Prof-iles: Saving birds one duckling at a time

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As she was driving down Minnesota Drive, Audrey Taylor, an avid bird lover, saw a cute family of ducks. However, right as Taylor prepared to turn off at the airport exit, she watched the mother duck lead her little ducklings over a sewer grate. Taylor watched the ducklings fall, wondering how the little ducklings were going to do to get free.

Taylor ran over to the sewer grate and was able to rescue one of the ducklings, but the other two were out of reach. She called the Anchorage Police Department, and together they reunited the fallen ducklings with their mother, who was swimming in a nearby pond, searching for her lost ducklings.

Taylor, UAA assistant professor of environmental studies, saves birds. It’s just what she does. Before the ducklings, there was a snowy owl in Barrow that had gotten stuck in burlap landscaping material. Taylor’s research has gone a long way in providing safety for more than just a family of ducklings or a starving snowy owl. Her Ph.D. research on bird distribution around the North slope actually led to the Bureau of Land Management categorizing some of the more important bird habitats as off limits or low priority for oil and gas development.

Her research on shore birds has led her all around the world, and she has even been able to follow a bird she first found in Barrow to French Guiana. The environment has always been important to Taylor, and in high school, she started an environmental club that cleaned rivers and streams. In fact, her yearbook superlative was ‘Student most likely to save the Earth.’

Taylor had her first experience with surveying birds when she was at Colorado State University for her M.S. in Wildlife Biology. She was sent out to the Great Plains with just a Jeep, map and binoculars, and she was told to survey shore birds.

“I would be driving across this spring flooded landscape, and I swear I got the Jeep stuck so many millions of times. I’d be driving trying to miss potholes and mud, and I’d look behind me and this little group of birds would have flown in from some place, like the Gulf of Mexico or Argentina or something like that,” Taylor said. “They’d land there and I’d be like, ‘That little group of birds, I have no idea where they came from. They could have just flown like 3,000 miles.’”

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That sense of wonder with her work led her to become more interested in shore birds, and so she decided to attend UAF for her Ph.D. For her dissertation, Taylor researched shore birds across the North Slope. It was during this research, while in Barrow, that Taylor discovered one of her favorite flying creatures.

“I had hired this plane to take [a field crew] out [of Icy Cape], and the plane went down to check out the runway, and they got stuck, and they were like, ‘No way. We’re not going in there again.’ So I was desperate,” Taylor said. “I was like, ‘Who am I going to get to fly these people out?’ I called this air taxi in Deadhorse and ended up getting who is now my husband on the phone, and he was like, ‘Oh yeah I’ll come take your people out for you.’… But he came right then and it was like my knight in shining airplane.”

Taylor has made a life with things that fly. Not only does she love birds but she has her own pilot’s license and a husband who flies.

“I like birds, my husband likes airplanes,” Taylor said. “We are hoping our daughter will like both.”

For Taylor, her passion for birds has best been channeled through teaching. Her father was a teacher, her grandmother a teacher, and her younger sister is also a professor at University of Connecticut. Teaching has helped Taylor answer the question of “why?”

“Because [shore birds] are these little ambassadors to different parts of the world,” Taylor said. “They go from Alaska to, birds that I’ve banded, turn up in Japan, China. They go to Panama and Peru. I had a bird from Barrow end up in French Guiana, and I now have a project that I am working on in French Guiana. They are these little winged ambassadors that kind of make you work across these geographic boundaries for conservation. It makes you think beyond your own country, which I think is good.”

Outside of shore birds, Taylor loves trail running, skiing, mountain biking, kayaking and gardening. In the future, she hopes to do more with citizen science by having cruise-ship passengers in the Arctic and Antarctica help document changes in bird distributions.