‘Planet Earth: Extreme Journeys’

Dr. Steve Zack serves as the Coordinator of Bird Conservation for New York City’s Wildlife Conservation Society. His background is in the behavioral ecology of birds, and later with forest management, riparian and stream management in the Pacific West, with additional research conducted on birds as indicators of such management as it pertains to wildlife conservation. Just over a decade ago, the Oregon native began his migration research on the breeding birds of Arctic Alaska, thus eventually creating an ongoing program evaluating the effects of oil development on wildlife, climate change effects and other efforts that would stimulate the protection of wildlife-rich areas in Alaska. In 2008, Zack established the “Birds-Bison” project to boost WCS’s “Ecological Recovery of Bison” initiative and address grassland bird conservation with the reintroduction of bison and their grazing patterns.

Zack holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Oregon State and a PhD from the University of New Mexico. During his post-doctorate studies through Purdue University and teaching at Yale University, Zack conducted research on birds in Kenya, Venezuela and Madagascar.

We know that animals such as snow geese and caribou in Alaska have instinctual migration flights and or journeys throughout the seasons. Which flight or journey do you view as the most remarkable and why?
Dr. Steve Zack: When I read this question, I thought about where I grew up and where I am now. I live in Oregon and here we have gray whales off our coast that will go on annual migrations to the Arctic and back. They regularly pass Oregon coming and going. Among the many marvels of this annual event are the cows and newborn calves. Calves that are born only that year in Baja, California undergo that great migration not long after births. Watching the return of those whales coming back down the coast is a huge annual event in Oregon and just a wonderful spectacle that engages everybody.

Which animals have you studies in your field research that are extreme homebodies, ones that never leave their habitat and have had the same territorial grounds for several decades?
Zack: In my early academic career, I had the opportunity to be in Kenya and then later, Venezuela studying so-called cooperatively breeding birds. These are birds that breed in family groups and have helpers at the nest and the like. My niche in studying that was actually looking at the movement of birds and the dispersal of birds. Remarkably, for those birds, specifically the Stripe-back Wrens I studied in Venezuela, most individuals live and die either on their home territory or they move next door. Their entire life history (for the vast majority of those birds) encompasses less than an acre. In many ways, they’re the antithesis of migratory birds. These tropical birds living in family groups and doing very short dispersals represent the clear and opposite end of the spectrum.

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