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Who You Callin’ Amateur?

A review by Rick Wright

Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, by Jack Hitt

Crown, 2012

280 pages, $26Hardcover

HittIn January 1917, Harold Gifford called in the pages of The Condor for the founding of a League for the Extermination of Amateur Ornithologists. The editors responded: Dr. Gifford

does not seem to realize that with the extermination of the amateur ornithologist, scientific ornithology is doomed to die out inside of one generation!

The notion that we birdwatchers contribute to science is a venerable one, running, in Mary Clench’s felicitous phrase, “from the Pilgrims to the present.” Historically, at least, there’s a fair bit of truth to it: You may know the story of Eliot Howard, the manager of a steel plant in Britain and a fan of the Common Reed Bunting who, in 1920, introduced the concept of territoriality to English-speaking academic ornithology. And here in America, the great ornithological societies might never have survived their incunabula if not for dues-paying members drawn from the ranks of us dilettantes.

Jack Hitt’s Bunch of Amateurs is an anecdotal exploration of the role of the amateur in American intellectual life, drawing for its vast range of examples on archeology, diplomacy, microbiology, robotics, anthropology, astronomyand yes, ornithology. The test case in that last field, the one that matters to us, is the most celebrated of the century so far, the claimed rediscovery of the Ivory-billed Woodpecker almost a decade ago. Hitta contributing editor at The NYT Magazine, Harpers, and Lingua Francahad just been let in on the secret by a slightly indiscreet friend inside The Nature Conservancy when, on that April day in 2005, the story  leaked and blazed across the front pages of 459 newspapers…. The eminent director of the Cornell Labratory of Ornithology, in an ironical choice of metaphor, said “This is dead solid confirmed.”

That untimely revelation denied Hitt his journalistic scoop. He overcame his disappointment, though, and quickly saw what too few have noticed even now: that “the ivory-bill came to represent issues much bigger than a single bird.” The story was about much more than the factual matter of whether the big woodpecker survived or not; it became mythological,

a tale of professionals erecting a citadel of expert opinion around a new truth, with a sequel about a messy band of amateurs assaulting that fortress and tearing it brick by brick to the ground.

That’s an admirably neat summary cast in enviably catchy language. But as we read on in the narrative of the Campephilus affair, it becomes clearer and clearer that the aperçu is too pithy by half. The mismatch between the tidiness of Hitt’s categories and the messy individual realities of his subjects is a recurring problem in the book, but nowhere as obvious as it is here. What Hitt’s simple heuristic paints as a battle pitting credentialed experts against ragtag hobbyists was far more complex, a series of sometimes discrete, sometimes overlapping struggles, with academics and amateurs, birders and bloggers, gurus and kooks coming down on both sides (all sides?) of the debate.

Any distinction between “professionals” and “amateurs,” in other words, makes it impossible to tell this story right.

Hitt also, here and occasionally in the book’s other chapters, falls prey to a temptation he himself warns against at the beginning of his book: the identification of the amateur with the freak. Cornell’s search team brought many well-known and eminently serious birdersamateursto the Big Woods, but they don’t get much space on the page here. Instead, Hitt regales us with tales of a “perky” volunteer and a “ghost-chaser.” Both anecdotes are uproariously funny (the one speaks mysteriously of her Ivorybill experience as if it were a state secret, the other “sees the bird quite a lot when she’s alone”), but both are a little mean-spirited, as if Hitt were on a search not for the American character but for characters.

Hitt is absolutely right on, though, when he relaxes his focus on “amateurism” to consider the Ivorybill story from the point of view of narrative convention.

Every time, these expeditions seemed to be remakes of the exact same buddy flick. The courtly individual from the Yankee Ivy League college gets taken into the woods by the joshing redneck who knows the ground…. This repetitive quality to the storiesthe experts, the fuzzy image, the pleas for belief and the collapse of the evidence, the Yankee intellectual and the Southern woodsman, the ultimate quest for land protectionmeant that the search for the ivory-bill…was American mythology.

That is a powerful observation, one less about the status of a more or less extinct woodpecker than about the way in which the human mind creates truth. Hopes, dreams, and observationsfor birders, for ornithologists, for amateurs and for professionalsmake sense to us only when they fit into a comforting framework, only when they can be made to retell a story we’ve heard and told before. Maybe, as Hitt almost suggests, the problem with this latest (certainly not the last) Ivorybill affair was that the professionals started to tell an amateur story.

