Dittmann was a very active California birder from the mid-1970s into the
mid-1980s. Donna grew up in San Francisco and often summered at Clear Lake,
in Lake County (north of the Napa Valley), with her parents. She became
interested in birds at any early age and was self-taught. By the mid-1970s
she was actively birding the Bay Area with friends like Brian McCaffery,
and then got interested in chasing State birds throughout California. She'd
bum a ride with whomever was going to Death Valley or Arcata or San Diego.
As an attractive young blonde, it was not often hard to find rides. However,
the bird world soon learned that Donna's primary focus was birds. She was
more interested in finding rarities, becoming a top-notch observer, and
seeing the State than she was in dating. And her interests went beyond
birds: she could be equally enthusiastic about a desert night drive in
search of snakes. She had a cheerful, bubbly attitude about the whole adventure.
The combined impact of Donna (in northern California) and Elizabeth Copper (in southern California) changed the role and broke all the boundaries for women in the hardcore birding world. Female birders might be wives, companions, and homemakers, but since Donna and Elizabeth, they could also be considered top-shelf, self-made, hot-shot birders, known for their own accomplishments and skill and not just because they were associated with any particular guy. There had been a few accomplished women birders before — including Eleanor Pugh and Shirley Wells — but none of them impacted the entire birding world as did Donna and Elizabeth. This change in the status of women in birding, coincident with changing views of women's roles in society, expanded and enriched the entire California birding world. Living in different parts of California, Donna and Elizabeth were not particularly close to each other, and they really didn't do anything but be themselves, but they changed the face of the birding world forever.
Photo May 1975 Deep Springs INY © D. Roberson
was among the dozen or so active birders who seriously engaged in a California
Big Year in 1977. She would end the year with 441 species — breaking all
prior records — but in this extraordinary year that total would tie her
for third place. Ironically enough, she was tied with Elizabeth Copper.
Donna is artistic. She often enlivened letters and field notes with quick, accurate sketches of birds. She drew the cover to Birders' California (Roberson 1978) and did several plates in Rare Birds of the West Coast (Roberson 1980).
Donna has gone on to become even more famed than she was in California. By the mid-eighties she had hooked up with Steve Cardiff, and they moved together to Louisiana. Both have careers centered around Louisiana State University and its ornithology program. Donna has worked on a wide variety of laboratory projects studying genetic evidence and its insight into the relationships and evolution of birds. She has co-authored a variety of papers in the ornithological literature on DNA evidence and taxonomy, working on such problems as Fox Sparrows with Robert Zink and others.
Donna also became chair of the Louisiana Bird Records Committee, serving
in that position for numerous years, and has been a member of the ABA Checklist
Committee. She and Steve Cardiff have been heavily involved in the Baton
Rouge Christmas Bird Count, and particularly the efforts to find and identify
the surprisingly high numbers of species of hummingbirds that winter in
the area. Louisiana web sites tell of the day that Donna and Miriam Davey
drove around neighborhoods in Baton Rouge trying to find houses with likely-looking
gardens and hummingbird feeders. By locating these yards, and encouraging
the owners to participate in 'Humm-Net' and the CBC, the results have been
2004, Donna and Steve Cardiff were awarded the "George H. Lowery Award"
by the Louisiana Ornithological Society. The inscription recognizes and
honors them for "their positive influence on Louisiana birding and habitat
conservation. For many years Donna and Steve have encouraged folks to pursue
their interest in Louisiana birding by offering beginning birding classes
and by providing educational field trips both to enhance their knowledge
of birds and to help them acquire birding skills. Donna and Steve's leadership
in Louisiana Christmas Bird Censuses has highlighted the diverse avifauna
of Louisiana and the need to conserve critical habitats. Their work on
the LOS Bird Records Committee and with the LSU Museum of Natural Science
has had a strong, positive influence on Louisiana ornithology through their
professional work and their publications. Click
here for a photo of them accepting this award.
In the photo (above right) Donna shares a laugh (and a
bottle of wine) with Louis Bevier (L) and Kimball Garrett (R) at a birders'
party at Big Bear SBE, July 1976 © B.B. Roberson
Official Bird Name: Snowy Egret
Selected publications since 1989:
All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.
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