Women and Ornithology in Norway before 1980 (part 3 of 3)

by Ann Elisabeth Laksfoss Cardozo, Associate Professor, University of Stavanger

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I also want to draw out another type of contribution that has had an effect by funding research on birds in Norway. Thanks to the Bess Jahre Foundation, from 2006 more ornithological research has been funded. Bess F. Jahre (nee Børresen, 1921-2006) was a member of the Norwegian Ornithological Society and a passionate birding enthusiast. She married shipping magnate Anders Jahre (1891-1982) and left 50 million kroner in her will to fund a foundation to support the protection of nature and research into birds, wetland areas and bird reserves in Norway and neighbouring countries.[1] The foundation has funded the purchase of mist nets, motorboats, outboard motors, nano-transmitters for tracking birds, pay for employees at ornithological stations and other things. This funding of knowledge development in ornithology makes Jahre an unusual woman in the Norwegian context.

Members of the Norwegian Ornithological Society also contributed to the development of knowledge, like Gerd Vallersnes (1919-2013) from Haugalandet. She recorded the birds she saw, published her sightings locally and contributed to articles on, among others, the European golden plover (pluvialis apricaria) in Falco – the journal of the Rogaland group of the Norwegian Ornithological Society in the 1970s. She also donated a lesser spotted woodpecker to the Stavanger Museum.[2] Together with her husband, the optician Odd Vallersnes (1908-1998), she wrote birds eyes and sight. In 1975, the couple protested about migratory birds being hunted in Italy and collected 24987 signatures on a petition. Vallersnes was like other members, who developed comprehensive knowledge after observing the same areas throughout their whole lives. Only 41 women contributed to Norsk Fugleatlas (The Norwegian Atlas of Birds) (1994) which was a product of the efforts of citizen scientists and ornithologists with 1400 contributors. Gerd was one of them.

Before 1980, the Norwegian Ornithological Society focused on its members. There were few articles or opinion pieces about or by women. In 1979, Roger Engvik asked “Where are the female ornithologists?” (Vår Fuglefauna #3) and in 1984 the local ornithologist Ingebret I. Grude (1904-1998) asked the following question: “When will we get a competent female ornithologist in this country?” Grude of course knew “the big names” in Norway and they were all men; Svein Haftor, Anders Bernhoft-Osa and Hans Thomas L. Schaanning. He said that his own interest in birds began while living in the United States. As a gold miner in Colorado, he read Handbook of Birds of the Western United States (1902) by Florence Merriam Bailey (1863-1948). He praised the author: “…the female ornithologist Florence Merriam Bailey… was a pro with the camera and took many beautiful pictures of birds… A beautiful lady…”[3] … and thought it strange that no women in Norway had distinguished themselves in the field of ornithology.

Drawing of a Belted Kingfisher
A Belted Kingfisher from Birds through an Opera-glass, 1889

Up to the year 2000, 80% of the members of the Norwegian Ornithological Society were men. 2020 was the first time female membership reached 38%.[4] It seems, then, that the uneven balance of members is in the process of being sorted out – slowly but surely.

The women who have been introduced here studied ornithology, ringed birds, were members of ornithological societies and wrote, edited or translated texts on ornithology. One mainly funded others’ research and another stuffed birds. Some had studied, ringed birds and carried out ornithological work in German, Denmark and USA before they did the same in Norway. All contributed to the development of knowledge within Norwegian ornithology.

In ornithological circles in Norway, there has been a tendency to focus on the unusual or individual species over time. Those who have done that for a lifetime continue to value this type of contribution through leadership positions, job offers and prizes. Undervaluing and excluded or forgetting other types of knowledge development and contributions is a challenge. Women have contributed, more in the background and often their efforts are hidden behind a male family member’s name. This is why I write about women’s contributions to ornithology in Norway before 1980.


Abir-Am O & Dorinda Outram (1987) Uneasy careers and intimate lives: women in science 1789-1979. Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick.

Ericsson, K. (1993) «Mitt Fugleliv,» Nytt Om Kvinneforskning, no. 5 (1993): 3–10.

Holmström, C.T. et al Fuglene i Norden bind 3, Aschehough & Co, Oslo, 1953, s. 178 og 207

Suul, J. Norsk ornitologisk historie NOF, Trondheim, 1982

Stavanger Museums årsberetninger 1882-1904

Folketellingen 1885, 1900 og 1910, Digitalarkivet

Stavanger Aftenblad, 18.01.1905 s.4

Sterna 1951-1970

[1] «Bess Jahres stiftelse» visited 04.10.2021. The endowment of 50 million NOK was made in 2006. Wetlands’ reserve and nature conservation to benefit birds were two explicitly stated purposes. Examples of project supported in 2020: NOF Trondheim received 10000 euros for the garden bird count, Bird day, wetland projects and IBA. The same association received 7500 euros to conduct ringing in Pasvikdalen (Finnmark) and 7500 euros to track satellite-marked owls (strix nebulosa (Great grey owl)). The bird ringing stations of the Oslofjord received 10000 euros to buy equipment for nano-senders to investigate bird trekking. NOF Telemark receive 7500 euros to support the OS at Jomfruland. The OS at Mølen received 12000 euros for mistnets and to cover other expenses. The OS at Øyeren received 4000 euros for surveillance purposes and a new boat motor. Bess Børresen was the grandchild of Fred Olsen.

[2] Stavanger museum og Norsk ornitologisk forening, Sterna, p.7.  Vallersnes, «Gerd skriver fra nord» Falco.

[3] Ingebret I. Grude, “Fugl i Colorados Skogsletter,” Falco, 1984.

[4] Email correspondence with Morten Ree, NOF, autumn 2021.

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