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Interview With Joanna Burger

Author of "The Parrot Who Owns Me," globetrotting ornithologist and distinguished professor of biology at Rutgers University sits down to chat with BirdChannel.com.

Nikki Moustaki

Follow Nikki Moustaki on Twitter at @nikkimoustaki

The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship
The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship is a memoir by Dr. Joanna Burger, a distinguished professor of biology at Rutgers University.

I first became aware of Dr. Joanna Burger, distinguished professor of biology at Rutgers University from Piscataway, NJ, when I read her memoir, The Parrot Who Owns Me: The Story of a Relationship, in 2002. The relationship between Burger and her red-lored Amazon, Tiko, was charming, and reminded me so much of my relationship with my own birds. I caught up with Burger in-between her globetrotting ornithological forays to interview her for BirdChannel. 

Q: Most bird lovers know that ornithology is the study of birds. What are some of the most surprising details about your job that the average bird lover may not know?

A: Being a university professor is a mix of teaching, research and service to the university, community,and nation. As such, I get involved in a wide range of activities, from advising states and counties on how to reduce bird mortality from wind farms, to helping airports reduce collisions between birds and airplanes. I can choose whatever I want to work on, as long as I can get the work supported. But on a personal level, the most exciting thing is to see undergraduates turned on to birds and behavior, and to shape graduate students into the best they can be. Bird study takes talent, but it also takes training. 

Q: What inspired you to become an ornithologist? I believe that most people assume that ornithologists have an unflagging love of birds, but the majority of the ornithologists I’ve spoken with list science as a first love. Where do you fall on the scale between birds and science?

A: I was raised on a farm and picked vegetables from dawn to dusk. Very early on, my father realized I would never be happy just picking tomatoes, so he started to show me the birds’ nests hidden under the squash plants or tucked into tomato plants. Soon, I graduated to marking the baby birds and following them around the farm. Then I began to wonder where birds went in the winter, where they raised their young, and how they survived. I never dreamed I could actually study birds for a living.

But I agree — it is science and birds that I love. I love the puzzle of figuring out how birds survive in this world with so many predators and so much human interference, not to mention habitat loss. When the winter snows melt, the first warm breezes of spring sweep in, and I hear the first Killdeers call, I must migrate to the shore as well. I hear the terns and skimmers calling as surely as if I was there. The pull is so strong I simply cannot stop—I must see how they are doing, what changes the winter has wrought on their habitat, and how they will fare with the changing sea levels and increased warming. It’s part of who I am, and I could not more give up watching and studying birds than I could stop breathing. I love it.

Q: What projects are you working on now? Where on the globe do these projects take you? What’s the most exciting thing about what you’re doing now?

A: I’m doing a number of projects, including working with Larry Niles and Mandy Dey to study the migratory pathways of Red Knots along Delaware Bay by placing geolocators on them. This allows us to track the birds for a whole year, learning where they have been, and when. We have worked with them long enough that we have two to three years of data on some of the same birds, and can tell whether they travelled along the same migration route to South American in the winter, and how long they flew non-stop. It’s incredibly exciting to hold a bird that you held a year ago, and in between it travelled thousands of miles between the Arctic breeding areas and South America. It is amazing that this little ball of fluff could travel so far for so many years.

I continue to follow the population dynamics and heavy metal levels of Common Terns, Black Skimmers and other colonially-nesting birds in Barnegat Bay. Michael Gochfeld and I have data spanning forty years, one of the longest such studies in the world. Only with long-term data sets can we see what’s happening to birds and their habitats. I have seen many changes, including the loss of nesting islands due to sea level rise.

We just finished studying predation of vultures on Olive Ridley Sea turtles in Costa Rica. It was awesome to sneak over the dunes at three a.m. and see thousands of sea turtles nesting on the dark, silent beaches. They crawled every which way, over each other, to reach places to nest. When dawn came, the Black Vultures flew in to search for any abandoned eggs or exposed nests. In the early morning, up to 100 hatchlings emerged from each nest, and crawled rapidly to the sea, trying to beat the heat and vultures and other predators patrolling the beaches. In one night, over 100,000 females nested on the Ostional Beach, crowded together, oblivious of our presence. It was one of the most incredible nature spectacles I have ever seen, and was a delicate balance between turtles and birds that has gone on for eons, and will continue to do so.

My research has taken me to every continent, studying Puffins and gulls in the Arctic, and Emperor Penguins in the Antarctic, watching Cattle Egrets feed behind Wildebeests in Kenya, South Africa and Namibia, admiring Kittiwakes nesting on cliffs across vast north, being spellbound by macaws eating clay at a clay lick in Brazil and Peru, swooning over elegant colorful pheasants in Asia and placing small geolocators on shorebirds in Delaware Bay and South America. It has been a fantastic journey filled with scientific discovery, cultural experiences, and the beauty of the natural world around us.

Q: I was so charmed by Tiko, the red-lored Amazon in your memoir, The Parrot Who Owns Me, and I’ve wondered what happened to him. Is he still around causing mischief?

Joanna Burger with birds
Joanna on Amchitka Island in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska, some 1,500 miles from Anchorage. She is holding a Common Eider that nests on the ground in the vegetation, and was collecting down and eggs to determine if there were radionuclides or mercury in the eggs or feathers. Common Eider eggs are a delicacy for the Aleuts who live on these remote islands. The U.S. had underground nuclear tests in the early 1970s there, and we were determining whether the marine foods (fish, shellfish, birds) were safe to eat.