The categories don’t work in this storybut they haven’t worked in the North American bird world for decades now. In Harold Gifford’s long-ago day, professional ornithologists and amateur ornithologists were engaged in much the same activities: shooting, skinning, and classifying. Nearly a century later, ornithology has become so specialized, so technical a discipline that it is nonsensical to speak, as Hitt does, of “amateurs” in that field. There are professional ornithologists, there are amateur birders, there are (even) professional birders; but, I would point out, there are no amateur ornithologists, unaffiliated, uncredentialed, uncertified dilettantes who while away the winter weekends in the garage, tinkering with their homemade electrophoresis kits.

But that doesn’t mean that the editors of The Condor were entirely wrong, or that our long-lived pious belief in the contributions of the birder to science is always false. Properly trained bird banders with well-designed and well-defined projects, census-takers for the Breeding Bird Surveys, even careful Christmas counters and conscientious eBirders are all among the amateurs piling up the data for generations of professionals to come. It’s not as sexy a story, but those and other enterprises like them just might tell us more about the American character than even the tale of the Ivorybill.     


Recommended citation:

Wright, R. 2013. Who You Callin’ Amateur? [a review of Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character, by Jack Hitt]. Birding 45(2):67.

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Birding Book Reviews publishes Birding magazine's reviews on line. Book reviews are edited by Rick Wright.
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  • I’ve long contended that the story of the Ivorybill is not a science story, because there is precious little good science to it (even Cornell’s effort in the Big Woods may have been somewhat ‘amateurish’)… it is instead a field identification story… you either do or don’t believe/trust that some of the 100’s of reports of Ivorybills which have come in (and continue to) are accurate — assuredly, MOST of them are NOT and are easily disposed of, but there always remain a small residue of accounts that are harder to dismiss.

    The reason David Sibley was especially successful at casting doubt on the IBWO story in many minds, despite being at best an “amateur” scientist, is because of his acknowledged field-identification (or, as you would say, “professional birding”) skills, leading many to accept his (and others’) interpretation of certain evidence, like the Luneau film. And in the 1940’s it was really “amateurs” Mason Spencer and JJ Kuhn who originally established the species’ continued persistence in LA., not Tanner or any professional ornithologist who rode in after-the-fact — it appears if the bird is ever to be confirmed again (as some of us still believe is possible), it will once again be an “amateur” who does it… as they more often have the time and opportunity. The Ivorybill saga remains a story of amateurs in a vast forest landscape.

  • Scott Pendleton

    An interview with the author can be heard on Radio West( The Ivory Bill story starts around 20 minutes but I enjoyed the entire thing

  • Thanks, I’ll have a listen!

    Cyberthrush, you make a good point, one touched on by Hitt too: It’s been a long time since field identification was among the skills required of an ornithologist.

  • Brian G

    Rick, I went to SORA hoping to check out the original article(s?) in The Condor that you mentioned at the beginning of your post, but wasn’t able to find it in the Jan/Feb 1917 issue–do you have a good citation I could use to track it down?

  • Tony Leukering

    While I would agree that amateur ornithologists must, of need, be rare in this day and age, I do not believe that they are non-existent. I may be the epitome of the definition, having spent some 30 years at the very birder-end of ornithology: no degree, tons of field experience, have run large-scale ornithologically-based survey efforts (e.g., atlasses), and have even authored or co-authored a few truly scientific publications among my ~100 published papers, articles, essays, etc. Additionally, I know at least a few others that might reside a bit closer or farther from the term ‘ornithologist, but for whom that term is a bit on the too-technical side, while the term ‘professional birder’ would be inaccurate. In my opinion, a short list of such people would include Paul Lehman, Jon Dunn, Steve Mlodinow, and, in fact, David Sibley, for they produce much work (books, articles, papers) that advance the cause of ornithology in elaborating, for example, how to ID birds and/or their occurrence patterns in both space and time — the building blocks of much in ornithology. Many (most?) of us seem to specialize in distilling scientific efforts for presentation to the interested layman, which can result in better building-block data for the ornithologists. In fact, in Gifford’s day and age, most of the papers published, even by the avowed ‘professional ornithologists,’ in such prestigious journals as Auk and Condor were identical in scope to those that we amateur ornithologists publish nowadays in such venues as Birding and North American Birds.

    Just a few examples of my ‘amateur ornithologist’ chops: [may require registration to SORA]

  • Brian G

    Thanks, Rick!

  • Bird Watcher

    “…there are no amateur ornithologists…”
    It’s over guys. They found us out and took away our amateur ornithologists badges. No need to be ashamed, let’s just change hats and walk over to the local bird club and see if they will take us back as “regular” members. If not, I’m thinking of starting group of amateur herpetologists. The ivory tower remains tall and well protected, with sharp edges. We had a good run.

    Bird Watcher

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