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 …

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