Thumbnail image Florida Scrub-Jay by Manny Salas | Macaulay Library

[Chelsea Benson] Hello, everyone. Welcome to tonight’s webinar from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We’re going to be hearing from Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal, authors of the book A Wing and a Prayer. The Race to Save Our Vanishing Birds. My name is Chelsea Benson, and I’m going to be facilitating today’s conversation.

Today’s webinar is hosted from Ithaca, New York, and I want to read a statement acknowledging the Indigenous people as the original inhabitants of this area. Cornell University is located on the traditional homelands of the Gayogohó:nǫɁ, the Cayuga Nation. The Gayogohó:nǫɁ are members of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, an alliance of six sovereign Nations with a historic and contemporary presence on this land.

The Confederacy precedes the establishment of Cornell University, New York State, and the United States of America. We acknowledge the painful history of the Gayogohó:nǫɁ dispossession and honor the ongoing connection of Gayogohó:nǫɁ people, past and present, to these lands and waters.

We are streaming this webinar on both Zoom and YouTube, and I have a few tech notes for our audience. Closed captioning is available on Zoom. If you’d like to turn those captions on or off, please click that Captions button at the bottom of your screen. And if you don’t see a Captions button, click the three dots that say More.

For those watching on YouTube, click the CC button at the bottom of the video to turn on the captions. For our Zoom audience, to ask Anders and Beverly questions, click on the Q&A button, and type in your question. We’re only using the Zoom chat for technical support.

If you’re watching on YouTube and you’d like to ask Anders and Beverly a question, use the chat feature. I have colleagues behind the scenes, answering questions and sharing information in the chat for both Zoom and YouTube. That was a lot of announcements, so we’re going to get started. I’m very excited to welcome Anders and Beverly to tonight’s webinar.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Hi. Hello. Thank you.

[Chelsea Benson] So thank you for joining us. The book is a real gem, and I’m really excited to dive into it with you all tonight. I want to do a quick introduction for our audience, so they have a little context for our topic for tonight. So Anders and Beverly Gyllenhaal are veteran journalists and authors of the new bool, A Wing and a Prayer.

And after hearing the news in 2019 of nearly 3 billion birds lost, Anders and Beverly packed up their Airstream trailer and traveled over 25,000 miles across the Americas, chronicling the efforts of conservationists, scientists, ranchers, and politicians to help save birds from extinction.

Some of their stopping places on their journey intersect with the lab’s own research, efforts, including Director Emeritus John Fitzpatrick with Florida scrub jays in Central Florida, researcher Connor Wood with California spotted owls deep in the Sierra Nevada mountains, and here in Ithaca, New York, with researcher Adrian Doctor, who uses radar to forecast bird migration and with staff from Merlin and eBird whose efforts helped fuel research and conservation around the world.

So Anders and Beverly, they’re going to take us on their journey. And they have some lovely photographs to share which they took, and they’re going to share their discoveries. And we’re going to follow up our session with a Q&A. So like I said, if you have questions for Anders and Beverly, please put them in the Q&A on Zoom or in the chat in YouTube, but I’m going to let you take it away. And we’re excited to hear from you this evening.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Great.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] All right, well, thank you so much. And also, thanks to all the folks at Cornell who helped us so much with our research. Just hearing you go through all those names, it brings back so many memories about how patient everybody was with us and generous to share everything. And thanks to everybody in the audience on the webinar. We really appreciate your time tonight, and we’re looking forward to talking with you about our very favorite topic– birds.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And as Chelsea says, our book is about this passionate cast of characters, scientists and birders and wildlife experts, hunters, ranchers, philanthropists, who are working to save birds at what we all know is a really fragile time. And we’re at this extraordinary juncture because two opposing forces are at work at the same time when it comes to birds.

One is the enormous pressure that’s eroding more than half the species in North America, as we all know so well. But at the same time, there’s a whole series of responses to those pressures– innovative ideas and conservation, very promising technologies, and a long list of really interesting rescue missions that we’re going to talk some about that are going on across the hemisphere.

So the technology of bird study is advancing at this head spinning and really encouraging pace. And at the same time, ideas and new ideas are emerging basically about how do we coexist with birds at a time of a lot of environmental disruption?

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] And that’s why we call this a race. So which of these forces is going to prevail? And after talking with over 300 people, we came to realize that this is probably going to be decided fairly soon. Ian Owens, who is the director of the Cornell Lab, told us that he thought that the next several years are going to be pivotal. And as the CEO of Audubon, Elizabeth Gray put it, we have about a decade to get this right.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And of course, our topic is birds, but it’s also a slice, as you all know, of the broader environmental story that is one of the themes of our time. And birds are a particularly good lens through which to watch what’s happening. So I’m going to switch us over and put the slides on, as Beverly picks up from there.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So probably, the very first thing you need to know is that we, unlike all of these other people, are not scientists. We’re not bird experts. And I’d be willing to bet you that we’re not the best birders on this webinar tonight. But what we are, are journalists and storytellers.

