In Your Words: Norman Smith

In Your Words is a regular feature of Mass Audubon’s Explore member newsletter. Each issue, a Mass Audubon member, volunteer, staff member, or supporter shares his or her story—why Mass Audubon and protecting the nature of Massachusetts matters to them.

Norman Smith releasing a snowy owl photo © John Cole

Norman Smith releasing a snowy owl. Photo © John Cole

It’s been 50 years since I first started working at Blue Hills Trailside Museum—51 if you count volunteering. When I was a kid, my parents always let me pick a special outing on my birthday. And every year, I picked visiting Trailside. When I turned 13, I sent in a letter asking if there was anything I could do to help out. The staff accepted.

Every weekend and after school, I would ride my bike 10 miles each way to Trailside to empty trash barrels, pick up litter, clean cages, feed the animals—all routine stuff, but I loved it. Eventually, I got a part-time job taking care of the animals, collecting tickets, and assisting with any other task that needed attention. In 1970, after graduating high school, I started full time as an assistant naturalist. Back then, Garret VanWart was the sanctuary director—and a mentor. He took us out on field trips to Marina Bay in Quincy, and through a scope he set up, I saw my first snowy owl. I was hooked.

Everyone who knows me knows that I am not a tech person (I still use a flip phone). But I was the first person to put satellite transmitters on wintering snowy owls back in 2000 to understand their migration patterns. Our research was the first to prove that snowy owls returned to the arctic each spring. During this time, I used to take my son and daughter out with me to capture and release snowy owls. The transmitters have changed and so have my assistants—now I bring my granddaughters.

Over the last half century, there hasn’t been one day that I have thought of leaving the museum. This is more than just a job. This is my life’s work. I want to inspire as many people as I can to care about these precious resources that we have: to encourage and kindle excitement in every child that walks through the door; to get kids and adults to put down their phones and experience the wonders of nature up close; and to help embolden the next generation of stewards to carry on the legacy to help people better understand, appreciate, and care for the world around us so future generations have the same opportunities and more.

See a slideshow of photos from Norman’s 50 years with Blue Hills Trailside Museum and share your favorite Norman stories in the comments below!

4 thoughts on “In Your Words: Norman Smith

  1. Michael Gendrin

    Hope you enjoy your next venture in life. I will always remember you when the snowy owls come back in the winter. They will still need someone to rescue them from Logan airport. Enjoy your retirement…

  2. jon gawne

    Norm, I was one of your teenage volunteers at Trailside back in the early 70’s. I remember all the great times cleaning cages, going on the canoe trip, watching you rappel down the tree in front of the museum, and being totally amazed at how you could stand in the basement, letting an owl fly around loose, then snap out with on arm and grab the bird in flight unharmed. I have not been back in years, but you, and Trailside, will always be special to me. I stumbled across this website by accident, so I can only assume that there are a lot more like me, out there, who you made a major impression on over the years that would post here if they knew about it.

  3. Don Salvatore

    You gave me the greatest wildlife experience of my life. You took me owl-banding at Logan(back when it was legal). One snowy owl landed next to the trap. Then a second landed. The first took off and the second backed into some brush. A gyrfalcon started to strafe the area and finally landed on a dirt pile. I have never seen you so excited as that day.
    Alas, we didn’t catch the gyrfalcon, but it is a day I will always remember.
    You taught me so much about natural history and I am so grateful for all our time together and to be numbered among your many friends for all these years.

  4. Darlene Carpenter & Mike Clifford

    Norm, we love your enthusiasm and your annual September Hawk Watch at Blue Hill. Keep up the great work that you do!

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