Since rebooting this blog in May after an extended hiatus, I’ve been inspired by so much new naturalist content. When I started The Common Naturalist in 2014, natural history was experiencing a pretty steep decline and identity crisis. People and institutions connected to the field were struggling to innovate and evolve in response to a profound lack of appreciation and attention. Fortunately, since that time, it seems like naturalists have rediscovered, reimagined, and reinvigorated their field in meaningful and lasting ways.
Collections are being revisited with fresh eyes and naturalists are fervently establishing the case for why collections matter. Natural history museums have launched new inspiring outreach, engagement, and interpretation programs (e.g. live streams, cross-disciplinary exhibitions, access to collections, etc.) Citizen science programs – like iNaturalist and eBird – backed by naturalist institutions are revolutionizing data analytics and community participation in the natural sciences.
Outside of these “official channels” is a growing collection of independently produced content in the naturalist podcast space. Two such podcasts, Beyond Blathers and The Science of Birds, are standouts particularly worthy of your ears.
Unless you’re completely out of touch with the gaming community, you know that Animal Crossing New Horizons on the Nintendo Switch captured a substantial part of the pandemic gaming market share over the last year. It’s a very cute and very accessible game in which you create your own small island community and live among anthropomorphic animals.
It also features an expansive naturalist collection-based minigame. Players are challenged to collect 200 critters (“insects”, “fish”, and “sea creatures”) and 73 fossils. They can subsequently donate their specimens to their island’s museum, which is run by a scholarly owl character named Blathers. The collection, and its strigine curator, are the inspiration for a new-ish podcast called Beyond Blathers.
Beyond Blathers is hosted and produced by Olivia deBourcier and Sofia Osborne. Olivia and Sofia self-describe as “two animal-loving science communicators who also like to play Animal Crossing in their spare time.” After listening to their “Ask Me Anything” episode from April 28th, however, I can say for certain that that description only scratches the surface. They are lifelong naturalists with diverse interests and talents which they skillfully put to use as they bring us along in their explorations of the natural world.
They have a knack for keeping the subject matter accessible, engaging, and informative. Unlike Blathers, you won’t be dozing off mid-stream. Their content is easily digestible and they approach their work with the kind of humble, open-minded, and enthusiastic curiosity that is characteristic of some of the most inspiring amateur naturalists I know.
For the most part, their content is broken up into bite-sized episodes highlighting a particular item in the Animal Crossing museum collection, like the sea butterfly or orchid mantis. They do, however, also feature some entertaining deep dives with experts, like when they hosted Dr. Adele Pentland to talk about amber.
I’ve spent a lot of time learning about the natural sciences – both when I earned my degree and, generally, as a naturalist – but there is always more to learn. I have certainly learned something new and exciting during each and every episode of Beyond Blathers and I am definitely hooked. If you’re looking for a new, extremely accessible podcast good for just about any naturalist audience, look no further.
The Science of Birds
If you’re in the mood for something a little denser than Beyond Blathers – and you happen to be ornithologically inclined – then The Science of Birds should definitely be on your podcast shortlist. Dr. Ivan Phillipsen produces and hosts the podcast, describing it as a “curated presentation of nerdy information about birds.”
Ivan states on the podcast’s website that he structures his episodes in a format similar to what he uses in his adult classes on natural history topics. They’re very well-researched and very informative. You’re basically getting university lecture quality presentations without the soul-crushing tuition costs.
You also get to avoid all the typical university lecture banality that comes with professors who are too focused on their research and not focused enough on their didactics. Ivan skillfully distills complex and esoteric subject matter into engaging hour-long episodes about all aspects of the avian world. His expansive knowledge shines through each episode and his passion for the material is contagious.
You definitely want to be in the right state of mind when you listen, however. This isn’t something you’ll want to just play in the background while you’re focused on other things. The content is too rich to be given a passive listening treatment. You should pour yourself a glass of your favorite something and settle in. You won’t regret the extra attention.
His most recent episode melded two topics near and dear to me: ecology and data science. I’m a full-time data engineer/analyst to “pay the bills” so it was particularly interesting. Give it a listen!