The line between naturalist and scientist has always been a blurry one. Twice this week I was called an ornithologist, causing me to cringe just a little. Although I’ve never previously used the term to describe myself, others have given me the label, and I’ve been pondering my discomfort.
Early ornithologists— including many who have birds named after them—rarely had a degree or even a background in biology. Alexander Wilson was a weaver and a poet. Eugene Bicknell was a banker. John James Audubon was a businessman (apparently not a very successful one) and painter. Thomas Bewick was reputedly a poor student but great artist. John Kirk Townsend was a physician and pharmacist. You get the idea. Their contributions to ornithology are legend, and they are respected, sometimes revered, by birders and scientists alike.
The divide between naturalists and scientists seemed to intensify in the latter part of the 20th century and early years of the 21st. I have been properly sniffed at when travelling in scientific circles, as if I was a starling in the blackbird flock. I was surprised, given the growth of citizen science, volunteer field assistants’ contributions, and new avenues for communication between naturalists and scientists. Perhaps this is why being called an ornithologist made me feel like something of a fraud. But, I study birds. I count them. I follow protocols and standardized methodology. I may even know a few things about certain birds that haven’t yet been published in the scientific journals. Some scientists have been welcoming and respectful, but it’s difficult not to feel outclassed when in the presence of “real” ornithologists.
There is much chatter these days regarding the differences between birdwatchers and birders. Some folks are uncomfortable calling themselves birders. Seriously. To the point that one magazine has changed its name to be more welcoming to novices and amateurs. Aren’t most of us amateurs? No wonder the term “ornithologist” is intimidating! And really, what is the point in pigeon-holing people into these categories, anyway? Do they honestly convey knowledge, dedication, or experience?
From its beginnings, ornithology has relied on contributions from people in all walks of life who have been captivated by birds and their behaviors. Ornithologists were careful observers who were willing to share what they knew with others. Isn’t this what we are doing now through our blogs, posts, presentations, and field trips?
Hello. My name is Ann, and I am a birdwatcher, birder, and today, an ornithologist!
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