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Name Calling

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.

Dendroica_townsendi 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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Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale

Ann Nightingale (and yes, that is her real name) is an avid birder and amateur naturalist. A relative late-comer to birding, Ann took up the binoculars and scope in the mid 1990’s and has been making up for lost time since. Ann serves on the board of Rocky Point Bird Observatory, a migration monitoring station on the southern tip of Vancouver Island (the place with the Skylarks!) She first volunteered at RPBO in 1997 and over the years has become a licensed passerine, hummingbird and owl bander. Also active with the Victoria Natural History Society, Ann leads local birding field trips and coordinates the Christmas Bird Count for the Victoria circle. Recently she has added coordination of southern Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands for the British Columbia Breeding Bird Atlas to her “administrative birding” activities.
Ann Nightingale

Latest posts by Ann Nightingale (see all)

  • Good stuff, Ann. Thanks for raising interesting questions. A book that explores the emergence, in the late 19th century, of ornithologists’ “professional consciousness” is Mark V. Barrow’s A Passion for Birds (Princeton University Press, 1998).

    By the way, I explored birder vs. birdwatcher (and argued in favor of birdwatcher, believe it or not), in a post to The ABA Blog. Here:

  • Bonnie

    I’m perfectly fine being identified as a birdwatcher. The one thing that I know for sure is that seeing/watching birds makes me happy, and that’s enough for me.

  • There are no letters after my name. When I was going to zoology school at Oregon State, they were in between professors and had no program in ornithology, I opted for science education instead of the other choices: herpetology or entomology.

    Folks who call me an ornithologist do so because they’re being polite. On a relative scale, I know more than they do about the subject. If they’re bird-watchers, I must be something more. Something more always comes with an “-ologist”.

    But what’s in a name? Melissa Yowl calls me “the bird guy”. Bob Pyle calls me a “keen local naturalist”. Neal Maine calls me the “a reliable resource on local ecology”. At scout camp, I was called “Nature Boy”. When I introduce myself to people, it is as “a professional counter of things”.

    I’ve met many PHD ornithologists who were not particularly good at bird identification (beyond the one they were studying) and I’ve met plenty of birders who couldn’t tell a tibio-tarsus from a handsaw.

    There is no requirement in the definition of ornithologist that one has to have a degree or be “a professional scientist”. Ornithology is the study of things bird-ish. We study birds. All birder-watchers are, whether they believe it or not, ornithologists. All birders are, whether they like it or not, bird-watchers.

    If we remove the ego from all this pigeon-holing, we’re all just “bird enthusiasts” with varying perspectives.

  • All of the above! I’m an ornithologist by college degree and (some of my) career, a birder when I travel, an avid watcher of birds in my community, and an avian educator. I know several ornithologists that I would not call birders, as they don’t actively seek and watch birds outside of their field work. In fact, some disdain the term and the “hobby.”

    I do believe that many birders/birdwatchers are amateur ornithologists. Whatever you call it, all are wonderful passions!

  • Ann Nightingale

    Thanks, Ted. I loved your Miss Hathaway blog entry. Another great book on the history of our passion for birds is “A World of Watchers” by Joseph Kastner. It was written in 1986, but provides an interesting perspective for 21st century birders.

  • Hi there, I’m Lucas. I hold a MSc in Biology and also I’m a senior Lecturer in Ornithology in CAECE University in Argentina and a Birdwatching Tour Leader for Trogon Tours A kind of blend of all the things you’ve benn mentioning.
    I think the question is not an easy one, so let’s try to deal with it technically
    So, first thing to do, find a definition:
    1)Ornithology: the scientific study of birds (Oxford Dictionary) On line access
    2)Ornithology: the study of birds (Cambridge Dictionary) On line access
    So here we have the first problem, not the same concept for the same word. Unluckily the word that’s makes the difference is scientific. Is Ornithology a scientific activity? Well, I leave it to you, but I will continue using my point of view and saying YES. So I take the Oxford one.
    Now, knowing that, comes the second question. What is SCIENCE? I can give you some definitions like “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment:the world of science and technology” (Oxford Dictionary), or “(knowledge from) the systematic study of the structure and behaviour of the physical world, especially by watching, measuring and doing experiments, and the development of theories to describe the results of these activities” (Cambridge Dictionary) but been a reader of the Philosophy of Science, these two definitions fall too short, and to be honest, it would be very difficult for me to give an answer to that question.
    After that comes a lot of questions: What is a scientist? Who “do” or “make” Science? Can anyone perform a scientific research? In the nature sciences, Is a degree or title the only way you can be called an ornithologist?
    So many questions to be answered. Still, at least for me, the debate is open

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