Being an ornithologist is very rewarding but like any profession, there are hiccups.
Once, on a project in a suburban area, I surveyed a large prairie-woodland for birds and other wildlife, notebook in hand and binoculars hanging conspicuously over my chest. Walking on a dirt trail listening for birds, I was taken aback by the police car that approached me from the rear. Turns out at least one dweller of a nearby apartment thought I was a peeping Tom. Another time, while surveying creek beds in a small town, I was stopped a dozen times the first day. Walking behind houses with binoculars seems suspicious to homeowners, apparently. Well, I solved the problem by wearing a hard hat, which I did not need, but it made me look so official no one paid any attention.
There are the usual hazards of sunstroke, poison oak or ivy, nettles, mosquitoes, ticks, wasps, poisonous snakes, and so on when out in the woods. But those are minor annoyances one adjusts to. I live in northern California and recently I’ve been seeing new signs in public parks that tell me to be aware of mountain lions as they are on the increase. Really? Nasty insects and plants aren’t enough, now I have to watch out for large mammals?
My first visit to Yosemite National Park was as a visiting naturalist. I gave a campfire talk one night and the next day a bird walk was scheduled. Eighty people showed up! What could I do but lead the mob down a trail and hope to see something. We did. A bear. In the middle of the trail right in front of me. I bravely yelled at it (I figured I could run faster than at least some of the 80 people); happily it ran off.
Speaking of leading groups, I’ve taken adolescents on birding trips and shown them slide shows. I learned very quickly that talking about titmice, bushtits, or wrentits, gets the boys excited and garrulous. Better to stick to hawks or robins.
You would think that giving lectures would be less hazardous than leading bird walks. Not always. While talking to a group that appears to be interested in birds, you assume that everyone in the audience is environmentally sensitive and aware, but that’s not a good assumption. I mentioned global warming one time and got an earful from an insurance agent who made it clear he thought it was a hoax. That was a few years ago; today people who admit to being climate change deniers are very rare.
I rarely bring up the subject of hunting but occasionally someone asks what I think about it. Instead of encouraging a discussion on a touchy subject I just say that I don’t do it but I understand why some people do. The same explanation applies to keeping caged birds. Occasionally, before or after a talk, a hunter will come up to me and tell me how many ducks he has shot and even show me photos of piles of dead waterfowl. And lots of people tell me about their pet parrots. I guess they figure that I will be fascinated by anything that has to do with birds, even dead or caged ones. Honestly, folks, I am not.
Of course I assume that any group I am put in front of to talk to will be endlessly fascinated by the facts of avian life I offer. One very rainy and cold day I met a bus full of very senior citizens for a driving loop around a wildlife refuge. I was there for hours before they arrived and was cold and wet and happy to get the on the bus. Everyone appeared to be dressed for a night of bingo: men dressed in ascots and leisure suits and women with heels and pearls. And they were having a good time. I was supposed to talk about and point out the waterfowl on our drive but the windows were fogged. No one cared. The only bird they seemed to be interested in was the bottle of Wild Turkey Bourbon being passed up the aisle. But I was warm and dry.