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Conor McGowan
Ph.D. Candidate, Wildlife & Fisheries
St. Louis, Missouri
Written By: Paul Maniaci
Posted: 08/27/2006

I knew Conor McGowan was once a dedicated Boy Scout, but never imagined his love for the outdoors would lead him to receiving his Ph.D. at the University of Missouri in Wildlife and Fisheries. Conor’s studies have included trips to the Galapagos Islands and Hawaii. With the completion of his Ph.D. he hopes to teach at a college.  

CCB: When did you decide to pursue a career in wildlife?

CM: Probably sometime in high school, but wildlife and conservation have always been an avid interest of mine since grade school.

CCB: What is a typical day like as a Ph.D. candidate? Are you doing research or student teaching? 

CM: For my Ph.D., I am fully supported on a research grant from the US Fish and Wildlife Service. I am just getting started so it is hard to say what a “typical day” will entail. So far I am doing a lot of reading teaching myself about the ecology, life history, population demographics, and conservation status of the Piping Plover, the species I am researching.  I am also teaching myself about population modeling and how to predict the future trends of the species. Soon I will be planning my research and designing the study for my dissertation. This semester I am also taking a class, which meets once a week for two hours.

CCB: Please give a brief overview of your academic career so far with regards to what you are pursuing.

CM: Received a Bachelor of Science from Wake Forest University in 2000 where I majored in Biology. As an undergraduate I pursued research opportunities with professors in the Bio department and traveled to the Galapagos Islands during the summer between junior and senior years to study seabirds. Followed that with a Masters of Science in Zoology from N.C. State University. There I was supported by the Zoology Department as a Teaching Assistant, and I researched Shorebird breeding ecology in the Outer Banks of North Carolina, graduating in May of 2004. In August of 2004 I began a Ph.D. program in Fisheries and Wildlife Science at the University of Missouri, where I will study Piping Plover population dynamics and endangered species management.

CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career?

CM: Yes, Dr. Dave Anderson at Wake Forest, Dr. Ted Simons at N.C. State, and now Dr. Mark Ryan at Mizzou. As a graduate student you generally work closely with your academic advisor.  I was also inspired and coached by my Uncle John, who is a Wildlife Biologist in North Carolina.

CCB: What does the mentoring process mean to you?

CM: The professors that I mentioned have different styles of mentoring.  Dave Anderson and Mark Ryan treated/treat me as a friend as well as a student.  I greatly enjoy this approach because they always seem to be teaching me instead of lecturing me. Ted Simons was very different.  I don’t want to say that we were not friends, but he always gave off more of an instructor vibe, because he is very reserved. The people that have mentored me have always been good teachers. They have taught me how to be independent, how to think on my feet, how to be creative in the field, how to write.  They have done so through example, through discussion, by simple explanation. My Uncle John has also done all of these things, as well as inspiring me to pursue this career.  From an early age he was a teacher to me and as I grew older he would offer advice on my career and my life decisions. 

CCB: As an undergrad at Wake Forest you studied Biology, did this spark your initial interest in wildlife? 

CM: My interest in wildlife started much younger. My Uncle John frequently took me on hikes in the woods to show me the “wonders of the natural world.”  I also was an avid fan of David Atenbourough’s television documentaries (on nature) as a child living in England. I always loved camping and exploring the outdoors on my own and with the Boy Scouts. Wake Forest directed my interest towards birds.  Dr. David Anderson was a Seabird Biologist and while working with him I really saw how fascinating and fun studying birds could be.

CCB: Then you studied birds and bugs amongst other things at graduate school at NC State. What was your concentration there?

CM: My degree was in Zoology and my minor was Statistics.  To work in wildlife conservation you need to learn a lot of statistics. For my research I studied how human disturbance affects the parental behavior of American Oystercatchers. I spent three months of spring and summer living on the coast of North Carolina over three years. I’d look for Oystercatcher nests every day. Monitor the survival of chicks if and when they hatched, trying to determine causes of nest failure or death of chicks. I also used video cameras to record behavioral data of how parents responded to vehicles driving on the beach. The goal was to design an original research project, collect the data, analyze it and write a thesis when everything was done.  As far as courses I took “Population Ecology,” “Conservation Ecology,” and “Community Ecology.”  They are slightly different ways of looking at and interpreting the rules that govern the natural world

CCB: Tell me about some of your fieldwork as a research assistant in places such as NC, HI, and the Galapagos.

CM: During college I traveled to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, with Dr. David Anderson to study the migration of Nazca Boobies. I spent three weeks at extremely remote locations (a twelve hour boat ride to the nearest airport) and every night I would go out into the breeding colony and search for banded birds. It was simply an amazing experience. 

After college I interned for the Klamath Bird Observatory in Oregon. I spent three months learning the techniques for studying birds that live in the forest. We’d get up before sunrise six days a week and trap birds for five hours at various locations around Southern Oregon and Northern California. 

After that I spent six months in Hawaii working to protect the most endangered species of bird in the world, the Po’ouli (a Hawaiian word for “black faced bird”). There are only three known individuals left.  It lived in the remote high altitude rainforest of Eastern Maui, so we would fly by helicopter in and out of the field sites.  The most we ever went in the field for was ten days, the rest of the time we lived in a house in the town Makawao. In the field we set traps for rats, mongoose, and cats, which might eat the Po’ouli if they caught one. We participated in efforts to research the best ways to help recover this species to a reasonable population.

