David Curson

Professor Profile: David Curson, Bird Man

David Curson

Professor David Curson in the field. (Photo by David Curson)

David Curson teaches two courses in the AAP Environmental Sciences & Policy program: Principles of Ecology and Field Methods in Ecology. He is Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Maryland-DC, which is a state office of the National Audubon Society. He spoke with us about his job, a project underway on the Eastern Shore, and how he became interested in ecology.

Q: What do you do in your role as Director of Bird Conservation for Audubon Maryland- DC?

A: “Well, essentially I design and carry out conservation programs for birds in Maryland and DC, and I’m the only staff person in the science and conservation department here in Maryland at the moment, so as well as doing that essential role, I’m also fundraising and doing many other things as well, administrative and such like.”

Q: I know one thing Audubon does is the Important Bird Areas Program. Can you explain what it is and how it works in Maryland?

A: “I think of it less as a program; rather, it’s a prioritization tool. Important Bird Areas are sites that provide essential habitat for vulnerable bird species. And really it tells Audubon where to focus its conservation work. So, by identifying these sites using science-based criteria, we can use it as a filter and say these are the places we really need to focus on if we are going to protect the wide assemblage of bird life that’s currently in Maryland.”

Q: One of the Important Bird Areas is in Dorchester County, Md., on the Eastern Shore. I understand the salt marshes are threatened by the rising water level and Audubon has a project down there. Can you describe that a bit?

A: “Salt marshes are kind of a unique environment and they are uniquely threatened by sea level rise, which is partly caused by global warming and the thermal expansion of the oceans. And it is predicted by the Maryland Commission for Climate Change, that the majority of Maryland salt marshes may well be inundated by sea level rise by the end of this century.

Because there’s an assemblage of birds that are uniquely evolved to live in salt marshes, and some of these live in Maryland, we feel a great responsibility to try to make sure that all of these marshes are not lost and that we can do conservation work for them, for these birds. Audubon is currently preparing a climate adaptation strategy for the southern Dorchester County Important Bird Area, and this contains, I think it’s the largest contiguous block of salt marsh in the northeast of the United States, near Blackwater Wildlife Refuge and Fishing Bay Wildlife Management Area.

… We’ve identified, using computer models, the areas of land behind the coastal marshes which are most likely to become tidal and potentially support tidal marshes in the future…We’ll also be doing habitat restoration work to help dying salt-stressed forests transition to open marsh that’s suitable for the salt-marsh birds, and we’ll be working on existing salt marshes to try to make them more resilient to sea level rise and to make their condition better and more suitable for the target salt marsh bird species.” (Editor’s Note: The species include the salt marsh sparrow, seaside sparrow, willet, clapper rail, and the black rail.)

Q: How can students get involved in bird conservation in general?

A: “Well, there’s a couple of ways. Clearly through selecting the right kind of graduate program is a great way, but there are also opportunities to get directly involved in bird studies through field work. So if you’re able to work for very little pay, especially in the summer when you might have some time between classes, there are a large number of bird research studies going on around the country. Every year several hundred  interns and assistants are hired to do that…

Beyond that, if you’re completing a graduate degree soon, then I would urge volunteering with an organization like Audubon or another conservation organization. Other employers for this kind of work are state agencies, the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, those kind of agencies. And they have volunteer opportunities as well, which can help you get a foot in the door. I know that this is a time of very limited funding and very limited additional hiring as well, so very often volunteering is a very good way to start yourself off and to get to know staff in relevant agencies and other organizations.”

Q: Why did you become an ecologist? What sparked your interest and pushed you in that direction?

A: “That’s a great question. I would say that growing up in an urban area, in London, really got me interested in ecology. I became interested in birds and other wildlife and I think really it was noticing how different kinds of birds and other animals and plants varied across the urban landscape. So the birds you might see in the middle of London are very different from birds you might see in more suburban areas and also in parks and little areas of forest and common lands that are kind of enclosed within London’s kind of landscape. So really it was kind of the gradients and the variations in the landscape and the birds that reflected it that really got me thinking about questions of how distribution and abundance of birds was influenced by land use and other aspects of the landscape.”

Q: Where did you earn your PhD and was it in ecology? What was your dissertation or research project?

A: “Well, my graduate work I completed at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and this was a wonderful place to live for a number of years, and I completed my master’s there and then went on to do a PhD in the Wildlife Ecology department — and that’s the department founded by Aldo Leopold back in the 1930s. My research project as a graduate student was on studying brood parasitism by brown-headed cowbirds, which is a species of bird native to North America, but they’re kind of the terrors of the bird world. They lay their eggs in other species’ nests and leave those hosts to raise their young, and this has real conservation impact on some of the rarer species of hosts — although it doesn’t seem to harm more abundant host species…”

Q: What do you like best about teaching in the JHU AAP program?

A: “That’s a great question. Firstly I should say I really, really thoroughly enjoy teaching in the environmental science program. To me, it allows me to — it’s like a bridge between my academic training and my current work with Audubon. So I can share aspects of my work with Audubon with students and I can continue exploring some of the theoretical aspects of ecology through my teaching and bring those to my work. So it’s a kind of a two-way conduit of experience between those two areas of my life that I really enjoy. I think, thinking holistically, it’s a benefit to both areas.”

One Response to “Professor Profile: David Curson, Bird Man”
  1. David says:

    “what do you like best about teaching at JHU AAP” I love the response to this question. My experience with most AAP professors is that they feel the same way as prof Curson and that it comes through in their teaching. Having a love for the topic, both as a professional and in an academic context, provides the richest experience for students and I encourage the AAP program to continue to cultivate faculty that excel at translating their professional experience into classroom teaching.

Leave A Comment