Roger Tory Peterson's Artful Legacy

  • This painting of Flycatchers was the last that Peterson worked on. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • A bust of Roger Tory Peterson is the focal point in a room of his orginal drawings at the institute. Photo: Kara Holsopple

  • The Common Flicker was the bird that inspired Peterson as a boy. Photo: Kara Holsopple

May 23, 2014

If you’ve flipped through many birding guides, you’ve probably come across the work of Roger Tory Peterson.  In the 1930’s, his detailed drawings and paintings set the standard for how people identify birds by sight today.  His passion for birds of all kinds, and his keen eye are evident at the institute named for him in Jamestown, New York. 

Outside of the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, it’s noisy.  Songbirds are calling from the nature trails and bird feeders.  But inside the Arts and Crafts-style mansion, it’s much quieter, because most of the birds here are on paper. 

In the central, well-lit room beyond the main doors is a bronze bust of a grandfatherly man. It's Roger Tory Peterson himself. Before Peterson, bird guides were for experts. They were massive, with scientific names.  Peterson shrunk them down and made them accessible. Peterson was born in 1908, just nine or 10 blocks from where the institute stands now.

Tina Scherman, a museum guide, says Peterson was a just normal kid, but got inspired by a grade school teacher to explore nature. And then something happened. She points to a sculpture of a bird in the woodpecker family, with a long beak it uses to peck for ants.

"This is called, like, his epiphany bird—at least that’s what I call it, anyway. But this a Northern Flicker,"she says.

He was out wandering in the woods one day and he saw what he thought was a dead little brown bird.  Peterson poked at it.  The bird jumped up and spread its wings.

"And even though you can’t see it on the sculpture, the underside of the wings on this bird are bright yellow. So when this bird went like this, spread out its wings, it just dazzled Roger," says Scherman.

And so Peterson's fate was sealed at 11 years old.  This fascination with birds and a natural talent for sketching led Peterson to pursue an idea that’s displayed in a glass case at the museum—A Field Guide to the Birds.

"This is really what Roger contributed to society," Scherman says.

The birds are depicted on the page by what look like their mugshots. As a young man looking for a way to distinguish himself, in 1934 he adapted the idea from a childhood storybook. His method of easily matching birds with pictures brought bird watching to the masses. Scherman explains how it works with a page of little warblers from the original volume.

"So here’s one. The Chestnut-sided Warbler.  He points a little arrow toward chestnut-colored patch that runs along the chest of the bird. So when you see these birds flitting by you quickly in the field, you can go, 'Did I see that chestnut stripe on that bird? That must be a Chestnut-sided Warbler.'”

Beyond this room of original paintings is a library with a vaulted white pine ceiling.  It’s full of birding magazines, books, and binoculars for peering out the high windows.  Upstairs are the Peterson archives.  The rooms combine science, education and art.  And some of Peterson's personal belongings.

Across the hall are some of Peterson’s personal belongings.

Scherman pulls an old, painted-brown metal object off the shelf, she says, just for fun.

"This is a gun stock, that he mounted a camera on it," she says. 

She takes it out with kids who tour the museum, and tells them John James Audubon used to shoot the birds with a gun.  But, Roger Tory Peterson shot them with a camera.

Scherman says her favorite pieces in the museum are two original works Peterson did for the field guides. One is a page of black and white herons in a simple frame. It's the first study Peterson drew for the original field guide. Nearby is another field-guide style painting.

"It’s unfinished because this is the absolute last painting, illustration that Roger ever did," Scherman says.

At the bottom, the birds—flycatchers—are filled in and complete—even to tiny white feathers poking out around their beaks.  As the eye goes up to the top of the painting, the birds are more like ghosts—just the idea of an outline.

"He got that far, went upstairs to go to bed, was going to come back and finish it in the morning, and that was the night he died. On the day he dies he was still working on field guide illustrations, or doing his artwork. He didn’t just slip away into retirement and say, 'I’ve done enough,'” Scherman says.

Roger Tory Peterson died in 1996. But he left dozens of Peterson-brand field guides based on his system—and not just for birds.  Field guides for butterflies, beetles and edible plants have given millions the chance to see what Peterson saw.