Puffins, eiders (large sea ducks), double-crested cormorants, and black-backed gulls had been all but eliminated as breeding birds along the entire northeastern coast, surviving in inaccessible refuges in eastern Canada. As a young instructor at the Audubon Camp in Maine in the 1930s, Peterson was elated to discover the vanguards of one species after another as they reclaimed former breeding territory along the coast.

Still, as some birds recovered, others continued to decline. In one of the most poignant essays, Peterson recounts his most exciting birding experience, seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker. By 1940 there was plausible evidence of ivory-bills in only three states: Florida, South Carolina, and Louisiana. Cornell graduate student James Tanner spent three years in the early 1940s slogging southern swamps and bayous to assess where and how the species could be saved. By his reckoning, no more than twenty-four ivory-bills remained in the entire Southeast. Despite a prodigious effort, he was able to locate only five, all of them in northeastern Louisiana in the Singer Tract, at 80,000 acres the largest stand of virgin timber then remaining in the Southeast. Armed with permits to enter the closed area, Peterson, with a companion and a guide, trudged a day and a half across the swamp, criss-crossing the moist bottomland and wading murky sloughs until they were brought up short by an unfamiliar call that has been likened to the sound produced by a clarinet mouthpiece (without the clarinet):

With our hearts pounding, we tried to keep cool, hardly believing that this was it—the bird we had come fifteen hundred miles to see. We were dead certain this was no squirrel or lesser woodpecker, for an occasional blow would land—whop!—like the sound of an ax. Straining our eyes, we discovered the first bird, half hidden by leafage, and in a moment it leaped into the full sunlight. This was no puny pileated; this was a whacking big bird, with great white patches on its wings and a gleaming white bill.

The date was May 1942. The last ivory-bill was seen in the Singer Tract in December 1946. A few months later, the great forest that harbored the nation’s last ivory-bills was razed to make way for agriculture.

While in the swamp, Peterson glimpsed a long-tailed creature he took to be a Louisiana panther and noted footprints left by a family of red wolves. He didn’t realize then that he was looking at living ghosts, for neither of these carnivores survives in Louisiana today.

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