My career started focused on saving species and preventing extinction, but it evolved into saving humanity because we are closely tied to nature

October 8, 2023

“I was raised birding in the Audubon community in Gulf Breeze, Florida. My parents took me birding with them from an early age. I had Audubon ‘aunts’ and ‘uncles’ who taught me about birds and plants as we walked the beaches and hiked the trails. Our family spent many weekends on Dauphin Island or the Fort Morgan peninsula looking for migrating birds. That was a great childhood for my brother, Will, and me, and we became biologists. We both dedicated our careers to conservation biology, the science of preventing extinctions. That extinction includes humans, so we need to get this right. 

In graduate school, I studied tropical forest deforestation in East Africa and how to get tropical forests to grow back after they had been cleared. After school, I moved to Alabama. I didn’t know what to expect, but Alabama has more species than any state east of the Mississippi River and ranks number four in the U.S. for species diversity. There’s not nearly enough science being done here, and I found my place.

I taught biology at Birmingham Southern College for 20 years, and I wrote Southern Wonder, Alabama’s Surprising Biodiversity, to help get the word out about why Alabama has so many species and why it matters. Nature is not just window dressing or something to do on weekends; it’s our life support system. My career started focused on saving species and preventing extinction, but it evolved into saving humanity because we are closely tied to nature. Last summer, I joined the Great Resignation and became the executive director of Alabama Audubon. 

Most of my time at Alabama Audubon is spent working at my computer, so getting out at Fort Morgan to see the birds I am working to protect is delightful. Alabama’s beaches are one of my happy places, and the sagey smell of the Condradina plant lets me know I am here. This spot on the Fort Morgan peninsula has been a source for banding and collecting data for decades. We caught a Great Crested Flycatcher with a band that dated back ten years ago. That is a long time for these little birds. 

The data also tells us how bird populations are changing. I was born at the end of the sixties, and since then we’ve lost about a third of North American birdsabout 3 billion birds out of roughly 10 billion. The wetland and grassland birds and those exposed to insecticides in their breeding habitats are declining the most. We also lose birds when their habitats are destroyed.

We are also watching changes in species distribution. Some species at Fort Morgan weren’t here when I was a kid. The ranges for some species are shifting because of climate change. It’s getting warmer, and birds normally in the tropics or subtropics can survive farther north. Yesterday, we saw five Black-bellied Whistling ducks; these ducks are moving north and invading the southeast from Florida. The cardinal population is declining in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi but increasing in Tennessee. 

Climate change is also changing the arrival of birds. Earlier today we captured Yellow-billed Cuckoos. They must time their arrival in the U.S. to the seasonal population growth of caterpillars to eat. If the birds get here too early, there’s not enough food. If they arrive too late, the caterpillars have hatched into moths and butterflies. The climate is changing quickly, and birds are struggling to keep up. Those that can’t adapt will be next on the endangered species list.

Part of our role at Alabama Audubon is learning about these patterns and how they’re changing. If we don’t know what’s happening, we don’t know there’s a problem. Research and monitoring is the first phase of that. Scientists are trained to ask questions and document information. When we stop doing that, science fails.

There is something magical about holding a bird at a bird banding station. People won’t protect what they don’t know exists and cannot relate to. So that’s why education and getting people out to see birds is critical. Some take that home and start good things in their backyard and neighborhoods. Sometimes it becomes a movement of people in a community dedicated to the same thing. Small movements grow into bigger movements. That is how we save the world.”


(This interview was from a bird banding in the spring. Here is the link to my story for Alabama Public Radio.)


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