DONNA DITTMANN  [Donna L. Dittmann]
Donna 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

Donna 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 astonishing.

In 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
Photo (directly right) at a Beverly Hills home, 1979 © Barry Clark

Official Bird Name: Snowy Egret
Significant bird records: many vagrants throughout California, and those of Statewide significance include
  • Lesser Sandplover (Mongolian Plover)  15 Sep 1980  Moss Landing first CA record [co-finder with Carol Deuel]
  • Varied Bunting 18 Nov 1977  Mesquite Springs, Death Valley INY 2nd CA record, first since 1914
  • Cook's Petrel  24 July 1984  north end Salton Sea RIV 1st inland CA record [co-finder with Steve Cardiff]
  • Lark Bunting  26 May 1978  Lanfair Valley SBE first confirmed nesting evidence in CA [co-finder]

Selected publications since 1989:

  • Dittmann, D.L., and Lasley, G.W. 1992. How to document rare birds. Birding 24: 145-159.
  • Zink, R.M., Rowher, S., Andreev, A.V., and Dittmann, D.L. 1995. Trans-Beringia comparison of mitochondrial DNA differentiation in birds. Condor 97: 639-649.
  • There are many more technical publications on DNA work, and she and Steve Cardiff have authored a series of identification articles in the Louisiana Ornithological Society's newsletter

All photos © to photographers identified on this page; all rights reserved.
All text © Don Roberson; all rights reserved.







Page created 27 Mar 2005