Back in February 1994 I had just started a Utah state big year. I had set a record for the number of species seen in the state during the month of January (Utah birders keep track of that kind of stuff!) and was having a great time chasing around the state. That month I read the following in Paul Baicich's sidebar entitled "A Road Not Taken" in the February 1994 Birding magazine (BTW, RTP is Roger Tory Peterson).
Joseph Hickey's 1943 classic A Guide to Birdwatching, in which Hickey outlines how any bird enthusiast can make real ornithological discoveries by carefully studying local birds? If it isn't strictly a road not taken, amateur ornithology is at the very least birding's road less traveled. While the hobby of birding Birding has grown immensely since 1943, it is still mostly about identifying and finding birds, rather than about scientifically studying them.
Before Hickey, Aldo Leopold the patron saint of conservation and wildlife management had recommended avocational natural history study as a worthy pursuit in his classic Sand County Almanac. In fact there is a direct connection between Leopold and Hickey--A Guide to Birdwatching was Hickey's master's thesis written under Leopold at the University of Wisconsin.
We have come a long way since 1943 and since Baicich reminded us of this road less traveled in 1994. But perhaps there is still a long way to go. We have eBird, the Great Backyard Bird Count, and many other formal citizen science projects we can join in. But as Hickey urged, what birders really need is a question--something that isn't known about local birds or bird biology but that can be discovered with some careful study in their free time.
Along these lines I love my work with Purple Martin landlords. The most active martin landlords are always tinkering--trying to figure out new ways to help their birds. From a conservation standpoint I love this approach, and I teach workshops where I encourage people to take a similar approach with other local birds they want to help. What does it take to create a Texas suburban neighborhood that Painted Buntings can thrive in? How can you attract and create habitat for Eastern Towhees in your yard? What are the preferred habitat features for migrant warblers in your local parks? There are lots of things we don't know out there. If conservation biology questions don't float your boat, pick something else you don't know. Read all you can find about it. Pick up a copy of Hickey's classic for inspiration, and then learn whatever skills and how to use the tools you will need to answer your chosen question. Be a field ornithologist, not just a birder.
Will you take the birding road less traveled? Do you have a question?