Bird lady

When you walk into the Tucson Audubon Society, you will notice a nature shop with numerous artifacts featuring a little creature—a bird. The nature shop sells bird-printed clothes, hats, decorations, toys and books. Next to the nature shop, you will walk into a small office. There is a huge, colorful poster with various kinds of bird species hanging on the right wall. On the left, a doozy bird calendar with more than 30 vivid pictures. 

Ther all belong to Jennie MacFarland, a 35-year-old with straight blonde short hair and a pair of black-rimmed glasses. She’s wearing a red T-shirt with a name tag (she often interacts with visitors to the Audubon Society office). Most days, she’s sitting in the middle of the office, in front of her computer, making bird-watching plans for the coming year.

But if it was up to her, she’d prefer to be outside, birdwatching. It is about the only thing that MacFarland cares about in life. They are the friends she’s obsessed with.

MacFarland is a bird conservation biologist and the coordinator of the TucsonBird Count, a local effort that aims to help people make informed decisions about the impact human activities have on wildlife, and is dedicated to make Tucson a better place for birds.

Tucson Audubon Nature Shop. (Photo by Kelly Huang)
Tucson Audubon Nature Shop. (Photo by Kelly Huang)

MacFarland grew up in Phoenix, a vast urban area not particularly known for birdwatching. “Our yard was also a pretty large yard, and it was right off the Phoenix canal system,” says MacFarland. “We had to irrigate the yard every month. Our yard had some really large Aleppo trees, pine trees and some citrus trees. So, because of that, the yard did have a lot of birds in it.” 

The birds, species such as house sparrows, pigeons, and other non-native urban birds, would hang out in MacFarland’s family backyard, but no one knew how to feed them. She would see the baby birds when they were just fledging and learning how to fly down from the trees. She tried giving the birds bread, and this made MacFarland excited and eager to try giving them more.

Growing up, MacFarland’s passion was indulged through books, including the biography “Kingbird Highway” by Kenn Kaufman, “Birds of North America” by David Sibley, “The Big Year” by Mark Obmascik, and “A Parrot Without a Name” by Don Stap. When she was little, she enjoyed watching “Nature” on PBS.

“I was mostly watching educational public programs about birds and wildlife,” she says. “These TV programs and books brought birds to me in a way that allowed me to (observe birds) without traveling.” The programs let her see birds from parts of the world she has never been to and learn about bird diversity from all over the world.

When she was 12, MacFarland’s family followed her father (who served in the Air Force) to Tucson. 

During high school, she got binoculars and joined youth clubs for the environment. That’s when she realized she would like to be a birdwatcher and a bird biologist.

She also took part in science-related competitions, including the NCF-Envirothon. Her team won the Arizona competition, and they got the chance to go to nationals in Nova Scotia, Canada.

That would be the first time MacFarland realized there were people who had jobs related to birds. At these competitions, she would go on to meet people who were biologists or worked for the U.S. Forest Service or the National Park Service.

Throughout high school, MacFarland competed and won first place in the “For the Birds” ornithology event at a national-level Science Olympiad. At first, MacFarland had to learn about different birds and take a test with her teammates against other teams in Arizona. She learned how to identify many species of birds, both by sight and by sound, where they are found and natural history facts about them.

There were 15 students on the team. They had to break into small teams and work on different projects. MacFarland worked on the bird event project with another girl and after they won in the state, they went on to the national competition and took first place. “It was so exciting. It was so amazing,” MacFarland says. “I got an actual little gold medal to take home.”

MacFarland received a B.A. degree in Wildlife Conservation and Management from the University of Arizona. At first, she considered the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology major, but a Wildlife Conservation and Management degree seemed more fun to her. “And to be honest, it had fewer math requirements and fewer chemistry requirements,” she adds.

One reason that MacFarland chose to study birds is because many people in wildlife conservation programs are interested in studying big animals like bears and wolves, which are also hard to find in urban areas. “Birds are great, because they come into urban settings, you can go anywhere … and you can find different birds. Birds are abundant,” MacFarland says.

She coordinates some survey projects, such as Arizona’s Important Bird Areas. The statewide program is also an international effort to identify the sites that are most important for birds, such as the best habitats that can sustain their populations.

“Because we’re a nonprofit that doesn’t really have the capacity to hire a bunch of people to do professional surveys, we do volunteer surveys that are coordinated by someone like me,” MacFarland explains. “I’ll organize (the surveys). I’ll map out all the routes and then we get volunteers who donate their time to go out and do the surveys.”

Another major project she is doing is for the Tucson Bird Count, which needs 80 volunteers and is restricted to Tucson. The Tucson Bird Count is trying to see what kinds of birds live in urban Tucson and observe how their habitat changes.

“In some parts of the city, you get a lot of birds; other parts of the city, you get very few birds,” MacFarland says. “So what is good about the parts of the city where you get lots of birds? What makes them good for birds? And can we make the parts where you get fewer birds look more like that? Does it need more trees? Do we need more bird feeders, more water?”

There are many common bird species in Tucson, such as the vermilion flycatcher, Anna’s hummingbird, Cooper’s hawk, Gambel’s quail, and Gila woodpecker. But there are also species that have declined due to the impacts of climate change and habitat loss. Including chestnut-collared longspurs. “They look like a sparrow, and they are in the grasslands around Sonoita, southeast of Tucson,” MacFarland says. Their grassland habitat has been disappearing all over the United States; it has shrunk by 87 percent since 1966, according to MacFarland.

Summer is the busiest season for her, because she does more outdoor work, especially around July and August. She must plan citizen science programs that allows birders to contribute to scientific efforts by helping scientists to build datasets—even though they are not trained scientists with a degree. She also organizes bird surveys. 

“We get up at 5 in the morning to go do a scheduled yellow-billed cuckoo bird survey or another bird survey,” she says.

MacFarland is planning on coordinating winter grassland surveys for chestnut-collared longspurs next January and February. This species is of high conservation concern and is declining rapidly. The grasslands in Southeastern Arizona, such as Las Cienegas National Conservation Area, are a very important wintering habitat for them. 

In May and June of 2020, she will be coordinating a large-scale volunteer effort, surveying the elegant trogon in five different mountain ranges in Arizona. Then, in July and August she will lead yellow-billed cuckoo surveys in mountain ranges in southeast Arizona. Throughout the year, she will do outreach events, public talks, fundraiser events and other regular business associated with working at a conservation nonprofit.

Even though she spends a lot of time in her office analyzing data and surveys, MacFarland still prefers to be outside with birds, observing them, making sure they thrive.

“Bird conservation science is very important,” MacFarland says. “As humans continue to spread across the planet and create many environmental changes that negatively affect birds and other wildlife, we need to be monitoring and documenting these impacts as conservation biologists.”

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