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Stories from the archives: Vivian Pitzrick the “Nest Hunter”

Photo © Conor Farrell/ Macaulay Library (ML167756751)

by Jewel Alston, Cornell class of 2021

A memoir inspired by Nest Quest Go!

Hidden in stacks of yellowed index cards at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology are rich stories of early citizen scientists. The Cornell Lab’s North American Nest-Record Card Program ran from the 1960s to the early 2000s and amassed more than 300,000 records on bird nests. To make these data more accessible to researchers, NestWatch developed the Nest Quest Go! project to focus on transcribing and digitizing these cards. This is the story of Vivian Pitzrick’s contributions to our historic Nest-Record Card Collection.


How it all started

Barefoot, Vivian Pitzrick spent her childhood frolicking through the pastures with her lambs. On the family farm in Allegany County, New York, Vivian learned how to shear a sheep and banter with the bluebirds. Most importantly, she learned how to be a trailblazer. Her mom was the first female medical doctor trained in western New York, and Vivian was raised to believe she could do anything if she put her mind to it. 

Vivian Pitzrick With Her Lambs in 1912

Vivian Pitzrick With Her Lambs in 1912

From a young age, Vivian learned to break the status quo. Riding horses was another one of her passions. Although it was uncommon at the time, her father allowed her to drive a team of horses–something typically only done by the men. The support from her parents helped Vivian develop her go-getter attitude. 

At a small Christian college, Vivian studied math and music—fields that were and still are dominated by men. There she met her future husband, the man who would help spark her interest in birding. 

Shortly after learning about the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Vivian and her husband began participating in The North American Nest-Record Card Program and other citizen-science projects. Vivian’s interest in birds quickly became an obsession. She joined the Allegany County Bird Club, where she met her best friend and nest-hunting partner, Besty Brooks. They created an annual competition that fueled their love for birding and nest finding.

Vivian the Nest Finder

With their pockets full of nest-record cards, Vivian and Betsy began a friendly, annual competition to see who could find more nests in a season. They created an elaborate point system and at the end of the season, held a tongue-in-cheek award ceremony. Each year, the power duo sent in thousands of cards for dozens of species, from American Goldfinches to Cedar Waxwings and everything in between. 

National Wildlife Magazine Article About Vivian and Betsy, 1989.

National Wildlife Magazine Article About Vivian and Betsy, 1989.

Vivian developed a sixth sense which seemed to help her find any nest, anywhere, at any time. From watching the Brown-headed Cowbird parasitize other species of birds, Vivian learned a thing or two about finding nests. During the height of the nesting season, Vivian often spent 6 days a week searching for nests, usually finding as many as 50 in a day! Although Betsy was one of the only people who could keep up with her, Vivian also loved nest hunting with her grandson, Mike. 

On a Sunday afternoon returning home from church, Mike recalls his grandmother suggesting they conduct a quick nest check. Pulling over, they marched through an old field and approached a dense patch of dogwoods. As Vivian parted the branches, she revealed the beginnings of an American Goldfinch nest. Mike recalls asking her how she knew to check that particular bush. Vivian responded, “It seemed like a good place given where the other nests were in this field, and knowing the sorts of places goldfinches like to build.” With so much time spent locating nests, it’s hard to believe Vivian had the time to do anything else.

Beyond the nest

Even though Vivian spent a lot of time nest monitoring and birding, she was passionate about other pursuits as well. After tinkering with her brother’s beam antenna, Vivian became interested in radio transmission. Because she was just getting started in her sixties, Vivian felt the need to make up for lost time. She made friends all around the world in 100 countries and all 50 states. In a few short years Vivian became an expert, achieving her Extra Class License which allowed her to broadcast on all frequencies. 

Vivian Pitzrick With Radio Equipment, 1972.

Vivian Pitzrick With Radio Equipment, 1972.

Like most women in the early twentieth century, Vivian had to overcome societal norms that suggested being a full-time housewife was the ideal role for a woman. Breaking into the male-dominated world of ornithology was difficult, yet Vivian made her mark. Vivian’s devotion to nest-watching fulfilled her passion for citizen science, but it also satisfied a deeper calling. Vivian often wondered if she might have built a career as an academic or professional ornithologist had she been born a few decades later.

Across all areas of her life, Vivian exemplifies what it means to chase your dreams. From being a young woman driving a team of horses to a self-taught nest hunter, Vivian accomplished every goal she set her mind to. As women, we continue to experience that the world wasn’t built for us, and we’re still fighting for equality across the board. In life, there will always be people and systems designed to hold us back. But, as Vivian has shown, defying the odds is never impossible.

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Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Cornell Lab of Ornithology