Last weekend, my partner and I stopped during a road trip by a small pond amidst natural habitat in southeast Michigan. While we were stretching our legs, and our dog was diligently collecting sticktight seeds on his fur, we heard the excited, sharp and rapid bugles of a few sandhill cranes as they glided down to the water’s edge. They were noticeably bigger than the Great Egret that was wading nearby. Their slate-gray feathers, I thought, offered a striking contrast both to the flowering goldenrod behind them and my memories of this summer when I got to see Sandhills in their rusty-brown plumage.
Seeing those cranes last weekend reminded me that this spring, when I was walking through the marsh for fieldwork, I happened upon a Sandhill Crane nest at a special time. One chick had just hatched and another was breaking through its egg. Before I respectfully left the area, I recorded video footage that I’m sharing today.
I like to think that those chicks, along with their devoted parents that are heard in the video, are preparing to head south for the winter, or maybe even have embarked on their journey already. Given that the chicks I was lucky enough to see were about 70 miles north of the pond where we stopped at last weekend, the thought even crossed my mind that maybe I had seen the chicks again, all grown up. Though that is very unlikely, I like to think that the birds in the below video will soon be awkwardly leaping with others and adding to the amazing, seemingly-joyful chorus of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes at nearby places like Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary.
As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.
I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.
During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.
My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning.
A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.
An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.
As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.
My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.
I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.
My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.
My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.
This summer, I was lucky enough to get to spend some time at Ottawa National Wildlife Refuge in northwest Ohio. It is a beautiful place that I’d hightly recommend as a destination for anyone who appreciates wildlife.
During one of my visits, I noticed that an adult Trumpeter Swan caring for cygnets looked like it had something around its neck. Not sure what it was, I had a closer look with my binoculars. This is what I saw:
Because I’ve banded hundreds of birds (put tiny metal rings around their feet), I knew when I saw this neck collar that a researcher had put it there to improve our knowledge of this species. By reporting where marked birds are detected, we can learn about how long their species live and where they go. So, I noted the collar number and then went to this website. From there, I reported the number I read on the collar, which identified the bird. I also reported when and where my observation occurred. Doing so only took a couple minutes, but provided information that could help to better understand, and so protect, this amazing species.
I thought I’d share this experience in case you didn’t know that you can help out birds by reporting the numbers on bands, neck collars, or other markings on birds that you observe.
Not only will you help to conserve birds by reporting such observations, but you’ll also get a certificate from the US Geological Survey which includes information about when and where the bird was marked. Another Trumpeter Swan I saw this summer was marked as a cygnet 16 years ago!! I sighted that bird about 6.5 miles from where it was marked.
I just submitted the collar number of the marked swan that I shared pictures of in this post. I can’t wait to find out when and where it was marked!
My PhD research focuses on studying secretive marsh birds. For a class assignment, I had a fun conversation during which my partner and I talk about one of my projects (which entails figuring out what habitat an endangered marsh bird species needs). Here it is, in case you are interested in learning more about my marsh bird research:
Hundreds of millions of birds will be migrating over many of us in North America tonight! Like a biological flood, they flow in pulses that are pronounced this time of year. Billions of individuals will migrate this fall, as hundreds of bird species head south. Here is a great site for seeing nightly migration forecasts:
It is, however, a perilous journey – especially due to lights at night which can disorient, attract to suboptimal habitat, and likely will kill perhaps hundreds of millions of birds this year. The good news? Each one of us, especially those in urban areas, can do our part to help make sure that this awe-inspiring flood of life isn’t reduced to a trickle. Just turn off your lights between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am, and spread the word. Check out this site for more information:
By the way, if you want to experience the migration you can head outside on a night with clear skies and a bright moon. Pull out your binoculars and look at the moon. You just might see migrating birds or other animals flying between you and the moon. You also might hear their high-pitched calls as flocks fly overhead.
An article that I wrote about the Grand Kankakee Marsh and efforts to bring it back was recently published by Earth Island Journal, so I thought I’d share the link. The marsh was once the largest inland wetland in the U.S., but growing up in northern Indiana I mainly just saw agricultural fields where it had been.
Here is a map of the vicinity where the marsh occurred, and where it could be brought back:
While driving to get groceries, my mother noticed something strange at the very edge of the road. So, she pulled over and investigated. Only inches from where traffic sped by, she saw this (she took the picture):
Was it a raccoon? Or a opossom? Whatever it was, she could see that it was shaking, she tells me. So, despite being worried that she might get bit, my mom took a brave step forward and pulled off the bag. And what did she see?!? This:
What a relief it must’ve been for the little cat to be freed from the greasy darkness! It ran away, and luckily didn’t get hit by a car while doing so. A life saved. Good job, mom!
