August 28, 2008 marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of Roger Tory Peterson. Peterson is largely credited with bringing birdwatching to the common folk, where before it was limited to those collectors with shotguns and academic types with their specimen trays. The first edition of Peterson’s guide to eastern birds appeared in 1934, and it quickly became the standard tool for identifying living birds.
I began birding with the Peterson guide, and enjoyed the major improvements of the 1980 edition. I was living in Kansas when the 1990 edition of the Guide to Western Birds came out. That was also a vast improvement over previous editions, although living in the center of the continent, I still needed both eastern and western guides to cover all the bases.
In recent years, the Peterson guides were surpassed by others. The Sibley Guide set a new standard with its illustrations of different age classes and showing each species in flight. The National Geographic guide, with its every-bird-in-one-handy-volume format keeps getting better with every edition. As our knowledge of bird identification increased, the Peterson guides proved to be increasingly inadequate. A prime example was the blatantly inaccurate depiction of Thayer’s Gull.
But that has changed. In celebration Peterson’s centennial, and in an effort to maintain the legacy (and cash flow) of the Peterson name, Houghton-Mifflin has released a new Peterson guide to the birds of North America. Combining the eastern and western guides into one volume, the publishers have enlisted the help of several artists and writers to update Peterson’s work. The end result is actually very impressive.
The format of the book is larger than the original, making the illustrations larger and easier to study. There are small range maps opposite each species account, and a section of larger maps in the back of the book.
Most importantly, some of the plates have been altered to reflect our current understanding of bird identification. With the new guide, you can actually tell a Thayer’s Gull from a Herring Gull with some certainty.
Although Peterson died in 1996, the new Peterson guide does an admirable job of continuing his work. If you are one of the millions of birders who got their start with a Peterson guide, the new guide may serve as both a fond reminder of your past and as a useful guide for your continued growth. That seems a fitting tribute to Dr. Peterson.