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Inventing The Bird Business

March 2023
6min read

At the age of eleven Roger Tory Peterson had an experience that produced a major hobby and a new industry

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.”

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.

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