A long time ago in my first summer of college, 50 years ago, I was befriended by an aging professor emeritus who taught Ornithology, bird science.
Being briefly under his wing lead/led to this story of confession and penance
I had taken his ornithology class in the spring and was hanging around the university in my spare time during summer months. There was a good campus museum and in one dusty section of that museum was the professors bird lab.
Having met the professors expectations in his class that I took as a freshman, though it was a senior level class, I was a clearly a junior birdman candidate. Hanging around the bird lab led promptly to me being put to work helping to prepare and catalog specimens. This was a classical taxonomy laboratory and my professor mentor was an old school taxonomist much in the style of Charles Darwin. Studying birds meant that one had to have them in hand, or rather to have their carcasses in hand.
He was a true ‘birdman’ indeed he’d studied birds for his entire life and had the most remarkable ‘bird-like’ facial features. He has now long had his own special wings.
To be an understudy in this field meant taking a lot of dead birds in hand and making measurements and detailed notes followed by performing the museum style taxidermy. No realistic live mounting and posing here much more scientific. I was no stranger to birds, especially the ‘dickie birds’ that were the professors specialty, I’d grown up you see in the west and had been armed with a BB-Gun with a very young age.
Wild West Gun Nut Training Victims – birds, beasts, and boys
What ever were my parents thinking in those days turning a young male, who watched episodes of Gunsmoke and other television westerns on our tiny 14″ living room TV in the evenings with the whole family, loose on the world of backyard birds armed and dangerous. Alas far too many birds bit the bb-gun dust. Later as I was old enough to handle real firearms I became an ardent “hunter”, this experience made me the perfect fledgling bird biologist in that smelly university bird museum.
The science of ornithology taxonomy demanded specimens and my professor mentor had spent time in the famous Smithsonian Institute and was spending his retirement years in Utah, teaching a class, and being a classical museum scientist. Where this also led was a boon for me as he from time to time would conduct collecting trips throughout the west, often accompanied by some visiting Senior birdman from far away.
I was invited to tag along on some of those forays to help with camp and specimen field preparations. What transpired in the field was that we were all armed and dangerous to birdlife. We carried our official “collectors permits” and were armed with shotguns filled not with bird-shot but with ‘dust-shot’ ultra small diameter led shot that was almost as tiny as grains of salt. With those ‘loads’, if we could get close enough, bag our specimens without doing hardly any visible damage to them. The goal was always to seek out the rarest specimens. How bizarre was that.
The Smithsonian rule at the time was if a “rare bird” was not “in hand” meaning dead in hand the identification was not proven.
So whenever rare birds were reported in the birding community we’d be dispatched to find and positively identify them. As finding the rarest of birds took a lot of time on the prowl we would of course make other collections along the way.
Today thinking back on those days of my youth in the company older and “wiser” men, senior birdmen, I am struck by the insanity of the thinking that it was not only OK but ideal to engage in such ornithological scientific practices, barbaric practices.
Of course we carried cameras but a 35mm camera of that time with a good telephoto lens was surely not able to collect a definitive photo of a rare bird. Today’s digital camera’s like my Nikon P900 with an 85X zoom lens and digital image stabilization is a far better bird science tool.
But that was the wild west and I was a willing junior birdman and make believe frontiersman. The old professor(s) were not totally bereft of concern about their craft and they had an interesting method of imposing some limits on their bird carnage. The rule followed was that every day all of the days kill were promptly skinned and the meat went into a big cast iron pot on the campfire. Adding just a few vegetables and spices and on good days a bit of wine our birds became our dinner.
I was to learn quickly via the taste test, to the amusement of my professor, what would protect some of the more common birds such as crows, magpies, and starlings… they did NOT improve the stew. Fortunately the bigger birds like hawks and vultures were never within range of our dust shot, I dare not even think of what a vulture might taste like.
Naturally my mentors were experienced and crafty and would as often as possible make sure they had added a few especially tasty quail or chukar partridge to the pot which they would pluck out in their first turns at the stew pot. Greenhorns are always fun to fool with it seems.
Sharing this lesson I hope will be part of my penance for my American West upbringing.
I almost choose becoming an ornithologist for life. My training as a fledgling ‘junior birdman’ with my professor led me in subsequent years to work for a time on a desert waterfowl refuge oasis that was sandwiched in between the most lifeless landscape on this earth the Bonneville Salt Flats on one side and the US Army biological and chemical warfare testing range on another.
How much closer to environs utterly hostile to life could one ever get. There at Fish Springs I had the privilege of counting the eggs and hatchlings of ducks and waterfowl in a vast sea of marsh and muck.
My work there involved getting up before dawn to wade in the dark out to the duck islands where the birds had their nests. As the dawn broke the birds would in a single moment all arise from their nights rest and leap into the air with a thunderous beating of wings and quacking and squawking chorus of tens of thousands of birds. It was a glorious experience that engaged and saturated all of ones senses.
Once the adult birds were flying I could then wander covered in smelly mud and muck amongst their nests marking down my tally of eggs and hatchlings. The parent birds would trickle back to their nests over the course of the morning. By noon the temperature would be 100 steaming degrees or more. About the mosquitos, that made me their feast, that’s another story.
Here’s link to something I have written about the great treasure that I learned are our waterfowl sanctuaries.
I have spent a lifetime working on the penance for my sins by helping to care for nature. My western youth gun toting Smithsonian specimen collector days were a temporary insanity long past and for a decades I have shot only with a camera. I remember my lessons in nature well and it is far better to live and let live and when one can do as much as possible on behalf of Nature and her wildlife. If you are here reading this you need but exercise a few mouse clicks to read about how restoring nature is work that must and can be done. Here’s a starting to find my stories for and from the heart.