During the '40s, when I was growing up in New York City, I memorized the silhouettes of Stuka dive bombers and falcons and the batting average of every player in the American and National leagues. Among my heroes were miler Gil Dodds, ornithologist Roger Tory Peterson and New York Yankee Outfielder Charlie (King Kong) Keller. I had, as my youngest daughter now says, at least "fourples" in baseball cards of the heavy-browed Keller.
Years ago my mother quite sensibly threw out the shoe box crammed with the baseball cards, an irrevocable act that my brother and I periodically lament. No wonder we are known to our father as "the boys," though obviously we're both getting on.
But two treasured artifacts from that occasionally passionate childhood have survived. One is a dark brown Wilson baseball glove, with Streamlined Kurv Form fingers and Dick Wakefield's signature almost erased by an ancient history of caught and muffed balls and nervous fist poundings.
The other is a copy of Roger Tory Peterson's A Field Guide to the Birds, its corners rounded with use, its spine taped to hold it together. That familiar talismanic " Peterson," as it was called then and is called now, evokes all the bird-watching seasons and haunts of my youth: the blustery winter margins of the city, the sweet reek of summer marshes, leafy spring parks, a confusion of fall warblers high in the London plane trees, auks and bitterns, thrushes and black-poll warblers. I was 12 years old when I got the book and mad about birds.
One writer has called Peterson's guide "the most influential bird book of this century." And this June, in a White House ceremony, Peterson—with Ansel Adams, Beverly Sills, Admiral Hyman Rickover and others—was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest honor conferred upon civilians. Peterson's publisher, Houghton Mifflin, describes him as "the world's most honored naturalist," who helped start the environmental movement and even changed the migratory habits of some birds by indirectly encouraging winter feeding.
This fall, 33 years after the last revised edition, Peterson, now 72, has made a remarkable comeback. To cheers from this fan, he has published the "completely new" fourth edition of his famous guide, aka Peterson IV (hard-cover, $15; paperback, $9.95). It covers the 575 species that occur, some accidentally, in the U.S. and Canada east of the 100th meridian, which runs, roughly, along U.S. Route 83 down through the Dakotas and Kansas to Texas.
The Peterson System, which revolutionized field identification with realistic but schematic drawings, is still there in all its simplified glory. But Peterson has painted each of the species anew in 136 plates, redrawn in larger size, all illustrated in rich color in seasonal plumages. The species are shown mostly in profile and at rest. But where necessary, the plates depict birds in flight in both overhead and topside views, sometimes in the black-and-white pattern you would actually see looking up into the sky. Little arrows point to the key field marks—the white throat patch of the Canada goose or the eye-ring of the Connecticut warbler—for quick identification, with close-ups of a bill or a foot lobe if it's distinctive.
The drawings are often so lifelike that I half expected to see the marbled godwit fly off the page. There are also special poignancies, among them the small black-bordered illustrations of extinct species: great auk, passenger pigeon, Labrador duck and Carolina parakeet.
Peterson anticipates and answers the essential questions. What shape are the wings, bill and tail? How does the bird behave? Does it swim? How does it fly?
Similar species are grouped together, with the plates headed with such broad titles as Yellow Finches, Dark Herons, Pink and Red Waders. And in a major improvement, the text on each bird—somewhat trimmed, it seems, from earlier editions—has been placed on the page opposite the appropriate illustration. I well remember frantically flipping the pages of my Peterson II between drawing (mostly in black and white, alas) and description, seeking a sure identification while trying to keep some mysterious bird steady in my binoculars. I was always grateful when Peterson nailed down the identity of the bird in the glass before it flew away.