Nebraska Ornithologists' Union


Date of this Version



Mayfield, "The Amateur: Finding a Niche in Ornithology," from Nebraska Bird Review (June 1991) 59(2).


Copyright 1991, the author. Used by permission.


The older branches of science were all pioneered by amateurs, but as they matured they have moved steadily away from the reach of the individual working alone with his own resources. As the need for laboratories, observatories, and support staff have grown, science has become increasingly the province of professionals and institutions.

In ornithology, however, the amateur is still a significant figure. Perhaps no other branch of science owes so much to the amateur, not only in current contributions, but also in continuing to produce the professionals of the future. Can we think of another field where we could make a similar statement? We should not forget that nearly all professionals in this discipline began as bird watchers. In other fields most eminent men did not meet the subjects of their ultimate specialization until they were launched in their professional careers. Even in biology, it would be hard to find a scientist who traces his origins to an early love of fruit flies or mice.

Throughout this discussion I am using the term amateur to mean someone who studies birds only as a part-time avocation while carrying on a full-time occupation in another field.

Instead of speculating about the roles that amateurs might play in ornithology, I will focus on actual people who have been in the forefront of ornithology while earning their livings at something else. For my selection, I have limited myself to people I have known personally in my own lifetime. Another author would have picked others. The possible examples are almost innumerable.