INTERVIEWEE: Keith Arnold
INTERVIEWER: David Todd
DATE: November 19, 2020
LOCATION: College Station, by telephone
TRANSCRIBERS: Trint, David Todd
Google Voice [00:00:00] This call is now being recorded.
David Todd [00:00:04] Good afternoon, this is David Todd.
Keith Arnold [00:00:09] David, this is Keith.
David Todd [00:00:11] Well, thank you for calling. So nice to hear your voice.
Keith Arnold [00:00:16] This was the first time I’ve ever been through that means of communication.
David Todd [00:00:22] Oh, so strange.
Keith Arnold [00:00:25] Yes.
David Todd [00:00:28] Well, thank you for bearing with me. This is probably a little unusual way to meet. It would be much more fun in person, but thanks for hearing me and..
Keith Arnold [00:00:39] No problem at all.
David Todd [00:00:44] I, I really want you to know how much we appreciate your taking some time to make a contribution to our little project. And I was hoping that I could lay out what we had in mind and see if this might sit well with you.
Keith Arnold [00:01:03] OK.
David Todd [00:01:03] So the preface to this would be that we are planning on recording this interview for research and educational work on behalf of the Conservation History Association of Texas. And for a book that…
Keith Arnold [00:01:22] I’ve never heard of that before.
David Todd [00:01:22] I know. Well, it’s a very small group, a nonprofit based here in Austin, started back in the late ’90s that focuses on trying to build a better understanding for the course of environmental work here in Texas over many years. And so we’re sort of the sponsor for this interview, and for its contribution to a book and a website for Texas A&M University Press, down the street from where you probably live and, and for an archive that we have at the Briscoe Center for American History at the University of Texas here in Austin.
Keith Arnold [00:02:08] OK. All right. You mentioned the book earlier in your emails.
David Todd [00:02:13] Yeah, it’s a book called The Texas Fauna Project. And basically you were trying to talk to biologists and land managers and, you know, nature guides and so on who might have first-hand experience with, with animals. And maybe, you know, could reflect on our relationship with the animals and how that’s changed over the years.
Keith Arnold [00:02:41] Sounds good.
David Todd [00:02:42] So that’s our goal. And so we’re going to try to compile these recordings, and, of course, yours is totally something that you have access to and we hope you might enjoy and then we would like to be able to contribute it, you know, for these different…
Keith Arnold [00:03:03] Sure.
David Todd [00:03:06] For Texas A&M and University of Texas.
David Todd [00:03:08] If that sits well with you and then, you know, we can proceed.
Keith Arnold [00:03:15] Go right ahead.
David Todd [00:03:16] All right. Well, let me give a little bit of an introduction to where and when and where it is and who’s involved. It is November 19th, 2020. My name is David Todd and I am representing the Conservation History Association of Texas. I’m in Austin. And today we are fortunate to be conducting an interview with Dr. Keith Arnold. He is an ornithologist, a professor, curator of birds.
Keith Arnold [00:03:49] I was.
David Todd [00:03:49] Emeritus.
Keith Arnold [00:03:55] I’m retired.
David Todd [00:03:55] More time to do all sorts of interesting things.
David Todd [00:03:59] And of course, been affiliated with Texas A&M University College Station for many years. A prolific author, including writing the standard guide, Birds of Texas, founder of the Texas Breeding Bird Atlas and the Texas Birds, Bird Records Committee and long-time editor for the Texas Christmas Count. And, and then interestingly, he is one of the fortunate few who saw Eskimo curlew back in the early sixties.
Keith Arnold [00:04:31] 1962.
David Todd [00:04:33] OK, well we should talk about that in a bit of. And of course, he is based in College Station and this interview is being done by telephone.
David Todd [00:04:47] So today I was hoping we could talk about birds and birding in general, but more specifically about the Eskimo curlew and its natural history and its its decline, the last confirmed sightings, and then the more recent search for any remaining birds that might be out there.
David Todd [00:05:08] I hope that we might start with just trying to understand a little bit more about the origins of your interest in birds and nature, and you know, whether there might have been some early experiences or mentors that were important for introducing you to the natural world.
Keith Arnold [00:05:27] Well, the first one was my mother. When I was five, I broke my leg and she started reading to me out of a Thornton Burgess’s nature books – Green Forest, Green Meadow and so forth. He had a whole series of those which I had retained up until recently. And then she was not unaware that when she reached in pants pockets to prepare them for washing, she would find some unusual objects.
