Vanessa Blount, a student in a Wildlife Management class, has her first personal encounter with a red-tailed hawk.

Vanessa Blount, a student in a Wildlife Management class, has her first personal encounter with a red-tailed hawk.

AT HUMBOLDT STATE, professors and students study all types of critters. But one step inside the Wildlife Building and it's hard not to be impressed with the vast collection of birds. These specimens are used to train the next generation of ornithologists, but before students can earn their feathers, so to speak, they've got to overcome the challenges of conducting research on a flying, migratory and extremely intelligent creature.

Long-distance Relationships

CLOCKWISE FROM LEFT: Jamaica's famed Blue Mountains are home to some of the finest coffee in the world. They're also home to hundreds of wildlife species, many of which are found nowhere else in the world. • Coffee beans are actually the seeds within these mature coffee berries. • Tiny insects cause major destruction for coffee farmers. Female coffee borer beetles lay their eggs in coffee berries. During the larval stage, these pests feed on the seed, or coffee bean, significantly damaging farmers' yields. • Studying warblers, like this tropical parula, Matthew Johnson found that coffee borer beetles were a large part of the birds' diet.

FOR WILDLIFE PROFESSOR and Department Chair Matthew Johnson, the main challenge in his research is distance. Once a year his passion for birds takes him and a handful of students thousands of miles away to the tropical climate of Jamaica's famed Blue Mountains, where the team studies the relationship between coffee plantations and the birds that inhabit the area. The work is part of a three-year project funded by the National Science Foundation.

He schedules his fieldwork between semesters, which adds another layer of challenge: Not only are Johnson's research subjects 3,200 miles away, he and his students have a limited timeframe in which to do their work. In addition to a semester's worth of developing and refining research questions and hypotheses, Johnson and his students spend roughly 50 hours on logistics. From securing local housing and vehicle rentals in Jamaica, to packing spare batteries for their GPS units, success is in the details. "Unlike with a local project," he says, "You can't go back and measure later. You have to make sure you get every bit of data you need before you leave. And you have to have everything ready to go before you even arrive."

Still, research challenges aside, the focus remains on the birds and the people who share the mountain habitat. And Johnson says that when it comes to the conservation of a species, success depends on meeting the needs of the people in the community as well as the needs of the wildlife.

TOP: Johnson, far right, and Wildlife students, from left, Rob Fowler, Jherime Kellermann and Amy Stercho, used experimental cages over coffee bushes to study the impact of pest-eating birds on crop yields. BOTTOM: Matthew Johnson holds a Jamaican tody on a coffee farm in Jamaica. This vibrantly colored bird feeds on pests like the coffee borer beetle and only lives in Jamaica.

For the species Johnson and his students have been studying—including the rufous-throated solitaire, the Blue Mountain vireo and migratory warblers—much of their habitat was being destroyed to make room for coffee farms, which provide a reliable source of income for the community. Johnson sought a way to integrate those seemingly competing requirements. And after getting to know the community of farmers and doing preliminary research on the native birds, Johnson discovered a common interest: bugs.

The insects the birds were feeding on happened to be destructive pests. Among them, the coffee borer beetle—a coffee farmer's worst enemy. The beetle is singled out as the most harmful pest of coffee crops, affecting more than 70 countries, Jamaica included. Without bird habitat nearby, the farmers depended on expensive and potentially harmful pesticides to protect their crops.

After identifying the link between birds and bugs, Johnson and his students presented their findings to Jamaican officials, including the Coffee Industry Board and Ministry of Forestry, with hopes that land managers there would encourage more shade-grown coffee production. Now some of their recommendations to these officials have become on-the-ground changes. During their last excursion, Johnson and his students found workers planting native trees along the edges of coffee farms as bird habitat, courtesy of the Ministry. "It was one of those rare cases of a win-win situation, where what's good for the farmer can also be good for the wildlife," he says.

Unrequited Love

IT GETS MORE CHALLENGING to help endangered wildlife when there aren't such clear benefits.

Mark Colwell, Wildlife Professor and expert on shorebirds, values the snowy plover. It's not uncommon for Colwell and his students to walk miles along local beaches studying the plovers amidst their habitat. The persistence is worth it, as the small shorebird is threatened with local extinction. But, unlike Johnson's pest-eating tropical birds, the plover has few direct benefits to offer Humboldt County's human population besides a pretty face.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP LEFT: Shorebird tracks dot the sand near plover territory. • Mark Colwell shows students Lena Orozco and Jane Kelly how much ground to cover as they survey shorebirds along Humboldt Bay's South Spit jetty. • Plover chicks are banded as soon after hatching as possible because, within a day, they leave the nest under the care of the male and roam widely.

