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The ups and downs of wildlife biology: an interview with Chris Ketola

Updated: Apr 28

23 April, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Chris Ketola, pictured here holding a White-throated Toucan (Ramphastos tucanus), is Head Field Research Coordinator for Fauna Forever based in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Chris Ketola.

 

Chris Ketola is the Head Field Research Coordinator for Fauna Forever in Peru and Uganda. Fauna Forever is a Peruvian non-profit organization implementing long-term solutions to conserve Peru’s biological and cultural diversity across Madre de Dios, Cusco, and Puno. Fauna Forever works with Wilderness International to understand the biodiversity of their conservation properties and help educate donors on the impact of their support. Chris has worked with raptors his whole life and has extensive experience doing research and educational outreach with birds, herpetofauna, and bats. Originally from Ontario, Canada, he has lived in Peru since 2017 and leads Fauna Forever’s herpetofauna, bird, and bat research teams. I sat down with Chris to speak with him about his experience and about Fauna Forever’s research and conservation work.

Eastern Screech Owl (Megascops asio). Photo by Wolfgang Wander, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

  1. How did you first become interested in birds and nature?

CK: I have been working with wildlife since I was a child, and there was an Eastern Screech-Owl living in the house where I was born, so I’ve been around birds my whole life. My family had great interest in wildlife, especially reptiles and amphibians, and when I was four or five years old my uncle started working with raptors in falconry. The first falconry bird I was around was a Ferruginous Hawk, and at six, I was feeding owlets of Eurasian Eagle-Owls. When my grandfather retired, the family founded a center that was, at the beginning, focused on falconry, but quickly evolved into an education, conservation, and sanctuary center. So, I started working with birds when I was four or five years old, and our focus was on raptor breeding and providing a raptor sanctuary, raptor care, and education about raptors, along with other groups of animals including bats, reptiles, and amphibians. I started working full time at 11 and took over managing that center when I was 20, and I managed that for about fifteen years before I left that organization at 35.

Chris with a Great Black Hawk (Buteogallus urubitinga) as a part of Fauna Forever’s long-term biodiversity monitoring projects at their research station in Peru. Photo courtesy of Chris Ketola. 


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

CK: My favorite group of birds is falcons. The more I work with birds around the world, the harder that question gets, but there will always be a soft spot in my heart for falcons. Again, it comes from falconry, of course they are amazing to watch, but once you know them on a one-to-one level or even see them in a captive setting interacting with each other they are just so cheeky and energetic. There is something about their energy that is so cute, so adorable, and yet they channel that energy into hunting and decapitating birds in the air. In terms of a singular species, the Ferruginous Hawk was important to me growing up. I trained one for eighteen years and she is tattooed on my shoulder because she was important to me in my development as an adult. I wouldn’t be who I am without her.

The Ferruginous Hawk (Buteo regalis) is a large raptor of North American plains and open country. Photo by Shravans14, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

One species of falcon I really like is the Lanner Falcon from Africa; they have such a great personality. Of course, they are falcons, so they are intense and hyper, but they have a soft side to them and are very calm for a falcon. I worked with them a lot in educational presentations in schools, because they adapt well to travel and working around people. And another favorite, for an entirely opposite reason is the Prairie Falcon. They are crazy, absolute dragons, but they are so courageous! We had a pair for breeding and the first time you put a male falcon with the female it’s scary because she can just kill the male. Female falcons will “drive” the male by chasing him to determine if he is a good partner, and if he doesn’t show fear, she will accept him and if he shows fear she will try to kill him. Female Prairies are massive, almost double the weight of the male, so when you put them in an aviary you have to save the male if she chases him. So, you’re watching through the window as the little male is on the perch, head down, wings out, going “chup chup chup!”, and the female comes right over with her hackles raised and only at the last second, she decides he passed the test and starts chupping with him. And that’s it, they’re pair bonded, it’s crazy! You know his heart is going so fast, but he doesn’t move. They are so courageous and intense!

Prairie Falcon (Falco mexicanus). Photo by Bill Bouton from San Luis Obispo, CA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


3.              Can you tell me a brief summary of your career path up until now?

CK: I was homeschooled, and started working full time at my family’s wildlife center when I was 11 years old. Between the birds and the bats, I was in charge of managing about 300 animals. I was on the road over 100 days a year talking to students and doing educational talks for the public. We also had a successful captive breeding program, and there are many zoos in the US with birds for education and captive breeding that came from our center. If you see a big female Eurasian Eagle-Owl at the Bronx Zoo, that’s our girl. We also provided a long-term sanctuary to non-releasable birds that were injured, and we gave them a quiet area not on display. Of course we had bats, and we were the only organization in Canada using bats in educational outreach programs. So, we were pretty successful. My life hit a reset at 35, like hitting restart on the Nintendo. I was asked to go help with a bioblitz, gathering and sharing information about biodiversity with other people. It made me realize this is what I need to do in my life to feel fulfilled.

Eurasian Eagle-Owl (Bubo bubo). Photo by Peter K. Burian, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.


I then did some freelance consulting doing surveys with bats in Canada, and saved up some money to found an organization in Peru. I went down for two weeks since I didn’t have a lot of money. I wanted something tough and real, and it was, it was buggy and sweaty and early mornings. When I went down there, I worked with the coordinator at the time, Raoul, and we clicked right away and had a shared passion for birds. Of course, the molt system was new to me, but I had experience handling birds. I always joke there was one owl that got me the job I have now. There was a Tawny-bellied Screech-Owl calling near camp every night, and I had banded saw-whet owls, so I said to Raoul that we could band that owl. He had never banded an owl, so we set up nets and on the third check there was a little angry screech-owl in the net! I let Raoul band the owl and told him if there was ever a chance to work here, I’d like to do it. The second night I was back in Canada, I got an email from Dr. Chris Kirkby and a few months later there was an opportunity to come down here. I took over the bird team and the herp team and helped develop the bat team, and within a year and a half I was in charge of managing the camp and research projects. I work with both Fauna Forever and our partner Wilderness International. I was told it would only be for a few months, and six years later here we are! 

An adult male Scarlet-hooded Barbet (Eubucco tuckinae) in the hand. This vibrantly colored Neotropical barbet is found in a relatively small area of Southern Peru and western Bolivia and Brazil. Photo by Chris Ketola.


4.              What are some of your favorite memories from your fieldwork?

CK: One was in Canada when I was leading a bat walk about ten years ago. At that point, we didn’t know if Little Brown Bat would survive white-nosed syndrome. I was walking along and most of the bats were the usual Big Brown and Hoary Bats, and then I saw the shape of a Myotis call of the bat detector. I was so excited to see a Myotis! Another one, only a few weeks after I started in the Amazon, we went on a boat trip and saw two jaguars in the same morning. About three years ago, we saw a pair of Harpy Eagles with the male displaying for the female. I saw harpies several times before but never a pair and displaying. Also, getting the chance to capture a Bushmaster was an amazing encounter. We were at another research site walking along and I saw a snake I never thought I’d see just on a tree. I fell to my knees and hugged my friend. I was like a little kid! It was a Botrhops taeniatus which typically occur at higher elevations than we work at, and any viper is very rare to see in the Amazon. You can see ten venomous snakes in a week in Costa Rica, but here I only see about ten every year. I love caimans, love catching them and have lots of memories with them. One of the nights doing bat surveys we caught two rare species of vampire bats, the ones that feed on birds, in the same net within an hour. The days down here are so busy you almost forget what’s happening, it’s very intense and there are so many great wildlife moments.

Banding a Black-fronted Nunbird (Monasa nigrifrons) as part of Wilderness International and Fauna Forever’s long-term research and biodiversity monitoring in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Photo courtesy of Chris Ketola.

 

5.              What are some challenges you’ve had working in remote or tropical locations?

CK: It’s a lot harder than people think, and people don’t talk about the hard part, because if you talk about the downsides people say you’re so lucky and can’t complain. Physically, it is draining walking 10-20 kilometers a day in heat that is up to 35°C and 99% humidity. Over a long period of time, the lack of balanced nutrition is hard, and your body starts to break down a bit. The grind of doing it every day for a long time is challenging. Mentally, it’s intense. People are constantly coming and going, so there is no time to develop consistency in your team, and every coordinator I’ve worked with is gone. If I work with someone for a year, that is a long time. A lot of people leave because of the physical and mental aspects of it. Financially, I didn’t get paid the first few years I worked here. I got food and shelter, but the only way I get money to travel on my own is by doing a contract surveying for Birds Canada and living on that all year. It’s a pretty common story for anybody working in conservation and research in the tropics; the pay is very low. Relationships are hard too since everything is ephemeral and you live in the woods; it sounds romantic until you realize what it’s actually like. I wish there were more outlets to talk about it so people can understand what we go through to have this life. For a few months, it’s amazing, an adventure, but years are different than months. If you can find a balance by being able to travel and spend some time away, it’s a lot more manageable. Being in camp every day of your life starts to wear you down. It’s a complicated life, but that doesn’t mean it’s not amazing!