And what we really wanted to do with this book was to translate the breadth of all of this information that we found into stories that we hoped would resonate with all kinds of people. And we’ve obviously been captivated by birds ourselves. We’re just in awe of their amazing mechanics and their beauty and how they’re nature’s workhorses.

We know that they pollinate the lands and the flowers and the trees, and they also consume 500 tons of insects every single year. And they fertilize, both the land and the oceans, and they clean up nature’s refuse. What would we do without our vultures? And they also spread seeds that fuel the grasslands and the forests.

And our favorite thing, too, or one of mine is that so many studies are now coming out that birding is really good for your mental health. So we got hooked on birds about 12 years ago. What was happening is that we were living in a condo in downtown DC, and we started getting out of the city and into nature on the weekends.

And even though we both grew up with bird feeders and we knew cardinals and blue jays and maybe a couple of owls and some bluebirds, but we started seeing a lot of birds that we just didn’t have a clue what they were. So what would happen was, during the day, Anders would photograph birds, and you’re seeing those photos right now.

And at night, we would sit with the old fashioned bird guide, and we would go, page by page, through the book, looking to see, well, which bird has pink legs and which birds have orange bill underneath and the brown bill on top or vice versa so that we could try to figure out exactly what it was we were seeing.

And mind you, this was about 12 years ago, so it was before you could just upload your photo to Merlin Bird ID and get the answer right away. So we didn’t really mind that so much because it really gave us a real foundation in what really puts a bird together, if you will.

But then the next thing that happened was our regular jobs started to wind down, and we just got more and more obsessed with birds to the point that all of our relatives and our children started making fun of us pretty much all the time. And we have a whole entire wardrobe, full of t-shirts with bird cartoons on them. But anyway, one thing led to another.

And eventually, we started a website, which is called what we’re learning from the birds. And a little tiny plug for that. It’s a non-commercial website, so we hope you’ll visit. And if you want to, you can sign up for our occasional newsletter, where we let you know what we’re looking at, what we’re seeing. And so eventually, after a few years of that, it led to this book.

[Chelsea Benson] So one of the underlying themes of the book is the relationship between people and birds and an unavoidable conclusion. I think people all share is that Americans love birds until they get in our way. Of course, over the past century, whole segments of species have been threatened, going back for many, many years.

And each time this has happened, Americans– and this is our point– have stepped forward to do things to save birds. And this goes back to the turn of the 1900s, when the slaughter of birds, like this heron and egrets, spoonbills, were used to provide women’s hats. And then in the ’30s and ’40s, the loss of ducks and geese from the droughts were responded with a whole new laws to protect game birds.

And then, of course, in the ’60s and ’70s, we realized that birds, like this bald eagles and ospreys, condors, many others were disappearing because of pesticides. And that’s when we passed the Endangered Species Act, of course, and launched the Environmental Protection Agency and the general environmental awareness began to grow.

And we’re in a similar place today, as we all know. But the crisis is deeper and different in the past. And as Chelsea mentioned, we recently seen the most significant research in generations, done partly by Cornell Lab and the American Bird Conservancy, where they figured out to count the number of birds for the very first time.

And here’s the graphic that the lead computational scientists sent out when he realized that what it amounted to was almost a third of the birds in North America have been lost since the 1970s, that it amounted to 3 billion birds. And a profound discovery. And the research answered all kinds of big questions, but it raised a lots of others.

What’s being done? What can be done that isn’t? Where is this all leading? There’s so much written about birds, and you think about it. Wonderful books on iconic species, from eagles to owls and just tons of guides and magnificent photos books. What seemed to be missing was a deep look at what’s being done to save birds.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So what we decided to do was to get out onto the front lines of where the work was actually being done. And so it happens that we had a little 23-foot Airstream trailer, and it’s appropriately called a Flying Cloud. And we converted it into a mobile office.

We took out part of the seating and put in our little desk, and we got rid of extra clothes and filled the overhead bins with file folders and even made room for a little printer underneath a little table there. And if you don’t count the bed and the bathroom, it actually has about 50 square feet of living space.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] I have to interrupt here and just say, this makes it look better than it actually was because this was photo taken by a friend that’s a photographer. I think it was a wide angle lens and the beautiful background. It was pretty crowded.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] But we still managed somehow. So we started out from our home in Raleigh, North Carolina. And then we went to Florida and drove all the way across the country to Wyoming and then on to California. And eventually, we put the Airstream and dry dock for a little while, and we traveled to Hawaii and Ecuador.

And so we want to touch on a few of these many stories to give you a sense of the rescue missions that are going on across the Americas and what our birds are really up against and also how fascinating and complex this work is. And most importantly, what are the prospects of having a real impact?

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah. And so these are real quick looks at stories that we go into far more depth of on a course starting with the Florida grasshopper sparrow which is, as many of you will know, the target a desperate scientific intervention after it dropped to just 44 remaining birds some years ago.

