Birds of a feather

Professor Ryan Norris (Photo by Mike Ford)

Professor Ryan Norris (Photo by Mike Ford)

The Nature Conservancy of Canada’s newly appointed Weston Family senior scientist, professor Ryan Norris, discusses how you can get involved in conservation

Open grassland spans the 80 hectares (200 acres) of Kent Island, New Brunswick, neighbouring Grand Manan Island in the Bay of Fundy. For 12 years each spring, you could find Ryan Norris on a patch of land occupying just 300 square metres of this quaint island.

“I could stand in the middle of my study site and see ocean on both sides,” recalls the associate professor in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Sometimes I would see whales go by.”

Norris was there to monitor the island’s population of savannah sparrows; part of a four-decade-long, ongoing study on the population ecology of this species, originated by American ornithologist Nat Wheelwright and now facilitated by Norris and his research lab. It was here on Kent Island that Norris evolved his understanding of how migratory birds fit into the country’s larger conservation picture under the threats of climate change. Based on his research observations, Norris notes, “We’re losing birds.”

Savannah sparrow (Photo by Robert McCaw)

Savannah sparrow (Photo by Robert McCaw)

“At the start of my career, I never considered myself a conservation biologist. Now, ecologists have no choice — we all need to be conservation biologists,” says Norris. As the climate rapidly changes, there is no separation between ecology (the study of species and their relationships with the environment) and conservation biology (the study of how we save species), he explains. “It’s why I’m here at the Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC).”

This spring, Norris was appointed NCC’s Weston Family senior scientist. In this role, Norris will apply conservation research to what is arguably one of the most urgent issues of our time: the protection of plants and animals and the natural habitats they need to survive.

Norris will also develop and lead the new Weston Family Conservation Science Fellows Program, which will support conservation leaders of the future. The program will offer hands-on opportunities to graduate students who are studying species at risk, invasive species or effective conservation.

“I envision this program as a way to develop and mentor the next generation of ecologists,” Norris explains. “I hope it becomes a global example for training conservation leaders.”

Norris brings with him his experience as an ecologist and leader in migratory bird and monarch butterfly research. He started his research lab at the University of Guelph in 2006 to focus on the effects of varying seasons on migratory and resident species, such as those found here in Canada.

This spring, Ryan Norris was appointed NCC’s Weston Family senior scientist. (Photo by Mike Ford)

This spring, Ryan Norris was appointed NCC’s Weston Family senior scientist. (Photo by Mike Ford)

An effective science communicator, Norris hopes to shed light on the impacts of climate change on migratory species.

“The conservation of these species depends on knowing where they go during migration and how climate change influences their success in the wild, or lack of thereof,” he says. “In my position with NCC, I hope to strengthen collaborations with academic partners, progress our knowledge on species and use this information to make evidence-based decisions about how to better conserve natural spaces across Canada.”

Norris believes everyone can do their part to help protect habitat and the species that live there. The opportunities for citizen scientists to contribute to conservation efforts in Canada have never been greater. With apps like eBird and iNaturalist, the public can submit species observations to larger databases.

“Public-contributed data is being used for high-level research. This information adds to the data that scientists are using to piece together information about species behaviours, habitat and migratory patterns,” he states. “It’s exciting for people at every level to contribute and be involved in conservation science.”

While he has wrapped up his time on the Bay of Fundy for now to work on other research projects, Norris reflects fondly about his time on Kent Island, both professionally and personally.

“I watched my daughter grow up on the island. She was five months old the first time she visited it. Now she’s six years old. It’s still one of my favourite places to be. I actually just got back from there.”

The Weston Family senior scientist position and the Weston Family Conservation Science Fellows Program are both made possible through the generosity of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation.

This story first appeared in the fall 2019 issue of the Nature Conservancy of Canada Magazine. Donors who contribute at least $25 or more per year will receive four issues of the magazine. Click here to donate today and start receiving the magazine.

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