Life is a series of challenges. At some point, most people face career decisions. They may be earning the most money ever yet be unhappy because their job doesn’t provide happiness or satisfaction. Even though they’d probably like to do something else, they might not be able to change careers without taking a financial hit. Is that a tradeoff they’re willing to make?
One of the things I always tried to talk to my students about, even in elementary school, was the importance of choosing a career that gave them happiness. Getting paid well was a nice bonus, but their most important focus should be finding a job that brought them joy. Considering many of us spend one-third or more of our day at work, that seems like a no-brainer.
I formed this belief from watching my dad. When someone asks me to describe him, one of the first qualities that come to mind was Dad loved his work. He was a wildlife biologist working for the Fish and Wildlife Service. As I grew up, we worked our way from the east to the west coast. I was born in Washington D.C. (We lived in Laurel, MD, at the time), and we moved three times while I was going through elementary, middle school, and high school. Besides Maryland, we lived in Brookings, South Dakota; Jamestown, North Dakota; and Arcata, California.
Each of our moves centered around Dad’s job. His team worked to restore the black-footed ferret population in North and South Dakota. Later, I started high school in California when Dad began working with a subspecies of the Canada Goose called the Aleutian Canada Goose.
The black-footed ferret is one of the most endangered animals in North America and the only ferret species native to the continent. Scientists believe there are fewer than 400 of them in the wild today. The biggest obstacle to the black-footed ferret’s survival is disease and loss of their habitat.
The ferret has many natural predators in the wild, including bobcats, coyotes, and badgers. They also are prey for larger birds such as owls, hawks, and eagles. Part of the problem with releasing captive ferrets back into the wild is that animals raised in captivity may lack the ability to survive in the wild. They are nocturnal animals and do much of their hunting inside prairie dog burrows.
Conservation efforts to grow the black-footed ferret population have involved raising young ferrets in captivity before releasing them in selective locations where they have active food sources. Wildlife biologists have worked closely with ranchers, who traditionally have fought against prairie dogs to create buffer zones where the animals can thrive.
Biologists believed the black-footed ferret was extinct in 1979, but some sightings occurred in 1981 in Wyoming. The black-footed ferret’s survival is tied hand in hand with prairie dogs as they are the ferrets’ primary food source.
We moved to California in 1973 when Dad became a member of the recovery team for the Aleutian Canada goose, once considered to be a subspecies of the well-known Canada goose. The species is now known as the Aleutian cackling goose and seems to be a subspecies of the cackling goose. Though slightly smaller with shorter necks, they are often mistaken for the Canada goose due to their physical resemblance. They are one of the smaller species of geese, only slightly bigger than mallards.
The history of the Aleutian cackling goose is quite interesting. These geese were once plentiful in the Aleutian Islands, the 1,100 mile-long-chain composed of 144 islands southwest of Alaska. Most of the islands belong to Alaska, but a few are part of Russia. When Russian fur traders introduced the Arctic fox to the islands the birds nearly became extinct. After decades had passed of no sightings, a scientist found 300 cackling geese nesting on Buldir Island.
In 1967, the geese officially became an endangered species. This measure was the spark that led to a comeback in the geese population as wildlife biologists like my dad developed a recovery plan to restore their numbers. A significant step in their restoration was the trapping of Arctic foxes in the Aleutian Islands. The geese population grew steadily following the foxes’ relocation. In 1990 they moved from endangered to threatened status. There are well over 200,000 Aleutian cackling geese today and no longer considered threatened, so their recovery has been an enormous success.
Aleutian cackling geese are migratory birds flying from the Aleutian Islands to as far south as Mexico, though most migrate to the Central Valley of California. The birds typically spend part of the winter in our area of northern California on Humboldt Bay. Many will stay here for about a month before flying further south to the Central Valley. Again, there are many geese in the area before they return north to the Aleutian Islands in early April. Aleutian cackling geese are endurance athletes, migrating as far as 3,000 miles.
While in our area, they typically spend the night on the water and fly over to the farmers’ fields by day. Their numbers have increased so much that some farmers and ranchers are concerned about damage to their fields. The birds are so plentiful that it is now legal to hunt them again. Spectators may see as many as 40,000 geese circling Humboldt Bay at sunrise if they’re up by dawn.
Though a wildlife lover of all animals, Dad’s passion was with birds. I remember going out with him on bird counts in the Dakotas. We’d be up at the crack of dawn, traveling down the back roads of North Dakota. Dad would stop every half mile and have a couple of minutes to identify any birds he saw. I served as the data collector and recorded the list of birds Dad saw as he called them out. While I never developed the birding bug that both of my parents had, I remember it was a terrific way to spend time with my dad as a kid as we started those cold mornings with hot chocolate or chicken broth.
I learned a lot of things from Dad. While he was thrifty, he had a generous heart. He donated his time and money to causes that were dear to him. In that manner, I am very much like my father. While I never became as passionate as Dad about birding, I developed a healthy respect for nature. Above all, Dad was a man of principle. He taught me to find my voice and speak up if a business did not provide the service that I paid for. Dad was many things, but I’ll remember most that he was a good man.