NEWS

Mount professor gets back to nature through New Zealand bird study

February 25, 2020
NEWBURGH, N.Y -

The Mount’s Douglas Robinson on pest-free Adele Island, off the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand.

The Mount’s Douglas Robinson on pest-free Adele Island, off the coast of Abel Tasman National Park, New Zealand.

On his first trip more than a decade ago, Douglas Robinson, associate professor of Biology at Mount Saint Mary College, fell in love with the flora, fauna, and people of New Zealand.

On Monday, February 24, Robinson wowed his audience with the details of his amazing sabbatical in New Zealand and the avian research he performed. The talk was part of the Mount’s Investigating Research on Campus (iROC) series.

By the start of 2019, the professor had led four study abroad trips to New Zealand. For the Mount students, it was the trip of a lifetime. But for Robinson, it was just a taste of things to come.

“Every one of these times, I thought that three weeks here is just not enough,” Robinson explained. “I could do so much more if I had more time.”

And so, from January to July 2019, Robinson and his family packed up and moved about 9,000 miles away to New Zealand. Among other conservation and research tasks, Robinson worked with a philanthropic conservation organization, Project Janszoon, and the New Zealand Department of Conservation, to determine the prevalence and distribution of Yellow-crowned Parakeets (Kākāriki, or Cyanoramphus auriceps) in Abel Tasman National Park.

The biology professor explained that New Zealand once enjoyed a long history of isolation from humans and other land mammals – it was populated entirely by birds. However, the relatively recent settlement of humans on the continent has caused major ecological disturbances, Robinson revealed. When humans introduced weasels, stoats, rabbits, ferrets, and other mammals, the flightless and naïve birds were defenseless. As a result, 57 species of native birds went extinct in 700 years and another 71 species became endangered. Now New Zealand has put great emphasis on conservation, especially on that of bird species, the primary subjects of Robison’s research.

In the last few years, Project Janszoon released about 60 Yellow-crowned Parakeets into Abel Tasman National Park. Robinson spent weeks traveling around the park, using several standard survey techniques to measure the current Yellow-crowned Parakeet population. He’d have to find them the old fashioned way, he said – by keeping his eyes and ears open.

In the early months of 2019 there was a drought in New Zealand, and visitors to the park were temporarily banned. Robinson was often the only person in the park for miles around. Though he was armed with a GPS and about 30 pounds of equipment, the task felt less like work and more like reconnecting with nature, he said.

Ultimately, Robinson counted about 150 Yellow-crowned Parakeets in the park. While Robinson collected circumstantial evidence suggesting that the birds are indeed breeding and moderately thriving, it was difficult to conclude whether the reintroduction of the Yellow-crowned Parakeets into Abel Tasman National Park had been successful. The next step, he suggested, should be a long-term, population-focused study of the area.

Robinson is a behavioral ecologist who has focused on the biology of birds since 1994. While he is primarily interested in the various factors that drive behavior, including the social and physical environment, his broad training has opened opportunities for research with fishes and mammals. He completed a doctoral degree in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at Binghamton University in 2009, joined the Mount community in 2010, and became a tenured faculty member in 2017.

The goal of the college’s iROC is to “provide a forum for Mount faculty, staff, and students to showcase their research endeavors with both Mount Saint Mary College and the local community in a manner easily understood by attendees,” explained series coordinator Evan Merkhofer, assistant professor of Biology. Presentations include research proposals, initial data collection, and completed research projects.

Mount Saint Mary College is ranked a Top-Tier University by U.S. News & World Report, and offers bachelor’s and master’s degree programs for careers in healthcare, business, education, social services, communications, media, and the liberal arts.