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) spend their summers in the forests of Canada and the northern United States and winters in South America along the Andes as far south as Argentina. The forests along Peru’s Rio Tambopata provide both wintering and stopover habitat for this long-distance migrant. Photo by Chris Ketola.


6.              What are some similarities and differences between working in Peru and Uganda?

CK: The similarity is diversity. Obviously, diversity is higher in the Amazon, but Uganda is also an equatorial country with incredible diversity and many habitat types. Peru is super diverse with over 1800 species of birds. Apart from that, a lot is quite different. The climate is different; our sites in Uganda are much more comfortable compared to Peru. I always joke with people, but I feel like when I was in Uganda this is the place we evolved from. Even when it’s 32°C, it’s dry, there’s wind, and you can sit in the shade and you’re comfortable. In Peru, there is a gradient of bird sizes and the biggest bird you’ll typically see in the Amazon are Scarlet or Red-and-Green Macaws. In Africa, there are extremes where you’ll catch these tiny sunbirds and finch-like birds in the mist nets that are like nothing in your hand, and then see these huge hornbills and shoebills that are like dinosaurs in the air. Extremes in bird sizes are breathtaking; you’ll see these huge birds soaring and then get tiny birds in the net. Also in Uganda, flocks are huge. We’ve had a flock of weavers with 54 birds in one net, and you have to react quickly to make decisions in those situations.

Male and female Green-and-Gold Tanagers (Tangara schrankii) in the hand as part of long-term biodiversity monitoring at Fauna Forever’s research station in Madre de Dios, Peru. Photo by Chris Ketola.


7.              What are some of your priorities for future research and conservation work?

CK: As an organization, it depends on the region. Here in Peru, our priorities for Wilderness International are purchasing lands for conservation near government protected areas, creating corridors to connect habitat patches, and taking on forests under immediate pressure from logging. We’re doing similar work in Canada, and I will be going to British Columbia looking at Wilderness International properties with temperate rainforest. With Fauna Forever in Peru, we work with Wilderness International to protect biodiversity. We also look at biodiversity and population trends across the whole region, since many areas in the tropics have little or no information on what actually occurs at a site. We’re going to a new site in the Andean cloud forest in a few months to gain baseline knowledge. Another big part of what we do is long-term monitoring and data collection understanding how anthropogenic activities affect biodiversity. We also support specific research projects with students. In Uganda, and soon Suriname, we are doing mainly baseline research on species diversity. For example, in Uganda, there is a species of bat with only eight confirmed records ever and six are from our project. Personally, I’m interested in spatial ecology and movement ecology. Niche partitioning is also insane, like how we have six species of forest falcons in the same area. These are questions we can only answer with spatial ecology research. Another big priority is capacity building. We had four young Ugandans working with us when we were there, and we’ve introduced a scholarship for Peruvians to teach them some of the methods we use here.

Chris and a young biologist with a Pale-winged Trumpeter (Psophia leucoptera). One of Fauna Forever’s main focuses is teaching both foreign and local biologists techniques for bird research. Photo courtesy of Chris Ketola.


8.              What would be your advice to young people pursuing a career in bird research and conservation?

CK: Try to get as much experience as you can and get out to volunteer. Going birding is a good thing to do. You can develop skills to teach what you know to other people; maybe join a club or volunteer at a nature center. Having the ability to share your knowledge is good to reinforce your own knowledge. Volunteering at an animal shelter can give you experience handling an animal that is uncomfortable or scared in your hand; it is a skill you must practice to learn. One thing that is really important is the impression you give and the network you create. Don’t be afraid to be yourself and don’t be afraid to approach people. If you love birds, share your passion and your interest. Most of us, the people I know that work in ornithology, are nerds and we love birds. At 4:30am, I am awake because I love birds. When someone sees a cool bird and gets excited that gives me motivation. So being open about your passion is important. Also have some sort of social media profile presence so people can see who you are. There are a lot of negative things with social media, but if you use the tool properly it can be good for networking. If you see someone doing something you like, just reach out and in some cases, you can make amazing connections. Most people in our field are happy to share their knowledge and experience. Breaking into this field is less about what degree you have and a lot more about the person you are and the connections you make; so many doors and friendships can open up with these connections.

Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) and Black-spotted Bare-eye (Phlegopsis nigromaculata) in the hand at Fauna Forever’s research station in Madre de Dios, Peru. Photos by Chris Ketola.

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