Saving birds to save ourselves: $2 million gift helps Florida's 'hidden gem' science center soar

Amy Bennett Williams
Fort Myers News-Press

The late morning scrub is quiet, save distant jet roar over palmetto rasp. Then, a silvery-blue burst of bird whirs in, lighting on a skeletal tarflower plant.

Head cocked, arm outstretched, the researcher waits.

The bird detaches, swoops, sticks a landing on the man’s tousled head, then hops the length of his arm toward the proffered redskin peanut. The human doesn’t make it easy, tightly pinning the prize as the bird squares its little shoulders, bracing itself to tug, tug, tug until the nut is free.

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Scientists frown on making study subjects into anything resembling pets, so this Florida scrub jay is nameless.

A scrub jay lands on Reed Bowman, director of the Avian Ecology Program at the Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Bowman is the first recipient. Archbold scientists have special permission from the stateÕs wildlife agency to use peanuts to bring scrub jays in for observation.

But that doesn’t mean world-renowned ornithologist Reed Bowman doesn’t know this 11-year-old (venerable for a scrub jay) breeding male like an old friend. He does. He also knows this bird’s 13-year-old brother, their parents, grandparents and extended family, thanks to the singular research conducted at Central Florida’s Archbold Biological Station. There, Bowman has spent the last three decades shepherding a study of their life histories that now boasts an extraordinary half-century of data.

Last month, Archbold’s work received a high-powered jolt: a $2 million gift from Philadelphia-area philanthropist K. Lisa Yang. The money will help the nonprofit “really focus on the good in avian ecology,” says Executive Director Hilary Swain.

Nowhere but Florida

Classified as threatened by the Federal Endangered Species Act, scrub jays are endemic to Florida. They’re the only birds that live nowhere but here. With their jaunty blue-and-white waistcoats and bright black eyes, they’re also endowed with the clever curiosity and sass of other corvids – the crow family, of which they’re a diminutive member. These sociable birds form cooperative family units that include breeding parents who mate for life and their junior helpers, often the older siblings of the nestlings.

Like many of the state’s cherished critters – panthers, gopher tortoises and manatees – they’re struggling against a rising tide of humans. The oft-cited thousand daily new Floridians all have to live somewhere, and many animals are losing ground to the newcomers literally and figuratively. It’s especially tough on the jays. whose families need territories of about 25 acres.

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A scrub jay is seen at the  Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Reed Bowman is the first recipient.

Higher and drier than wetlands, such terrain also became a target for citrus groves and community development. Their preferred habitat is our preferred habitat, says Bowman, which means the birds are losing ground in many parts of the state.

Archbold is a rarity: a protected and multifaceted complex of nearly 10,000 acres on the peninsula’s sandy spine in Highlands County. About 50 miles north of Lee County, it sits at the headwaters of the Everglades, from which water makes its way south to Lake Okeechobee and the St. Lucie and Caloosahatchee river estuaries to the east and west.

(Another of the nonprofit's projects, Buck Island Ranch, researches best practices, sustainability and water management in a cattle operation.)

Founded in 1941 by aviator and explorer Richard Archbold, after his expeditions to Madagascar and New Guinea before World War II, Archbold received the original 1,058-acre "Red Hill" Estate as a gift from boyhoood friend and philanthropist Donald Roebling. The main station building adjoining a once-upon-a-time private railway spur was built with engineering and construction techniques Roebling's great-grandfather used for the Brooklyn Bridge.

A scrub jay lands on Reed Bowman, director of the Avian Ecology Program at the Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Bowman is the first recipient. Archbold scientists have special permission from the state’s wildlife agency to use peanuts to bring scrub jays in for observation.

The elegant old place is full of stories, drawers packed with pinned insect specimens and a delicious, sun-warmed library-meets-herbarium fragrance.

Its two dozen or so resident scientists, visiting scholars and interns blend assiduous old-school, by-hand scholarship with cutting-edge tech: sensitive telemetry and huge online databases. The scrub jay research may be the station’s best-known, but it’s one movement in a symphonically complex opus seeking to illuminate Florida’s wild places and their inhabitants.

With so long-term a study, trends emerge.

Swain compares it to the work of an actuary, who catalogues and analyzes data about a human life in order to draw conclusions about that person’s survival.

In this case, the subject under scrutiny is a group of birds.

“One of the things we're often asked is how viable is a population? How can this population last? And that sounds like such an easy question, but it's not,” Swain says. “You have to know all of the data. What's the lifespan? How many times are you going to breed? How many survive?”

A view of some of the land at Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Reed Bowman is the first recipient.

How can the jays survive?

Armed with that longitudinal population information, Archbold scientists can look at how variables affect the birds' communities under different circumstances, such factors as “say, long-term climate change or different fire regimes. What's going to make this population viable? And that's really important for getting things off the Endangered Species Act or for seeing where management is most critical.”

Archbold’s jay census counts are the stuff of ornithological legend. Not only do they illustrate individual lifespans, they show how and when immigrants move in or out of Archbold.

One potentially troubling trend: “We are seeing a slight loss of genetic diversity, a slight increase in the average level of inbreeding,” Bowman says, including an increase of eggs laid that don’t hatch.

Another of the state’s charismatic creatures, the Florida panther, has been plagued by the problems that come with small, inbred populations, including heart defects and undescended testicles.

Knowing what’s happening with the jays - and why - means habitat managers can make strategic decisions, perhaps moving birds from one population to another to keep the genetics robust.

