BOOKS: Birds of Eastern & Central North America
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, April 2002:
Birds of Eastern & Central North America (5th edition)
by Roger Tory Peterson
Houghton Mifflin (222 Berkeley St., Boston, MA 02116), 2002. 427
pages, illus., hardcover. $30.00.
I met Roger Tory Peterson just once, briefly, before a
public hearing at which we both testified against a Connecticut
Department of Environmental Protection plan to kill mute swans.
Peterson was 82, quite ill, and sent someone else to represent
him–but at the last minute he rose out of bed and came to pit his
moral weight against the might of both the hunting and birding
establishments. Native or non-native, Peterson said briefly, the
mute swans were birds, were sentient and intelligent beings,
contributed to human appreciation of all bird-kind, and deserved to
The plan was shelved until after Peterson died six years
later, hours after he completed his final bird plate.
Peterson became obsessed with birds at age 11 when his
teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, started a Junior Audubon Club. The chief
method of ornithology then was to shoot birds and study their
corpses. Objecting, Peterson saved his earnings as a newspaper boy
to buy a camera, then showed that it was possible to photograph wild
birds instead. As color photography had not yet been developed,
Peterson took up painting and drawing to fully illustrate his
discoveries. He produced his first Field Guide to the Birds in 1934,
at age 26, covering the birds of eastern North America. Birds of
Eastern & Central North America (5th edition) is a posthumously
assembled update of that original volume.
Through nearly 50 field guides and other books, Peterson
transformed birding from a pursuit of hunters to a pastime primarily
of nonhunters. But Peterson did not transform the politics of
birding. The alliance of the National Audubon Society and National
Wildlife Federation, formed two years after the first Peterson guide
appeared, continues to ensure that the official positions of the
most influential voices in birding are aligned in favor of
recreational bird-killing, against so-called non-native species
except when introduced to be hunted, and against feral cats but in
favor of an ever-growing deer herd, even though deer destruction of
forest understory nesting habitat is a far greater threat to
neotropical songbirds than feral cats ever could be.
Ironically, the National Audubon Society and National
Wildlife Federation, together with the Roger Tory Peterson
Institute, cosponsored Birds of Eastern & Central North America (5th
edition); and not surprisingly, a long and otherwise thoroughly
appreciative introduction by fellow bird painter Robert Bateman omits
any word of Peterson’s lifelong opposition to hunting and trapping.
Despite that, the volume will work, as all the Peterson
guides have, in favor of appreciation of living birds and other
animals. That message cannot be muted.