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Roger Tory Peterson

Roger Tory Peterson was born to Henrietta (Bader) and Charles Peterson on August 28, 1908, in Jamestown, New York.

Peterson's father Charles arrived to Jamestown in 1873 when he was two years old. Only months later, his father passed away leaving the family in economic strife. At age ten, Charles was forced to work in the woolen mills to support his family. Later, this raised his expectations of his son, Roger, to get a high school diploma and work in one of the city's machine shops or furniture factories. Charles was hard on his son and had difficulty relating to his love of nature.

Peterson's mother, Henrietta, a German immigrant, was also brought to the United States as a young child. She was more understanding of Roger's interests than his father, making him a butterfly net and even explaining to the pharmacist that her son needed cyanide to preserve his specimens.

Growing up Roger's paternal grandmother, an aunt, and six cousins shared the Peterson's home. Some believe this was the reason Roger was always outside exploring the outdoors. Few boys in Rogers community shared his interest in nature. Roger has skipped two grades further separating him from his classmates and some took to calling him "Professor Nuts Peterson."

At the age of 11, birds became the central interest his life. It was then that his seventh grade teacher, Blanche Hornbeck, enrolled her students in the Junior Audubon Club, taught them about birds, and often walked them to a nearby forest where she used nature to teach writing, art and science. That year, on an April morning, Roger was hiking with a friend at nearby Swede Hill. The two boys saw what appeared to be a lifeless clump of feathers on a tree very low to the ground. Peterson poked the clump, waking the sleeping Northern Flicker and revealing the bursts of color from its plumage. This was a defining moment in Roger's life.

After graduating from high school at age 16, Peterson painted furniture at the Union National Furniture Company for eight dollars a week. Roger's artistic talents were discovered that summer. The head of the Decorating Department, Willem Dieperink von Langereis, encouraged Roger to be an artist and encouraged him to attend art school. And so, for the next two years, Roger worked and saved his money.

In 1925, Roger read a notice in The Auk about the next American Ornithologists' Union meeting being held in New York City which would include a bird art show. Both of Peterson's submitted paintings were accepted. At the meeting Peterson met Arthur A. Allen, founder of Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology; Dr. Frank Chapman, Curator of the Department of Ornithology at the American Museum of Natural History; and the renowned bird artist Louis Agassiz Fuertes. Within only a year of that historic trip, at age 17, he was exhibiting in the Cooper Ornithological Club's first American bird art exhibition. He left Jamestown for the Art Students League in New York City in 1927. In 1929 he advanced to the National Academy of Design.

In the fall of 1931, Roger joined the science department at Rivers Country Day School in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts. In Boston, Roger became a member of the Nuttall Club where he met fellow member, Francis H. Allen. Just two years later, Allen, an editor at Houghton Mifflin Company, accepted Roger's first book for publication, A Field Guide to the Birds. Two thousand copies were printed and sold for $2.75 a copy. In just the first week all 2,000 copies sold. Roger received 10 cents per copy of the 2nd 1,000 copies. Today, over 7 million copies have been sold, and 52 field guides make up the Peterson Field Guide Series.

This field guide revolutionized ornithology and Roger found himself defined not only as a naturalist but also an educator and artist. Thanks to Roger's ability for both simplification and education, anyone could learn to distinguish and identify birds. Birdwatching soon became a hobby for vast number of people. From identification, evolved a love of birds, a desire to preserve natural habitats, and an advocacy to create widespread ecological awareness.

Roger Tory Peterson's ushered the education phase of the ornithological movement which still thrives today. Roger died at the age of 87 on July 28, 1996.

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