An Unwavering Focus

Birds and the scientists striving to protect them are tenacious.
A researcher holds a gray bird and attaches a geotag to its back.
Taza Schaming carefully attaches a tiny solar-powered satellite transmitter backpack to a Clark’s nutcracker. Photo: David Moskovitz

Birds are experts at going about their business, often regardless of what’s happening around them. Just ask the ornithologist in this issue whose job it was to remove the decoy egg that a Laysan Albatross was, at that very moment, busy trying to parent. Or the wildlife ecologist snowshoeing up a steep mountainside in hopes of catching Clark’s Nutcrackers that were unknowingly thwarting her best efforts.

As a reporter for this magazine, I once followed Snowy Egrets as they flew from rookeries in New York City’s East River to their then-unidentified foraging grounds in New Jersey—trailing them through the sky in a blimp. They didn’t even seem to notice. (The researchers I had tagged along with suggested they took us for an unusually mobile cloud.)

This steadfast quality makes birds fascinating to observe. We can, for example, anticipate their timing and enjoy their routines. We can be awed by their toughness. We can even, as with that albatross, leverage their ingrained instincts to advance conservation projects. The world around birds is rapidly changing, however. So scientists are striving to identify when species can’t keep pace and, if needed, where and how to intervene.

One of the best tools our nation has for helping birds in trouble is the Endangered Species Act, which turned 50 this year. As Rene Ebersole describes, the ESA has been extraordinarily effective at keeping long-struggling species from going extinct. It’s also giving more recently threatened species, like the whitebark pine—and the Clark’s Nutcracker that evolved with it—a shot at rebounding. 

Yet not only has the Endangered Species Act encountered fierce political headwinds, but the world is also changing faster than the landmark law has evolved. That’s why experts recommend actions that could help it meet new challenges to wildlife, as well as fresh legislation that would improve the outlook for birds across the Americas. 

As we look to the next 50 years, scientists and conservationists will need to be at once unwavering and adaptable in their missions. Fortunately, as so many stories in these pages illustrate, people are experts at going about the business of studying and saving birds, too.

This piece originally ran in the Winter 2023 issue. To receive our print magazine, become a member by making a donation today.