Keith Arnold [00:06:01] Then in high school, probably the first and most important, influential person was my biology teacher. We became good friends and and after she retired, she married and retired. And we were friends for 30 years, until she passed away.
Keith Arnold [00:06:21] And then beyond that, Dr. Lewis Batts at Kalamazoo College, was my mentor at that level and finally, of course, Dr. George Lowery at LSU.
Keith Arnold [00:06:34] So all those had impact on where I was headed.
David Todd [00:06:39] You mentioned that your mother would sometimes find unusual objects in your pockets. What, what sort of things might she discover there?
Keith Arnold [00:06:47] It might be a small snake or a toad or something like that, or perhaps some snail shells that I picked up somewhere. But it wasn’t unusual to find a live toad or a live snake in my pocket.
David Todd [00:07:06] And then your, your biology teacher in high school. Was there anything in particular that she shared with you? I imagine that it was a general biology course, that it covered lots and lots of topics. It was..
Keith Arnold [00:07:20] Yes.
David Todd [00:07:21] Did she have a particular interest?
Keith Arnold [00:07:24] Birds. She was a bird watcher. In fact, even into her 90s, she was leading bird hikes in Chicago, actually, in Monmouth, which is close to Chicago. So even into her late, last years, she was leading bird trips, birdwatching trips.
David Todd [00:07:43] A lifetime interest and inquiry.
Keith Arnold [00:07:44] Yes.
David Todd [00:07:48] And then your, your professor at LSU, Dr. George Lowery. Can you tell us a little bit about him?
Keith Arnold [00:07:58] Well, let’s see. He, he started the Museum of Zoology, which is now called the Museum of Natural Science, I think in his first years there at LSU. He’s noted for his work on bird migration and students are in that area. He did a lot of work in the neotropics, especially Mexico. [Excuse me.] He wrote the book, the first book on the birds of Louisiana. Was president of the American Ornithologists Union at one time. A very, very respected ornithologist across the country and the world.
David Todd [00:08:39] Well, you’ve very quickly, and I’m sure just skimming the surface, introduced us to some of your background. And I thought it might be good to just jump into the one of the things that we’re certainly interested in today, and that’s this question of the Eskimo curlew and and I was hoping that you might be our guide to the curlew for those who aren’t familiar with its its life cycles, habitat, migrations and so on. Can you tell us a little bit about the bird?
Keith Arnold [00:09:15] Well, like many of the shorebirds, it’s an Arctic nesting, it was an Arctic nesting bird. And that means that they had a very short (this is true of all these nesters), they have a short time frame in which they can nest and successfully. And if they fail they don’t have time to try again, like birds in more southerly latitudes. A long distance migrant. I don’t recall (stop me) just how far south they went, but there were a long-distance migrant.
Keith Arnold [00:09:41] And probably the, I was thinking about this after you sent me those questions, probably it was a victim of the market hunters back in the late 1800s. They would shoot thousands of shorebirds and then ship them by rail to New York City, places like that, as delicacies. And it is very likely that – one of two things. It could be like … oh, come on, the dove, the the passenger pigeon, where the population got to a point where it could no longer sustain itself because of low numbers, or it could simply have been a very small population to start with and enough were removed, that, again, there weren’t enough to sustain a population.
Keith Arnold [00:10:39] You know, a long-term migrant like that is going, is going to sustain a large mortality rates anyway, going back and forth, such long areas.
Keith Arnold [00:10:48] But these birds are longer-lived than say, well, the average life for a songbird here is something like 1.9 years or less. And these birds would tend to live 10, 15 years, maybe a bit longer. So it’s not as though they had one choice of reproduction, but one chance, but nonetheless, whatever it was in my viewpoint, probably market hunting, because it was, if you saw pictures of the train loads of cars carrying these birds to market, it’s unreal. So I’m thinking that’s probably the major concern, not concern, the major reason for the demise of the species.
David Todd [00:11:38] Why do you think it was such a candidate for market hunting?
Keith Arnold [00:11:43] Life size.
David Todd [00:11:45] Was it the numbers or the size, or what was it?
Keith Arnold [00:11:48] Numbers and size. I mean, these these things, even though they’re territorial on on their breeding territories, their territories are not large, and they tend to congregate in flocks when they’re off their territories. So they’re very susceptible to either netting or shooting.
Keith Arnold [00:12:05] You know, the passenger pigeon, they used big nets to catch the birds coming into the breeding colonies. But in the case of the, of the curlew, of course, they migrated in flocks. So it wouldn’t be difficult to kill large numbers with very few shots.
David Todd [00:12:25] I see. And then there was a market for…
Keith Arnold [00:12:29] Oh, yes.
David Todd [00:12:29] For these birds, aside from I guess people were eating chicken and turkey and other domesticated birds, but…
Keith Arnold [00:12:40] Probably considered a delicacy, which is quite different, obviously from eating a chicken or a turkey raised in your backyard or some farmer’s backyard.
Keith Arnold [00:12:49] And it wasn’t just the Eskimo curlew – there were many other large shorebirds that, that suffered, but not to the extent to where they became extinct. We have long-billed curlews; we have whimbrels, all similar or close in size to the Eskimo curlew and other shorebirds of similar nature like the godwit which looks like that. And they all have similar characteristics that are there. Arctic nesters, for the most part. Also had that short time frame to reproduce. They tend to migrate in large flocks, so they’re also sensitive to the same forces. I guess that, that said, I think that sort of implies that the Eskimo curlew was less widespread and in lower numbers than some of these other large shorebirds.
David Todd [00:13:46] I see.
David Todd [00:13:49] And it’s interesting to me that, and sad, of course, that these market hunting forces back in the, I guess, the last couple of decades of the 19th century would have had this sort of slow weaning kind of attrition effect on the bird. I mean the bird was still seen 60, 70 years later.
Keith Arnold [00:14:15] Mm hmm.
David Todd [00:14:16] Why was there such a long sort of sort of hangover, I guess, effect, a lag.
Keith Arnold [00:14:26] Well, that’s very rare that I would say probably that you got old birds. These birds, these birds can live 10, 15 years. They have a small population. Again, you know, they have to migrate such long distances. So there’s some mortality there. That small window to reproduce. Got a small population, there was some reproduction, obviously, but probably not enough to sustain the population. But there was enough else left over after the market for them was no longer important to where they could sustain a population, which gradually became small.
Keith Arnold [00:15:10] And, I don’t know. What is that number? I have no idea what that number might be. But it obviously got to be very, very, way too low. Again, I would reflect back to the passenger pigeon where, yeah, there was still hundreds of thousands left, but it wasn’t enough for them to breed. It wasn’t that, they didn’t have enough incentive to breed, in those numbers.
David Todd [00:15:40] So there’s some tipping point that is way above zero.
Keith Arnold [00:15:43] That’s, that’s a good way to put it. That’s a good way to put, yeah, a tipping point.
David Todd [00:15:48] Interestingly, well so, market hunting was a big factor. I’ve read, and of course I don’t know much about this, but that perhaps the decline of the Rocky Mountain grasshopper was influential and that that was an important prey species for the bird?
Keith Arnold [00:16:15] That’s a good point, I don’t know about that. I don’t typically think of shorebirds as feeding on other birds. They’re more aligned with invertebrates.
David Todd [00:16:27] No, I meant these Rocky Mountain grasshoppers. I may have misspoke.
Keith Arnold [00:16:37] Okay. That certainly would have a factor if they went into decline or actually were a food source, obviously that’d be a factor, particularly if they had low population numbers and were unable to get enough food to breed and to migrate. It takes a lot of energy for them to migrate those distances.
David Todd [00:17:00] Yeah, OK. Well, given the bird’s rareness and decline, you were so fortunate to see the bird. Can you sort of run us through the experience of actually getting to witness one of the Eskimo curlews?
Keith Arnold [00:17:19] Absolutely. Absolutely. That was my first year of graduate school at LSU. And I drove over with Dr. and Mrs. Lowery to, one bird had been found on Galveston Island. We drove over there and after some effort were able to see the bird, with the help of others. It had been under scrutiny by dozens of birders and to particularly that were of interest for Don [Bleitz]. And of course, it just slipped my name. A West Coast fellow who got good photographs of the bird and then Bertman Row Jr. was a fellow grad student. He got some good birds, good photographs, excuse me. And we were on our way back to LSU, actually. We got to the Bolivar Peninsula, Bolivar ferry, and Jerry and Nancy Strickling came rushing up, saying found another bird. So of course, we had to go back and look for the second bird as well. What was interesting from the photograph showed that Peterson had the color of the legs wrong. That was kind of an interesting outcome of the effort and that bird, those birds hung around for several days, as I recall, but I feel fortunate to have had seen at least one now-extinct species. And not that I’m happy to say. But that is interesting. In fact, there’s a couple of people in Texas here who are, have ticked off on their list, they’ve seen this extinct bird before it went extinct.
