Inventing The Bird Business

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The best ideas perhaps are those that, once thought up, are so obvious that it is immediately difficult to imagine the world without them. The wheel (which first appeared about 3500 B.C. ) is probably the premier example. Money (which dates to circa 2000 B.C. ) is certainly another. So is the stirrup, which was invented only in the ninth century A.D. Rarely has so simple a device so profoundly affected the world. The stirrup made the knight on horseback possible. This medieval equivalent of the tank quickly became the measure of military power, and the knightly class dominated European society until the invention of gunpowder. The fact that human beings had been riding horses for at least eighteen hundred years before someone finally came up with the stirrup is proof that obvious ideas are not obvious until someone thinks of them.

In this, the most inventive of centuries, there have been any number of innovations that, unthought of before, quickly became indispensable. Velcro, copying machines, ballpoint pens, and remote controls are only a few. But I want to write about another twentieth-century invention that fits this category. Once it had sprung from the mind of its creator, it quickly produced a major hobby and a minor—but still multibillion-dollar—American industry. It made its creator very rich. Further, it played no small part in a major shift in public opinion that has profoundly affected our politics. The invention is the modern field guide, and the hobby is bird watching. The inventor, Roger Tory Peterson, died peacefully last summer at the age of eighty-seven.

Bird watching, of course, is hardly a twentieth-century invention. Humans have been watching—and envying— birds since time immemorial. In the nineteenth century the young Theodore Roosevelt was an avid naturalist and bird watcher or, perhaps more accurately, bird listener. He was so nearsighted that he became adept at identifying birds by ear rather than by sight. It was only when his father presented him with a shotgun when he was thirteen and he found that he couldn’t hit anything with it that his myopia was finally diagnosed and he was fitted with glasses. “I had no idea how beautiful the world was until I got those spectacles,” Roosevelt wrote in his autobiography. But the shotgun, and the glasses that allowed him to use it successfully, also transformed him into a typical nineteenth-century bird watcher, one who identified many birds along the sights of his gun or in his hand afterward. This tradition, happily, was already on the wane in the twentieth century, but it was Peterson, who devised a means of reliably identifying birds in the bush rather than in the hand, who ended it.

Roger Tory Peterson was born in Jamestown, New York, on the shores of Lake Chautauqua, in 1908. His father had come from Sweden at the age of two, and his mother had also come to this country as a small child, from what was then eastern Germany. Like many who grow up to be highly creative adults, Peterson was an odd child, dreamy and a bit of a loner. Fascinated by nature, he often left his chores undone as he wandered the fields and hills that surrounded Jamestown. Then at the age of eleven he had a transforming experience.

His seventh-grade teacher was a bird enthusiast who started a Junior Audubon Club in her class and passed out pamphlets with illustrations by such famous bird painters of the day as Louis Agassiz Fuertes. One day Peterson went birding with a friend, Carl Hammerstrom. They had no binoculars, which were far too expensive for their families’ working-class incomes, but they did have a small field guide, Chester A. Reed’s Bird Guide . They saw numerous birds and, as Hammerstrom remembered, “finally we came on one apparently asleep on a tree. … And we walked over and actually petted the bird, which then flew off. It was what we called locally a ‘heigh-ho,’ which is a flicker. … We checked it in Reed’s.”

“I touched it with my hand,” Peterson remembered, “my first flicker.” He was hooked for life.

The drawings in the pamphlets had not only awakened young Peterson’s interest in birds but also quickened his interest in art, for which he had already displayed a marked talent. He once had ruined his father’s five-dollar gold fountain pen—one of the man’s few luxuries—making a drawing of a butterfly that he submitted to a contest being held by the Buffalo Times . His father punished him but was pleased when his son won the contest (and the two-dollar top prize). “Roger Peterson, age thirteen,” the paper reported, “has sent us a very clever drawing.”

Peterson couldn’t afford to go to college and study ornithology formally, but by working in a furniture factory, painting Chinese scenes on ersatz lacquerware furniture, he could afford to study art, at New York’s Art Students League and at the National Academy of Design. By this time Peterson was a thoroughly trained birder with, as one friend recalled, “a prodigious keenness of sight and hearing.” One day in December 1930 Peterson and William Vogt, a drama critic for local Westchester County newspapers, were counting canvasback ducks at Croton Point, which juts out into the Hudson River twenty or so miles north of New York City. As they walked the mile back to their car, Vogt said, “Roger, you know more about identifying the birds of this region than almost anyone else, and you can paint. Why don’t you pass on your knowledge to other people in a book?”

“Who’ll buy the book if I write it?” asked Peterson, not unreasonably. “Nobody knows me.”