Dr. Barbara Clucas is an Urban Ecologist at Humboldt State University and an alum of UC Davis Animal Behavior graduate group. Last spring, she returned to UCD to give a talk about her recent work examining human-avian interactions in Seattle, Washington and Berlin, Germany. While she was here, she sat down to chat about her life and work with Ethogram Editor Katrina Brock.
The Ethogram: Tell us about a memorable experience from your fieldwork.
Barbara Clucas: During my Ph.D. work, I was studying ground squirrels. One time, there was a dead squirrel that had been flattened by a a car. Another squirrel tried to take the dead squirrel back to its burrow to eat it. It charged over, but it couldn’t fit the dead one into its burrow because it was pancaked flat. It tried for around 20 minutes, pulling and tugging. It never successfully got the dead squirrel to fit in.
Squirrels are known to be cannibalistic. Non-lactating females will eat the young of other squirrels. This is thought to be for nutrition, not for the purpose of killing other individuals.
TE: Can you tell us about some common misconception people have about the animals that you study?
BC: I have worked with species that many people hate: rattlesnakes, ground squirrels, and crows. Most people don’t know that squirrels are immune to rattlesnake venom. They also don’t know about the amazing anti-predator behaviors that squirrels have.
When it comes to crows, most people don’t understand the complex social lives that crows have and how similar they are to humans, both in their level of intelligence and in their social bonds. Often when people learn this, they think about crows differently.
TE: What got you interested in studying animals in the first place?
BC: I always loved nature. My parents didn’t have a strong interest in animals or the environment. But when I was a child, my mom would send me to play outside and I would spend a lot of time in the creek bed behind my house searching for frogs and different types of animals. I think that’s probably where my love for nature came from. I think I always felt strongly about appreciating nature for its intrinsic value.
At first, I didn’t really know what I could do with that interest. In undergrad I started working for a professor who was doing a project on communication in Carolina Chickadees. He threw me into a project and I didn’t look back. It was really fascinating to me that I could take my passion about studying animal behavior and actually do that for a living. It was really awesome.
TE: What advice would you have to someone who is just discovering ecology as a career option and trying to decide whether or not to pursue it?
BC: To study ecology and animal behavior at the graduate level, you really have to be motivated and persistent. Not everyone with a passion for wildlife needs to get a graduate degree. There are a lot of ways that you can channel that through hobbies, birding, or other ways. Studying animal behavior is not a route that’s going to make you money, it has to be a passion that can get you through the challenges of research and academia.
TE: Tell us a little bit about your current field of study, urban ecology.
BC: Urban ecology focuses on understanding the role that humans have in urban ecosystems. We work to integrate the natural side of things with the social side of things.
TE: What is the connection between urban ecology and conservation?
BC: It’s important to understand the connections between people and their ecosystem. For example, there is a lot of research showing that people that don’t have an early experience or an everyday experience with nature are less likely to vote in ways that are positive for conservation and less likely to believe that conservation is important. I think that part of my work is to instill the idea that we need to have some nature in urban areas if we want to have a voting public that is concerned about conservation issues.
TE: How do the challenges of working with animals compare to the challenges of working with people?
BC: I went into this field interested in animals and animal behavior. I didn’t start to think about human behavior until more recently. It definitely was a challenge. I was nervous about doing human surveys. I’m an outgoing person and I like to talk, but it was interesting going door-to-door and talking to people. After the first week, I came to appreciate hearing so different prospectives about animals. I think as ecologists and animal behaviorists, we sometimes become intrenched in our own prospectives, and we forget that most other people have very different prospectives about nature or animals. Hearing all these different stories and talking to hundreds of people about what they think about birds was interesting and it made me more aware that the large majority of the population think about these things so differently than we do. So to be able to understand how we can promote conservation and sound management strategies, you really have to have that understanding of where different people are coming from to be successful.
TE: What were some of the things that your survey respondents said that surprised you?
BC: I was surprised how readily some people would admit to harming birds. Under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, you’re not allowed to harm songbirds, but some people would tell me “Oh, yeah, I shoot them all the time.” It’s also illegal to move nests. Obviously, I wasn’t turning these people in, but I was surprised that they were so open. They probably didn’t know that it was illegal.
I was also surprised by the level of connection that some people have with birds. Even though I love animals, I don’t feed birds and or interact with them at that level. I met people that spend thousands of dollars per year buying every type of bird food imaginable. I met people who have very close connections to crows in particular where they put particular feeders out for individual birds. One woman told me that she believed that she had the daughter and granddaughter of one particular crow that she had been feeding for years. Many people have really strong connections with birds that I though people only had with domesticated pets, not with wild animals. It was fascinating.