Great Moments in Birding History #1: The Footnote
In 1955 Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher published Wild America, the tale of their travels across North America, from park to park, and bird to bird. Peterson had convinced Fisher to take the trip with him, partially to show Fisher the America that most tourists did not see, but, as Peterson confessed in the prologue, his offer “was not entirely devoid of self-interest. All of us enjoy showing things to others. I had seen all forty-eight states; mine were the accustomed eyes–James Fisher’s would be fresh eyes. I would see America again through his eyes.”
And see America they did! From Newfoundland to the Dry Tortugas, from sunny California to the Yukon Delta, they explored more of America than many Americans had even dreamed of. And they saw birds, lots and lots and lots and lots of birds. How many birds? Well, that is where the footnote comes in to play. In chapter 33, during which the two birders are in Alaska, they managed to break Guy Emerson’s record of 497 birds seen in North America in one year. The sentence that is footnoted, “We sent Guy Emerson a telegram informing him that he had lost his throne as champ of the bird-listers*” already gives the reader an idea of what might be on the bottom of the page, but the footnote itself, well, let me reproduce it here in full:
*James pulled a fast one in Anchorage. While I stayed in the hotel to work on a drawing he went with Ed Chatelaine of the Fish and Wildlife Service and came back with five new birds on his list. He retained this margin until he returned to England; and so, for a month, an Englishman held the record list of birds seen in one year in North America. It was not until I returned across the continent in August that I caught up.
Incidental information: my year’s list at the end of 1953 was 572 species (not counting an additional 65 Mexican birds). R.T.P.
Mine was 536, plus the 65 Mexican species, plus 117 others seen in Europe, a total of 718. J.F.
The North American record would not stay in American hands for long. According to Mark Obmascik’s The Big Year:
Wild America was published in 1955. The next year a twenty-five-year-old Englishman named Stuart Keith, fresh out of Oxford, was so enthralled with the travelogue that he decided to repeat it himself…he scored 598 birds that year–twenty-six more than Peterson.
Who would have thought that a single footnote could propel birders to spend an entire year chasing after birds around the continent? Normally, one would think of history of being in the main text, and if something is a “footnote to history” it means it is not terribly important, more of an aside. But Peterson and Fisher managed to make a mere footnote be one of the most memorable parts of their book, at least to the listing world. Of course, since Stuart Keith’s record run in 1956 the record has been broken numerous times, but all big listers owe a debt of gratitude to Roger Tory Peterson and James Fisher, who not only each held the North American Big Year record, but did it in style and with grace.
This has been a Great Moment in Birding History…come back in a couple weeks for another.