Keith Arnold [00:19:03] Years later, I can’t remember the exact time frame, when I was teaching at A&M, I was on a student field trip on Galveston Island on one of the back roads and I swore that I had a curlew that didn’t look right. The problem is I didn’t get photographs and I wasn’t sure if it was the Eskimo curlew or another species, which had not yet been reported in Texas, and that’s my biggest regret of this whole chapter, is that I was unable to document that bird and nobody else, I think I sent several people out there to try and find it, without success. And it had the size, and bill shape and so forth to correct, but there are a couple of other Old World curlews which have similar measurements and size of what have been recorded in parts of the western United States, so it’s not a valid documentation, it’s in the back of my mind all the time.
David Todd [00:20:15] Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because I thought as a founder of the Texas Bird Records Committee and long active with the Ornithological Society, I thought you might be able to talk to us a little bit about how possible sightings are confirmed. How do you verify these birds that are rare or unusual – the bonus birds, I guess?
Keith Arnold [00:20:43] Well we…
David Todd [00:20:43] And then confirm that they are indeed true?
Keith Arnold [00:20:45] Right, right. We always, of course, true appreciate documentation by photograph. A longtime friend of mine from LSU, when I first started this project on the committee, he said, get every photograph you can because you never know which will tell you what it is. And that’s been my philosophy. And sometimes it begins overwhelming. Like recently, in Austin you had the little songbird hung around there, the white tail, that hung around the dam up there and there are so many photographs of that bird and videos – it’s ridiculous. There’s no way in the world you can deny what it was.
Keith Arnold [00:21:29] But anyway, the idea was basically document by photographs where you can. By vocal recording, if recording will give you identification, as there’s one species on the Texas list that’s there because of recording only – no photographs. And in the cases of some, once a bird has been accepted to the list, which has to be by a photograph or specimen or in the case of vocalizations where it’s appropriate, then you can accept other records by sight, if they’re well documented. And we’ve got many of those – people who’ve written very careful field notes and described why they felt it was this and not that. And so we’ve got the large numbers of those, but it can’t be added to the, to the list until there’s been a proper documentation.
Keith Arnold [00:22:25] And indeed, if you’re looking at the website for the Committee, there’s an appendix, which says, (what’s the actual name of it?), “birds, which we think probably occurs here, but we don’t have the documentation”, add it to the list. And every so often, we’ll actually get one documented and we go back and add that record to it as well.
David Todd [00:22:44] So that first verification is really important, and I guess that opens the gateway to insure.
Keith Arnold [00:22:55] Either specimen or photograph or in a very few instances where you can, where the vocalization is unique to that species and you could recognize the vocalization. And there is one from the Valley, I’m trying to think off my head what it was. But it’s one of those nesting species that gets real close to Texas and finally, somebody heard the thing and they had the sense to record it.
David Todd [00:23:20] Well, I hear that at some of these Christmas counts, the whole process of verifying sightings can be a little contentious and dramatic.
Keith Arnold [00:23:30] Oh, yes.
David Todd [00:23:31] You’ve been involved in some of those?
Keith Arnold [00:23:34] My first year as editor, and not being that familiar with Texas birds (I had only been in Texas a couple of years), I got a Christmas Count in and after looking at it and talking to one of my students who was a good Texas birder, I decided to reject the entire count. And boy, does that make people mad.
Keith Arnold [00:23:56] But yes, we’re, you know, there are some towns like Houston, Houston Audubon Society has a, let me back off on that, and say there’s a group out of Houston that review all the unusual birds before they’re accepted or rejected for the Christmas count, and of course, they meet right at the count down there and yes, some get rejected, because this is, or go in and maybe change. Let me give you an example. Up until maybe a dozen years ago, we had no valid records of Swainson’s hawks wintering in Texas. So if somebody report Swainson’s hawk, I would change that to buteo species, the genus. When we finally got good documentation of wintering hawks, wintering Swainson’s hawks in Texas, and so now it depends upon how well they describe the bird as, in their notes. Having said that, if the descriptions look too good, almost field guide good, we would question in our own minds is whether they really saw that, or whether they were going to the field guides to get their notes. A few of those have come up all the time.