A: Tiko is sitting behind me as I write these words, calling softly to me now and then, and insisting on being preened every hour or so. He just passed his 60th birthday, which is very old for an Amazon. He has arthritis and a cataract in one eye, but he’s otherwise healthy and happy. He follows me around, courts me every spring, and defends me against anyone who comes too close, including my husband. He places himself between me and others, ready to do battle. He’s old, but is adapting to his infirmities, and is in high spirits.

Q: What is a typical working day like for you?

A: There is no typical day. When I’m not in the field I’m analyzing data, writing papers, teaching classes, and directing graduate students to discover their own talents. I am usually at my computer by 7:30 or so, with my 60-year old Amazon parrot, Tiko, at my back. He is quite patient, but every hour or so comes down to interrupt my work to be preened, and to preen me. When I’m in the field, I work from dawn to dusk, not much different from when I picked vegetables for my parents so many years ago.

Q: What are some of the most amazing things you’ve seen personally on the job?

A: I loved seeing the miracle of a baby bird pecking its way through a shell to come into the world; the mystery of exploring the migratory pathway of Red Knots that travel from the Arctic to the top of South America; the amazing spectacle of 100,000 female Olive Ridley Sea Turtles coming ashore in one massive arribada to lay their eggs; and the constancy of colonial-nesting terns and skimmers coming back to the same salt marsh islands in Barnegat Bay, New Jersey to breed every year.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who is considering ornithology as a profession? Where should that person start?

A: My advice to anyone interested in ornithology as a profession is to start early, devote your time to learning about birds in nature, and be willing to work hard for the incredible rewards of discovering how birds exist in an ever-changing world. Whenever a person discovers birds, at whatever age, they should try to optimize their knowledge of the natural history of a wide range of birds, even if one intends to go into the molecular biology aspects of birds.

Do not go into ornithology unless you really love it and can't imagine life without studying birds. Only then should you pursue ornithology, and then do it with all your heart and mind. Do not be afraid to invest your own time and money in your studies, because it will be returned to you, as happens with all things in life.

Q: What’s your favorite bird?

A: My favorite birds are gulls because they are so graceful as they swoop through the air, and as a young child I wondered where they went each time they disappeared, and vowed I would someday learn where they went. But my second favorite birds are parrots because they are so smart, so lovable and so very attached to their flock.

Q: What’s your main mission as an ornithologist? What is ornithology’s mission in general?

A: My main mission in ornithology is discover how birds can co-exist with people, especially in the crowded coastal areas that are so heavily-developed. But I also feel very strongly that I must give young ornithologists an opportunity to pursue their interests, and to bring out and train their unique abilities. I feel this responsibility especially toward women who have not always had the opportunity to study birds in the field in remote areas.

Ornithologists should devote their research to understanding the behavior, ecology, physiology and genetics of birds so that they can provide information to ensure their survival in today’s world. Another mission is to further not only the conservation of birds, but to increase awareness and appreciation of the role of birds in natural ecosystems.

Joanna Burger
Joanna on Snow Island in the Antarctic, collecting data on the walking and sliding patterns of the Emperor Penguins, particularly as they are affected by the presence of people. When completely undisturbed, they usually slide or toboggan a mile or more on the ice to reach their chicks, when heavily disturbed, they stand up and walk, which takes much more energy. This one, however, was near the nesting colony, and came to see what Joanna was up to.

Q: What do you like to do in your down time?

A: In my spare time I like to photograph birds, garden, and observe nature in all its splendor, but I also love to travel to new places that combine nature with cultural and archeological places.

Q: Are you planning on writing another book? If so, can you give us a sneak peek?

A: I am always writing another book. At the moment, I’m writing one on population dynamics and metal levels in Colonial Birds in Northeast estuaries, and another on Birds of the Gulf of Mexico.

But I’m moved to write another book on parrots that will examine parrot behavior in the wild and relate it to what we see in companion birds, and to chronicle aging in parrots. Like people, Tiko has learned to adapt in many different ways, illustrating the great intelligence and awareness of parrots.

Q: Is there anything I missed that you believe readers may want to know?

A: I am married to Michael Gochfeld, a physician and ornithologist, who has been my soulmate and partner for over 30 years. We have travelled together and shared our ornithological studies, and the amazing spectacles that are all around us.


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Posted: August 28, 2014, 9:45 a.m. PDT

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Interview With Joanna Burger

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Reader Comments
This gal and her husband are awesome naturalists. I know Joanna from my alma mater of Rutgers and she is the real deal. Have the Parrot who owns me on audio and in book form just because I love it so much! The story of a truly consummate parront! Her and Michael's other publications are also wonderful especially the on on butterflies of NJ.
Tanya, Newton, NJ
Posted: 9/7/2014 11:32:39 AM
This is really awesome! I love it when there are interviews with book writers/parrot enthusiasts. It always makes me feel more normal :)
Sonja, International
Posted: 8/31/2014 3:20:34 PM
Thanks for this great article. I always meant to read her first book. I've had parrots for over 40 years. Now I will read that book. Thanks again for giving me a glimpse of the live of this remarkable human being in the flock.
Wendy, Phoenix, AZ
Posted: 8/31/2014 10:59:15 AM
Very interesting woman who is fortunate to have pursued a fascinating career. A book on aging parrots would greatly add to the knowledge available to us.
Carol, Silver Spring, MD
Posted: 8/29/2014 2:55:57 PM
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