Dr.Kiel Drake, Saskatchewan Director for Birds Canada, is passionate about his work. Whether in the field or on a computer, his enthusiasm for birds and conservation is unmistakable. He describes his work as “trying to make sure species don’t go extinct, and that other critters have a bit of space to share with us.” With so much passion for this work, it is hard to imagine that Drake only found out about birds by accident when taking a mandatory ornithology course at Humboldt State University in California. So how did this blossom into a career? He found his “interests just overlapped strongly with what I could do professionally.” From there, it was a matter of hard work and some good luck.
One of the reasons I interviewed Kiel Drake was to learn more about how scientists track bird migration and movement. The difference between the two topics is essential: migration happens across large distances like from Canada to Argentina. On the other hand, movement is the short-distance travel of birds during a specific season, such as looking for food in the summer. I asked about this because I was curious: do the same birds return to our yards and parks every year? The answer was more interesting and complex than I had imagined. It turns out that many species that live between “7-10 years as an adult bird” have “a much higher probability of returning to the same breeding grounds year after year.” However, even then, we cannot be sure without bird banding. Most of the time, we only know that we can expect the same bird species in our yards. We would have to turn to scientific research tools such as transmitters and bird banding to learn more.
Bird banding involves attaching small leg bands to an individual. This information is recorded by the bird banding office, which regulates the permit process. This method relies on recapture information to track the location of the bird. In other words, someone will catch and band a bird. Once they release it, it will fly away and continuing living its life. At some point in the future, a different bander might catch the bird again. Details like where the bird was recaptured provide insight into the bird’s movement. It is excellent because the leg bands last as long as the bird is alive. A disadvantage is that you may never recapture the animal. Transmitters resolve the issues of low recapture rates because they record locations at set intervals. This is great if you want to know more detail about where a bird is over time. However, battery life is a concern.
Using these research techniques, scientists can ask questions that are crucial for conservation efforts. For example, Kiel Drake’s research on piping and snowy plovers in South Texas demonstrated that individuals of this species return to the same territory most of the time. If these areas were lost, “there’s probably going to be a bird that’s out a home.” He also reminded me that this information doesn’t mean we can take a simple view of protecting their habitat. The species “that are not doing so well are often the focus of our attention, but sometimes if we took the focus off those individual species who are not doing so well and put the focus back on the ecosystem, the individual species might come along a little bit better.” Clearly, the whole system plays a part in protecting biodiversity.
When asked what you can do for conservation, he answers that it is important to work “at the scale you influence.” We can help support this by planting native plants in our yards and keeping the native cover on farmland to allow for nesting spots, and maintaining wetlands.
Talking to Kiel Drake about engaging people in nature was one of my favourite parts of the interview. He loves to get asked questions about bird identification. For him, “those are cool questions because sometimes I can answer it based on what they tell me, but more importantly, they are showing an interest in discovering what something is, and it allows me to say ‘hey, this is likely what it is and there’s also this opportunity for you to learn these things yourself.’” For Drake, the opportunity to help people foster their sense of discovery is key to getting people out in nature.
If you are looking for ways to support the work of Birds Canada, you can: donate to conservation organizations or share your naturalist skills by participating in monitoring activities like the Breeding Bird Atlas, the Nocturnal Owl Survey, and the Christmas bird count. He also encourages people to “make use of our education opportunities and increase your enjoyment of being outside.”