most, maybe all. But today's young birders do not grow up memorizing
their Peterson field guide, as all of us who were birding in 1988 would
have done. Today's crop of birders prefer the Sibley guide or the Nat'l
Geo. Yet they all should know, acknowledge, and appreciate that it was
RTP (as many of us tended to call him from afar) that made it all
happen. This lively biography is an excellent way to get to know him.
can acknowledge the debt all birders owe to RTP without considering him
a deity. Others may have informally bestowed on him the title "the
Great Man," but my take was more modest. I am an avid reader of U.S.
presidential and Civil War biographies. To me, a whiff of hagiography
is the death knell to a decent read. Some Civil War biographers of T.
J. "Stonewall" Jackson or Robert E. Lee just cannot free themselves
from concept that their subject was a "Great Man." The best biographies
of both are those that recognize the deep flaws in each man — as a
person and as a general — and more accurately place the subject among
I had not read any prior RTP
biography, and admit to having been worried about this one upon its
initial receipt. I flipped through the nice selection of photos in the
center until unnerved by the last shot. The photo, by Susan Drennan and
taken in Roger's later years, was simply labeled "the Great Man."
Ohhh-boy, I thought, not a good sign. But I need not have worried. The
biography is straightforward and fair. The whole Roger is here, warts
I was able to spend a long weekend birding
with Roger in 1983 — just him and me — and got to know him pretty well.
Roger also came along on a record-setting airplane Big Day that I
organized in 1982. In the 1990s, my wife Rita and I spent a day showing
Roger and Ginny around the Monterey Aquarium. So I spent enough time
with Roger to get a sense of his personality, and Elizabeth Rosenthal
has hit it spot-on. It is the real Roger that appears in this book.
this is because the book relies heavily on interviews with those who
knew him, from the beginning of his birding career to the icon he
became, and all the interviewees seemed to have known the same RTP that
I knew: a sharp birder, modest but competitive, generous with his time
and knowledge but careless about the details of life, opinionated but
willing to listen to another view, disorganized but intensely focused
on the things he thought were important. And those things were birding
and bird photography. By the time I knew him, painting field guides
"was a slavery" (to use Greg Lasley's quote from the book, but Roger
said the same to me) and Roger much preferred to do "painterly
paintings," big canvas art designed to sell for high prices. The book
cites Roger's high appreciation for the art of Robert Bateman, and
this, too, was something that Roger had expressed to me.
first half of the book is organized more or less chronologically, from
childhood until his third marriage, and hits all the high points and
major stories of Roger's life. I very much like the stories — from the
"dovekie" that was a practical joke designed to (and did) take Roger
down a notch or two, to his close friendship with James Fisher, with
whom he co-wrote Wild America, to his status as a "ladies'
man" in early trip leading. There is plenty of information about the
three wives; the author appears to prefer his second wife (Barbara).
second half of the book ventures away from chronology into topics of
interest, such as Roger's influence on a series of environmental issues
of global importance in the 1950s through 1970s, and Roger's influence
on various birders, ornithologists, and artists that followed. The book
then curves back to the concluding decade of Roger's life. The writing
throughout is entertaining and carries the story along, and the
numerous quotes from interviews or from the holiday letter that Barbara
wrote each Christmas season — all set out in distinctive typeface —
enlighten many of the pages.
The book's weakest point
is chapter 18 "Territory under Challenge," within Part Six of the saga,
entitled "Bird Man of Bird Men." These pages cover Roger's relationship
with the wider birding fraternity during the 1970s and 1980s, at a time
when Roger updated both his Eastern and Western field guides but was
faced with competition from new guides. The reviews of Roger's revised
Eastern guide in 1980 were mixed: reviewers without a background in
modern birder techniques loved the revision, but almost universally the
top-tier birders thought it to be very disappointing.
negative reviews from the top American birders really bothered Roger.
Although Roger said he kept up on the literature, he appears to have
just dabbled at best. Jon Dunn's review of Roger's 1980 guide (in The Auk)
called Roger's painting of "confusing fall warblers" to be among the
"worst plates in the book." [Rosenthal contrasts this with a review
from The Conservationist that called that plate "exceptionally well
done." ] Roger responds to his critics by stating that "there are
always Young Turks out there ready to climb on my shoulders, but I can
only hope that they do so wearing felt slippers and not with hobnailed
The author doesn't have a clue who to believe
in this dispute. She doesn't seem to know that it will be Jon Dunn, for
example, who will write the definitive i.d. book on warblers (with
Kimball Garrett, and, ironically enough, published in the Peterson
field guide series in 1997). Jon was exactly right to criticize the
1980 Eastern guide for Roger's failure to keep up with current i.d.
advances, and his failure to consult then-current birding experts.
