Like bird populations that migrate north for the summer, I “migrated” north from Mexico to the United States. I was born and raised in the state of Michoacan in a small village called Totolán, which is the Indian name for “land of the birds.” I grew up very poor in a large family. My parents were farmers and barely attended elementary school. However, it was the time I spent with my father and relatives out in the fields that helped cultivate my love of the outdoors. I always enjoyed observing wildlife, especially birds, in their natural environment or ecosystem.
An ecosystem is everything within a particular environment, that is, the sum of living (biotic) and nonliving (abiotic) chemical and physical factors, including the climate, soils, water, fungi, bacteria, plants, and animals. Birds are an important part of the ecosystem because they play a major role in its structure and function. Birds pollinate plants, help control agricultural pests by feeding on insects, clean roads by feeding on carrion, and have many other functions. Birds also provide food for humans and many other predators. Birds also look and sound beautiful. Who has not enjoyed a brightly colored bird flying over or singing?
In my work as an avian ecologist and wildlife toxicologist, not only do I study the behavior of birds in their environment, but also the effect they have within their ecosystem. Because toxicology is the science of poisons, a big part of my job is to study environmental contaminants like agricultural pesticides that are, or could be, toxic to birds. This science of ecotoxicology is a new discipline that studies the exposure and effects of these toxicants on organisms, and in my field of work, this specifically relates to bird populations.
Unlike other species, like ladybugs or beetles, whose movements may be restricted to a single small plant, birds could cover wide areas, such as, a region, a continent, or the world! I study a wide range of birds from small ones like little warblers to larger aquatic birds like ducks and egrets. My research has taken me to such places as Big Bend National Park, the Rio Grande River, and Galveston Bay.
My work has been very fulfilling because I’ve been able to contribute to helping conserve one of our most valuable natural resources—birds—for future generations. In addition to environmental pollution that can lead to bird declines and extinctions, birds also face other dangers such as habitat loss and illegal or legal commercial trapping. Since an ecosystem is structured so that each organism depends on each other (known as interdependence), losing a bird species through extinction affects the balance and potentially the survival of an ecosystem.
Not only in Mexico, but here in the United States, there are a lot of conservation issues we need to address. By tracking the negative effects of contaminants on resident and migratory birds, we’re able to provide this information to decision makers who then create policies on how to protect our environment. This has been one of the most exciting aspects of my career as an ecologist for the U.S. Geological Survey—a career I intend to continue for a very long time!