Bird Talk with Jane Alexander

For this Tony Award-winning actress, avian conservation is a big part of being a birder.

When she was little, actress Jane Alexander wanted to fly like the birds, attempting the feat by jumping off furniture, sand banks, even 10-foot high dirt cliffs. Eventually, though, she gave up on flight, and channeled her avian admiration into birding and conservation. Today the Tony Award-winning and Oscar-nominated star serves on the board of the American Birding Association (ABA) and on BirdLife International's stewardship council. She was also a founding board member for the American Bird Conservancy and still serves. Throughout June, Alexander is the spokesperson in a first-time joint campaign between Audubon and the ABA to help protect Arctic birds from oil drilling. Alexander spoke with Audubon about her feathery affinities from her home in Nova Scotia.

How long have you been a birder?

Forty years.

How did you become interested in birds?

It came from an early age of observing birds and wanting to be like them. When I got older and I lived in a place in the country where the same birds were returning year after year, I said, 'Oh, my gosh, this is their home as well as it is mine.' And then I really was hooked.

Where do you bird?

We spend half our year in Nova Scotia and the other half in New York, in Westchester County, so I feel I have the best of both worlds. And I travel a lot as well, trying to see other parts of the world and get in a little birding.

What's your favorite species?

The wood thrush--I can't imagine a more beautiful song in the world. You have to hear it when you're in the wild because it rings out in the woods; it's just absolutely gorgeous. Where we lived for 34 years outside of New York in Putnam County, there was one wood thrush I called 'the grand old man,' and he must have been in our lives for maybe eight, nine years. He had the most remarkable song I've ever heard. He would go into a jazz-like riff with other wood thrush. It was truly astonishing.

Have you done any Christmas Bird Counts?

I must have done them for the past 35 years. If I'm not in New York, I do them in Nova Scotia, but I've done them mainly in Putnam County and Westchester County. Sometimes I do more than one.

What do you like about the CBC?

You have your team of regulars, year after year. I love the camaraderie. One of my grandsons, who's a twin, went on his first count with me this past year. He had just turned eight, and we were up at four in the morning to catch some owls at 4:30-5:00-ish. Within half an hour he had five screech-owls, which was very exciting for a little kid. So I love those kinds of moments that the Christmas Bird Count gives you. I also love the rigor of the counts, because sometimes you go out rain or shine. I remember one time I did a count in Putnam County--it must have been 20 years ago or so--and the only people who would go out were this young man and I. It was total ice. There was a blizzard, and I think we got literally five species the whole eight hours.

That sounds kind of miserable.

Miserable, but it was sort of hearty, you know. You feel good afterward--you did it. 

What other birding events or activities are you involved in?

I do the Great Backyard Bird Count every year, but I leave a lot of it up to my grandson. You just have to look out the window at the feeders, so I have him do that now. I'll help him with it, but he knows the birds; it's a matter of him writing them down, and we send them in together.

Up here in Canada, I do the breeding bird surveys, which is a Canadian and United States of America effort. The whole map of the two countries is divided into these very small sections, and I'm given 50 stops. You have exactly the same route year after year, and exactly the same stops. They say that they learn a great deal about trends in species--habitat and who's occupying an area, who's coming into it--over a period of many years. It's really a challenging effort for those of us who are birders because you go out--some of us take a volunteer to write things down, but I prefer to do it myself--and you're allowed only three minutes at each stop, a very short time to see any bird. I start at 5:10 in the morning, when it's dark, and you cannot call in a bird, so you have to pick them up by ear. It's an interesting thing to know that people all across North America are doing this in the month of June primarily.

It's a real citizen science effort.

Exactly, it is. And then up here in Nova Scotia, I'm a piping plover guardian. The piping plover is a very fragile species--it nests on beaches. I go out two times a week to check on the nests that we know of on the beaches in the southwest area here in Nova Scotia. If there are people with dogs off the leash, I speak to them. I make sure the signs are still up, and if it's a beautiful, sunny day and there are many people on the beach, I talk to them about the birds. Lots of people are doing this all over the Maritimes during the nesting season, which began about a month ago and will go rarely past the second week of July. 

The National Audubon Society and the American Birding Association have partnered for the first time, in their Raise Your Voice for Arctic Birds campaign. What appealed to you about being a spokesperson for this effort?

I love shorebirds, I love pelagic species. So I'm very, very happy to be heading up the Arctic campaign, because a lot of it involves these birds that wing along the coast or over the water to breed in the tundra. We talk in the campaign about Big Oil drilling up there, and it would be totally disastrous. Nobody knows how to clean up a spill in the ice, nobody knows how to really clean up those waters properly, and many, many species would perish or their habitat would be ruined in one way or another. We're losing so much habitat as it is, everywhere you go. So I think it's very important to save the great wild places, and Alaska's one of only a handful left.

I also think the partnership between the ABA and National Audubon is great. The ABA doesn't have the same membership in numbers as Audubon--very few organizations do--but they do have a lot of very, very dedicated birders and a lot of real expertise there. So it's sort of exciting to have those people perhaps come and help with conservation efforts of Audubon.

What's your outlook for the fate of our environment?

I think that we're in a critical time on our planet. I'm not sure that a lot of people realize the extent of extinction going on, certainly for many of the great mammals [and] for many of the birds as well. So I think it's important that we really tackle this issue together--not just bird organizations and people who love wild places and wild things, but the general public. We have to get that message out to them--how critical it is, how important it is that this is not just Audubon's issue or ABA's issue, but everybody's issue, because we're talking about quality of life. I like to think that my grandchildren's generation is really going to be the one that will turn it around; I hope it won't be too late. For a lot of species, we just don't have a lot of time.

But the wonderful thing is, just yesterday, a bald eagle flew over my house. I was around when the bald eagle was a threatened species--we really didn't know if we were going to have it for much longer, and the same with the peregrine falcon. And it is such a success story. The great thing is, you give nature half a chance--just half a chance--and it will come back in spades. But it has to be given that chance.