It’s the first story that we tell in the book, how the scientists coaxed the birds back into health by breeding chicks in a laboratory setting and then planting them out on the prairie. Here’s a group of scientists heading out with the first group of these chicks and then watching over them like helicopter parents.

The numbers are slowly rising. But the sparrow saga is also an illustration of how very much energy is being spent on the far end of extinction, and that’s a policy that’s probably going to need to change with so many birds in trouble. And that’s one of the issues that we dig into in the book.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So, excuse me. I really love this little puffball of a bird. It’s the cerulean warbler. And we talk about the cerulean warbler in our book to really touch on the specific story of songbirds and the migration. So the cerulean starts his journey up in the Appalachian Mountains, and he flies all the way down to the coast of the Gulf of Mexico and over to Colombia and Ecuador.

And the cerulean is one of about a third of North America’s songbirds and other birds that migrate to Latin America twice a year. And so we’re going to show you a few more photos of some of the other songbirds that migrate that are all nice, wonderful, little puff balls. This is one of my favorites back here.

Go back just to have a second. The prothonotary warbler, he just glows. He’s so beautiful. Anyway, so as we began to look into more of this, we realized that a lot of these birds travel over as many as 12 different countries in their twice-a-year migrations. And we came to think about them almost like children of divorced parents that don’t always get along with each other.

And when you think about it, we have custody of these birds for about half the year, and we just can’t control what happens to them when they’re in the different countries of Latin America and South America that don’t always have the resources to spend on conservation that we do. And so we realize that these are some of the most difficult, the toughest birds to protect, but there are also some of the most important.

If the hemisphere’s birds are going to flourish, South America has got to be involved. And we’re becoming to realize this, just as more and more philanthropic money is going into these areas and starting to flow into the Southern hemisphere for protecting land that has never been protected before.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And this is a long standing story, of course, issues that have been percolating for a very long time. We think there are some promising new developments. And of course, to make one more point, which is that when these birds, North American birds get down there, they join this massive, wonderful gallery of almost three times as many birds in South America, from toucans, tanagers, another tanager, flowerpiercer. Just endless numbers of hummingbirds, of course, like this trainbearer.

One of the biggest challenges birds face, of course, is how they thrive on diminishing chunks of habitat, almost everywhere. And that’s the challenging of a fascinating project that’s underway, s trying to stabilize the Florida scrub jay. It was good to see him on the front opening slides. Scrub jay’s has lost about 90% of its habitat, as well as about the same percentage of its population, as Florida has grown into the third most populous state.

And this is one of the most studied birds on the planet and, of course, a longtime subject of Cornell’s own Director Emeritus John Fitzpatrick. And this project that we write about is run by the Archbold Biological Station in Central Florida, hooked tiny trackers into all of the relatively young birds to figure out what exactly they did all around 24 hours a day.

These birds don’t migrate, so trying to figure out what exactly they are doing in order to figure out what kinds of habitat and food, plant conditions will make them possible to make the most of that land. And the result is a blueprint that’s being formed to try to protect this. This bird is the only native bird in Florida, but it’s also a plan that can be used on many other birds as this is put together.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So this is the California spotted owl, and he is the subject of the world’s largest project using the science of sound or by acoustics to rescue birds. So the spotted owl lives high up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in places that are so vast and remote, they’re nearly impossible to even drive-through most of the time. So under the direction of Connor from the Cornell Lab, scientists have figured out how to set up recorders across millions of acres of forest land.

They basically go out in strap these recorders to the trunks of trees. And within a year, they’ll have a million hours of sounds. Because if you think about it, owls hoot, so they are easy to hear on these recorders. And then the lab figured out how to use artificial intelligence to go through and analyze all of these sounds and exactly pinpoint where in the mountain range the owls are.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] So there’s a lot behind this story that it took to try to protect the birds, but it’s an example of one of the really powerful newer technologies that is so useful for birds because they are constantly singing and calling. And so that’s a way to track where they are in places that you, otherwise, can’t reach.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] And once they figure out where they are, they can go in and take other measures to stabilize the birds. And we talk a lot about that in the book as well. Some of it’s not so happy, so we’ll let you see that for yourself.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] So the largest and probably the most unusual conservation project in the country right now is in Hawaii. Researchers are trying to figure out how to save the last of the native forest birds, like these honeycreepers, iiwi, and akia paulao. And here’s the palila.

Hawaii, of course, is the world’s capital of extinction. It’s just overrun, particularly inland, with invasive species of pigs and cows and mongoose and rats and cats. It’s a long list that has decimated the land and the birds. They already have lost 2/3 of the original 140 native birds in Hawaii.

And 15 of the remaining 17 honeycreepers are losing out to malaria. So for nine years, scientists and other groups in Hawaii have been preparing this ambitious project to release lab-bred mosquitoes that have been infused with a bacteria that will act as a birth control when those mosquitoes mate with wild mosquitoes.

