Think Like a Bird – Interview with Stephen Garnett

Stephen Garnett is an environmental scientist, who has been studying Australian birds since 1974. Stephen is also the Joint COP Appointed Councillor for Birds. He is currently on sabbatical at the CMS Secretariat and Christie Burley, an intern of the Joint CMS and AEWA Communications Unit, has taken the opportunity to interview Stephen on his recent paper published in Nature Sustainability and the work he is currently doing for CMS.


Can you tell us something about yourself? What inspired you to work in this field? 

I’ve been drawn to nature all my life but I’ve always felt that it’s the relationship between nature and people that is important for nature conservation. You can only keep a natural environment, if people are persuaded that it’s a value they hold dearly, and so much of my work has been trying to put arguments that retaining nature is something fundamental to us personally and a civilized society more generally.

I’ve done research in lots of different places, particularly across tropical Australia and in the Pacific. Since I’ve become an academic, I have also worked extensively through southern Asia.

What are some highlight moments of your career?

I have been privileged to work so very closely with several species that I have been able to get inside their heads, to think like a bird. You need to understand them, their motivations, how they are engaging with their environment if we are to help conserve them and the more you watch them the more you understand them. I’ve been lucky enough to study some birds study for whole days at a time. It has allowed me to work out what it is in their lives that is important to them and therefore what threatens them, and what we can do about it.

I particularly treasure times on cattle stations on the Cape York Peninsular where I worked on Golden-shouldered Parrots. Sometimes I would spend dawn to dusk with the parrots. The same on Kangaroo Island, South Australia. There were 150 Glossy Black-Cockatoos when we started. After we worked out that possums were taking the young, we were able to protect the nests. There are now approximately 400 cockatoos and numbers are still growing because of the research we did back in the 1990s.

At the same time I came to know love the people living alongside these birds, the human community that had helped to sustain them in the face of mounting pressure.

What are you doing on your Sabbatical at CMS?

I have two tasks. First the Convention’s Parties want more detail of birds that are listed on the appendices under their family name. So I am helping work out which ducks, hawks, flycatchers etc. actually meet the CMS criteria for listing at the species level so the Parties can see where to concentrate their attention.

However, there are also some obvious gaps in the appendices of CMS – threatened migratory species that could benefit from listing. However, any nomination takes a lot of work and Parties to the Convention need to be convinced it is worth it. I am therefore reassessing the migratory status of all the 11,600 species of bird to work out which threatened species meet the criteria for listing under CMS so the Parties know which species might benefit from adding to our appendices should they think it appropriate.

That involves reading about every bird, working out if it migrates or not and whether it migrates across international boundaries. I’m learning a lot about birds I had never heard of, so it has been a lot of fun. But it means going into the literature on every bird species and its mobility.

Please describe in your own words the research you conducted in your latest paper, "A spatial overview of the global importance of Indigenous lands for conservation". What were the key findings?

Nobody had produced a map of lands that are owned or managed by indigenous peoples across the world. There were little bits and pieces, but no one has brought all the information together. It was something I realized when I organized a workshop on the importance of indigenous peoples to conservation and biodiversity at the World Parks Congress a few years ago. Having identified the gap, I then worked with people around the world to bring together the information. We then overlaid the map of indigenous lands on maps of protected areas and of lands that have been little altered by intensive development. From that we were able to identify the very high values of indigenous peoples’ land in many parts of the world.

Do these findings relate to CMS in any way? And if, how?

They do, because of course migratory species pass through indigenous peoples’ land in many parts of the world and its only by working with indigenous people that we are going to achieve conservation objectives. So knowing the main locations of indigenous lands is helpful not just to CMS but also to the Convention of Biological Diversity more generally as well as many other groups wanting to conserve biodiversity.

How do you think indigenous approaches should be considered by CMS?

That’s not my choice. That’s a matter of having a conversation with indigenous people themselves. Indigenous cultures and world views vary enormously – they cannot be lumped together. Some of indigenous people will want to contribute directly to conservation as we understand it. Others will have other objectives, often with conservation benefiting but not as the primary objective. But, we can’t make assumptions of what people will say. The idea is to engage with people. This has been a gap, though now much less than in the past.

And I know there are examples where it is done: for example, in Siberia the Siberian Cranes are nesting on the lands of indigenous peoples and they are now heavily involved with the crane conservation. The cranes had long been considered a significant species culturally but now there is support for their land management. In India cranes have been migrating for years to areas where they are protected by local communities. In northern Australia the indigenous people are heavily involved in turtle and dugong research. To both they have deep cultural ties so being paid by the Australian Government to maintain their habitat fulfils both conservation and cultural goals.

Do you think CMS plays a role in reaching out to these communities?

I think it can do. I think this is the way of the future and the resolutions at the last COP about engaging more fully with indigenous peoples and local communities, is an area where there are opportunities for both CMS and indigenous peoples to engage in partnership.

It’s a matter of empowering people to have an equal voice in conversations. That is often missing. And it is as much about process as outcome, being respectful of indigenous world views and following indigenous processes in the conduct of conversations.

What are your next steps following this paper?

We have several projects in train. We are looking at the intersect between indigenous lands and biodiversity, particularly threatened species. We have just produced something on the proportion of high quality forests that are on indigenous land. We are also looking at projections into the future of where developments are likely to occur and where indigenous peoples are most likely to be affected by expansions of, say, agriculture and mining. And we are looking at the ecosystem services provided by indigenous lands. So there is a whole range of different projects that we can do that will feed into policy as a way to strengthen and support for indigenous peoples' land management.

Story: What is it to think like a bird?

I have two stories from Glossy Black-Cockatoos, huge parrots which feed entirely on seeds extracted from the woody cones of casuarina trees, and, as their name suggests, are mostly black. But, they have bright red tail panels which, in females, are mixed with yellow. The females also have yellow on their heads – with the yellower birds seeming to be dominant in the flock. When watching the birds feed, I noticed that female cockatoos tended to feed on the inner branches of the trees from which they obtained seeds. I wondered why because cones were at far higher densities on the outer edges. Then I realized that the yellow in the female’s plumage reflects ultraviolet light, making them more vulnerable to predators than the males. That’s because birds have four sorts of colour receptor in their eye, one more than us, so can detect ultraviolet light. Essentially the female cockatoos were glowing in the trees and must have been extremely conspicuous to eagles hunting overhead.

The other story relates to their food. They have a really secure food supply – no other bird can break into the tough casuarina cones – but need 10,000 seeds a day to raise just one offspring. That’s over 100 cones a day which takes them eight to nine hours to collect.  But we became aware that not every tree is suitable. We noticed that the first time cockatoos feed in a tree they test a few cones, and sometimes move to another tree a short time later. We wondered why. First we looked at the seeds inside the crops of some baby cockatoos and realized that the cockatoos were using their huge beak and dextrous tongue to strip out just the tiny nutritious kernels of seeds, not eating whole seeds. Then we dissected the seeds of the trees they liked and the ones they rejected and found huge variation in the number of seeds with kernels inside them. Some trees were really productive, others almost barren. Only trees with cones with a high proportion of kernels were worthwhile for the cockatoos to feed from.

So what was it about those trees?

We think it the levels of sulphur in the soil affects seed production. So, from watching the birds and seeing what it was that they were basing their choices on, we could expose this whole ecological system.



Last updated on 26 October 2018