"In losing plovers, we lose an increment of life on Earth," Colwell says. He's dedicated 12 years of his decades-long career to the plover, and works tirelessly with his students to better understand the ecology of the threatened shorebird. "The world is a less beautiful place without them."

Graduate student and Colwell's teaching assistant, Luke Eberhart-Phillips, has conducted research that suggests the plovers could go extinct locally in the next 50 years if wildlife management practices don't change. "Asking people to care more for the plovers is difficult, because they have no tangible instrumental value to society. If anything, conservation can be said to come at a cost," Colwell says.

"Asking people to care more for the plovers is difficult, because they have no tangible instrumental value to society. If anything, conservation can be said to come at a cost." Mark Colwell

And so, in working to protect the birds, Colwell and his students highlight another angle to this challenge: Should land managers use the carrot or the stick? That is, does one coax the public into caring for these birds or should punishments be doled out to those who disturb their habitats?

What makes the snowy plovers so vulnerable is that they don't build elaborate nests or perch in trees. Rather, they create shallow scrapes in beach sands where they lay their camouflaged eggs. In addition to threats from predators and a loss of habitat, their nests are vulnerable to the accidental or inattentive actions of beachgoers.

CLOCKWISE FROM TOP RIGHT: Within a week of hatching a brood, female snowy plovers desert their mates. • Special banding pliers are used to fit newly hatched plovers with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identification bands. • Plovers generally lay three camouflaged eggs per clutch in shallow scrapes like this. • Student David Orluck uses a birding scope to get a closer look at skittish shorebirds.

During the plovers' reproductive season, segments of Humboldt County beaches where plovers breed and encounter humans are cordoned off to the public. In other places, beach use is restricted and activities such as horseback riding and off-leash dogs are prohibited. This is conservation at a cost, as Colwell described.

Yet another option for land managers is threatening people with the consequences of violating the Endangered Species Act. But Colwell finds boosting community awareness (the carrot, not the stick) is a more productive method of protecting the plovers.

Regardless of method, Colwell's work has a multi-pronged affect. By getting his students involved in the challenge of saving the snowy plover, he's exposing them to the real-world struggle of protecting an endangered species, all while focusing on the fundamentals of conducting research on shorebirds.

Getting Close

YOU MIGHT THINK of ornithology as a spectator sport best suited to those content to admire from afar. But in order to gather meaningful data, bird researchers have to find ways to get close to their subjects. And no matter how determined the scientists are, tracking, capturing and handling birds can present a serious challenge.

Consider Wildlife Professor Luke George's efforts with red-tailed and red-shouldered hawks.

Professor Luke George handles a red-tailed hawk while professor Jeff Black, in red, and students look on. The professors and students were working with HSU alum Jeff Kidd who demonstrated techniques for banding the birds of prey.

Getting close to the birds of prey, however, turned out to be much more difficult than expected.

Without proper training, students cannot capture or band hawks. But George hoped the large birds would be an easy species for students to re-sight and track once banded by professionals. The problem, he says, is that after those raptors were caught and banded, they became very skittish—especially around slow moving vehicles associated with researchers putting out traps. "Ninety percent of our students never got a read on the bands," he says.

The hawks proved less-than-ideal for training undergraduates to re-sight for long-term studies. However, they remain valuable when teaching students to handle birds. "They are relatively calm. They rarely try to bite. And they're large enough to make it easy to grip their legs," George says. "Even students that have not held birds in the past can safely hold, observe and release this very beautiful, powerful animal."

So how can hawks be too skittish for most students to study after banding, but calm enough to be held by an inexperienced handler-in-training?

"It's like having a suspect in custody," George says. "When they have been caught and cuffed, they don't try to get away because they know the game is up. When you release them, however, they get away as fast as they can and run the other way every time they see a police cruiser approaching."

So the challenge persists. How does a wildlife professor like Luke George get his students interacting with birds, especially species appropriate for students who might not have the carefully trained hands of an experienced researcher? The hawks' size and demeanor were attributes that made them ideal candidates for this job, but they proved too wary of researchers.

In one case, George and graduate student Amy Scarpignato decided to go after a species known for its wits—the raven—which meant the researchers would need to outsmart one of the smartest animals on the planet. A challenge indeed.

The Ones That Almost Got Away

THE RAVEN COUPLE, a male and female, ate peckishly at a nearby picnic table. Hidden in the distance, George and Scarpignato thought they had found perfect targets. But laying hands on the sly ravens proved a much bigger test than expected.