It’s complicated and fascinating, and it’s about to be launched later this year. It’s a moonshot because there’s so many players, volunteers, state and federal agencies involved. It’s definitely a story to watch. And it begins to enter into in this chapter on Hawaii. We get into some of the extreme measures that are in the works that may be needed to halt the losses that we’ve seen in places like Hawaii.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Now this is a woodpecker, but it’s not just any woodpecker. This is the red-cockaded woodpecker. And he’s a bird that looked to be doomed, just a few decades ago. But what came to its rescue was none other than the US military. So what happened is, as the country began to develop, military bases across the country became islands of undisturbed land.

And so now, these bases are home to some 500 species of rare birds and animals, insects and plants. And at first, as you might imagine, military commanders were not in the least bit interested in playing nursemaid to a bunch of birds, but it was sad, really. The soldiers at Fort Bragg, which is now called Fort Liberty were driving tanks through the red-cockaded woodpeckers’ nesting grounds, and they were building new barracks in the woodpecker habitat.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Purposefully, to show that they could do what they wanted to do.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Well, they could. But all of a sudden, they couldn’t. Because they got into a skirmish with the US Fish and Wildlife Department, which is, of course, the agency that oversees all of the Endangered wildlife in this country. And so after a few back and forths, a few, maybe, unpleasant meetings, the US Fish and Wildlife went in and shut down basic training at the largest military base in the country.

Well, that got the attention of the US military, and they did an about face. So the Department of Defense has a lot of money and a lot of motivation to get this job done so that they can go back to their primary business of defending the country. So if you fast forward a few years, now, the US military has embraced its role and has become a national model for wildlife conservation.

They show what can be done when we put our minds and our best scientific powers to work on it. So the red-cockaded woodpecker is the pickiest bird that you would ever want to see. He can only drill his cavity in a longleaf pine tree that’s 80 to 100 years old, and the tree has to be dying, but not yet dead.

So basically, it takes him 10 years to build the cavity because of all of the sap that the tree gives off. And if you remember from your history lessons when you’re younger, the longleaf pines and these pine trees were responsible for all of this pitch and turpentine that the country used in the early days to build ships and other things.

So what happens is the bird comes, and he pecks a little bit into the tree. And then he has to go away and wait for the tree to heal itself and stop oozing all of this sap. And then he comes back and starts the process all over again until the point where it takes about a decade.

But what was happening is there weren’t enough trees really left. Plus, this process was just taking too long. So eventually, the military scientists figured out how to make an artificial cavity for the woodpecker that could be installed in the tree in just one afternoon. And it was exactly like the woodpecker liked it.

So what you started finding was that at 15 military bases all across the country, you had these artificial cavities springing up in trees, like government housing spreading around. And sure enough, the birds love them. And now the population of the red-cockaded woodpecker has recovered, almost nearly recovered 25 years ahead of schedule.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Right. And that’s just one example of what the military services devoted to this have done. It’s at work in bases all across the country, and it’s really interesting. So we mostly had a great adventure putting this together, but–

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Well, it was mostly a creative venture. But as you might– if you think about it, we had spent our work lives, sitting behind desks. And we were getting a little bit older, mostly you were getting a little bit older. And suddenly, we found ourselves out there on the front lines, following people around who think nothing of hiking straight up a mountainside for 10 miles or staring down boars and elk and wild pigs and other really scary things.

And it seemed like that we were always, always wearing the exact wrong kind of shoes. So one example of this was when we were in the snake-infested swamps of Louisiana, looking for this iconic bird, the ivory-billed woodpecker. So we found ourselves standing on the edge of the swamp, and our leader has on hip waders, and he’s carrying a machete.

And we have on our basic little hiking boots. And so Anders bravely got behind the leader, and he got right behind him. And I saddled up right behind Anders. And we started off, and then the leader stopped. And he looked back, and he said, it’s usually the third one in line who gets bit. So suddenly, I just like basically jumped in front of Anders.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] She was willing to sacrifice me on that one.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Right. But it wasn’t until we got to Hawaii that things really got a bit drastic.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Right. So in Hawaii, we went way up into the interior elevated regions to watch a project where they’re trying to save seabirds, including this great shearwater. The nest, way at the highest elevations. And we went that day to meet with the scientist Andre Rein in the Island of Kauai.

And when I got there, he says, well, do you have your spiked heels on your boots? And I said, no, I didn’t. He said, we will find some for you. Looked around these offices, didn’t find any. And then said, well, we’ll be fine. Let’s go on up. So we head up into the mountains, and we were following this wooden– I’m sorry, this dirt path along the edge of a cliff that drops right down 3,000 feet to the Pacific Ocean, glistening down below on a beautiful sunny day.

