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In another helpful addition, there are 390 new color range maps, showing where the birds should be during the seasons. Nomenclature has been updated, too. The Baltimore oriole is now also called the northern oriole. What would Earl Weaver say about that?
The distinction of Peterson lies not only in the drawings but also in the succinctness, accuracy and illuminating whimsy of the descriptions of the birds' appearance, voice, behavior and habitat.
Consider the following Peterson sampler. The oldsquaw is described as "talkative," its voice "a musical ow-owdle-ow, or owl-omelet." The reddish egret "when feeding, lurches about, acts drunk." A chimney swift is "like a cigar with wings." And the behavior of the airborne swift is pithily summed up: "Flight very rapid, 'twinkling.' sailing between spurts; wings often stiffly bowed."
The song of the chestnut-sided warbler sounds like "see see see see Miss Beech'er or please, please pleased to meet'cha, penultimate note accented, last note dropping." The Swainson's warbler is a "skulker, seldom seen," perhaps because its habitat is "swamps, bogs, stream bottoms, woodland brush" and rhododendron-hemlock tangles in the central Appalachians.
Anyone who has ever walked into deep woods and heard the song of the veery knows the tingling accuracy of Peterson's description: "liquid, breezy, ethereal; wheeling downward: vee-ur, vee-ur, veer, veer."
The publishing history of the Peterson guide is legendary. Brought out in 1934, in the depths of the Depression, it surprisingly sold out its first printing of 2,000 copies within the first week. The book has sold two million copies over the years, and a companion guide to Western birds has sold another million.
Houghton Mifflin ran off an enormous first printing of 350,000 copies of Peterson IV, equaling the house record of J.R.R. Tolkien's bestselling Silmarillion. With birders numbered in the millions, the publisher is understandably bullish on the bird-guide market. The three most popular guides—totaling five volumes among them—sell an estimated 700,000 copies annually.
"The aficionados, the birders, are buying multiple copies," chirps Tom Martin. Houghton Mifflin's sales manager, about Peterson IV. "Cloth for the shelf, paper in their backpacks. Bird people have been waiting for this. The word is fervor. It's like people who are interested in the Bible—they'll go out and buy a new translation."
For sentimental as well as objective reasons, I'm happy that Peterson has met the competition with his splendid revision. Several years ago, when I was sorting out wood storks and white ibis in the Everglades, it was with a distinct feeling of disloyalty that I used the Golden Press' fine Birds of North America because most of its illustrations are in color. With Peterson IV in the bookstores, Golden hopes to offer a new edition of its guide next year.
Now all I need to know is, whatever happened to Dick Wakefield?