If anyone needs convincing why not to litter (or knows someone who needs to be convinced), I thought that these pictures could help. Individuals of many species could be similarly imperiled by people who litter, or by people who don’t pick up trash when they can, and none of them deserve the fear and further suffering which can result.
Domesticated outdoor cats, I have to point out, can cause great environmental harm. Because they tend to be fed by humans, their instinctive killing is especially hard on their prey (e.g., song birds). Unlike in a natural predator-prey relationship, domesticated cat populations don’t decrease after the populations of their prey decrease. And so the relentless killing by outdoor cats can consequently drive their prey to local extirpation, or even extinction.
Hopefully this cat that my mom’s kindness saved ran home to a relieved human friend, who will keep it inside. Maybe after its ‘cat in the bag’ experience, this particular feline won’t want to go outside again!
I made it my goal for today to write a song about doing a better job of conserving our natural heritage. The song that I came up with is called ‘Donkeys, Elephants, and Caribou.’ The lyrics are below the link to me playing the song, so that you can read along (or read only) if you’d like.
That is what I remember someone telling me. I’ll not ‘name names,’ but will say that the person who said this to me, coincidentally, had the name of an animal species in his/her last name. I didn’t see the resemblance.
I often do, however, see resemblances, kind of like that person did when looking at me (I’ll admit that like an ostrich I am tall, have a long nose, and cannot fly). I’ve had the opportunity over the last eight years or so that I’ve seriously been studying birds to see many people who study not only birds, but many other animals species. I’ll be the first to admit that some people bear an uncanny resemblance to the organisms that they study.
Yes, I’ve seen frog-people and mice-people, even moose-people. Not usually, but sometimes.
The resemblances that I see, though, usually go beyond attributes such as body-type, facial features, etc. Generally, when I watch the way that people move through the world, I think that their behaviors more closely resemble the organism that they focus their studies on than does their physical appearance (with some notable exceptions that I won’t elaborate on).
In a herpetologist, I’ve seen the calm, zen-like demeanor of a salamander. In an ornithologist, I’ve seen the indifference of a sleepy owl.
It could be that people are hard-wired to see similarities between any two things placed nearby (physically or mentally), and that in fact people don’t tend to behave more like what they study or associate with than would randomly paired people and animals. My gut, however, tells me that this isn’t totally true.
I’m convinced that if one watches anything for long enough, to some degree that thing becomes a part of their mental process and affects everything about them, even if they do not realize it. This is a simultaneously beautiful and depressing realization, especially when one considers the things we all see and wish we didn’t, and also that which some people must see every day and cannot escape.
I feel very lucky to be able to watch birds. And if I do, in fact, become a bit more bold or inquisitive after spending years watching Blue Jays, or even more secretive like a marsh bird, that’s OK by me.
I know that some people probably consciously choose to act the opposite of what they watch, and that most people likely don’t actually behave like what they study or associate with.
To me, though, a world where I think that I might see the intelligent poise, or even ruthlessness, of a wolf in someone is far more interesting, and usually inspiring, than a world without wild and natural influences.
Let’s do our best do maintain the diversity of wildlife, and behaviors in people, that remain. Even if we don’t see the effects of our conservation efforts, others may see the effects, perhaps even when they look at us.
In the spring of 2013, I was a junior undergraduate university student. I was studying wildlife science, and had just gotten to the point that I could take some ‘free elective’ courses, which didn’t have to be directly related to my sought after degree. That semester, I decided to take an introductory astronomy class, for non-majors. I remember enjoying the course, but I do not remember much about it specifically. Parsecs, astronomical units, blue dwarfs, red giants, and parallax shifts. Those are some (maybe most) of the few terms that I remember learning in that class. Admittedly, I did not gain much knowledge from that course that I still possess. As is the case for most of the classes that I’ve taken, however, the main value that I gained was not the knowledge that I can recall, but the motion that it caused. I forget almost everything that I learn, but the act of learning moves me in a direction which could guide for a lifetime.
As I look back, there are very few moments in my life that I can point to which I’m sure had an exceptionally large impact on helping/causing me to become who I now am. And that person who I am now, in a single, simplistic sentence is: ‘I’m a scientist and writer who cares about conserving and experiencing the natural world.’