And everything was great until it started to pour rain, which often happens in Hawaii. And suddenly, that path turned into a mudslide, and I’m grabbing onto different branches, trying to keep from slipping and sliding right on the edge of the cliff. And Andre turned around and says to me, listen, if you’re going to fall, fall to the right. Because if you fall to the left, it’s all over.

We did not fall. We managed to survive that. But it drove home how perilous it often is that folks that are working out in the far edges of this work, where the birds are often and in need of this kind of research. And it’s quite a challenge and very impressive, and we were really interested in seeing all that.

The second half of the book, we look at the broader issues surrounding the future of birds in North America, what’s going on that can help not just individual species along the lines of what we’ve been talking about, but the wider expanse of birds. And there’s good and bad news here.

And we devote a full chapter on the growing realization among a group of ranchers and farmers, and here’s one of them that we told the story of out of Kansas that have realized that if they make room for birds on their land, it’s not only good for the wildlife, but it can lead to a more productive and even more profitable operation.

And that’s a key concept that is slowly catching on, and it’s terribly important because grasslands, of course, are where some of the deepest losses have been. Another really encouraging development is coming from the same group of scientists who conducted the 3 million bird research, and they got together after.

They had put that out and said, we’ve got to do more than just report the trouble. So they put together a project, called The Road to Recovery, that is currently raising– it hopes to raise $50 million to put more emphasis on basic research and take a lot of these impressive technologies that we’re talking about and spread them more broadly to species before they approach extinction.

This is Pete Marra, who is head of Road to Recovery, and here’s John Fitzpatrick in the lab. He’s part of the advisory group on this. And there’s another really important lesson that can be had out of the game bird conservation successes that ought to be used on other species.

And for generations, we’ve had this remarkable model that’s working with this segment of birds, largely because there’s strong political support, and there’s money coming in. The key, of course, is the flow of billions of dollars. To date, $17 billion from the sale of ammunition, guns, bows, and arrows that enable the protection of breeding and migratory grounds.

And it’s built this network in addition to that of the wildlife refuges and research that needed. So game birds are up. Populations are up more than 50%, at the time, when so many other birds are in such dramatic decline. So what does that tell us that we ought to be trying to do with those lessons? And at this point, I’m going to turn our sharing off and just talk a little bit.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So that’s really the good news. And A Wing and a Prayer also lays out what still stands in the way. And at the top of the list, of course, is the continued loss of habitat, followed by the ambivalence that our country is really always had about devoting resources to wildlife management. There’s also still struggles between economic interests and conservation needs. And really, the sad fact is that our state and federal conservation system has failed to keep up with the pace of these losses of our bird populations.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And it’s pretty clear that the leadership that’s needed here is not likely to come from our political segment or government agencies, as it has done in the past. Congress has proven largely unable to make decisions on this front. And the country has, meanwhile, allowed the Endangered Species Act, which turns 50 this year, to become so underfunded and backed up, that it can take years and, sometimes, decades for a bird or other wildlife just to get an assessment.

The system that had been the world’s model now seems built for another time, and it’s a time for serious consideration of reform. And a good example of what’s not being done, the most significant legislation in a generation that would help badly needed monies to flow through state agencies, that’s the restoring America’s Wildlife Act, has stalled in Congress, in the US Senate after passing the House, despite 10 years of work by a bipartisan coalition in support of this idea.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So a lot of the leadership is coming from other places now, including major nonprofits. Of course, the Cornell Lab and Audubon and also the American Bird Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, and Ducks Unlimited, just to name a few. And philanthropies that are responding, especially to the challenges of climate change, are also having a big impact on birds at the same time.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And most significantly, birds are, as we all know, and I think Cornell is at the center of this, drawing more public interest than ever before. And that’s partly because of the pandemic taught us to look outside. And you’ve seen this big surge in interest. The last comprehensive study found that more than 50 million people consider themselves bird watchers, and that’s a number that’s probably quite a bit low since it was several years ago that happened.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] And a great example of this is that more than 900,000 people are using the labs eBird app and what’s become the largest citizen science project in the world. eBirders have now submitted 83 million checklists of the birds that they have seen. And the labs, Merlin Sound ID is absolutely spreading like wildfire to help people figure out what species they’re hearing.

Everywhere that we have gone when we’ve been talking with folks about our book, people are just raving about Sound ID. We, in fact, have our breakfast into it, just about every morning. When the weather is nice, listen to the birds. We’ve been also really encouraged by the partnership between the New York Times and Cornell that’s producing a steady flow of coverage and helping the lab to expand its eBird database.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] So we end up hopeful that this country will take advantage of what is clearly a unique moment, a time when the knowledge of birds is deeper than it has ever been before. The powers of avian research are accelerating. And we’re seeing the responsibility for playing a role spread beyond the traditional scientists wildlife professions to farmers and ranchers and hunters and birders and private landowners which is really important.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So we’re basically at a time where anyone who’s willing to help birds can have an impact. We end A Wing and a Prayer with an afterword, listing dozens of things that just about anybody can do to help birds, everything from how you protect birds around your home and your business to supporting birds in the marketplace with bird-friendly products, like bird-friendly coffee, and now even bird-friendly beef and bird-friendly maple syrup. And of course, it’s really important for people who contribute to our nonprofits and research centers to continue to do that as well.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] So a note to end on, and then we’ll get into questions. We can’t tell you how many times in our travels we heard the expression, canary in the coal mine, come up, about the role that birds play because they’re so sensitive to the environment. This, of course, goes back to a time when canaries were used to alert miners when there were changes in the air underground.

