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Making a difference for birds and people: an interview with Professor Chris Lepczyk

11 April, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Dr. Chris Lepczyk is Professor of Wildlife Biology and Conservation at Auburn University’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences.

 

Chris Lepczyk is a landscape and wildlife ecologist from Michigan, and he is currently a professor and the interim director of the Honors College at Auburn University in Alabama. He joined Auburn in 2014 after teaching at the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa where his work as a professor focused on landscape ecology and the restoration and preservation of biodiversity. Both Lepczyk’s doctorate and master’s work related to birds and his work at Auburn continues to focus on birds to answer ecological questions. I sat down with Chris to ask him about his work and the path that led him to becoming a professor at Auburn.    


Cedar Waxwing (Bombycilla cedrorum). Photo by Dan Marks.

 

  1. How did you first become interested in birds?

CL: It started with my undergraduate research looking at what birds eat in late summer and fall while preparing to migrate. I had a casual interest in birds and then went on to graduate school where I got a bit more involved. I did my master’s thesis at the University of Wisconsin Madison on nestling birds.


An American Robin (Turdus migratorius) sits on her nest on the side of a barn. Photo by Nico Arcilla.

 

  1. What do you do currently at Auburn University?

CL: I am a conservation ecologist and a professor at Auburn looking at forestry, wildlife, and ecology. A lot of my work focuses on birds as part of a broader ecological question, and birds are one of the core areas of my research. As a faculty member, I also am seeking grants to fund students to answer ecological questions. We look at urban ecology, invasive species, endangered species, and landscape ecology and try to use our research to inform policy and management decisions. Our primary focus is on conserving biodiversity and restoring nature. We often use birds as an indicator and focal group to answer broader ecological questions we might have. We have a new project analyzing how wildlife management areas in Alabama have been managed and what effects that has on wildlife. We also have a few students doing projects in Hawai’i managing rats and one student is doing work with Puaiohi (Myadestes palmeri), or Small Kaua’i Thrush.


Puaiohi (Myadestes palmeri), a critically endangered species of solitaire that inhabits a small area of high elevation forest in the Alaka’i Wilderness of Kauai; its estimated population is less than 500 individuals. Photo by Eike Wulfmeyer, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. What steps through your education and career led you to where you are now?

CL: Getting to work on undergraduate research was an opportunity to meet and get involved with faculty. It is an ideal time to interact with experts. I liked what I saw and thought I could make a difference as a professor. Graduate school then refined the topics I wanted to work on. I only took six months off before going back for my PhD at Michigan State University. My work was a landscape ecology project looking at what effects land use and landowners had on birds in Michigan. I did my postdoc and about four years later got a faculty position.


The Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla) is a spunky summertime visitor to mature broadleaf forests in eastern North America. This species is particularly sensitive to habitat fragmentation from human development, roads, and logging. Photo by Rhododendrites, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. What is your favorite bird or group of birds?

CL: There are definitely birds I like a lot because I have worked with them, but I am not partial to any one species. Some had more significance at different points in my life, like American Robins or Cedar Waxwings. Some birds just stick with you, like the I’iwi in Hawai’i. I like birds with interesting life histories, and herons in breeding plumage are stunning as well.


I’iwi (Drepanis coccinea) are dazzling scarlet residents of Hawai’i’s montane ʻōhiʻa forests. Photo by Gregory "Slobirdr" Smith, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. Can you tell me about a project or two that has really meant a lot to you or that you are proud of?

CL: I am working on a group of projects comparing ecology in different cities. There is a team of people I have worked with for years; everyone is enthusiastic and contributes to the project. We’re building a team of scientists from around the world, and we are working on topics we are interested in. One of the projects looks at how cities influence bird diversity. Cities are usually built along waterways or coastal locations since those areas were accessible and had resources. Human settlements are not just placed randomly. Birds and other wildlife use those same productive areas, and now that the cities are there, it’s important to understand how birds use that landscape.  


Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) sitting on a chain-link fence in the California Mojave Desert. This species has adapted particularly well to urban and suburban environments and can be seen cruising though yards and hunting songbirds near feeders across North America. Photo by Jessie Eastland, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. What are some of your favorite memories from your work?

CL: What I’ve enjoyed is going with people I like spending time with, particularly my family. Also adding more information to a long-term dataset can be rewarding. And just being outside. I enjoy training students, teaching, and taking leadership roles. Sometimes for work, I get to travel to a new ecosystem and experience that while also meeting scientists and hearing about their work. With this type of work, you get to experience a lot more, and being exposed to interesting research at different institutions helps you gain new perspectives and ideas when you get back. 

 

The Kirtland’s Warbler (Setophaga kirtlandii) relies heavily on a fire-dependent Jack Pine ecosystem in Michigan. The way land is managed has the potential to either enhance or degrade habitat for this species. Photo by Andrew C, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. What are your hopes for future bird research or conservation?

CL: I would like to continue what we’ve been doing here. I want to do work with lasting meaning or that can have an effect on policy and the world.

 

  1. What advice would you give to young people looking to get into conservation or  ornithology?

CL: Try to introduce yourself to people in the field. Meet people, volunteer, go to talks and meetings if you can. Just be involved. Do things on your own and also find people that you can connect with. There is a lot more to being a scientist than just being a birder.

 

Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax), in breeding plumage, with his mate at the nest. Photo by Dan Marks.

 

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