By Jeff Tome
When I first started working at Audubon, people often talked about how Roger would have loved this or that. They talked about his passion and support for Audubon, and how much they missed him. As a new employee, I assumed that they were talking about a beloved volunteer that had passed and, in a way, that was true.
Roger was none other than Roger Tory Peterson, creator of the first easy-to-use field guide for birds in North America. He inspired generations to learn more about nature and gave them the tools to do it. I don’t think I had ever heard his name by itself before that. His name was always said in full, “Roger Tory Peterson”, author and conservationist, as in THE Roger Tory Peterson. At Audubon, he was simply Roger.
People with an immense respect for Roger Tory Peterson founded the fledgling group that became Audubon Community Nature Center. This group was mildly embarrassed that there was no Audubon chapter in Roger’s hometown of Jamestown, New York and set about fixing that.
Roger was consistently active in the budding Audubon chapter here in Jamestown from the 1950’s through the 1990’s. He led lectures, programs, and bird walks whenever he was in town. The more I think about that, the more amazing it really is. Here is this man who travelled the far reaches of the globe, photographing and painting elephants and penguins and exotic birds. Yet, he took time to come back to his hometown and share his adventures and learning with childhood friends and a budding Audubon chapter.
His influence was so huge that there was a push to call the new Audubon chapter in Jamestown the “Roger Tory Peterson Audubon Society”. This move was squashed quickly, as chapters couldn’t be named after living people, no matter how famous. This sentiment was so strong and long lasting, however, that when the Nature Center was built almost twenty years later in 1976, it was called the Roger Tory Peterson Nature Interpretive Building, not to be confused with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, which houses his collections near Jamestown Community College.
There was, and continues to be, a lot of confusion between Audubon Community Nature Center and Roger Tory Peterson Institute. Both organizations are about nature. Both organizations were founded in honor of Roger Tory Peterson, who was active in both organizations from the time of their founding until his death in 1996.
Roger’s legacy is one to be treasured. While I never met him, the stories that have been passed down at Audubon were of a humble man with a passion for nature and art that he loved to share. No matter how famous he became, he came home to share his adventures.
When I bought my first house and started to meet my neighbors, I was surprised by how many folks had autographed copies of his bird book. Some books were decades old, some newer; some came with stories of folks who met Roger or went on a bird walk with him. Every single person treasured their book and their experience, however short, with Roger.
Roger Tory Peterson would be celebrating his birthday on August 28. While he is no longer with us, the organizations that he inspired and supported are still around today, continuing to inspire the next generation.
You can celebrate his birthday and his legacy by walking at Audubon Community Nature Center, which sits on the “Riverside Swamp” that Roger wandered as a child. Or visit the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy’s Bentley Preserve, where Roger surveyed nesting birds in the 1930’s. You can also visit the Roger Tory Peterson Institute, which houses his art and legacy, or go to Roger’s Bird-day Bash there on August 19.
Overall, I think the best way to honor Roger is to go for a hike, take a closer look at a bird or animal in the wild, or, even better, take a friend or a child with you to inspire others to have a love of the outdoors as broad as Roger did. If you are artistically inclined, draw something from your adventure, or photograph it, or write about it. Find a chunk of nature that moves you in some way, and capture the heart of it with art. In that way, Roger’s legacy will truly live on.
Audubon Community Nature Center builds and nurtures connections between people and nature. ACNC is located just east of Route 62 between Warren and Jamestown. The trails are open from dawn to dusk and birds of prey can be viewed anytime the trails are open. The Nature Center is open from 10 a.m. until 4:30 p.m. daily except Sunday when it opens at 1 p.m. More information can be found online at auduboncnc.org or by calling (716) 569-2345.