Monday, December 14, 2009

Bird Bones

I was a Biology major in college. Having stuffed a number of birds in my Ornithology class, which included some taxidermy, I am familiar with the intricate architecture of birds. The light, hollow bones, the marvelously flexible necks, the "hands" evolved for flight still amaze me 25 years after I graduated with my diploma firmly clutched in my fist and my tassel tickling my cheek.

My Ornithology professor, who was also my academic adviser, laughed at the faces of distaste I made as I worked my way determinedly through the taxidermy lesson - it was not my favorite part of ornithology. But, I never roast a chicken or make turkey soup from the bones of my Thanksgiving bird without remembering his anatomy lessons and thanking him mentally for all he taught me about birds and about life. His name was Dr. Ronald C. Dilcher; he died this past year before I ever returned to Brockport to thank him again.

Ornithology was the first class I took from him, a summer course that met at 7am - "early birds" is not just an expression. I remember trotting along behind him, straining to recognize the bird calls he heard while struggling to keep up with his long, lean stride - he was a foot taller than I and the difference was all leg.

On one of those mornings, he darted away down a path in the woods and came back to the startled class carrying a starving but still struggling Great Horned Owl, nearly a foot tall, snapping angrily and trying to bite but too weak to fly and with a foot so damaged that it could not hunt for itself. Dr. Dilcher asked for volunteers to care for the owl, whom we named Mean Joe after the famous football player and his evident temperament. I applied
eagerly for the job. Mean Joe spent the next couple of months in my screened porch, sitting on a big branch that I dragged in and growing fat on chicken wrapped in dog hair that I combed daily out of my Tillie and Chica's coats (owls need roughage to aid their digestion and dog hair works a treat). He eventually went to a nature center as he would have starved in the wild. I like to think that Mean Joe gave up his freedom so that several generations of children could learn the wonder of being close to such an impressive creature.

In addition to biology, Dr. Dilcher taught me the value of patience and persistence, of trying again and again, and not giving up. He rallied me through Chemistry and encouraged me through Statistics and helped me to find my vocation, even though it took me away from him and his beloved Sciences in the end.

It's the season when we all look back over the past year and think about its significance. The loss of Dr. Dilcher is one of those important events for me.
His legacy is enduring; I'm still an eager amateur bird watcher, I still care about environmental matters and I still enjoy keeping up with advances in science even though my work hasn't involved them for many years.

Our Ornithology final exam that summer involved identifying bird anatomy - from a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken that he brought to class and had us name as we ate.
When I break this wishbone, my wish will be that all students have a Dr. Dilcher at least once in their lives.


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5 Comments:

Blogger namastenancy said...

What a loving tribute! He sounds like a great teacher but he also had a receptive and intelligent student. Mean Joe sounds like a hoot (no pun intended!). I've had a few good teachers in my life but the ones that have been most influential are the ones that I found outside school. Nevertheless, a good teacher is a gift in one's life and I'm glad for you that you found such a gift - learning how to learn is the gift that truly keeps on giving.

Monday, December 14, 2009  
Blogger Chilebrown said...

I would of done well in that class. I could eat and indenitify a bucket of KFC easy. Wings, Thighs and Breasteses, an easy A. Nice story Zoomie.

Monday, December 14, 2009  
Blogger cookiecrumb said...

I'm amazed you actually did taxidermy in your class. Did you save any of your specimens?

Tuesday, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Greg said...

You got me thinking with this post about patience. Thank you.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009  
Blogger Zoomie said...

Nancy, you are so right about learning how to learn - a precious gift, along with curiosity.

Chilebrown, ha-ha-ha-ha! Yes, you would have loved Dr. D.

Cookiecrumb, no, didn't keep any - in NYS, it's illegal to keep specimens w/o a license. The college was licensed, so they kept them all. Probably really dusty by now, anyway.

Greg, how nice to know I've inspired someone - and the bread post is most fun!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009  

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