Today is the birthday (1908) of Roger Tory Peterson, a US naturalist, ornithologist, artist, and educator who is perhaps best known for his series of field guides, beginning with the guides to North American birds. He is also a founding inspiration for the 20th-century environmental movement. I used his field guides for many years when I was an active birder, and found them to be singularly insightful in the identification of species. More on that later.
Peterson was born in Jamestown, on the western fringe of New York state. At the age of 11, Peterson’s passion for birds exploded. 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. It was during that year on an April morning that Roger had an experience that shaped the rest of his life. While hiking with a friend at nearby Swede Hill, the boys spotted a seemingly lifeless clump of brown feathers on a tree, very low to the ground. Although merely sleeping, the boys thought the Northern Flicker was dead. Later, Peterson described the experience:
I poked it and it burst into color, with the red on the back of its head and the gold on its wing. It was the contrast, you see, between something I thought was dead and something so alive. Like a resurrection. I came to believe birds are the most vivid reflection of life. It made me aware of the world in which we live.
During the summer of 1925 Peterson painted furniture at the Union National Furniture Company for eight dollars a week. He created decorative motifs of intricate Chinese subjects on exquisite lacquer wood cabinets made there. The head of the decorating department, Willem Dieperink von Langereis, gave Peterson his first encouragement about being an artist and insisted that he go to art school. For the next two years, he worked and saved his money. He left Jamestown for the Art Students League in New York City in 1927. In 1929 he advanced to the National Academy of Design. While working and saving money for art school, Peterson studiously practiced art and photography, using birds as his subjects. Two of his earliest published photographs included Northern Cardinals in the 1925 Jamestown High School Yearbook, and Black-capped Chickadees in the 1926 Yearbook.
In 1931, Peterson became a science teacher at Rivers Country Day School, a private prep school for sons of “gentlemen” in the Boston suburb of Brookline, Massachusetts, across the Charles River from Harvard. In Boston, Peterson became a member of the oldest ornithological organization in the US, the Nuttall Club. Here he encountered Francis H. Allen, an editor at Houghton Mifflin. In 1934 Houghton Mifflin published his seminal Guide to the Birds, the first modern field guide. One of the inspirations for his field guide was the diagram of ducks that Ernest Thompson Seton made in Two Little Savages (1903).
My identification system is visual rather than phylogenetic; it uses shape, pattern, and field marks in a comparative way. The phylogenetic order, which is related to evolution, is not emphasized within families. Similar-appearing species are placed together on plates and the critical distinctions are pointed out with little arrows.
This is simplicity itself. You see a small bird with yellow and brown feathers, so you turn to a page of similar looking yellow and brown birds and look to see what specific field markings distinguish them. Then you look back at the bird to see its field markings, and in short order you have identified it. In later additions he added silhouettes in flight from below, because sometimes you catch nothing more than that as the bird flies over you. Even with that little to go on (plus size and location), you can often identify the bird.
Giving a recipe for some kind of poultry to honor Peterson would be a tad too ironic, even for me, so let’s turn to the place where he first got his passion for birding. He was raised in Chautauqua county which is well known for a number of things, including the Chautauqua Institution which sponsored public education programs in a variety of areas up until the 1940s. It still houses numerous practical and educational events and one of these involves cooking. Here is a Chautauqua recipe for Concord grape and blueberry tart (both locally available ingredients in abundance). Concord grape pie filling is available at the usual online outlets if you cannot find it in your supermarket.
Concord Grape and Blueberry Tart
2 cups flour
½ cup sugar
1 cup butter, room temperature
1 tsp almond extract
2 egg yolks, lightly beaten
¼ cup finely ground almonds
1 cup sugar
16 oz Concord grape pie filling
3 tbsp water
1 cup (approx.) fresh blueberries
Pulse the crust ingredients in a food processor until the mixture resembles coarse sand and the ingredients begin to stick together. Turn out on to plastic wrap, wrap tightly, and chill in the refrigerator for one hour. Then place the chilled dough on a large sheet of waxed paper, lay another sheet on top, and roll out the dough so that it fits a 9” pie pan lined with parchment paper. Trim off the edges and roll them over to make a neat border. Bake the tart shell blind for about ten minutes at 375°F, making sure that it is cooked through, but not overly brown.
Beat the eggs in a stand mixer until light in color. Gradually beat in the sugar and beat until the mixture is slightly thickened. Add the grape filling and water and beat until thoroughly mixed. Pour the filling into the pre-baked shell. Bake at 350°F for 30 minutes.
Cool the pie in the pan on a wire rack. Arrange fresh blueberries on the top, pressing them lightly into the cooked filling.
Note: some cooks add blueberries to the filling before baking.