had brought this problem on himself. He intended "to make the new
Eastern guide the most critically accurate and effective field guide
yet produced on any region in the world," to quote from an excerpt of a
letter he wrote in 1980, and yet it wasn't even close. Roger's world of
extensive travel and lecturing, art shows and publishing, painting and
making money had led him far from those pushing the "frontiers of bird
identification," to use the title of a book published in England in
But Roger took the criticism seriously, and in
the early 1980s spent a lot of time contacting local birding experts
(including several of us in California) to help him with his planned
update of the Western guide (published in 1990). I recall preparing
some comments on plate 1 — the loons — and pointing out that the
distinctive neck patterns between Common and Pacific Loons was were
missed in his 1980 painting, among other points. It was true enough
that his guides are primarily intended for beginners, but the 1980 book
was not even remotely close to "critically accurate." I just picked it
up right now (while writing this review) and find that the gulls, for
just one example, are almost unrecognizable, and many are aged
incorrectly. Roger’s guide is the source for numerous claims of "second
winter" Glaucous that are actually first-cycle birds — his guide
bungles both ages badly.
The fact is that by the
1980s, Roger was no longer "the birdman among bird men." The birding
world had passed him right by; he was struggling to catch up. I have
eight typed letters that Roger wrote me in the 1980s, and many are on
the topic of his updated guide and the competition. In January 1982 he
wrote me this: "You suggest that either this year or next I should take
a look at some of the Empids when they go through California during
spring migration (or is it fall) so that I might evaluate behavioral
characteristics that some of the experts go by. When I have mentioned
some of these points to Tom Howell and one or two other academics I
find that they are not fully convinced and feel that more collecting is
necessary . . . Inasmuch as I will have only two double spreads to
cover the western Empids I can hardly go into as much extended detail
in two pages as you were able to develop in five pages [of Rare Birds of the West Coast]."
Howell is not a field birder up to par with folks like McCaskie,
Lehman, Dunn, Garrett, Bevier, Morlan, Erickson, and many others in the
1980s. Roger was just talking to the wrong people.
actually did come out to California to spend a weekend with me and look
at migrant Empids at Morongo Valley. That was the first weekend of May
1983. As it turned out, a Spotted Redshank had just shown up at the
Salton Sea, and we ended up spending all our time there, looking for
the rarity. We didn't refind the bird until the third day. Roger never
complained about the change in plans. Indeed, he was having so much fun
photographing breeding-plumaged Red Knots and other waders that he
never mentioned the fact we failed to look at Empids! It was typical
Roger — he was happier taking photos than "working" on the field guide.
he was quite aware of the competition. "Have you had a chance to assess
the new field guides — the National Geographic book, the 3-volume
Master Guide, and the update of the Robbins-Singer guide?", he wrote me
in January 1984. Roger was keen to get back on top. The biography does
capture Roger's intensity on this.
By 1984, Roger was
76 years old, and sensitive to growing older. The book captures this
aspect also. In July 1984, Roger wrote me to tell me about another Big
Day effort he'd done in Texas (which fell short of our own record the
previous year), and said this: "My own ears are my best asset; my eyes
are giving me problems and it was partly because of my ears that our
group in New Jersey broke the records for that state with 201 in the
competitive Birdathon initiated by Pete Dunne." In the biography, Pete
Dunne tells how Roger was the one to hear the singing Mourning Warbler
from a fast-moving car during the New Jersey competition. I, too, was
impressed with Roger's hearing ability during our 1983 Big Day. Late in
the book, Greg Lasley tells how even Roger's acute hearing was failing.
book well captures the public's response to Roger in the latter half of
his life, when he was a major celebrity in the general birding world.
In the 1984 New Jersey birdathon, for example, "the main concern was
keeping fans from Roger," writes the author. It was Roger's celebrity
that propelled interest in the 1983 Big Day we did in California. We
had a chartered airplane, and then Discover magazine, Sports
Illustrated, and the Los Angeles Times each chartered other planes to
follow us around California, with National Public Radio sending a team
to meet us for the last few hours around Monterey. "Keeping the fans
away from Roger" at Morongo Valley was a big concern of ours as well —
we could only hear birds if everyone was quiet!
all that celebrity, Roger was humble and non-assuming. There is a great
little story, late in the book, about Roger showing up to surprise Rich
Stallcup's birding class. Roger actually did the same once for me, when
I was teaching an adult education bird class at night in my home. One
evening Roger was there when the students arrived, and they found a
slim, older gentlemen sitting on the couch. Their delight when it
turned out to be Roger T. Peterson was memorable. Roger took part in
all the discussions — we were looking at slides of cormorants that
session — and then spun a few stories for all.
a lot of those stories are in this biography. The book captures the man
quite well, and is a great read throughout. I am pleased to recommend