Tracking Winged Sentinels
A U professor travels the world to document birds’ crucial role and conserve their dwindling numbers.
With its bald head, its preposterous neck, its tendency to hunch its shoulders while waiting for something bad to happen, the vulture is a bird that makes us cringe. But look what happened in India.
First, the vultures’ habitat was cut down to make way for human villages and farms, and then farmers began medicating their cattle with a painkiller that caused the birds’ kidneys to collapse when they ingested the cattle remains. Vulture populations began to decline—to near-extinction levels in some areas of the country—and then the land was littered with rotting carcasses, which caused the feral dog and rat populations to increase, contributing to a bubonic plague outbreak and the deaths of 48,000 people from rabies.
As Çağan H. Şekercioğlu tells it, this is one more cautionary tale about the perils of diminishing biodiversity. And it’s why, in 2009, he opened the first “vulture restaurant” in his native Turkey (that is to say, a place where the scavengers could get a safe meal, not an eatery with roast vulture on the menu.)
Çağan H. Şekercioğlu (pronounce it cha-HAN shay-KER-jeoh-loo) is a conservation biologist, ornithologist, and tireless advocate for biodiversity. Last year, he was honored as one of 14 “emerging explorers” by National Geographic for his work in tropical and mountain outposts from Costa Rica to Ethiopia. The distinction recognizes Şekercioğlu as being among the “uniquely gifted and inspiring adventurers, scientists, and storytellers making significant contributions to world knowledge through exploration while still early in their careers.” In 2008, he received Britain’s prestigious Whitley Gold Award for his conservation efforts in Turkey, from the Whitley Fund for Nature. At 36, he is already one of the most cited environmental scientists in the world.
Since 2010, Şekercioğlu has called Salt Lake City home. When the University of Utah wooed him in 2009, he was impressed by both the Department of Biology and its generous offer: a brand-new lab, a generous start-up fund, and enough time away from teaching duties each year to pursue his far-flung fieldwork.
During the 2011 Fall Semester, he traveled to Ethiopia, where he set up six bird-banding stations in a remote forest to explore whether climate change is forcing birds to seek higher elevations. He also went to Turkey, where he worked with his nonprofit organization, KuzeyDoğa, on projects including Turkey’s first wildlife corridor and the vulture restaurant, which is modeled after similar safe havens in India and Nepal. And at year’s end, he traveled to New Zealand to participate in the International Congress for Conservation Biology, where he urged the world’s university-based conservation scientists to not just go into the wild and then publish papers, but also to work with local groups that can make conservation happen. Decision-makers, especially in the developing world, he told them, are more likely to follow the recommendations of academics than those of independent NGOs, which they often suspect of having political agendas.
To save birds, he believes, you’ve got to encourage humans to get involved. Increasingly, that means working with grassroots organizations to help them see that saving species can be a win-win for local economies. It also means dealing with bureaucrats to get permits and garner support for ventures such as the 58,000-acre wildlife corridor and a man-made bird-nesting island that Şekercioğlu spearheaded in Turkey’s Lake Kuyucuk.
Sometimes it also means drinking endless cups of tea with government officials. Writer Elif Batuman, in her keenly observed profile of Şekercioğlu published in The New Yorker last fall, quotes him on the matter of tea drinking:
“I should just put on an adult diaper and drink tea all day long,” Çağan reflected, rubbing his eye. “They’ll be like, ‘That Çağan, he’s a really good guy—the other day he had tea with us for five hours. Let’s declare this a protected habitat. ’ ”
Even a short conversation with Şekercioğlu is often a winged migration, a flight that starts in the tropics, perhaps, and then veers off-course toward an even better story.
He might begin with his historical idol, Alfred Russell Wallace, a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and then detour to the 19th-century extinction of a flightless songbird called the Stephens Island wren; then take a sharp turn toward the Ottoman Empire; and then veer east to Papua New Guinea, where the construction of a gas pipeline is destroying habitat yet also making the area accessible to birders. Then, suddenly, he will realize that he is going to be late to a meeting.
“I’m talking too long,” he will say then. It is part apology, part the clear-eyed observation of a scientist observing his own behavior. “I often give myself to things. Being a professor these days means doing three, four jobs at once. I am still learning to balance my life.”
It is this passion—for stories and work, for life and all living things—that first impressed University of Utah College of Science Dean Pierre Sokolsky. “You can tell immediately that this is not just an academic subject for him,” Sokolsky says of Şekercioğlu. “His whole face lights up.”
In hiring a new faculty member, Sokolsky says, “what you’re really trying to hire is the intellect and the energy,” rather than to more narrowly find a person who does a particular type of research. The dean was also struck by Şekercioğlu’s ability to reach out to the world’s millions of bird watchers, and beyond them to the general public, to make science not just accessible but a heart-pounding experience.
Bird “watching” hardly captures the lengths to which Şekercioğlu goes to find the planet’s nearly 10,000 bird species. He is No. 69 in the world in number of bird species observed (last count: 5,781) and one of the handful in their 30s who has seen more than half the world’s bird species. “If I live to an old age and am able physically,” he says, “8,000 species is possible.”
To track down, keep track of, and study the habitats of everything from the scruffy bald ibis to the showy keel-billed toucan, Şekercioğlu has endured the following: He was chased by a machete-wielding mob in Costa Rica (they thought he was a thief when in fact he was searching for a Pacific screech-owl); he was charged by an elephant in Tanzania; he acquired the skin disease form of leishmaniasis in Peru from the bite of a sand fly; he almost lost his legs to a lymph system infection in Papua New Guinea; he came face to face with a grizzly bear in Alaska; and he was carjacked by AK-47-toting tribesmen in Ethiopia. Still, he says, it’s safer to do fieldwork than to drive a car in his native Istanbul.
