Everybody's Going to Hear About the Bird: Real-world Research from TCI

Posted: June 24, 2014

Somewhere in the recesses of my mother’s house sits fifty pages of prose that I thought might change the world, or at least benefit a few small coastal communities in the Philippines. Unfortunately, my undergraduate research on marine protected areas is now gathering British dust rather than being earnestly analyzed in Manila’s corridors of power. The path for my undergraduate research, however, is not one that will be followed by the research conducted by those who choose to study abroad with The School for Field Studies (SFS). Because we plan our research in conjunction with local stakeholders, and because we have rich networks of local and international collaborators, there is a high chance for each of our students that the data they collect for their SFS Directed Research will one day be used by a professional scientist or policy-maker who does have the power to implement change.

Recent bird research conducted by students at the SFS Center for Marine Resource Studies is having just the kind of real-world impact that was intended when the project was first discussed with our research partners at the Turks and Caicos Department of Environment and Marine Affairs (DEMA). For the past year we have been intensively monitoring bird populations in the extensive shallow ponds left by South Caicos’s now defunct salt industry, as well as on deserted offshore cays which see very little human traffic. The abundance and diversity of birds we have seen has surprised even us. In the salt ponds we have found over 70 species of bird, including flamingos, the near-threatened reddish egret, and the highly endangered red knot. It turns out South Caicos is bang in the middle of the migration superhighway between the Americas. On the cays we have found some of the Caribbean’s largest colonies of the magnificent frigatebird, Audubon’s shearwater, and the white-tailed tropicbird. Our important findings have not gone unnoticed.

The results of our fieldwork have already been shared with DEMA, who will hopefully now integrate them into decision-making for bird conservation in the TCI. They have been collecting bird data across the other islands in the country for a decade, and our data will give them the more complete picture they desired when they helped us plan our research. Our place on the migratory bird superhighway also means our research has been well-received beyond the Turks and Caicos. Through sharing our data in online databases we have been able to contribute alongside regional partners and researchers in the United States to the 5-year Caribbean Waterbird Census (download PDF here). Our impact is not confined to the scientific arena; in the last fortnight a wonderful new guide to birding in South Caicos has been published for which we were an advisor.

I love that our students enjoy the bird research we have conducted the past year, but I love even more that their work is not going to waste. It is already supporting international conservation policy and local ecotourism. My colleagues would be able to tell you that we are having the same kind of impact with student research on sharks, sea turtles, and corals. As a result of our integration in our host countries and connections with wider research communities we will continue to have such impact. When you study abroad with SFS you are not just part of the research team at one Center, but part of a regional and global team bringing real-world change that is pro-environment.