Thursday, October 6, 2011

Why I'm Not an Ornithologist

Thursday, October 6, 2011
17 comments

People who know I am into birds, but who aren't themselves sometimes ask me "Are you an orthinologist?" Sometimes they get it right and say "ornithologist." That's the right pronunciation, but the word—in either form—does not apply to me. In order to be an ornithologist in the true definition of the word, one has to study ornithology. I tried this in college at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. I was there in the early 1980s and, as an avid bird watcher, it seemed completely logical that I would take Ornithology. I applied to take the course as a sophomore and had to get special permission, since it was a course intended for upperclassmen.

Doc O was the ornithology professor at Miami back then. He let me in his class because I said I knew my birds. What I should have said was "I know (and vastly prefer) my birds in the wild, on the wing, flying free." I was good enough in the field that he even let me co-lead some of the class field trips with the class' teaching assistant.

But in the lab, I was lost. I could no more calculate the wing load of a vulture than I could eat what a vulture eats. This should have been fair warning to me. A hint that maybe I wasn't cut out to get a PhD in ornithology.

However I was undaunted. I still thought that in order to be a successful birder, I should apply myself in the ornithological classroom despite the fact that it was as baffling as Keynesian economics to my brain. I was wrestling my grade just north of a B-minus (straight A's in the field quizzes, straight C's in the lab work) when I met my ornithological Waterloo.

There was a field quiz at Hueston Woods State Park. I was leading half of the class. It was a cold but birdy winter morning. We saw a bufflehead. It was listed on the master test list as a hooded merganser. Thinking I was being helpful, I pointed this out. This was not cool.

Due to my inability to excel in the lab, I ended up with a C in ornithology. And here's the report card to prove it. My lowest grade in four years of college. Sweet!



Now you might think that this scarred me for life. That I ran home to my dorm room and burned all my copies of The Wilson Bulletin and The Auk. Quite the contrary. I recycled them.

Seriously, though, I hold ornithologists in the highest possible esteem. Without them and all of the discoveries and knowledge they've shared we'd still be birding in the Dark Ages. No field guides. No grip on bird population trends and endangered species. No conservation plans. No lumps and splits! It's impossible to think of a world without these scientists of birds.

I am happy to my soul that there are ornithologists treading this mortal coil, dedicating their lives and careers to the pursuit—in lab and field—of a greater understanding of birdlife. I respect people who hold vast amounts of bird science in their heads. But I don't wish to be one of them.

The most important thing I learned in Ornithology class? That I'm just a bird watcher. It fits me better. I get to edit my nice little bird magazine. I get to write books and blogs and stuff like that. I get to lead bird walks for people, which I really enjoy doing. And I never have to calculate the wing loading of a turkey vulture. I just get to enjoy watching them fly. Outside, in the field, where I belong.

My name is Bill and I'm a bird watcher.

17 comments:

On October 6, 2011 at 2:59 PM Connie Kogler said...

Well, I never got to college, but am forcing myself to take the Home Study Course from Cornell. But your post relieves me of such pressure.

My name is Connie and I, too, am a bird watcher. Maybe even "just" a backyard bird watcher.

Now, where's my hot chocolate?

On October 6, 2011 at 3:25 PM Robin said...

I thnk so many of us can completely relate to this. Though we lead bird walks and participate in the CBC each year, we're still just birdwatchers . . .and isn't life good?

On October 6, 2011 at 4:02 PM Reid Barclay said...

Hmmm, Great story I envy you for even being able to get to take an Ornithology course, and to write about birds. I can only bird by myself as the birders in my area won't accept that I know anything (I've been birding for 40+ yrs) and won't even talk to me! I don't care I go and bird on my own and don't tell anyone what I see anyways.

On October 6, 2011 at 4:53 PM Mary said...

My name is Mary and I take pixtures of bird watchers.

On October 6, 2011 at 5:09 PM Lynne at Hasty Brook said...

Bravo! My name is Lynne and I'm a birdwatcher too.

On October 6, 2011 at 5:36 PM cyberthrush said...

And then some of us are just Ornery-thologists...

On October 6, 2011 at 8:02 PM Helen Ostermiller said...

Though your course may have bridged the gap between field and lab, many students in the biological sciences are not introduced in college to the field sciences--never imagine their place in science if it isn't in the lab. So glad your niche is such a good fit!

On October 7, 2011 at 9:45 AM Julie Zickefoose said...

If I had to rely on my college ornithology prof's personal opinion of me for self-esteem, I'd be in sad shape. Thanks to my bouncy energy and apparently insufferable over-enthusiasm, I was regarded not as an asset but an irritant. Like you, I didn't let it slow me down much. I love this post.

On October 7, 2011 at 12:28 PM Patty (pambirds) said...

I'm a birdwatcher - backyard, roadside, downtown lunch hour ... And I second those emotions and raise my binos to birdwatchers everywhere.

On October 7, 2011 at 1:33 PM Rondeau Ric said...

My name is Ric and I'm a bird watcher.
I watch birds every where I go. All our vacations are based on where the birds are and where we might get life birds and have the opportunity to meet other bird watchers.
We like bird festivals.
We feed and watch birds in the yard.
I am willing to bet I have just as much,if not more, fun than some one who has a degree.

On October 7, 2011 at 9:34 PM Nita said...

Does it really matter if we don't know the wing load of a vulture? I don't think any of us are going to catch a vulture and weigh how much its wing can carry!
Nita

On October 8, 2011 at 1:45 AM Mpho said...

Hi Bill,
Quite awe inspiring to note where you are coming from.I salute you.I been coming again and again to your story and can't get enough of it.

On October 14, 2011 at 5:29 PM Anonymous said...

Hi Bill.

On October 19, 2011 at 10:32 AM robin andrea said...

Great post! I was going for a masters degree in literature when I realized it absolutely killed my love of reading. Now I can read without dissecting the important elements of a good book.

I'm a bird- bug- and bobcat- watcher.

On October 19, 2011 at 5:18 PM Lee said...

Thanks Bill,
I feel that way about my birdwatching. The thrill of seeing the birds, whether I can put a name on it or not, and especially not knowing the wing load, makes birdwatching the best. Keep up the great blog and your enjoyable magazine.

On November 20, 2011 at 7:01 PM ingrid said...

It appears from the comments here that many of us can relate. For me, it was a failed attempt at pre-vet. Got swallowed whole by organic chemistry and, to this day, lament the credential which never followed. Your post made me feel a lot better about my liberal arts mind and telephoto lens. :)

On August 29, 2012 at 6:35 AM nicoleshe said...

Thnx for imparting this posting. It's very timely because I am trying pains like site that, also I'm actually considering attempting it myself.


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