Imagine a bird with a deep, booming call. You are a farmer in Malawi and you know this call signals the end of the rainy season. Or maybe you are a child, and this call clues you into the location of the feathers your father needs to protect your home from evil spirits. Whoever you are, you will face the same problem: the Southern Ground Hornbill is disappearing from Southeastern Africa, now threatened in most countries and endangered in one. Eggshell thinning and human encroachment are to blame, and recovery is not helped by a reproduction rate of one chick fledged every nine years per family group. How can I, an English girl raised primarily in California, help the Southern Ground Hornbill become abundant again in Southeastern Africa, not only for the species’ success, but also for the people who so prominently feature this bird in folklore?
I first learned of the Southern Ground Hornbill when assigned to study their mental wellness at the San Francisco Zoo as the Zoo’s first student researcher. Realizing that my university offered limited mammalogy student research opportunities, I initiated dialog with faculty to see how I could undertake behavioral research outside of the university. One such conversation lead me to the San Francisco Zoo, where I worked to establish a new accredited course that zoology students could enroll in to learn how to conduct behavioral studies. After six months, I recruited two more students and taught them how to create ethograms, collect and analyze data, and write reports. This academic relationship between SF State and SF Zoo has continued and the course is now in its third year of operation.
I originally asked to study primates, as I, like so many others, wanted to work with animals I considered “cute.” But after spending a year observing two Southern Ground Hornbills, writing a paper on their decline, and presenting the issue to my conservation class, I realized that not only is this species beautiful, but they receive little research and conservation effort. I was able to read every published paper that my university’s databases had to offer, something that could have required many more hours if I had been studying Western Lowland Gorilla decline. Even after having the opportunity to co-author a paper on a silverback gorilla study, I stuck with the notion that I could make a difference in the world by pursuing an education that would allow me to best help declining species that receive little attention and are often considered “ugly.”
Less than a year after graduating, I realized that I needed to return to university to pursue a higher education in conservation and management. I have dreamed of attending Oxford since long before I lost my accent and first looked into the DPhil in Zoology program where I realized one professor’s interests align with my own. I wondered if Dr. Andrew Gosler had thought about extending his research on both eggshell thinning and the prevalence of birds in folklore to Southeastern Africa. After chatting with Dr. Gosler, he suggested I look into a MSc offered by OUCE, a department he thought much more suited my future goals, where he could supervise or co-supervise my dissertation.
I combed through the OUCE website, and decided a MSc in Biodiversity, Conservation and Management is the right step for me. Of course the fact that this department came first in the QS World University Rank by Subject in 2016 makes me confident that I will receive the best education possible. But, more importantly, I am attracted to the course itself. The first two terms will help me become more well-rounded academically prior to pursuing a DPhil. I will learn skills that I lack, such as GIS analysis, learn about completely new topics, such as how policies are developed, and will gain strong research methods to prepare me for my own dissertation. This intensive course will place me in a stimulating environment with like-minded individuals, something I have particularly enjoyed and appreciated when the opportunity presented itself in previous educational institutions. Besides Dr. Gosler, the other faculty’s research interests in the department excite me because I will learn from experts in many different niches of conservation, which will allow me to home in on a specific dissertation question. I may even have birding stories of my own to share with Dr. Paul Jepson.
Besides how to spot an Anna’s Hummingbird nest amongst the branches, San Francisco State University taught me skills that I will put to use in this rigorous course. I often registered for the maximum number of units a student could enroll in each semester. This required me to organize my coursework and plan time to study for each course, all while volunteering to help graduate students, researching at the zoo, rock climbing in the evenings, and working to supplement my income on Saturdays. After graduating, two avian-related jobs showed me what different stages of conservation can look like. Counting migrating raptors in Yellowstone National Park not only taught me how to spot and identify hawks, eagles, and falcons at great distances, but also what the final year of a conservation research project looks like: once endangered species now in abundance soaring along the horizon. My second experience, working on the California Coast with the Ventana Wildlife Society, taught me what a conservation organization does each day, something that is difficult to truly appreciate in a classroom setting. I saw the struggles that biologists face when working to recover a critically endangered species, such as wildfires destroying release sites and birds succumbing to lead poisoning. Not only did I feed and monitor California Condors, but I also captured, handled, and released these 20 pound birds with nine foot wingspans, something that requires great patience and the ability to quell one’s anxiety. The educational and practical skills that I learned through my university and work experience has prepared me for the demanding and often challenging course that awaits me.
This MSc course will allow me to explore conservation issues, such as Southern Ground Hornbill decline, in depth before tackling a DPhil thesis. I will cement my research skills and learn about larger biodiversity, conservation and management issues. I will be taught, for example, how Southern Ground Hornbill decline may tie into other conservation topics, such as global climate change. This course will prepare me for more than just a DPhil. It will educate me in the creation of international policies, establishment of protected lands, and the modeling of population declines. It will enable me to tackle my overall goals, such as increasing Southern Ground Hornbill populations throughout Southeastern Africa, with the help of the government, established organizations, or perhaps the creation of my own NGO. This course will also ready me to teach others about avian conservation, as my ultimate goal is to transition from conservation practice to academia later in life.
As an English girl raised primarily in America, I am intent on returning to the UK to further my education. I may have acquired a Californian accent and nuance of language, but my commitment to a strong education is as English as ever. My drive, paired with an education from the University of Oxford, will establish me as an effective avian conservationist who will help the ugly bird with the booming call become abundant once again. Although some may wonder why I would trade relaxing in a hammock in sunny California for the rainy skies of England, I find the possibility of an immersive academic experience in my birthplace irresistible.