Want to Work With Wildlife?
Terrestrial wildlife have always fascinated Carolyn Callaghan. She’s spent years tracking wolves in the wild and lately she’s been studying how farmland could make a big difference for pollinators. Want to follow in her footsteps? Keep reading!
Conservation Biologist for Terrestrial Wildlife
When did you know you wanted to be a wildlife biologist?
Carolyn Callaghan (CC): I decided to become a wildlife biologist when I was 11 years old. I was especially interested in studying wolves. Their social nature intrigued me, especially because they live in family groups and cooperate to hunt and raise their pups. I studied wolves for fifteen years, in Algonquin Park in Ontario and in the Rocky Mountains of Alberta and British Columbia. During the winters, my field crew and I followed their tracks in the snow to find out what prey they were eating. During the summers, we observed the wolves at their dens to see how many pups were born. We travelled throughout the backcountry by skiing, snowshoeing, biking, hiking and sometimes by horseback. It was a lot of work but really fun too. We learned a lot about how wolves survive in the mountains.
Since then, you’ve been working on a big project at the Canadian Wildlife Federation on how farmland can make a big difference for pollinators. Can you tell us a bit about that?
There are many natural habitats for wildlife on farms in Canada, such as wetlands, forests, and grasslands. Many wildlife species use these habitats, and some of these species are beneficial to the farmers, such as the insects that pollinate certain crops.
We are encouraging farmers to keep some of their natural habitat. Often these lands are not suitable for growing crops, so keeping these habitats is not difficult. However, we’re seeing many hedgerows (a line of trees in a farm field) disappear to make room for modern farm machinery. With their loss comes a decrease in wildlife. We are hoping that governments will encourage farmers to keep some habitat on their farm. We are also encouraging governments to ban a type of pesticide known as neonicotinoid because they are very harmful to pollinators.
What kind of pollinators would benefit from natural habitat on farmland?
There are thousands of pollinators! There are over 800 species of wild bees alone in Canada. Add the many hundreds of hoverflies, moths, butterflies, and beetles, and you have an entire army of pollinators. Many species do their part for pollination, but the heavy hitters are wild bees and hoverflies. All pollinating species would benefit from natural habitats on farmland. These habitats provide a place for their nests, plenty of food, and protection from rain and cold weather. Natural habitat on farmland are ecosystems in themselves, complete with a complex web of predators, prey and scavengers.
Why are pollinators worth saving?
If we do not support habitat for our pollinators, they will decline and then they will not be able to do their very important job, which is to pollinate flowers. Without pollinators, we would not have much of the food that we enjoy, such as most fruit, seeds, and vegetables. Even producing milk and yogurt requires pollinators because the food that is fed to dairy cows, such as alfalfa, needs to be pollinated by insects. We also would not have wild flowers, and it would be a sad world without them.
Have you met any farmers who are trying hard to make life a little easier for pollinators? What were they like?
Yes! I love working with farmers. They are some of the most generous, kind hearted people I have known. Farmers are naturally connected with the earth because they work outdoors every day. They see the birds, the deer, and the insects on their land. I have heard so many stories about wildlife from farmers. Farming is a way of life. It is a lot of hard work without guarantee of income at the end of the day, so they are in the profession for the lifestyle of working outdoors and making an honest living. Some of these farmers are working hard to make sure there are pollinators for their crops. They are planting strips of wildflowers or are retaining the forests on their land. Others avoid using pesticides so that they do not harm the beneficial insects. These farmers are supporting pollinators, who in turn support the farmers by pollinating crops.
If one of our WILD readers wanted to become a wildlife biologist, what should they study at school?
There are colleges across Canada that offer wildlife or ecosystem management, and all universities offer programs in biology or ecology. When I was young, one of my least favourite subjects was math. When my teacher learned that I wanted to become a biologist, he told me I needed to work hard in math. At the time I didn’t understand why, but once I began college, I realized that he was completely right. So for any WILD readers who want to become wildlife biologists, I suggest you work hard in math! It gets easier with practice, and everyone can learn to think logically and see the beauty of mathematics.a