But today, birds are telling us in very specific terms that we need to respond to changes in this broader picture. And this is a time when, clearly, we need to be listening to what they’re telling us. So thank you so much for joining this webinar, and we’d love to get into questions and thoughts on all of this.

[Chelsea Benson] Great. Thank you, Anders and Beverly, for that great presentation. A lot of people were marveling about the photos, so I’d love for you to share a little bit about the photos.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah. So the photos is something– I’ve loved photography since I was a young reporter, years ago. And when digital photography came back in a big way, not too, too long ago, the abilities to shoot birds have advanced tremendously. So I just got really deep into that. And everywhere we go, I would take pictures.

Now what’s so interesting to me is that I am not alone. Tons of amateur photographers out there are now taking pictures of birds. And I think it fills the internet with a way to look at birds and I hope help birds in certain ways. So I work under the theory that if you shoot enough, you might get a good picture. So that has been a big part, an enjoyable part of all this.

[Chelsea Benson] That’s wonderful. One of the first questions that popped into the Q&A, they were wondering– you started your birding journey. Did you have a certain spark bird that just hooked you into birding, or was it just like a gradual descent into birding madness that we all get?

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Well, what really happened for us is that we were camping. So we were out in the woods. And all of a sudden, we were just surrounded by the birds, just there they were. And it was like being in the pandemic in microcosm because we were just there. It was like, oh, my gosh, what are these? But what started us really on the road and chasing birds was probably that little prothonotary, the little gold ball that you saw. We just really had to see it. And so, we really kept going until we did.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And we’ve written about and shot endless pictures of prothonotaries, just because they just glow like gold. So that was probably our spark bird.

[Chelsea Benson] Oh, that’s great. So one thing that I was curious about, everything’s so digital right now. We use Zoom, and we conduct meetings across time and space. But you decided to pack up your Airstream and take this wild journey. What was it that made you want to go into the field instead of having meetings or reading books. I mean, you did all those things, too, but what was it about getting out there?

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Well, basically, we’ve been journalists and feature writers– mostly me, features, but Anders also some in his career. And there’s just nothing like being out there and just being with somebody and really seeing what they’re doing and being able to– the more you see, the more questions you have. And of course, selfishly, it meant that we were going to get to see some of the most amazing person on the planet. It didn’t hurt at all.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Right. So the more time you spend with people, that’s where you really get the story. We wanted to bring– I mean, there’s a lot of information out there, but the challenge is to tell a story, which is the challenge of any book like this. So we were trying to be able to develop the narratives that you can only get by hanging around people until they’re tired of you.

[Chelsea Benson] Some people noticed that you’ve been on a book tour, and they’ve seen your presentations. And they want to know if you’re still touring, and if you might be showing up in a city near them. Is that on your website, or how can people find that?

[Anders Gyllenhaal] On our website, we have a section called Our New Book, and it’s got a list of where we’re going to be. We’re slowing down a little bit now. We just had a wedding of our youngest so that took us off the road for a while delightfully. But we do have a number of dates planned for the fall, and they’re on the website.

[Chelsea Benson] Right. I’m just adding that into the chat, so people can go and see. And I wanted to also say, if people are interested in picking up a copy of your book, that our webinar attendees can get $5 off the list price. So I’m just going to put that in the chat before I lose the thought.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] I’m going to put that back up here, if I could. And it has a little bit of information.

[Chelsea Benson] Oh, yeah. Yes. So you got your website and your Facebook and an email. So, yeah, thank you for providing that information. And also, I’ll pop that in the chat. And for anyone who’s watching the webinar, it’s going to be recorded, and we’re going to send it out tomorrow with all this information so that if you have trouble finding all the links right now, don’t worry. I’ll compile them. We’ll get them to you.

There’s so many great questions coming in, so I want to get back to some of the questions that people are asking. I got an email before the webinar, and I wanted to talk about a hopeful story. So in your book, you talked about the bald eagle as the success story of our time. And the person who submitted the question, they were wondering if that same model is being used with other endangered birds. And if so, is it being successful?

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Well, the eagle is both a wonderful success story, but also different than a lot of the challenges today because it was really one single thing DDT that led to the collapse of that and other birds. Once that was addressed and banned in 1973, that cleared the way. It was followed up with a lot of conservation, of course.