CCB: The Galapagos Islands seem a utopian habitat. How would you describe them to someone who has never heard of them?

CM: In one word it was Magical! It was other worldly. The landscapes are volcanic islands protruding from the ocean mostly surrounded by rocky cliff and interspersed with white sandy beaches. The wildlife has no fear of humans because they evolved in complete isolation from all land mammals. Most animals are easily approached and captured, especially at night when they can’t see that well.  I swam with sea lions, shooed mocking birds from my lunch plate, and watched intricate seabird courtship displays from just a few feet away. 

Humans are beginning to make their mark on those beautiful islands.  Trash from tourist cruise ships regularly washes up on the shore, many species of mammals like goats, rats and cats have been introduced to the islands and are changing the ecology.  Again it is a simple matter of awareness and people need to understand the problems that litter in the ocean or letting cats roam free can cause.  But, the system in the Galapagos Islands works well. The tourist dollars allow the Ecuadorian government to preserve the islands as a park rather than exploit the islands for their natural resources.

CCB: What were the end results of your research in Hawaii with regards to the Po’ouli? Have they found a way to increase their population?

CM: The Maui Forest Bird Recovery Project attempted to move the one suspected female Po’ouli from her home range in the forest 2.5 miles away to the nearest male’s home range. They captured her and transported her by foot in a specially designed carrying case. Once in the male’s home range they attached a miniature radio transmitter in order to track her movements. Sadly, within forty-eight hours the female had returned home to her original location.  After this tremendous effort the agencies involved decided to capture all remaining Po’ouli and try to captively breed them on Maui.  I do not know how those efforts have progressed.  When I was there we worked to practice transporting in the carrying case around the forest. We used a closely related but not endangered species called the Maui Creeper and took blood samples to investigate stress hormone levels in the birds after being transported in various types of carrying cases.

CCB: Can you explain the process of banding birds and what it accomplishes?

C: Bird banding is used to track individuals over their lifetimes.  Every bird that is caught is given one metal band, issued by the US fish and Wildlife Service that has a unique number engraved in it. The band acts as an anklet wrapped around the lower leg, or tarsus, of the bird. Because no two birds in the world have the same number, individuals can be identified if they are caught again in the future. Sometimes birds are also given unique combinations of colored plastic bands. With a unique color pattern, individuals can be identified from a short distance without actually capturing them again.

Tracking individuals is an extremely useful tool for ecology. With data on individuals you can do research on the life expectancy of bird species and other demographic research. You can do behavioral studies to see how individuals interact and if there is any social hierarchy.  You can do inheritance studies by tracking the offspring of individuals, or do paternity studies to see if all the chicks from one nest come from the same father.  Band and tracking individuals opens up tremendous opportunities for ecological research. 

For more info on banding visit this web site: pwrc.usgs.gov/bbl/

CCB: What is it about science that appeals to you?

CM: I like science because I am an inherently curious person.  As a scientist I get to observe and ask questions about the world. I get to look for answers to those questions. I also can have a positive impact on the world by researching ways to protect and manage rare or endangered species.

CCB: What is the goal of your current studies?

CM: The goal of my current research is to determine how water flow management from dams and reservoirs on the Missouri River affects the viability of Piping Plover populations in the Mid-West. Piping Plovers are an endangered bird and they nest on sandy beaches in wetlands and along rivers in the northern Mid-West. Water flow is managed to maximize industrial barge traffic without consideration for the endangered species nesting on the riverbanks.

CCB: Have any advice for people interested in pursuing Wildlife Studies?

CM: You have to love this stuff!  It’s not easy spending so much time away from family and friends. If you do love it, be aggressive and pursue every opportunity. Like in any professional field having contacts is a great thing and you should not be afraid to use them.

CCB: What is the most difficult part of your work?

CM: Honestly it’s the math.  I don’t like math all that much but it’s an important part of what I do. Everything else I really enjoy. There are other difficulties like physical stamina, bad weather, equipment failures, but I view them as challenges and not so much as hard work.  The other really hard thing besides the math is getting up early in the morning, but you adjust.

CCB: People would be surprised to learn what about your work?

CM: I spend a lot more time in an office working on my computer, analyzing data, and writing up results than I do out in the field, having fun and collecting data.

CCB: What has been the coolest thing about your studies so far?

CM: I’d have to say the place my studies have taken me. The Galapagos, Oregon, Hawaii and the Outer Banks are all such beautiful and fun places to see and work in. I don’t know of any other professional field that would require me to work in such conditions. 

CCB: What are your career aspirations?

CM: I definitely want to be a college or university professor.  I think a smaller college where I could be more of an educator than a researcher is where I’d like to end up.

CCB: Can you compare Wildlife Science to any other activity?

CM: The study of Economics and Ecology are similar in many ways. Wildlife Science has a little bit of everything in it…politics, economics, sociology…

CCB: If you could impart some wisdom on the general public about issues facing wildlife what would it be?

CM: I wish I could make the general public more aware of their effect on wildlife populations.  Most people don’t even know about the wildlife in their own backyards and ways that they can help birds or frogs or butterflies to thrive. I don’t think that the general public understands the sensitivity of wild animals to the actions of people. Something as simple as driving your car a little too fast though a wildlife refuge can change the way wildlife find food. Putting too much fertilizer on your lawn can kill the earthworms that provide food for many suburban bird species. Making people more aware would be nice.