Understanding Our World by Watching Birds with Audubon California’s Graham Chisholm

May 16, 2011

Graham Chisholm is the Executive Director of Audubon California, the California branch of the organization that helps to track the 20 billion or so birds “on the move” throughout the U.S. Being springtime, birdwatching — one of the fastest-growing hobbies around — is in full swing throughout California and the U.S. Chisholm says that some 50 million people claim birdwatching as a hobby — from simple backyard feeders, to enthusiasts like Chisholm who book trips around prime birdwatching spots and seasons. With some 10,000 species on earth, there are never-ending opportunities to see something new and exciting, and the Audubon Society is in place to help maintain these species’ natural habitats. “We can understand a lot about our natural world just by understanding how birds use it,” Chisholm says. “Birds provide one of the best windows into understanding our world and getting people excited about it.”


JOHN SHEGERIAN: Welcome back to Green is Good, and today we’re so honored to have Graham Chisholm on with us. He’s the Executive Director of the Audubon California Society of America, the National Audubon Society. Welcome to Green is Good, Graham. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Thanks. I appreciate the welcome. JOHN SHEGERIAN: This is a first for us. We’ve never covered the topic of birds, and we’re so honored to have you on with us today. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: I appreciate that. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Spring and birds go together. What does this mean for us? As we start seeing flocks of birds again flying around, what does the beginning of spring mean for birds? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: For us, it means being woken up early in the morning by birds singing in our yards and in our communities. Spring is a time that triggers massive movements of birds. We’re talking about probably about 20 billion birds on the move. Sometimes we see them flying overhead at night like flocks of geese, but a lot of songbirds just start moving at night, and we never know they’re going by. It’s as spectacular, from my perspective, as going someplace like Yellowstone or the Everglades. It’s a spectacular phenomenon that occurs each year. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Graham, you said 20 billion with a b? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Yes, that’s an estimate, but we think it’s a pretty accurate estimate of the number of birds that are on the move. JOHN SHEGERIAN: And that’s in the U.S., world, or California? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: That’s the U.S. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Speaking of 20 billion or so birds on the move, what’s this term of art “flyway?” What’s a flyway? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Think of it as a superhighway. We know that there are about four general flyways here in North America, one in the east, one that we call the central flyway, the Mississippi flyway, and the Pacific flyway. Birds don’t always follow such neat paths. Some will take small byways, but the idea is that the flyways capture the major movement of migration. They’re places that Audubon calls important bird areas along the way, which are important habitat or areas that birds go for feeding, wintering, or even breeding, along these flyways. They tell us, in a lot of ways, what are the important places to protect along the way if we want to protect birds and a lot of habitat that they need for their sustenance. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. If you just joined us now, we’re honored to have Graham Chisholm on. He’s the Executive Director of Audubon Society of California. Mike and I are on your beautiful website now. So, if you’ve got your laptops, your iPads, your desktop in front of you, wherever you’re listening in the world, open up to www.audubon.org. It’s a beautiful website you have here, Graham. I just want to tell you, it is just lovely. I’m sort of getting drawn into it while we’re doing this interview here. When people talk about bird watching, the central casting vision of bird watching comes out, binoculars, vests, floppy hats, the middle of some unknown terrain. What is really the art of bird watching about? How popular is that hobby now for people in the United States and around the world? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: It’s considered one of the fastest growing hobbies. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, there are about 50 million people who consider themselves bird watchers or birders. That’s everybody from people who like having a birdfeeder in their backyard and looking out the back window to some fanatics like me who love traveling around the country in search of birds. It’s a pretty broad cross-section, but it’s a lot more popular than people think, and it doesn’t just appeal to older Americans. We’re finding increasingly a lot of young people are getting into birding. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That’s so interesting. You’ve got a fascinating perspective. Here you’re the Executive Director in California of the Audubon Society of California, but you travel a lot and you get to enjoy your passion as you travel. Talk about some of the more interesting moments, in which states and what you’ve seen in your travels in the United States and maybe even a little bit of international experience that you’ve had at this. