Peterson was an internationally renowned ornithologist, naturalist, author, lecturer and artist. Nevertheless, out of all of these labels he first and foremost identified himself as an artist. Born in Jameston, New York, Peterson spent his youth sketching and observing birds in nearby rivers and fields, and reading books about the titans of ornithological illustration like Durer, Lear, Audubon and Fuertes. As he grew into adulthood, Peterson studied at the Art Students League and National Academy of Design, both in New York. After college, Peterson moved to Massachusetts in order to teach science and art. It was there that he developed his extremely influential system for identifying birds in the field. Peterson's system ultimately inspired him to publish his first Field Guide to the Birds in 1934. In spite of a severe economic depression, Peterson's Guide sold out in one week. His book would subsequently be re-released in 4 more
Peterson is rightly credited as one of the founding inspirations of the twentieth-century environmental movement, having tirelessly traveled the world to lecture on, observe, and record obscure and exotic species of birds. He also served as a vital member of the administrative staff of the National Audubon Society, managing the organization’s educational programs and serving as the art editor of its magazine. Peterson also served as art director of the National Wildlife Federation for over three decades, and made environmental films in America, Europe, Africa, the Galapagos Islands, and Antarctica and the Artic.
Peterson's works are part of the permanent exhibit at the Leigh Yawkey Woodson Art Museum in Wausau, Wisconsin, and have also been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution. Peterson has received every major American award for natural science, ornithology, and conservation. He has also been the recipient of numerous honorary medals, diplomas, and citations, including the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Order of the Golden Ark of the Netherlands. Peterson died at his home in Old Lyme, Connecticut