But the eagle has advantages. It’s our national symbol. It has special legislation protecting it so that is possible to use when it’s threatened. So while the eagle, I think, is a wonderfully symbolic story, other birds, without that glamor, have trouble meeting that standard, so it is and it isn’t, I would say. What do you think?

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Yeah, I think that’s right.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And it’s important to note that the eagle now, despite that growth– so we tell the story of how the eagle has now multiplied to the point there’s almost a half a million eagles in Canada and the US. But there’s just also was a recent discovery that eagles are threatened by lead poisoning that has been spreading into almost half of the bald and golden eagles are found to have high levels of lead poisoning can cause a slow death or certainly cripple them.

And while we have banned lead in hunting ducks and geese, we have not been willing to do that for the sake of other birds because the eagles will consume, carry on that hunters use lead and various game, various shooting, and leaving that in the field.

The eagles consume that, and that’s how they get lead poisoning. So that’s something that needs to be addressed and ought to have been addressed. A lot of the people we talked to felt that this was the time to push for that because our national symbol that’s protected.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. I’ve gotten a few questions about the Florida scrub jay. And one of the questions is they’re interested in learning more about the conservation efforts to preserve habitat. And some people are wondering, like is the Florida scrub jay– because around here, we have blue jays, and they’re everywhere. And they’re easy to track them to your yard. But is that same thing true for a Florida scrub jay? What makes it so difficult to conserve this species?

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Well, the scrub jay is a bird that likes it where he likes it. And where he likes it is in a very particular type of environment in Florida that is really old. It’s these giant sandy– they used to be sand dunes back in millions of years ago.

But now, this particular habitat is a part of Florida that you don’t even necessarily know exists because it’s very arid and dry. And that habitat is very particular to certain areas of Florida. So no, you’re not going to have a scrub jay probably flying down to other parts of the country for sure.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And the challenge is that that’s also an area where a lot of development is taking place. So as we said, 90% of the scrub land has been lost. The challenge with the scrub jay is that the chunks are getting smaller and smaller. How do they make the most of that land? And also, how do you connect these little chunks of possible habitat for them?

And there’s been some progress in that Florida recently passed a corridors legislation that will invest millions of dollars into trying to make it possible for wildlife to move around the state. Florida has done a good job in some ways of protecting its wildlife, at the same time, as they face all this pressure from all the growth that’s occurring. That’s why we see that as a story that’s emblematic of the overall pressure on birds.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] And the reason why it’s important– well, there are probably lots of reasons. But one of the main reasons why it’s important to connect these habitats is so that the scrub jays can go find mates. And if they don’t, if they don’t go out to new territories, then you start to have inbreeding, which really is not a good thing. It eventually leads to a lot of genetic problems with the birds.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, they do quite the intricate mapping of the families of the scrub jays. It’s pretty impressive.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah, absolutely.

[Chelsea Benson] Another question that I’m seeing was actually about bird-friendly beef. Because often, we think of beef as a really intensive practice, farming cattle. And so it wasn’t part of your presentation, but I love this section of your book where you talked about the Flying W Ranch in Kansas, and I’d love if you could just share with our audience what makes this ranch so special and so bird-friendly.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Sure. And in fact, it’s easier for ranches to make room for birds than for farms, where they’ve plowed up so much of the soil. And on this ranch, it’s simply basically returned it to the state that it had been in before it was a ranch. And that’s just fine for the certain cattle that they raise there and works very well.

Native plants, lack of pesticide, making room– we camped out on this one part of the ranch. In the morning, we would wake up, and it was just a whole symphony of birds were out there, not far from where the cattle are. So they can coexist, if the ranchers are willing. And in this case, they’re proving that not only is it good for the birds and other wildlife, but it makes them a more productive ranch.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] So basically, if you’ve heard of free-ranging chickens, well, these are free ranging cows, so they’re not confined to feed lots at certain times. They really go out, and they eat almost all of the natural grasses and the different flowers and these things called forbs, which I didn’t even know what a forb was before we started our work on this.

But essentially, the cows don’t have antibiotics or any of those kinds of things. They just basically eat the natural grasses, and they know what’s good for them. So they will actually eat different things at different times of the year, based on what they just naturally need. So it’s a pretty fascinating story.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah.

[Chelsea Benson] There’s a lot of questions about whether, in the end, you saw so many things that were probably very hopeful, but also maybe sad and a little discouraging. So in the end, what were you like? Did you feel hopeful at the end? Did you feel like– what was your takeaway when you put the book down, and you’re like, I feel good about the way things are, or ooh.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] The way we looked at this in the end was that there are all these pieces of the puzzle spread out across this country and into Latin America as well that can save birds and are saving birds and could help to put some of this back together or, at least, halt the losses.

But they’re like a puzzle, and they haven’t been put together. We don’t have the overarching concept that we’ve had at several points in our history, and that’s what we’re arguing needs to occur now. And it’s not just good for the birds. It’s good for everything that lives here. And that’s the point we make.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Right. And it is time for, well, hopefulness, I guess I would say, is the impact that people can have. There are a lot of things that you can do and things that are important to do. And sometimes, it’s a small thing. , Like, maybe, keeping your cat inside.

