From “A Wing and a Prayer:” Getting regular people behind conservation

Ashley Dayer has never been able to shake the haunting experience of watching a tiny Hawaiian bird go extinct right before her eyes on her very first assignment.

Po’ouli honeycreeper. Courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

She was an intern on a desperate project to save the Po’ouli honeycreeper, part of a family of birds that have gradually been lost from the rainforests of Maui. Just three of the Po’ouli remained during the final stages of her hunt two decades ago, while she and a band of researchers tried to catch the birds and put them together to mate.

“But we were working in a place with such dense vegetation, it was really hard to track the bird,’’ said Dayer. “You don’t know for sure even where they are. You could be right on top of them and not know it.’’

They did manage to capture several females, but they were never able to find a male. In the end, she watched as the last couple of birds disappeared into the forest. They were officially declared extinct in 2019. One remains in a museum as a specimen of one of the most recent species to disappear in Hawaii.

It was a moment that would change the direction of Dayer’s life work and help her develop a new approach to conservation.

“We’re not trying to get birds to change their behavior. We’re trying to get people to change their behavior.”

Ashley Dayer

“We would come down from the mountains onto the coast and find that nobody knew anything about what was happening to these birds,’’ she said. “It really struck me that we’re not going to get anywhere in conservation if people aren’t aware of what’s going on.’’

That translates into the ways that conservation efforts affect people’s lives directly. And it also requires that scientists – famously oblivious to how the public might fit into conservation – open their work to regular people. When the public is invited into decisions about saving birds, she says, such as leashing dogs on beaches or protecting land from development, they become more invested and supportive of this work.

Dayer, now a professor at Virginia Tech, has come to lead a field called Human Dimensions, meaning how people figure into conservation and wildlife rescue. The loss of a third of North America’s bird population over the past 50 years has highlighted the failures of traditional research. That’s led to a growing interest in what Dayer and her peers are trying to say.

One of our favorite comments she shared in hours of talking about her work on her campus in Blacksburg, Va., was this one: “We’re not trying to get birds to change their behavior. We’re trying to get people to change their behavior.’’

Ashely Dayer, in the garden of her home not far from Blacksburg, Va.

Dayer lives with her husband, a fellow professor, and two young boys on a small farmhouse a half hour outside of Blacksburg. They’re surrounded by grasslands, chickens running free, and the serenades of the morning bird choir.

During the day, she’s immersed in the clamor of the university, the issues of her field and hundreds of students. “That’s why I live in the middle of nowhere,’’ she says. “I need the calm and rejuvenation you get from nature.”

We hope you’ll read our book: It’s available now in bookstores, and here’s a link to where you can find it online.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: