Zoology Faculty Work


From Passion to Science

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The Wilson Journal of Ornithology

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We began our ornithological careers out of passion, for watching birds, for identifying them, for sharing our excitement and knowledge with our friends. At some point our desire to know and understand birds led us into science. We joined Christmas Bird Counts and wondered why the species and numbers varied annually. We wondered what characterized good sparrow habitat. We found that special patch and saw more sparrows than any other participant. Then, we discovered that people wrote about and published their observations of birds. We read some of those papers, at first the short ones, those that focused on natural history, on what we could observe. Then we tried to imitate the authors, by watching birds, asking questions and collecting data. We were unaware that the child hobbyist had become the adolescent scientist. I joined the Wilson Ornithological Society and began to prepare my observations for publication. One day I screwed up my courage and submitted a short paper on Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). It was rejected. But by then I was an undergraduate. I had just received a small research grant. The die was cast. Graduate school followed. I wrote more short papers. Some were published. I synthesized some of these into longer papers with substantive conclusions that were cited by real ornithologists. Imperceptibly, I became a scientist. I began to formulate hypotheses, deduce predictions, collect data, and create new explanations about the evolution of avian color, an aspect of birds that had fascinated me almost since I became aware of birds and painted a papier-mâché duck brilliant white with scarlet feet and bill, and large, blue eyes. This observation-based entry into a scientific career is very different from a course-based entry in which the future scientist learns a paradigm, is excited and decides to devote her or his career to that scientific discipline. The importance of one’s introduction to science is explored with respect to different disciplines and the way different scientists think about science. Finally, the importance of the observation-based entry into science is explored with respect to the Wilson Ornithological Society, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, ornithology, and the field sciences generally.



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