In order to conduct her research, Scarpignato needed to fit the birds with radio transmitters and that meant first capturing the birds.

The pair tried a number of traps to capture the ravens: filament nooses to snare the birds' ankles, nets to envelope the birds, and even a trap laid with delicious live bait.

Regardless of method, the birds came to recognize Scarpignato and her vehicle. As a result, to track the pair, she had to bring in an assistant and use another method of capture: mist netting. These gauzy nets are difficult for birds to see—almost as transparent as a pane of glass—and are strung up between trees or posts to safely ensnare birds. To persuade the ravens to fly into the mist net, the team mounted a mechanical great-horned owl near their nest.

"The ravens were livid," George says. "They were screaming, calling, flying and diving around—but not toward the mist net." Then the innovative birds began to use tools to chase the menacing owl from its perch near their home. "They started breaking off twigs and pinecones and throwing them at the owl," he says, and when the mist net caught the twigs it became visible to the ravens.

The owl rouse had flopped. It wasn't until Scarpignato met a nearby resident that her luck with the ravens took a turn.

The neighbor, who had a chicken coop on the property, reported that the pair of ravens often flew down in the early morning to scavenge the chicken scratch. With this new information, Scarpignato sensed a positive end to her 140-hour research ordeal. She set up a trap near the chicken coop before dawn, and within five minutes of the ravens' arrival, the pair was snared. Challenge met.

Scarpignato's research helped her determine, among other things, that ravens have stable home ranges and territories, which they defend. It also proves, says George, that ravens regard some areas as dangerous and behave with greater suspicion and care in those areas. In other areas, like the chicken coop, the birds let their guard down.

"What really surprised me is, when we actually caught them and had them in hand, the ravens were calm," George says. "They were watching. Processing. It really felt like you were dealing with another intelligent being."

Student with a Goose

Aleutian Geese a Success Story

BRINGING A SPECIES BACK from the brink of extinction might be the ultimate challenge for wildlife conservationists. From the late 1970s through the 1980s, researchers at Humboldt State University played a major role in helping revive the dwindling population of Aleutian geese, a subset of the Canada goose complex that includes two species and at least six subspecies.

When their efforts began, the Aleutian geese population was below 1,000, the result of years of predation from foxes bred on the Aleutian Islands for their fur.

At the time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began a program to revive the population. Paul Springer, along with students from the HSU Wildlife Department, set out to answer questions about the birds, like where they travelled to during their annual migrations (turns out they travel as far south as Modesto, Calif.).

Foxes were removed from two Aleutian Islands, which eased pressure on the geese's nesting grounds. Hunting of Canada geese was also restricted to give a boost to the Aleutian population. Geese were reared in captivity for later release and several follow-up studies were conducted to track the bird's progress.

Now there are more than 100,000 Aleutian geese—a conservation success story.

However, an entirely different problem has arisen: how to deal with the estimated $400,000 in annual damage done to Humboldt and Del Norte County pasture lands as a result of the grazing fowl. Humboldt State researchers are still involved with the project and are working with officials and landowners on solutions to the outsized success of the conservation effort.

Chris West holding a Condor

California Condors The Struggle Continues

CHRIS WEST ('09, Wildlife), senior wildlife biologist for the Yurok Tribe, has worked tirelessly to help reintroduce the endangered California condor to the state's North Coast. Although his efforts have seen some progress, the biggest challenge is keeping this iconic bird's precarious recovery tipped in the right direction.

The California condor, prey-go-neesh in Yurok, is an integral part of Yurok religious ceremonies.

Once, says West, the massive scavenger, with an average wingspan of nearly 10 feet, thrived along the North Coast, feeding on beached marine animals and large land animals such as elk. By the early 1980s, only 22 survived in the wild.

Currently, the condor population has bounced back to a total of nearly 370, with just over half living in the wild, but the species isn't out of danger.

While West and his partners study the birds' ecology, food sources and habitats to better understand risks in the environment and causes of mortality, the number one threat to condors is lead poisoning from ammunition.

Students releasing condor

Lead ammunition fragments inside animals when shot. When condors scavenge remains, they ingest very small amounts of lead, which is extremely toxic to the birds. Condors don't reach reproductive maturity for six or seven years and only lay one egg every other year, so poisonings can have a huge impact on the population's stability.

Hunting with non-lead ammunition is an effective tool for condor reintroduction as gut piles that hunters leave behind provide a clean source of food.

Captive breeding has also helped to bolster the population's numbers, but, according to West, 38 percent of released condors haven't survived in the wild. In addition to lead, these remaining birds face threats from poachers, ingested toxins such as DDT and loss of habitat.