By Neil Gilbert
Chronicles of big years (quests by birders to see as many species of birds as possible in a calendar year) abound. My favorites include Kingbird Highway, by Kenn Kaufman, The Big Year, by Mark Obmascik, and The Big Twitch, by Sean Dooley. Many consider Wild America, by Roger Tory Peterson and his British colleague James Fisher, to be the original big year book. The journey describes Fisher’s first visit to America and throughout the book we see Fisher’s excitement as he explores a new country with new birds. I would argue that Wild America isn’t really a book about a big year at all, but rather the diary of two intrepid naturalists on an epic road trip across the continent. Indeed, the cover describes the book as “The Legendary Story of Two Great Naturalists on the Road.” Regardless of its genre, Wild America is a classic tale that should be read by anyone interested in nature.
Peterson and Fisher make their trip in 1953. Beginning in Newfoundland, they roughly follow the perimeter of the North American continent, ending up on the Pribilof Islands of the Bering Sea. During their trip, spanning three months, the pair bird deserts, mountains, marshes, open ocean, rain forest, and every other imaginable habitat. In addition to birds, they study and photograph mammals, reptiles, rocks, butterflies, and anything else they come across. In other words, they were superb all-around naturalists.
The two men take turns narrating; the book is split roughly half-and-half between their writings. Reading the book offers a unique opportunity to glimpse what birding was like over a half-century ago, before the advent of rare bird alerts, bird-finding guides, cell phones, and other gadgets that are widely used among modern birders. They relied on Roger’s field guide and knowledge of North American avifauna, as well as advice from park rangers, friends, and guides. Every time I re-read Wild America I wish I could have been there to roam the continent with them. I highly encourage anyone with an interest in birds to skip over to the local library and check it out. It may be wiser to simply purchase the book, since you will find yourself returning to re-read your favorite chapters.