Fieldwork—not just studying the habits and habitats of birds but working with local communities to save species—is essential for solving the world’s conservation problems, he says. But with the growing pressure on academic scientists to publish quickly and on big topics, biologists tend increasingly to work with existing data sets. And funding to do long-term field research gets harder and harder to come by.
On a recent afternoon, Şekercioğlu re-enacts what it was like to come upon the book that changed his life. He gets up from his desk in his office in the U’s South Biology Building, walks to the bookshelf, and picks up the Collins Field Guide: Birds of Britain and Europe. He was 14 when he first found it on the shelf of his high school library in Istanbul and was awed by what the world offered.
His father bought him a pair of Russian-made military binoculars, and, despite the fact that their heft gave him a neck ache, he wore them everywhere. Before it was birds, it was insects. And frogs. And hedgehogs. He made his first insect net out of his mother’s wedding veil. He taught himself to read when he was 4 years old (his parents wearied of reading him yet another book about animals). He read about Darwin at age 5 (although he thought Darwin had written On the Origin of Türks, since the Turkish word for “species” is “Tür”).
Worried that he preferred insects to soccer, his parents took him to a psychiatrist, who assured them that he was normal. But in Turkey at that time, he says, there was not a single role model for a boy who wanted to study wildlife. “If you’re good at science,” the conventional wisdom went, “you should become a doctor or an engineer.” To this day, no university in Turkey has an ecology department, and in all of Istanbul, there isn’t a single natural history museum.
Because there also weren’t many natural history books in Turkish, he read them in English. And that, he says, eventually boosted his college entrance exam scores, and that helped him get a full scholarship to Harvard University. It also probably didn’t hurt that at age 16 he contributed a rare beetle to the Harvard entomology collection. He got his doctorate at Stanford University, studying with famed population biologist Paul Ehrlich. While still in college, at age 23, Şekercioğlu initiated a study of a community of more than 400 bird species in Costa Rica. (So far, the project has mist-netted more than 60,000 birds of 262 species, radio-tracked about 450 birds, and monitored hundreds of bird nests.) The work has helped reveal how tropical forest birds respond to agriculture and deforestation. He also organized a worldwide bird ecology database that covers all of the world’s 10,000-plus bird species—one of the world’s most comprehensive archives of any class of organism, he says—and which he updates based on the literature and his field experience.
And that brings us to the heart of Şekercioğlu’s work.
Farming, logging, cities, roads: Over the centuries, birds have had to make room for human pursuits and have sometimes become extinct in the process. Now, add to that the threat of climate change, says Şekercioğlu.
“Even if we were oblivious to the present changes in Earth’s climate,” he writes with co-author Janice Wormworth in the 2011 book Winged Sentinels: Birds and Climate Change, “a careful look at birds’ patterns of responses over recent decades would warn us that some sort of widespread and systematic change is afoot.”
When and where and how often they breed, for example, can give us a clue that their ecosystem is awry. They are nearly literally the “canary in the coal mine,” warning of what might follow for other species, says Şekercioğlu. And their diminishing numbers could have a direct effect on the planet. The seeds of rainforest trees, for example, are mainly dispersed by birds. If the birds dwindle or become extinct, eventually, the trees will, too. As part of his efforts to help preserve those tropical species, Şekercioğlu co-authored the 2011 book Conservation of Tropical Birds, another exploration of how climate change, habitat loss, and invasive species affect birds and other wildlife.
In a 2008 study published in the journal Conservation Biology, Şekercioğlu and his colleagues at Stanford predicted that if the Earth’s surface temperature rises 2.8 degrees Celsius by the end of this century (a moderate scenario, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change), it could trigger the extinction of 400 to 550 bird species. Part of that is due to what he calls the “escalator effect”—as habitats get warmer and vegetation changes, birds move to higher elevations; eventually they run out of places for escape. A worst-case scenario of habitat loss plus 6.4 degrees Celsius warming could mean more than 2,500 land birds would become extinct by the year 2100, about 30 percent of all land bird species.
The good news, though, is that even a reduction of 1 degree Celsius of warming can make a huge difference, Şekercioğlu says, resulting in up to 500 fewer bird extinctions. We can also make sure there are vegetation corridors between forest fragments; we can improve the “hospitality” of farmland so birds can thrive.
Our economic system is based on constant growth, notes Şekercioğlu, and we humans are a “short-sighted species… Our brains are not wired to deal with long-term, catastrophic threats” such as climate change. At the other extreme, though, by the time scientific data are condensed into a magazine article or summarized in a misleading headline, projections can look worse than they are. It’s a constant struggle to make sure the science reporting is accurate, he says, and that the real environmental threats aren’t overlooked.
Like any scientist, he sometimes uses fuzzy phrases like “bird-mediated ecosystem process” and “avian extinction correlates.” But Şekercioğlu is also a photographer and a storyteller, a cheerleader for every bird that flies or swims or waddles.
If he could be any bird at all, he says, he would be a raptor. In English, his first name translates as “hawk.” But it’s not just that. He would rather be the bird that isn’t eaten, the one that lives long enough to see every other bird. He would rather be a long-distance traveler, spreading the word.
— Elaine Jarvik is a freelance writer and playwright based in Salt Lake City.
Video from the Whitley Awards (narrated by Sir David Attenborough):
Video from the TV show National Geographic Wild: