Thursday, March 26, 2009

Fran Hamerstrom's letter of referral and qualification issues

When I was working for Fran Hamerstrom on her famous field study of Northern Harriers, it so happened that my high school sent me a notice of a reunion of my graduating class. Fran heard about it and asked me what I would declare my occupation to be. I said, "Oh, I'll probably make it plumber/raptor biologist" or something like that. Fran stated strongly that I should consider myself a raptor biologist first and foremost, and that it would be a great idea to support myself with a 40 hour per week job like plumbing and then pursue raptor research as an avocation. She would never have for a minute considered secular work and raptor research to be mutually contradictory. And, in fact, the history of ornithology is replete with old and current examples of serious amateurs who became experts in various fields of ornithology and even world-class authorities on species and related areas.
In contrast, I have encountered people who believe that one cannot be a biologist without a degree in biology. My experience has been that professional biologists with this sort of chip on their shoulder tend to be sensitive to being outshined in their professional field by non-professionals. In my own case, many people have incorrectly assumed that I do have a PhD in a related field because my path of self-education has made me very knowledgeable. I have had the privilege of being acknowledged in various publications for my contributions to their subject matter, which would never have happened if I was "just" a plumber and nothing more. I have been cited in dissertations and in published papers and I have had professional biologists submit their manuscripts to me for review and analysis prior to publication. Why? Because that happens to plumbers all the time? No -- it happens because I have the respect of a lot of intelligent people, and I tend to operate in raptor and conservation circles in an area of accomplished academics and sometimes world authorities.
Yes, I think there are professionals who are jealous of me. There are some who cannot acknowledge my knowledge and understanding of raptor biology, ecology, behaviors, or similar things, but can praise my photographs or my choice of items in a bibliography. There are those who cannot successfully debate me or correct their mistaken analyses, but who feel the need to try to discredit me, not by claiming that I don't know enough, but that they think I am not qualified to know enough.
Of course, right now the whole world is in an economic crisis driven by the "best and the brightest" with PhD's and high education, but no common sense and no willingness to regulate their personal greed. And in the field of wildlife conservation and research, we know more about wild nature than ever before and have continually expanded the use of high technology and computer-aided analysis and statistical inference, but we are not successfully saving habitat for spotted owls, sage grouse, or any number of other critters in the U.S. or worldwide.
Some of our professionals are so hung up on pride that they cannot see their own inadequacies and so they attack other professionals, as we saw in the case of the Tejon Ranch conservation effort recently. Condor biologists long booted out of the recovery program were still trying to influence decision making a decade or more after their relevance faded, and in so doing, they undermined their own credibility and public confidence in conservation science. What a shame!
Probably the greatest thing Fran Hamerstrom ever did for me was to put me through hell on a daily basis. She really tested me and my love for raptors and for field work. After enduring that, it has been relatively easy to put up with the foibles of lesser people and to keep my balance while always growing in knowledge and ability. I am not traditionally educated, but I am highly educated in a self-educated sense, and it is a lifetime program of improvement that I intend to pursue as long as I breathe. I consider it a part of being a Hamerstrom gabboon and I am not about to let small minded people, even small minded professional biologists, slow me down or take away from my love of raptors and joy they bring me each and every day.