Sorting birds and scholars

Sometimes I step out of Lambert House, in which I have my office, and I will meet some member of William and Mary’s faculty or administration walking on the Jamestown Road sidewalk.

“Coming to see me?” I ask. I don’t know why, because they almost never are coming to see me. The other day it was Dan Cristol, the ornithologist and co-director of the mercury sGIG.

A year or so ago, I was walking down Jamestown Road and saw Dan with a bunch of his students on the sidewalk across the street. Everyone was on point, aiming binoculars at a bird on the ground on my side of the street hidden from me by a tree. They had that hushed excited quality and deliberate stalker’s body language that told me they were on to something good.

I slowed down, then stopped, not wanting to flush their bird. I looked across the street at Dan, raised my eyebrows and made an inquiring gesture, at the area behind the tree. Dan grinned and jerked his chin at me in greeting while his students stayed focused on the hidden bird.

“What you got?” I asked Dan, as sotto voce as I could. They way they were acting, I knew if was a good sighting. A red-breasted nuthatch maybe. Or a cedar waxwing. Could it be an ultra-rare red-cockaded woodpecker?


Dan’s mouth carefully formed the syllables as he spoke: “European starling!”

A starling. To anyone else, it would be a “trash bird.” But evidently a true professional ornithologist values all birds, although perhaps not equally.

The other day, though, it was no birdwalk. Dan and I were on the same side of the street. Among the numerous other hats he wears, Dan is in charge of the College’s Murray Scholars program. When I saw him he was heading to the Office of Undergraduate Admission, to the enormous task of working through the stack of applications to the Murray Scholars Program. Murray Scholars represent the cream of the cream of William and Mary’s applicant pool, and it’s been another record year for admission applications. Dan can pick out a single blacked-back gull from a flock of herring gulls in the time it takes most of us to say “Hey, seagulls!” If only he could sort applications so quickly.

To add to his challenge, Dan is bound by rules that prevent him from taking a stack home and poring through them while the game is on. All applications must be read in the Office of Admission.

“You’d think I was in the CIA or something,” he said, wryly as we parted company on Jamestown Road.

Categories: Academics, Admission, Faculty & Staff Blogs, Research

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