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August 4, 1996

Roger Tory Peterson

One of the interesting facts about Roger Tory Peterson's long, rich and immensely valuable career as an ornithologist is that nobody paid much attention to him at the beginning. Convinced that Americans did not care enough about birds to invest in a book, four publishers rejected Mr. Peterson's "A Field Guide to the Birds." Houghton Mifflin, which accepted the manuscript in 1934, was so sure it would fail that it printed only 2,000 copies and asked Mr. Peterson to forgo royalties on the first 1,000.

When Mr. Peterson died on Sunday, his guide, which dealt with birds in the Eastern United States, and a companion volume on Western birds, had between them sold seven million copies.

If Mr. Peterson's early work tapped into a broad public interest in nature that publishers did not think was there, his later work contributed mightily to sustaining the nation's environmental consciousness. He wrote, illustrated or edited nearly 50 books about animals, plants and nature and contributed to many more.

Mr. Peterson saw himself first as a painter, second as a writer and third as a naturalist. His bold, precise paintings and clear writing style inspired -- indeed, helped create -- generations of bird-watchers. But it was also as an eloquent champion for the outdoors generally that he won many awards from conservation organizations here and abroad, the Presidential Medal of Freedom from Jimmy Carter and the admiration of the world.

"Woods! Birds! Flowers! Here are the makings of a great naturalist." So read the caption under Mr. Peterson's high school photograph in Jamestown, N.Y., in 1925. He became a great naturalist and more. He was one of the pioneers in teaching 20th-century Americans to walk more gently upon their land.


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