His father told him he would never make any money "chasing through the woods after birds." His seventh-grade classmates teased him because he would sleep through class after getting up at 4 a.m. to hear a nightingale. Five New York publishers turned down his book because there was "an uncertain market" among the passionate species known as bird watchers or, as Roger Tory Peterson prefers, "birders."
"To be honest I really had no idea there were so many birders out there," said Peterson, 72, whose fourth edition of the birders' bible, "A Field Guide to the Birds of Eastern and Central North America," is just out. "Even today I still wonder just who does read my book."
Well, you could begin with Jimmy Carter, James Schlesinger, Beverly Sills, Elliot Richardson, Prince Philip, the King of Sweden, Lady Bird Johnson and Queen Elizabeth.
"It is amazing to think that we're celebrating right now a book which was begun 50 years ago," said Harold T. Miller, the affable president of the Houghton Mifflin Co., which has sold close to 3 million copies of the field guide and expects an on-slaught for Peterson's "completely new, illustrated and mapped out" guide to birds. "You know, it is the blacklist sales of books which really makes a publishing company profitable. We have quite a list, but Roger Tory Peterson's field guide series outsells them all -- including J. R. R. Tolkien. That's why you hear it referred to as 'Houghton Mifflin's gold.'"
And that's why some 300 people from the National Audubon Society and Houghton Mifflin gathered the other night in a little roost above Central Park, where red-clawed pigeons peered through the windows at the cocktails and hors d'oeuvres like hungry orphans, to celebrate one of the more amazing stories in publishing and the man who made it all happen. Today, Peterson is scheduled to speak at the Smithsoninan's Museum of Natural History.
"What he did was trigger off this great interest all over the world in birding," said Russell Peterson, president of the National Audubon Society. For his efforts, Peterson has profited greatly ("My income taxes alone were more than my father ever made in a single year"), met and dined with kings and queens, traveled the world many times (and recently visiting China -- "Not much room for birds there with one billion people"), become an established wildlife artist ("My orginals go for about $20,000"), and completely dominated his field.
"Roger really enjoys people, has a great sense of humor, but at least half his mind is always concentrating on birds, so he likes his privacy," said Austin Olney, who is Peterson's editor at Houghton Mifflin. "I remember once when he came to our offices and we were going over some corrections. We were right in the middle of it when Roger suddenly said, 'Nighthawk!' and sure enough, a late afternoon nighthawk was on a ledge around the corner outside our window."
The son of a cabinetmaker, Peterson grew up in Jamestown, N.Y., "with very modest means." When he was 11 years old, his seventh-grade teacher formed a junior Audubon club and the young Peterson soon found himself hooked on "the vitality of birds."
"I thought at the time birds represented a sort of embodiment of what any living species should be," he said. "They live practically, by the laws of nature, but more importantly it seemed at the time -- I know better now -- they lived with complete freedom to go where they wanted and do what they wanted. That's the sort of freedom I desired."
Young Peterson would be out at 4 a.m. to spot birds and even arranged his morning paper route around the best birding spots. He saved his money from that paper route to buy his first box camera, which he used to photograph birds. His hobby perplexed almost everyone, including his father, but his mother was more encouraging.
After graduating from high school, Peterson moved to New York City to study, eventually at the National Academy of Design, earning money in his spare time by painting designs on furniture. While in New York he also made an important connection with the Bronx birders, a group of esteemed ornithologists and friends, which included the now legendary Ludlow Griscom, who encouraged Peterson to pursue his "field mark" idea.
"Back then the primary means for spotting birds was the 'shotgun method,'" said Peterson. "The only way to find the markings of the bird was to shoot it and then study it. Well, as an artist, I was in the position to be able to clearly illustrate the markings. A drawing can do much more than a photograph to emphasize the field marks. I can choose position and stress basic color and pattern unmodified by light and shade, and classify them in a book without having to go about this nasty business of shooting birds."
Encouraged by his friend, Peterson set to work on a classification and identification system for birds east of the Rockies. He now has to his credit more than 100 titles, including the 25-volume Peterson Field Guide Series. It is a standard phrase among the most devoted birders of the world to say "I've got to check my Peterson" before recording an official spotting. tAnd five years ago, the people of Jamestown voted him their most famous son, edging out Lucille Ball by one vote.
Peterson, who has a shock of white hair, lives with his third wife, Virginia Marie (a research chemist who drew the range maps for the new edition), in Old Lyme, Conn., on 70 acres of "bird saturated land." They are early morning joggers ("That's when you can truly hear them talk," says Peterson). The days progress with Peterson either painting in his studio or photographing species for future art work.
He talks softly and quickly and there is no subject that he cannot connect, in some manner, to birds. He once steered a conversation with a group of English generals away from the Normandy invasion to talk of a yellow-bellied fly catcher.
Peterson has spotted close to 4,000 birds and painted almost as many, but still there are feathered creatures he is after. "For some reason the Bachman warbler has eluded me. Most all of my friends have spotted it, but I just can't seem to get my eyes on it."
For the future, Peterson suspects that birders west of the Rockies will want a revision of their book. And some day the work he's just revised will have to be revised.
"I suppose in another 20 years it will be time for another revision," he said. "The way the environment is going you never know if, say, a northern fulmar or a savannah sparrow will be in the same territory it is now."