The yellow-bellied sapsucker girdles apple trees and drinks the sap. According to the Audubon Bird Guide it says "keeyew." Hausman's Field Book of Eastern Birds, however, contends that the sapsucker says "wicker, wicker." But in a ponderous two-volume classic published many years ago, Birds of New York, Elon Howard Eaton said positively that what the yellow-bellied really said was "yucker, yucker, yucker." Eaton's books were financed by an appropriation from the state legislature and illustrated with magnificent paintings by Louis Fuertes. "As the spring advances and the weather becomes warm," Eaton reported, "the sap often begins to ferment. I suspect this is the reason the sapsucker is so often found stupefied. I have seen one alighting on the clothing of a bird student and climb up his arm without seeming to realize he was a man instead of a tree."
That was a fairly characteristic passage in ornithological literature when Roger Tory Peterson began to paint birds and to write about them. His first work was A Field Guide to the Birds, Giving Field Marks of All Species Found in Eastern North America. Of the yellow-bellied sapsucker it read tersely: "Best identified in all plumages by the longitudinal white patch on the black wing. It is our only Woodpecker with a red forehead patch." That was about all. Most of the 300-odd birds received the same spare treatment—no anecdotes about walks in the woods, no purple prose about the beauty of birdsongs—and as a result the Field Guide sold more than half a million copies and launched the current popularity of bird watching in the U.S.
With James Fisher, an English naturalist, Roger Tory Peterson has now published The World of Birds (Doubleday, $22.95), a massive work attempting nothing less than a survey of the 8,580 species found on the planet. It opens with an account of the variety of birds on the earth and includes 96 pages of colored maps showing where you can find puffbirds, hornbills, grouse, kingfishers, thick-knees, cormorants, turkeys, kagus (only in New Caledonia) or any other bird you want. There are about a hundred billion birds, and they are found everywhere except on Easter Island. Colombia has the greatest variety (1,700 species), compared to 775 species in the U.S. and Canada, or 1,040 for the Congo.
Birds can count. If a number of marks are flashed on a screen, shown too briefly to be counted, men can distinguish four or five marks, but ravens can distinguish up to seven. The smallest bird, a Cuban hummingbird, weighs 1/18 ounce. It is considerably smaller than an ostrich's eye. In fact, if all the birds of this species were captured, they would weigh less than one ostrich. The oldest living bird is an owl, aged 68 years.
Despite a wealth of bird lore, The World of Birds may be disappointing to amateur bird lovers: the tremendous scope of the work limits each individual section to the point where little more than the essentials can be covered. Anyone interested in bird migrations, for example, would probably want to know more than is contained in the 11 pages that Peterson and Fisher devote to its mysteries. Yet the most familiar of the encyclopedic facts in The World of Birds are surrounded with surprising items, and the spectacular Peterson paintings (there are 700) add so much color that the effect is often astonishing. It is like finding an encyclopedia festooned with Christmas decorations.
Roger Tory Peterson became interested in birds in 1919, when he was an 11-year-old seventh-grader in Jamestown, N.Y. At 17 he took a bus to New York City to attend an ornithological convention, taking his paintings of a hummingbird and a kingbird. These caught the eye of Louis Fuertes, and Peterson was soon a member of the staff of the Audubon Society. He worked as a furniture painter and a teacher while he acquired the skill that went into A Field Guide to the Birds.
That work revealed his genius for colorful simplification, an ability to concentrate on the essentials needed for identification. An ornithological statesman, he avoided the pedantic disputes that made much bird literature unreadable. Not for him the conflicts on such questions as whether the yellow-bellied sapsucker said "wicker, wicker" or "yucker, yucker." In the introduction to A Field Guide he wrote: "Song description...is dispensed with." Later he brought out an album of phonograph records to accompany his handbooks (A Field Guide to Bird Songs, Houghton Mifflin, $10.50), and in this it is possible to set the needle on band six, side two, and hear a sapsucker, drunk or sober, making some sort of eerie sound that does not resemble either a wicker or a yucker.
Peterson's critics sometimes complained that in eliminating so much excess literary baggage he also eliminated much of the quaintness, the humor, the color and the charm of ornithological literature. This may be true, but he was interested in getting his readers out into the woods, not in entertaining them by the fireside, and his very limitations as a man of letters made him an ideal guide. He is as good a guide in The World of Birds-as he was in A Field Book to the Birds. The difference is that this time he is leading the way into a much bigger wilderness.