There’s much more to birdwatchers than meets the eye

26th, 2011
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Attitude is everything and while moving abroad can be challenging for some, others, such as Çağan Şekercioğlu, embrace the experience. He speaks to Today’s Zaman about moving to the US from Turkey and how his childhood passion has developed into both a successful academic career and research of global importance related to birds and ecology.

Exploring, not relocating

It’s no mean feat to leave your home country and then work towards becoming a professor at a foreign university, but that’s what Çağan’s achieved. He is currently a professor of conservation ecology and ornithology at the University of Utah’s department of biology.

His journey to the US basically started while at İstanbul’s prestigious Robert College as about a third of graduates go on to college in the US. Çağan received a full college scholarship to Harvard University in 1993, where he got degrees in biology and anthropology, magna cum laude.

Language hasn’t been an issue for him in the US after seven years at Robert College, where most teachers are native English speakers. So what have been the major challenges? “I adapt to new places and cultures easily, and Harvard was very international and cosmopolitan,” he highlights. “But graduate school at Stanford was a bit of a change as I was the first Turkish student in the ecology department. Stanford University overall is very international and enjoyable, but I felt out of place in the ecology department as it lacked cultural and international diversity. This is a problem in ecology and conservation biology in general, compared to engineering or business, for example, and now as a professor, I hope I can help change that.”

But doesn’t he feel like a foreigner? “No,” he emphasizes. “I’m a born explorer and traveler and feel at home everywhere; the US is an international place anyway. As I’ve spent over half of my life in the US, I now feel both American and Turkish. I’m now curious to see how it will be in Salt Lake City, which is increasingly cosmopolitan and surrounded by the great outdoors. The University of Utah has a very international perspective and I felt right at home in our department.”

Çağan appreciates many things about the US. “I like the fact that things usually work,” he highlights. “However, I’ve noticed that changing recently, what I jokingly call ‘the US becoming a developing country.’ I hope that’s temporary, politicians learn to work together and things get back on track, otherwise the US will become another ‘empire’ that got too comfortable, overconfident and went into decline. On a positive note, the US has been very supportive of my research and conservation work and shown me how to do and support good conservation science. I also really appreciate the US’s conservation system, amazing national parks, local conservation associations and the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws. Compared to Turkey, the US government has been more successful at conserving the country’s habitats and biodiversity: The US ranks 73rd while Turkey ranks 140th out of 163 countries in biodiversity and habitat conservation on the Yale 2010 Environmental Performance Index. Of course, the US should be doing much better, too. European countries like Austria, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK, and some developing countries with low population densities, such as Bhutan, Bolivia and Botswana, share first place.”

 Call of the wild

If you think about birdwatchers, you probably conjure up an image of somebody sedate in their 60s who spends hours behind a bush with a pair of binoculars waiting for a rare bird to appear. Çağan, however, is nothing of the sort: He’s in his mid-30s, dynamic and so enthusiastic that you start to wonder why bird watching isn’t more popular.

It would be ridiculous to compete with him, though, as he’s observed and studied nearly 5,800 bird species in 70 countries on all continents. He’s also studied insects in Colorado and Costa Rica, and butterflies, bird lice ethnobotany and mammals in Turkey. But when did he discover his passion for nature? “I was born with ‘biophilia,’ as my Harvard professor Edward Wilson calls it,” Çağan explains. “I even learned to read when I was 4 because my parents got sick of reading me the animal entries in my encyclopedia. I had no interest in soccer and started collecting insects, lizards and other animals to raise them at home, including poisonous animals and sea creatures. My mom took me to a child psychiatrist when I was 6 after I threw poisonous animals at people and put insects on girls’ backs in kindergarten; fortunately he told her my interest in nature should be encouraged.”

He’s best known for his interest in birds, but as an ecologist, all animals are interesting to him. “I was planning to become a primatologist but the monkeys I was interested in left the national park in Uganda before I got there,” he explains. “Most of my studies have focused on birds but I’ve also done studies on butterflies because both my undergraduate advisor, Professor Naomi Pierce, and Ph.D. advisor, Professor Paul Ehrlich, studied butterflies. Birds are great study subjects: They’re relatively easy and more fun to study compared to most other groups, and their colorful and mostly diurnal habits and fascinating behavior make them very interesting. They’re also excellent environmental indicators, so if you study birds and their population changes, you will also measure the state of the environment. They are also great for photography, so birds are both my passion and profession.”

So what have the highlights been to date? “Seeing and photographing rare birds is always a thrill,” he points out. “Such as the little-known Papuan Whipbird — the only good photograph of it worldwide is one I took in Papua New Guinea — as is finding new bird species for Costa Rica and Nepal. It was also a thrill to have a butterfly new to science named after me.”

An ABC of success: adventure, birds and conservation

Çağan doesn’t appear to have wasted a minute of the past 18 past years, as he explains: “I’ve published over 50 scientific papers and book chapters, mostly peer-reviewed journal articles on subjects ranging from prions to malarial parasites, plants, frogs and, of course, birds. I’ve also published two books with co-authors, an online e-book and have another book in preparation. I’m also a professional photographer who’s been published in National Geographic and hundreds of other publications. Citations are an important measure of scientific impact. In the fields of ecology and environmental science, I’m one of the most-cited 1 percent of the world’s scientists of the past decade and among the three most-cited Turkish ecologists in the Web of Science.” As if all that wasn’t enough, this year he’s also featured as a National Geographic Emerging Explorer.

In terms of scientific impact, his most important projects have been the Costa Rica bird population dynamics project he initiated in 1999 and the world bird ecology database he initiated in 2000. “In Costa Rica, nearly 60,000 birds have been captured, most of them banded, and 450 radio-tracked, making this one of the biggest tropical bird studies in the world,” he underlines. “I wanted to investigate the ecological factors behind the extinction-proneness of certain groups, such as tropical understory insectivores. It’s been critical in revealing how tropical forest birds respond to agriculture and deforestation and what conservation action we need to take to prevent the birds’ extinction. The world bird ecology database I created has information on all 10,000 bird species in the world, compiled from books, articles and my field experience. It’s the first database with data on birds’ diets, egg numbers, elevational ranges and many other variables; this is a global resource and has led to collaboration with many other scientists.”

The reality of being a scientist is challenging in more way than one, however. “The primary focus of a scientist should be doing good research, publishing, teaching and serving its community,” he emphasizes. “But we now have an excessively competitive and underfunded scientific environment where scientists spend a lot of their time, energy and intellectual power finding money. Consequently, principal investigators like myself spend more and more time on writing grant proposals, frequently in vain, and graduate students and post-docs lead most of the field-lab research, data collection, analysis and writing. Scientists having to become managers and fundraisers isn’t good for science or society; they should be mostly focusing on doing good science and teaching future scientists, not going door-to-door for money. As a result, most scientists don’t have time to provide scientific education and outreach to the public, so ironically we may be losing the public’s interest in and financial support for science. Having said that, I’ve been fortunate in getting support from international conservation and research organizations, and the University of Utah has also been generous in its support.”

And what’s next for him? “I’m involved in ongoing conservation, ecology and ornithology projects which are part of the work carried out by KuzeyDoğa Society — — an ecological research and conservation NGO I helped set up in Turkey,” he explains. “I’m also studying birds in Ethiopia and Tanzania and establishing long-term bird research projects in Utah. I love the University of Utah and I will continue my research and conservation work here while running KuzeyDoğa with my team in Turkey.”

Resource: Today’s Zaman

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