I attribute much of that sentence to a single moment. And that moment was when I was leaving the aforementioned astronomy course, namely a ‘lab’ portion of that course which occurred every week, at night. If I recall correctly, my in-class assignment for that lab was to try to make a telescope out of materials like cardboard, paper towel tubes and mirrors. When I was leaving the classroom that night, I think that it is safe to say that I couldn’t see anything more closely, nor more clearly, than when I had entered.
But as I walked alone through the hallways, I recall looking for a restroom. I don’t know how I ended up talking to the short, older man who was wearing a stocking hat. I think that he was writing on a paper, beside a cart that held cleaning supplies. Maybe I asked him where the bathroom was? Regardless, for some reason, we began talking.
With a spark of life in his eye that I don’t see often, I remember him asking ‘what did you learn in class today?’
Clearly, I remember saying, ‘I learned how small I am.’
And I think that that was, to some degree, actually true. In preparation for making the telescopes, we were first informed about the far away things that some telescopes (not the one I would make) can show a viewer.
I recall that then the man (who I’ll call Allan) and I began discussing a number of things related to learning. Somehow, I found out that he held the pursuit of knowledge in very high esteem, despite many obstacles, and that when he was not working as a janitor he was working to complete an engineering degree. Allan had nearly completed the degree, and was obviously proud. For some reason, the conversation led to him taking out from his stack of papers by the window a piece of paper, for me. And he wrote down the name of someone who, looking back, I am surprised that I had not heard of at that point in my life: Carl Sagan. I needed to look up this amazing scientist, my friend for the moment said as he handed me the paper. It was as if Allan were speaking of someone who had provided him a key that had freed him from unbearable, stifling chains.
After he finished praising the work of Sagan, I told Allan that I’d heard of Neil deGrasse Tyson, who I thought must be similar. He replied by saying that I’d be more impressed by Carl. So, thrilled to have had such a nice, unexpected, inspiring conversation, I said that I would look up Carl. We shook hands and I never saw Allan again.
For a variety of reasons that I think are commonly experienced by young (or older) people trying to acquire independence in a complex and challenging world, I was at the time a bit psychologically battered. Therefore, I was receptive to suggestion, and open to possibilities. I think that it is safe to say that the man’s enthusiasm about learning and science that night, and his seemingly sincere awe about reality, was something that I had never seen before. Not in my fellow students, not in my professors, certainly not in myself. At the time, science was just a vague concept that didn’t seem like something that I could actually do, which I felt was at odds with my ‘creative’ self, and about which I knew embarrassingly little. But that night, for maybe the first time, I felt truly excited to learn more about it.
And, so, when I got back to my dorm room, where my roommate was sleeping on the other side of his desk, I did look up Carl Sagan. In the dark, from my glowing laptop computer, I learned that Carl was an astronomer and science communicator with broad interests, who rightly insisted that science is a way of thinking that anyone can relatively easily participate in. He had gained most of his fame by writing the book ‘Cosmos,’ and by producing a compliment to that book in the form of a TV series, for which he also was the host. After I listened to several videos of Carl speaking that night via headphones (his voice and rationality are still soothing to me: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wupToqz1e2g), I eventually acquired and read the book ‘Cosmos’ a few months later. Reading a book like that either in a tent or from my car (i.e. house), during a summer spent travelling thousands of miles across the Great Plains, hiking deep into natural areas to identify what birds were present in those areas, was transformational. The words of a scientist/poet like Sagan, who confronted the strangeness of reality by looking at it hard rather than hiding from it, was the most intense jolt of scientific inspiration that I’ve had. That inspiration, I think, was just enough to keep me on my journey toward becoming a scientist.
That journey toward understanding and participating in conservation-related applications of science, and to become a conservation biologist, has been a circuitous, difficult route that is still being blazed. Scientists are people, too, and can be difficult to deal with. I’m sure that Carl was no exception. I’m sure that I‘m no exception (though I try to be good!). There are limited funds to support science, and many fiercely seeking them. The entire process of being a professional scientist can be isolating and exhausting. However, as Carl wrote, ‘science exacts a substantial entrance fee in effort and tedium for its insights.’ To pay that fee and to be able to understand even a microscopic fraction, from my minuscule human perspective, of the incredibly vast process of which I’m a part has become a truly awe-inspiring experience.
And I have the kind man in the hallway who told me about Carl Sagan to thank for that.