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Sure. For me, one of the things I love about birds is no matter where I go, I’m never bored. I can even be sitting in an airport terminal and there are birds flying around inside these terminals, or I can walk outside anywhere, any city, and look up and I may see a peregrine falcon chasing pigeons in the city or, obviously, there are beautiful natural areas that you can go to see birds. I grew up in Nebraska, right along the Missouri River and the Platte River, and for me, what inspired me as a kid was really beginning to understand that the millions of geese that would fly by, sometimes even shutting down Omaha’s airport, they would come in flocks that big, it would overwhelm the radars, for me it was something just letting me know that time was passing in a great way, spring was on its way. Then I’d go out and start learning a little bit more about the phenomenal trips that these birds take. Geese that were flying by someplace like Omaha would end up spending the summer and breeding up in the Arctic shores up by the Beaufort Sea in Alaska or the Yukon Delta. Each year, they would return to Nebraska. I think that, for me, is one of the really phenomenal things about birds. Anywhere I go, I meet interesting people who are interested in birds. I can think of trips I’ve taken down along the Rio Grande River in Texas, where a lot of people come. It’s not just birds who migrate south; a lot of people will move their RVs and find warm places to spend the winter down along the border in Texas. One of the first things they’ll do when they get there is set up birdfeeders. A lot of birders who come and visit the Rio Grande Valley in the winter will go to these trailer parks where people have set up their RVs and enjoy the birds along with the people who have come from the north to enjoy the winter down there. JOHN SHEGERIAN: If you had to take one amazing international experience, if you want to go back and do one moment again in your life with birds, share with our listeners what that one moment would be. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: I’ve had the good fortune of being able to travel for work. Some friends of mine don’t always consider it work, but it is work. I’ve had a chance to spend time in the mountains in southern Mexico, looking for a number of rare birds. One, in particular, that I thought was one of those great life experiences was seeing a bird called a resplendent quetzal, which is the national bird of Guatemala, well known through southern Mexico in the Americas. It’s increasingly rare, in part because it’s often sought after by collectors who love this bird because the male has about a two to three foot tail, if you will, a beautiful feather that hangs down below it. It’s just a gorgeous bird, but of course, it’s hard to see. You need to get your walking shoes on and you’ve got to spend a couple days hiking up into these what are called cloud forests. That moment when you hear its call and you find the bird, it’s one of those great moments in your life, when you seek something and you find it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so exciting. You just said the name of the bird, which sounds pretty, the resplendent quetzal. I’m 48 years old, Graham, but I don’t know that much about birds, except I think they’re beautiful. How many species of birds are there approximately in the United States and around the world? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: In the United States, there have occurred about 800 species of birds, 650 species that are regular here in the U.S. Around the world, 10,000 species. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Wow. Like you said, no matter where you go or what you’re doing, you can never be bored if you enjoy the beauty of birds. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Absolutely. I never get tired of looking at even some of the same birds that I see day after day. They’re pretty phenomenal creatures. For me, I think for many people, they’re pretty charismatic and if you begin thinking about what these birds are able to do, if you think about something like a rufus hummingbird that each year breeds in Alaska and winters in western Mexico. This is a bird that weighs a couple of ounces, and it’s able to make this flight. They’re hummingbirds fly across the Gulf of Mexico in one flight. There are birds that will breed in Alaska and will fly eight days straight to reach New Zealand. They’re pretty phenomenal creatures. MIKE BRADY: Graham, when you’re talking about this, it’s all tying into the four major flyways that you mentioned earlier on at the beginning. In case you just joined us, we’re talking with Graham Chisholm of the National Audubon Society. I’m sure that the folks at the Audubon Society have really led the path and the research, too. How do these migratory patterns get established? How do birds remember this? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: We’ve been learning a lot about migration. It used to be that you would capture a bird and put a metal ring around its leg, and it wouldn’t harm it, and then you’d hope that over time you’d catch that bird again and you’d learn something about from where it was what we call banded, to where it’s picked up. Over time, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service banded tens of thousands of birds. Through that process, they began learning about these general patterns of movement. Birds often will return to the very same place where they were born. What we know is that in many cases they are able to do this process of migration in part by relying on the navigation of stars. They’ve almost got an image, if you will, in their head. They have an electromagnetic connection, if you will, and a map in their head of where they’re going and where they will return to. MIKE BRADY: So, it’s celestial navigation. They have an internal GPS, really. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Absolutely. MIKE BRADY: Wow. Now, that is amazing. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: What’s been great is recently, the technology through satellite tracking, increasingly we can create smaller and smaller satellite tags that you can mount on birds. We get a much clearer picture now of how birds are moving, and it has really, in some ways, changed our understanding of migration. Now we better understand how long they’re spending at specific sites, which helps us understand just how important what we call these important bird areas are along the way, as we begin to understand how reliant they are on sites along the way. Some birds will do these long eight-day flights because they’re flying over open ocean, but often birds will make stops along the way. They’re refueling sites, and it’s important that we protect these sites because birds rely on them. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Speaking of refueling, though, how far can they fly over open ocean without stopping? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: As I said, if you think of this bar-tailed godwit is able fly about 6,000 to 7,000 miles in one flight without stopping. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Oh my gosh. They’re phenomenal animals. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: They are phenomenal animals. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Listen, I want to just read this to our listeners out there because it is just really wonderful stuff. The Audubon Society’s mission, to conserve and restore natural ecosystems, focusing on birds, other wildlife and their habitats, for the benefit of humanity and the Earth’s biological diversity. In short, your wonderful tagline in California is birds matter. You, me, and Mike are on an elevator. You say, “Hey, I’m Graham. I’m the Executive Director of the Audubon Society of California. Birds matter.” Give us the elevator pitch, so our listeners get drawn in. Everything you’re saying here, I’ve never heard any of this in all 48 of my years, and Mike and I are just sitting here with our mouths open. We’ve got your wonderful, beautiful website here open in front of us, www.audubon.org. Talk about why birds matter. From your perspective, explain why it’s so important, as you were just sharing about pit stops and bird stops and everything else, why is your work and what you do so important to why birds matter? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: I think birds are awesome. Birds open the window to the natural world, and we can understand a lot about our natural world just by understanding how birds use it. It’s also a wonderful way to connect families, kids, adults to the natural world. I just think birds provide one of the best windows into really understanding our world and getting people excited about it. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so wonderful. When you talk about 50 million people, Graham, that are now watching birds, central casting you think of older people doing this. Are you finding a new and youthful generation coming into the enjoyment of birds now? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Absolutely. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and I’m always surprised by all the kids I see with bird tattoos on them. It’s telling me something about the fact that birds are speaking to a whole new generation. We also have an Audubon Center in Northeastern Los Angeles, which is primarily a Latino community, and once a month we host Spanish language bird walks. We’re finding that bird watching isn’t just something that people do out in the country or in suburbs, but increasingly people are understanding that bird watching is something you can do in urban areas throughout the United States and throughout the world. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is really amazing. We’re in the springtime now. We were discussing and you were sharing with us about the flyways and migrations. Here we are in California, and we’re in central California and you’re in northern California. You just spoke about a very vibrant chapter you have in southern California. What kind of birds can we expect to see flying around California and the country this time of year? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Offshore, you can see there’s a type of a goose that’s flying by these days called black brant. They’re easy to see from the shore. What I’m finding is each morning when I wake up, I’m hearing week by week new birds showing up and singing. I’m sort of cursed, in part, because I know bird songs. When I’m lying in bed in the morning, I cannot tune them out and I often lie there identifying birds. It’s kind of a curse. For example, this week, Pacific-slope flycatchers have just showed up here around Berkeley, but I also know that already Allen’s hummingbirds are already sitting on nests here in the San Francisco Bay Area. But also a lot of warblers are beginning to show up. I think across the country, not just in California, warblers are one of the showiest groups of birds. They are on the move, and beginning to show up in parks and in people’s backyards. If you’re out walking in a part, don’t be shy if you see somebody there with binoculars because they probably are bird watching. Ask them what they’ve seen. You’ll learn something about what’s moving through at that time. JOHN SHEGERIAN: Interesting. Just like certain people enjoy different singers, someone likes Jay-Z and someone likes Frank Sinatra, which of the birds are your favorite singers? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: For me, I love warblers. There are so many warblers. We sort of think of them as being more in the eastern United States, but there’s a whole group of western warblers. I find it a lot of fun to learn their songs. If I had to choose one group of birds that I think are phenomenal singers, it’s a group of birds around thrushes. The American robin is pretty close. It’s a very common bird that a lot of people hear. Birds like a wood thrush in the east is probably one of the most beautiful singers. JOHN SHEGERIAN: I want to toggle backwards here for a second, and share some of the memories of last year and the visions that we had on television that were portrayed to us with the Gulf oil spill and the poor birds that were covered in oil and stuff like that. Talk a little bit about how tragic events like that, and obviously what we’re living through right now, unfortunately, in Japan with the tragedy in Japan, how they affect our ecosystem and the impact on birds. Lastly, then, from there, Graham, I want you to then evolve the conversation into all of our wonderful listeners, not only here in the United States but around the world, Mike and I get e-mails from literally around the world, and they always want to know how they can get involved. How can they support the Audubon Society? How can they do more to help the birds near them? I want you to talk a little bit about the Gulf oil spill, but then move our conversation into actions that our listeners can take around the world. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Sure. Obviously, the Gulf oil spill, first and foremost, is a tragedy and loss of life on the oil platform of the workers who were out there. But I think the second thing people begin thinking about are the images that they see on television of oiled birds. When you think of an oil spill, the story is often told by the images of oiled birds. I think it’s in part because we understand that these are creatures who did nothing except happen to be in the way. It’s through our actions or mistakes that they end up suffering. That obviously is a really tough thing. The Gulf also happens to be a phenomenal place for wintering birds. They’re important resting areas for birds coming across the Gulf of Mexico. If you think of the Gulf spill happening about a year ago today, it occurred at a time when birds were on the move, and unfortunately had a big impact on birds and their habitats along that Gulf coast. For me, I think in terms of what can people do, first and foremost, I think people get out and start appreciating birds is one of the most important things that you can do. The more we learn about birds, obviously, we’re learning about birds, but I think we’re also learning something about ourselves, we’re learning something about communities, we’re learning about taking care of our habitats and our communities. I think close to home, whether people have yards or maybe at a schoolyard, churchyard, you can make it more bird-friendly. You can start planting vegetation that’s going to attract and sustain birds, you can provide water for birds, you can make our communities, if you will, more bird-friendly. We’re finding ourselves increasingly working with farmers and ranchers here in California whose primary purpose is growing crops or raising livestock. They’re interested in also making their ranches and farms more bird-friendly, and I think that’s a great thing that people can do close to home by making their yards and their community more bird-friendly. Obviously, there are other ways you can get involved. We encourage people to participate in the Audubon Christmas bird count, which occurs once a year, but there are other ways that you can volunteer, not just for Audubon. There are a lot of organizations around the U.S. and around the world that are doing great work on bird conservation. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is wonderful. We’re down to the last 45 seconds or so. There’s a lot of young people out there that are listening now. We get so many requests, and they want to know how they can become the next Graham Chisholm. What pearls of wisdom, as we sign off here, can you share with our youthful listeners on how to evolve into somebody wonderful like you? GRAHAM CHISHOLM: I appreciate that characterization of me. I’d say the best thing to do is get passionate. Learn something about the natural world. If it’s not birds, find something else that really gets you excited, and then put the time in. Become a volunteer. Get involved and make a difference. For me, one of the most satisfying things I’ve been able to do in my life is know that in my small way, I’ve been able to leave the world a better place through the work that I do. I think, when it comes right down to it, that is one of the best things that we can have in life. JOHN SHEGERIAN: That is so nice, Graham. Mike and I would love to have you back, and you’re always welcome back here on Green is Good. For our listeners again, please go and become one of these great bird watchers anywhere you are in the world, and join the Audubon Society. Please look at www.audubon.org. It’s a beautiful and wonderful website. Graham Chisholm, you are an inspirational leader in the environmental evolution, and truly living proof that green is good. GRAHAM CHISHOLM: Thank you for the time, and I really appreciate it. Next time we’ll get out with some binoculars.