You wouldn’t think that just keeping your cat indoors could be so important. But if people did keep their cats inside and not let feral cats range, we’d save about what? 2.6 billion birds a year that cats kill for sport, not for food. And another thing that we became aware of was how groups, like American Bird Conservancy and Audubon and some other groups, the Nature Conservancy, they have on their website places that you can go and get involved in signing online petitions for legislation that’s coming up and knowing what measures are happening.

And we really also liked what Hilary Swain at the Archbold told us is that in the end, all conservation is local. So the person who basically goes to the town commission’s planning board meeting and makes a plea for better water quality basically is just on it, in your town. If we all do our part, then these smaller things add up to bigger things.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah, there was a lot of questions about, what can I do, and what’s the next step? But I think you just did a really eloquent job of answering that, so thank you so much. Let’s see if I can find another good question here. There’s so many, and it’s hard. We probably have time for one or two more. Is there anything that, Andrews or Beverly, that you wanted to share before we have to wrap up?

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Yeah, I think going back to the points of what can be done, there are 22 different things mentioned in that afterword. And I think the real takeaway for us is that there’s a ladder you go up. First of all, you’re interested in birds, and then you’re maybe a little bit more obsessed. And then you’re wondering what’s happening with them.

And that ladder toward conservation is something that you see taking place. We really need to get to the point where the pressure that came to bear in the ’60s and ’30s and in the 1900s, when people rose up and said, we’re not going to let the slaughter of birds continue to occur. We’re not seeing that now.

There’s a lot of things going on in this world that demand our attention. And so, you’re competing for people’s attention. But this is one thing that is within reach, and that’s the point that we would make, that the solutions are within reach. We have legislation that’s sitting right there on the edge of being approved.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] And it’s a bipartisan.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Bipartisan.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] I mean, conservation and saving birds is something that really can go across any aisle. Everyone agrees that it’s important to save our birds. And I think, to me, too, the thing that makes me hopeful is the more people realize that what’s good for birds is really good for us, is good for people. That’s where we’re going to take the time to really say, OK, these birds, they’re sending us a clear message. It’s not pretty, if we don’t take care of the environment and if we don’t do certain things. So when birds are happier, we’re all happier.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] And one other point on that is, I think, we’re focused very much on climate issues these days– we see it playing out every day in floods in forests and Hawaii situation– is that the imperatives of responding to climate go hand-in-hand with what’s needed for birds.

Sometimes, the climate issues seem overwhelming, like we’re powerless to do something about it. But if you look at this subset, which is what’s happening with birds, it’s a clear set of concrete things that can be done that do respond to this broader set of issues. So it’s a window into seeing what needs to be done, what can be done, and what can have some impacts.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. Thank you so much, one, for writing the book. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading it. It was like a lot of familiar names and birds and learning new things. And I love how you wove the connections together and made it just really quite a work of storytelling that also provides these actionable steps that people can take.

So I just wanted to thank you for the book and for drawing attention to this issue in a way that’s really approachable and connects people. So thank you for joining us tonight and for talking about your book and for sharing your story and your beautiful photos. It’s been a pleasure connecting with you both.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Oh, thank you, guys. It’s been our pleasure. And thanks to everyone who tuned in.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Thanks so much, Chelsea.

[Chelsea Benson] Yeah. Thanks to our audience for the wonderful questions. I can see that they’re very active in the chat and in the Q&A. So obviously, it connected with them as well. I’m going to be emailing our webinar attendees tomorrow, so you’ll get the recorded version of the webinar. You’ll get the link for the discount on the book, the link for Beverley and Andrew’s website.

But I also want to just to note that these webinars are a free resource from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and they’re made possible by our members. So if you’re interested in becoming a member of the lab, you can visit And I just want to thank you once again, Beverly and Anders and our audience, and have a great night, everyone.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Thank you.

[Beverly Gyllenhaal] Thank you.

[Anders Gyllenhaal] Bye bye.

[Chelsea Benson] Bye.

End of transcript

Watch the recorded conversation with Anders and Beverley Gyllenhaal, veteran journalists and authors of the new book, A Wing and a Prayer: The Race to Save our Vanishing Birds. After hearing the news in 2019 of nearly 3 billion birds lost, Anders and Beverly traveled more than 25,000 miles across the Americas, chronicling the efforts of conservationists, scientists, and politicians to save bird species from extinction. During our discussion, we delve into their remarkable journey, glean insights from their discoveries, and explore actionable steps we can take to contribute to this urgent cause.

Explore More:
  • 3 billion birds lost since the 1970s spurred the Gyllenhaals into action. Read more about the research and find out ways to #BringBirdsBack.
  • Anders’ and Beverly’s website, Flying Lessons, shares their love of birds, interesting discoveries, and beautiful photos.