So 1972 was a big year for Rip – she started birding, with Central Park as the incubator for a growing interest in ornithology. What could help to move this interest along?
First of all, I was growing pretty tired of being in school, even though Dalton was and remains an excellent institution. My parents suggested I might drop out and take a year to do other things, and one of the things I did was to take an evening class in German at NYU and volunteer at National Audubon Society in the office of American Birds Magazine, working with Robert Arbib and Susan Drennan and helping with the Christmas Bird Count and Breeding Bird Survey parts of the publication. It was not always thrilling work, but it got me more familiar with bird names and places and the people watching and studying them, as well as giving me the chance to meet a lot of bird people who had doings and comings and goings at National Audubon.
I don’t remember where I got the idea that Cornell University was a good place for the study of ornithology, but it was a good idea. I wrote to the man who had recently replaced the legendary Olin Sewall Pettingill, Jr. as the ornithology professor at Cornell, namely James L. Tate, Jr. to ask if he was doing ornithology research and if so, could he use an assistant? In those days, without the internet or any other way to collect information rapidly and assess the possibilities, it was a slow process to work one’s way through ideas. I stuck with the first one I had, and after a few letters back and forth, Jim suggested I apply to take ornithology during Cornell’s summer session the following year. That is what I did- it was my first college course and my first time in a classroom with college students (I don’t really count the NYU night course), prior to starting college at Barnard in the fall (yes it is possible for a high school dropout to go to college!). I did well in the lecture and field part of the course, but not so great in the lab because we had to learn the names of a lot of muscles (not sure this was the greatest idea to get people interested in birds, but I could be wrong) and I just wasn’t into it. Paradoxically, I would go on to do my Ph.D. research (less than 10 years later!) on limb myology in tyrant flycatchers, so you just never know when something is going to turn out to be important to you – even something you hate at first. But at the very least, everyone should know the names of the muscles they’re eating for Thanksgiving dinner, right? “Yes please, I’d like the iliotrochantericus caudalis if it’s available”.
Summers in Ithaca, NY are hot and muggy, but we had great birding opportunities in the ornithology course and took frequent field trips. Shockingly and uncharacteristically, I didn’t keep lists for most of them so those data are probably lost to science (if anyone reading this was a part of that course in the summer of 1973 and would like to share your lists – please let me know!). It was an education-packed summer that got me into disciplined habits, so I was ready for my first semester of college a month after the course ended. I continued participating in the field trips, speaker series and other programs of my home town bird club, the Linnean Society of New York, and as I hinted in an earlier post, one of the evening speakers in the coming year was to have a profound impact on my future as an ornithologist.