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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Bird Man of Paradise: Roger Tory Peterson

Air Date: Week of

Steve Curwood pays homage to the aviary specialist Roger Tory Peterson who died last month at age 87. Steve relates a personal story of how the bird-loving author of the multi-million selling Peterson's Field Guides to Birds made a lasting impression on him.


CURWOOD: By my childhood calendar I remember that it was some time around the fourth grade when my mother finally saved enough money to buy a set of binoculars. They were bulky by today's standards and heavy to hold up. But my mother was always excitedly peering through them and exclaiming that this must be a wood thrush and that must be a whippoorwill. Just to be sure, she would check her book. Her book of course was Roger Tory Peterson's Field Guide to the Birds.

Over the years her copy took a beating, packed for hikes up into the White Mountains or along the Miami River Valley. I know because much of the time I was there. I grumbled when she'd rustle me out of bed to go watch birds on those cold mornings. And sometimes there were bugs everywhere, and always the book.

Years later in high school I found myself volunteering -- yes, volunteering -- to go on bird watching trips. Even the get up early and freeze variety. Peterson's Field Guide always came, too. At 16 I climbed Pennsylvania's Hawk Mountain with some schoolmates. It was a modest peak but it was the best spot around for the big hawks to float in the thermals. Up on the summit I heard someone say "Roger Tory Peterson," and I instinctively began looking for the book. But before I could find it someone tapped me on the shoulder and said, "Steve, meet Mr. Roger Tory Peterson."

"As in the book?" I stammered, looking up at the tall man.

Everyone laughed and Mr. Peterson nodded as he shook my hand. "I didn't know you were a real person," I said awkwardly. He just smiled.

Mr. Peterson had a pleasant face but it was also craggy, with just a bit of the hawk in it. He carried binoculars and a camera and spoke few words. He watched us watch the raptors soar without offering advice, but was glad to answer questions. It was a thrill to spy so many hawks and even a golden eagle that morning, but there were no bald eagles to be seen. When I turned to ask Mr. Peterson if I might ever see one there, he was gone.

I didn't see him again until 1994, for an interview shortly after he published what would be his last book, a retrospective of his considerable painting and photographic talents. At the time Mr. Peterson seemed robust, but none of us go on forever. He died at 87 late last month.

Mr. Peterson certainly painted and photographed well, but perhaps his most important gift was effective simplicity. His original field guide to the birds sold something approaching 7 million copies, I think, because it was organized in such a way that even bored and bug-bitten kids could swiftly find in it a bird in question and feel satisfied. [Birds sing] It may be something that only a birder can understand, and there are millions of us, though there was only one Roger Tory Peterson. We will miss you, Mr. Peterson. And thanks.



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