Want to Work With Wildlife?
We talk with Wildlife Biologist Nathan Clements
Why do birds do what they do? Why do they sing? Why do they migrate? These questions have always fascinated Nathan Clements. He’s spent years studying grassland songbirds and he even spent his summer banding birds in the North. Want to follow in his footsteps? Keep reading!
How did you start working with birds?
NC: I was lucky enough to work as a Wildlife Technician for the Canadian Wildlife Service (Environment and Climate Change Canada) through college and university. The job offered a lot of bird related experiences, like wildlife surveys, bird banding and radio telemetry tracking. I’ve worked with all sorts of ducks and geese species from Northern Pintail Ducks to Cackling Geese, White-winged Scoters to Common Eiders and Piping Plovers to Ferruginous Hawks.
Did you always know you wanted to work with birds?
NC: No, not always. I entered the field of conservation with a passion for all fish and wildlife species, but my interest in birds really grew after working with the Canadian Wildlife Service. And as most scientist do, I started asking myself why birds do certain things. First of all they fly, cool! — but why? They migrate long distances, which is kind of bizarre if you think about it — but why? And a really cool question to ask is, why do birds sing? If you’re keen to find out more about why birds sing, do a quick internet search on the ‘Dawn Chorus’. If you’re like me, it may just lead you to asking more questions about our wild species!
Your focus these days has been grassland songbirds. Can you tell us more about these beautiful creatures?
NC: Grassland bird populations are declining really quickly. What we know is that many of the species in trouble need certain habitats to thrive in Canada. For example, Chestnut-collared Longspur, Baird’s Sparrow and the Sprague’s Pipit use native prairie grassland and well managed pastureland to nest. One thing we need to better understand is where they hang out! That’s what I'm working on. I create maps that show where species hang out the most.
What can we do to help with these animals?
NC: Habitat conservation is super important to helping our grassland bird populations. Did you know that we’ve changed over 80 per cent of our native grassland to another land use in Canada? Can you imagine how much your life would change if you could only use 20 per cent of your home? Like if you could only hang out in the bathroom. That wouldn't be good, would it? We need to help these birds.
I know this summer you’ve been up in Nunavut banding birds. What are you hoping to learn about these birds further north?
NC: Yes, I just got back from a 16-day trip to the Queen Maud Gulf Migratory Bird Sanctuary putting leg bands on birds. We were mostly banding Greater White-fronted Geese (also called Specklebelly Geese), and we managed to band over 2,000 birds. Another species we target are Cackling Geese, which is a smaller version of Canada Geese. These species call the Canadian Arctic home, so we make sure to band non breeding birds when they molt their feathers. The information we get from banding is important so we can understand these migratory critters. Bird bands that are recovered and reported can let us know where the bird breeds and where they spend their time in the winter. It also helps us to understand how these birds behave, and gives us more information on their survival and reproduction rates. I often think that bird bands are similar to giving individual birds a passport.
If one of our WILD readers wanted to become a wildlife biologist that focused on birds, what should they study at school?
NC: If you already know birds are your thing, I’d suggest finding a school with a really good Ornithology program. But don’t just stop learning there, and actually — never stop learning.