Roger Tory Peterson, one of America's pre-eminent artist-naturalists and arguably the inventor of the field guide, made people love birds like no one since John James Audubon. A Field Guide to the Birds, first published in 1934, remains his most famous and wonderful work. The manual stood instantly apart from the dichotomous keys zoologists used to identify species, since Peterson grouped paintings of related species together and used arrows to, as he explained, "pinpoint the key field marks." This way, watchers could spot birds from a distance and avoid, as he archly put it, "the bird-in-hand characters that the early collectors relied on." Birders could use the guide where they needed it most--outdoors--on living birds flitting quickly by. In addition to detailed illustrations, Peterson offers charming (and useful) descriptions of each avian citizen's appearance, behavior, voice, and range. There is also priceless anecdotal information, based on decades of field experience, as in this description of the common house sparrow (Passer domesticus): "Familiar to everyone. Sooty city birds often bear little resemblance to clean country males with the black throat, white cheeks, chestnut nape." His transliterations of song are just as quietly marvelous. For instance, Pluvialis squatarola, or the black-bellied plover, makes things clear with "a plaintive slurred whistle, tlee-oo-eee or whee-er-ee (middle note lower)."
Peterson's original handbook covered birds of Eastern North America, and has since been followed by guides to Western birds, animal tracks, butterflies, and many other natural wonders. He and his team updated "The Birders' Bible" as new species were discovered and classifications modified. Generations of enthusiastic watchers owe Peterson a debt of gratitude for making ornithology accessible. But equally important, he showed scientists that finding beauty in living animals, and not just cataloging the measurements of dead ones, was crucial. Roger Tory Peterson died in 1996. He will be remembered as a passionate naturalist, a keen observer of living things, and a gifted artist and teacher. --Therese Littleton [via]