“OK, so say genetic diversity is going down, we need to bring that individual from here … almost the way zoos manage," Swain says. "Now we're not saying Archbold is a zoo, but we are saying that this is very informed conservation management and that this is relevant for other populations around the world."

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Sparking scientific evolution

Among other things, the $2 million infusion by Yang created a new position: the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology. Bowman will be the first to occupy it. Named in honor of Fitzpatrick, one of Bowman's mentors and Archbold's globally recognized former executive director, who also directed the celebrated Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Fitzpatrick still serves on Archbold’s board and as a research associate.

In 2019, Yang, who’s also on the board of The Cornell Lab of Ornithology, visited Archbold with Fitzpatrick and was fascinated.

Her gift to the station will “propel our science into the future,” Swain says. “Long-term studies of animals constantly transform, drawing from legacy data and new technologies across generations of scientists. Lisa Yang's enduring gift will facilitate this evolution of knowledge and bear future scientific fruits we cannot possibly foresee today.”

Like Fitzpatrick before him, Bowman is a bit of a rare bird: talked into coming to Archbold as an intern by his PhD. advisor Glen Woolfenden more than three decades ago.

Reed Bowman, director of the Avian Ecology Program at the Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida land Hilary Swain, Archbold Biological Station Executive Director give journalists a tour of the land on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Bowman is the first recipient.

In 1969, Woolfenden started the jay study “with broad and grand intentions for analysis,” Bowman says, “but with the simplest of methods”: hand-counted censuses of birds, each banded and uniquely identified, “sort of like a Social Security number," he says.

The counts have happened without fail since 1971 – more than 600 censuses counting at least 15 generations of jays.

Every month, researchers spread out to canvass the jays’ territorial neighborhoods. “We have 82 families. That's 250 birds, and every month we'd go out and re-sight every single one of them just to make sure it's still alive, it hasn't moved and its status hasn't changed.”

Florida's scrub jays were already threatened more than 50 years ago in 1969, Bowman says. “It’s just that nobody was conscious of it,” he says. “It was only by studying jays starting here and then expanding into other populations that we realized the extent of the decline, as habitats were declining.”

A view of some of the land at Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Reed Bowman is the first recipient.

Interplay between science, conservation

But Archbold’s very uniqueness raised other questions – questions the science team is still wrestling with.

“We thought we had developed these great management tools that could be applied to other populations only to realize that Archbold was sort of an anomaly,” Bowman says. “There weren't any other places where the scrub was protected and regularly burned. So could the recommendations that redeveloped for Archbold be applied to a place that's adjacent to urban development? Or a place that hasn't been burned in 65 years? That really expanded not only our science, but our questions, because there's a lot of questions about how jay biology and population dynamics differ in different habitats. But then how do you manage them?"

“One of the challenges for our students that come into the lab (is) they're conscious that this is one of the longest-running studies, and they're here to think of something new, and they’re like, 'How can we think of something new?’ "

Archbold Biological Station in Venus, Florida. Archbold is a scientific research laboratory that addresses avian ecology, land conservation, water quality and host of other issues.

Bowman reminds them that every answer opens yet more avenues of inquiry.

Swain calls the emerging, question-driven field "the confluence between science and conservation," a place fertile with possibilities that Yang’s gift will help grow.

“The biggest part of the equation is new technology that allows us to answer questions we've always been aware of, but really didn't have an easy way to do that,” Bowman says.

New tools include monitoring drones, telemetry and genomics. “If somebody had told me 30 years ago that at this point in my career, these are the big things I’d be working on, I would have laughed at them.”

Over the long arc of Bowman's research, he’s gone from one-man, one-bird tracking to  watching 60 birds, “knowing exactly where they all are at one time and doing it remotely."

Not only does the new technology help solve old puzzles, Bowman says, “It allows us to answer new questions and allows us to do it often better and more efficiently than we ever used to be able to do.”

A scrub jay lands on Reed Bowman, director of the Avian Ecology Program at the Archbold Biological  Station in Venus, Florida on Friday Nov. 19, 2021. Archbold recently received a $2 million gift from philanthropist K. Lisa Yang supporting Florida Scrub-Jay research. It will support the John W. Fitzpatrick Director of Avian Ecology position. Bowman is the first recipient. Archbold scientists have special permission from the state’s wildlife agency to use peanuts to bring scrub jays in for observation.

Archbold Biological Station by the Numbers

1941: The year Richard Archbold, famed aviator and explorer, founded Archbold Biological Station on an ancient scrub ridge in the headwaters of the Everglades, and established a tradition of long-term ecological research, conservation, and education

21: Federally listed threatened and endangered species found at Archbold

2576 : Scientific papers published by scientists based on work at Archbold

47,000-plus: Elementary school children who have enjoyed the award-winning science curriculum and education programs offered by Archbold Biological Station

88: Species described by Archbold scientists

3,000: Cattle at the Archbold's Buck Island Ranch. Archbold's research program is pioneering solutions that are good for agriculture and nature

271,000: Florida plant, arthropod, bird, mammal, reptile, amphibian, and fish specimens in the Archbold Natural History Collection, one of the largest of any field station in the world

19,348: Acres managed by Archbold including a nature preserve, a cattle ranch, and wetland restoration projects

600+: Student interns who have completed research at Archbold and employed the rare opportunity to meet and work in the field with leading scientists.

Source: https://www.archbold-station.org/