Birdwatcher - The Life of Roger Tory Peterson

If you didn't know anything about the life of Roger Tory Peterson before you started reading Birdwatcher - The Life of Roger Tory Peterson by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, you might be struck by the fact that very early on in the book, at the age of 17, he meets up with the famous bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. After Fuertes tells him: "...and don't hesitate to send me your drawings from time to time", you might speculate that this laudatory attention, at such a young age and from someone he labeled "the great man", was a harbinger of great things to come. You would absolutely be right! Not only was Roger destined to be great in his career as a painter of birds, but he would meet an incredible array of people like Fuertes in his life.

Naturalist Roger Tory Peterson Taking Notes on Osprey Unruffled by Close Presence of Birder

Naturalist Roger Tory Peterson Taking Notes on Osprey Unruffled by Close Presence of Birder Premium Photographic Print

And so begins the tale of the illustrious life of the birdwatcher/educator/conservationist known to his friends and colleagues as RTP. I had not read a biography about his life before reading Birdwatcher, and I do not think I will need to read anything else, such is the detail presented in this book.

Since the same type of thing happened to me, I read with interest the story of the special experience he had with a bird at a very, very young age that ignited his lifelong passion for birds. This passion ultimately led him to the 1934 publication of his book "A Field Guide to the Birds", which was revolutionary. Like all good entrepreneurial ideas, his "field marks" system created great value by being both innovative and filling a need in the market. In fact, by filling this need in such a resonantly terrific manner, he opened up birdwatching to the masses all over the world. Such was the impact of the person dubbed "The Great Man" by his friends and colleagues.

The book is anecdotal in nature and very well researched. One of its strong points is the many insightful quotes from people familiar with Peterson. These quotes really help to paint the picture of who Roger Peterson was as a person. Among the many quotes, here is a small sampling:

"Roger was a big fan of sort of roaming around in the woods and exploring, learning as you went" (Don Hudson)

"He worked as hard as any human being I've ever seen. And he was unbelievably prolific. He wasn't really money. He wasn't directly motivated by fame-although he was famous. He definitely had a mission motivation. He definitely wanted to change the world. And he wanted to educate. But I think he did also want to prove that he was the best at what he did. That was very, very important to him" (Arthur Klebanoff)

"One of the things that made Dad successful was that ability to focus for extended periods of time, the ability to flip the switch and go full tilt..." (Lee Peterson)

One element of RTP mentioned in the book that I found interesting was how he eschewed formal education. As his elder son Tory said about him: "He was not formally schooled in anything as far as I could tell, because he didn't go to school very often, I mean that's one of the things he used to brag to me about. He was spanked more times for skipping school than anybody else in his entire school...Not everyone knows what they want to do when they're eight, nine years old. But he apparently did. So he just decided that school wasn't one of the places where he needed to learn about it." Despite this lack of formal education, he was widely considered a "scientist", being labeled as such by all sorts of well credentialed scientists. It would seem that following your heart can be an excellent teacher.

There is a scene from a movie called "Serendipity" that comes to mind when I think about Roger Tory Peterson. There are two friends debating whether one of them should follow his heart and chase after this woman he has strong feelings for. The first fellow, in justifying his recommendation to his friend to pursue the woman says: "When a man died the Greeks would gather together and ask one question: "Did he live his life with passion?". I feel safe in saying that Roger Tory Peterson did indeed live his life with passion, and the result was a tremendously positive legacy for his life.

Let that be a lesson to us all.

More Information:

Liz Rosenthal's website