Inventing The Bird Business

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Vogt promised that if Peterson would write the book, he would see that it was published.

Peterson set to work, using as his inspiration a treasured book of his childhood, Ernest Thompson Seton’s Two Little Savages . The book’s hero, a twelve-year-old named Yan, was Swedish, was careless about chores and schoolwork, and loved to ramble in the fields and woods. Peterson identified powerfully with him. In his introduction to A Field Guide to the Birds he wrote how at a museum Yan “discovered some mounted ducks in a dusty showcase and how he painstakingly made sketches of their patterns.

“This lad had a book which showed him how to tell ducks when they were in the hand, but since he only saw the live ducks at a distance, he was usually at a loss for their names. He noticed that all the ducks in the showcase were different—all had blotches or streaks that were their labels or identification tags. He decided that if he could put their labels or ‘uniforms’ down on paper, he would know these same ducks as soon as he saw them at a distance on the water.”

That was Roger Tory Peterson’s obvious idea: Don’t give the reader a detailed description of characteristics that are invisible in the field; instead give the one, two, or three “field marks” that can be seen at a distance and that will allow the birder to distinguish that bird from all similar ones.

At first it was not an easy sell. Five publishers turned the book down before Houghton Mifflin accepted it (the editor who decided to publish it, Francis H. Alien, also happened to be chairman of the board of the Massachusetts Audubon Society). But even Houghton Mifflin was so wary of its chances that it printed only two thousand copies and required Peterson to forgo royalties on the first thousand.

But the book sold out in only two weeks and has been in print and selling briskly ever since. A copy from that first printing, in good condition, now costs about two thousand dollars in the rare-book market. Altogether more than five million copies of A Field Guide to the Birds have sold since 1934, and it continues to sell more than one hundred thousand a year. Thus it has become not only a classic work of ornithology but a classic example of what publishers call a back-list book, a volume that sells year after year with no advertising or other expenses beyond printing and royalties. It has also led to more than forty other Peterson guides on everything from seashells to weather, all reliable black-list books.

And the Peterson bird guide helped spark a great increase in interest in the natural world. Published in the depths of the Depression at $2.75 a copy, the guide was the one thing needed to take up the hobby of bird watching (to be sure, binoculars, while not absolutely essential, are nearly so). Soon bird clubs were springing up all over. Later, bird travel and bird feeding would become popular, and the latter activity has enlarged the natural range of many species. Millions of people were thus what biologists call “pre-adapted” when the environmental movement began in earnest in the late 1960s, and they have made it a force to reckon with in American politics ever since.

Bird watching even played a part in the politics of the early Cold War. Richard Nixon, elected to Congress in 1946, was a member of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Vastly ambitious, he was looking for proof that would nail Alger Hiss as a spy and make his own reputation as an anti-Communist.

Hiss at first had denied knowing Whittaker Chambers, the man who had named him as a Communist. Then one day, in a closed session of the committee, Nixon asked Chambers if Hiss had any hobbies. Chambers answered that Hiss and his wife were bird watchers. Nixon, intrigued, asked if he had ever mentioned any particular birds.

“I recall,” Chambers answered, “once they saw, to their great excitement, a prothonotary warbler” near the C&O Canal outside Washington. The prothonotary warbler, a small, beautiful yellow-orange and slate blue bird, inhabits wooded swamps and is thus not all that easily seen except in migration.

Later, at another closed hearing, Nixon asked Hiss about his hobbies. Hiss replied he was a bird watcher. Congressman John McDowell of Pennsylvania asked him quietly, “Did you ever see a prothonotary warbler?”

Yes, said Hiss, brightening at the recollection. “A beautiful yellow head, a gorgeous bird. I saw one down by the C&O Canal.”

“It was a poor miserable prothonotary warbler on the canal that was responsible for Nixon,” said Roger Tory Peterson, recalling his own experience with the law of unintended consequences.