“DEAR DR. PETERSON”
Going through random correspondence to Roger Tory Peterson from the 1950s to the early 1970s includes a little bit of everything. Lots of people asked for help identifying a strange bird they saw, remember, there was no Google to look things up on, and if your local library or birding club couldn’t help you, you were out of luck! Others wrote to him asking for job opportunities or with questions for a school project; mostly people wrote to him to thank him for writing his Field Guides, showing his footages from places like the Galapagos, and for his wonderful illustrations of birds. But also, charmingly, there are a lot of letters from children. And most of them—to the utter delight of RTPI staff—arrived with drawings and paintings. It is a very ancient human practice, to draw. To say, “This is what I saw, and I want you to see it, too”. Some of the letters from adults also have drawings—mostly to help Roger help them identify a bird.
Pen sketch in a letter from Don and Martha Hekman, asking for help on some strange bird sightings
at Lake Ocotal Grande in Chiapas, Mexico. 1974.
Pencil sketch in a letter from Dale R Hilding in St. Maries, Idaho, asking for help identifying a bird the size of a Robin and one similar in size to a Sparrow. 1965.
The ones from children, however, are specifically either sent as gifts or to ask Roger his opinion on their works. And they are dazzling. They sit in their files, elbow to elbow with letters scrawled in pen and pencil on lined notebook paper. They speak of wanting to become an ornithologist or a conservationist, of collecting nests and counting birds, writing their own bird books and even, in one example, making up their own Museum of Natural History where they themselves typed up the museum newsletter and illustrated it. This newsletter was so well done that the RTPI archivist presumed it was for some sort of junior club for a real-life museum until, a few letters and a bemused Google search later, she realized what was going on. These children were avid birdwatchers and naturalists. One boy even saved a Blue Jay from being attacked by neighborhood dogs, and his mother sent Roger a photo of the bird, now befriended, resting on the boy’s chest as he lounged outside in a lawn chair.
Most of the letters are from children who were ages nine to eleven in the 1960s, though some are a little younger (6) and some a tad older (14ish). They sent Roger watercolors of Whooping Cranes, a very detailed pencil drawing of the head of a Red-tailed Hawk, and even a colored pencil drawing of a hunched Eastern Chipmunk, from a boy in Clinton, New York. The birds are vibrant and lively—and some are startlingly good. One watercolor, from Jurgen at Rolén in Johanneshov, Stockholm, Sweden, from 1967, came accompanied by a radiant watercolor, titled “Ringed plover in summer” of a plover standing on a hill with a beach and the sea in the background, to thank Roger for sharing his paintings with the world. This letter, along with many of the others, ask if they could purchase a painting from Roger. Many asked for bespoke pieces, including “a canyon with geese flying through the canyon”, or even quite simply “a picture of a duck”. Sadly, Roger’s wife at the time, Barbara Peterson, was having to answer a lot of this correspondence because Roger was literally flying from one place to another—the Antarctic, Indonesia, Greece, and across the United States on lecture tours—so these commissions were not able to be fulfilled.
However, Roger made it very clear in his return letters how much he appreciated the gifts from the young naturalists, often ending his letters with, “I know of no other hobby that does so little harm and affords so much pleasure” and wishing them many years of success in their art and in birdwatching.
A handful of the works found in the RTPI Archive above can be seen below. Artists credits in order from left to right.
Featured artwork at top of post: Ringed plover in summer, Jurgen at Rolén, Sweden. Watercolor on paper, 1967.
Whooping Crane, Robert S Timmins, Jr., of Concord, Massachusetts. Watercolor and pencil on paper, 1968.
Two water birds, Puffin standing on a bluff, George Middleton. Watercolor on paper, 1969.
Harris Hawk, Stephen Spitler in Mill Valley, California, Crayon and pencil on paper, 1967.
Yellow Warbler, Russell (6 years old), crayon and pencil on paper, 1967.
Untitled sketch of a bird near a birdhouse, Laura Robinson. Blue ink on lined notebook paper, 1974.
Eastern Chipmunk, Stephen Butler. Crayon and pencil on paper, 1964.
Immature Green Heron, George M. of Concord, Massachusetts. Ink on paper, 1967.
Head of a Red-tailed Hawk, Jim Orr of Carmichael, California. Pencil on paper, 1973.