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Peterson Field Guide
to Eastern Birds

A Review

by Diane Porter

Peterson East Peterson Field Guides: Birds of Eastern and Central North America, by Roger Tory Peterson and Virginia Marie Peterson. Fifth edition, published by Houghton Mifflin, 2002. Flexi, 427 pages, 1 lb. 6 oz., 8-1/4 x 5-1/4 in.

In 1934, Roger Tory Peterson came out with his Field Guide to the Birds, the first bird book designed to be carried in the field, for identifying live birds. One of his innovations was to show similar species together on the same page for easy comparison, with arrows pointing out the field marks. It’s fair to say not only that Peterson invented the modern field guide, but also that he invented modern birdwatching.

In early editions, Peterson painted birds simply, emphasizing pattern over detail. However, as birders’ skills and optical instruments improved, he felt it became appropriate to show more detail. Looking at all five editions of this book, one can see the paintings evolve from one version to the next. In this Fifth Edition, the illustrations have reached an epitome of clarity and grace. Peterson finished all but one of the plates. He was working on that last one on the day he died, in 1996.

Peterson masterfully describes each species in words, italicizing the crucial field marks. The paragraph on each species is organized so that it’s easy to find information that doesn’t show in pictures, such as characteristic behavior, similar species, range, habitat, and voice. The system he pioneered excels at helping the birder discriminate between similar species.

Each account has a small map to give a general sense of where the bird is found, keyed to large, detailed maps collected at the back of the book. His wife, Virginia Peterson, with the help of some of the most eminent bird experts in America, created the maps and completed the book after his death.

Peterson EastPeterson arranges species in taxonomic order, with some exceptions in order to place similar-looking species together for easy comparison, such as swifts and swallows, even though they are not closely related. The book begins with Peterson's outstanding primer on how to go about identifying a bird. For all its wealth of detail, the book is of moderate size, small enough to fit in a most jacket pockets. It’s an excellent choice for the beginner, and a valuable addition to the field guide collection of the expert.

In brief: Covers eastern half of North America. Good guidance for beginners. Extra large maps. Superb painted illustrations. A masterpiece.

--Diane Porter

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