Keith Arnold [00:25:27] But, yeah, it can be quite contentious. And unfortunately, some people get very upset when we don’t accept their records, but despite the fact we put down there in the notification that we’re not saying they didn’t see the bird would just say that the evidence is not there to set the record. But nonetheless, there are people who don’t like that.
David Todd [00:25:48] Well, I guess it’s not a question of fraud maybe, but just faith and hope and desire…
Keith Arnold [00:25:54] Well, we have one case of fraud.
David Todd [00:25:59] and imagination?
Keith Arnold [00:25:59] We had one case of fraud. It wasn’t that he didn’t see the bird. It wasn’t that he didn’t see the bird. He used somebody else’s photograph as evidence.
David Todd [00:26:10] Interesting.
Keith Arnold [00:26:12] It cost him his reputation for a while. He’s really a very good birder, but to ensure that his record was accepted, he filed some photographs from somewhere else.
David Todd [00:26:29] Well, tell me about how this this all reflects on on the Eskimo curlew, this bird that I guess some people still have it listed as endangered. I guess the Fish and Wildlife Service still considers it as such, but it certainly hasn’t been seen in many years. How do you sort of prove whether it exists or doesn’t exist in, you know, such a big world?
Keith Arnold [00:26:55] Well, you know, you can’t really prove it doesn’t exist because how do you know we haven’t missed them? You can, you can prove it exists if you’ve got photographs, like the 1962 bird. Subsequent to ’62, there were two or three other reports by individuals on Galveston Island, but nothing to support those. At that point in time, since it was such a rare bird, you had to have photographs to, or at least multiple observers identifying it as a curlew, to be accepted. And there are no accepted records since 1962, just for that reason. Now why the feds still maintain it, I don’t know.
David Todd [00:27:48] Well, I guess, like you say, it is hard to prove a negative.
Keith Arnold [00:27:52] Yes, absolutely. I can say, like I said, you can’t prove it’s not still in existence, but somewhere along the way, you know, it’s pretty obvious. Now the Carolina parakeet, of course, you know, the passenger pigeon, we know, because the last one died in a zoo, what was it, in Cincinnati? But who knows if there might be a small number.
Keith Arnold [00:28:16] Now, having said that, go back to life span. If you have a small population size, you’re going to lose some every year. And we’re now talking, what, 50? Let’s see 58 years since the last sighting. That would pretty well eliminate any birds that were alive at the last sighting. They would’ve been dead long ago. And its reproductive success is not that great, it wouldn’t take very long before the entire population to be extirpated. Just mathematically.
David Todd [00:28:58] You know, it’s intriguing to me that there was this pretty large gap in sightings of the Eskimo curlew from, I guess, the early aught-aughts until I think it was Joe Heiser saw one in 1945, and then there’s this other gap until Mr. Feltner saw one. You know, why do you think it was that the bird might have gone undetected over such a long span of time.
Keith Arnold [00:29:33] Well given how much birding takes place on Galveston Island, that, that is a big question mark. I don’t remember where Ben’s [Feltner] bird was, that was Galveston, obviously. And what was the the one you named in the 40s?
David Todd [00:29:45] Joe Heiser, I think saw one on Galveston Island too.
Keith Arnold [00:29:47] Yeah, yeah. All of the recent reports, the last reports, I should say, all the 20th century reports are from Galveston Island. I have no idea how to explain that. I really don’t. Because it’s not like he had lack of birders looking for the darn thing, although I’m not sure everybody out in the field would recognize it if they saw it. It might just pass off as being a whimbrel.
David Todd [00:30:18] Mmhmm.
Keith Arnold [00:30:19] So maybe it’s the, there may have been birds there. I can’t imagine that you had a bird in ’45 and not another bird until Ben saw it, and then we got us two in ’62. I’m sure it was a small population still existing, at least two birds we know of. But, yeah, I’ll go back to the fact that they’re doing this trans-Gulf migration, long distances into South America. You’re going to have the mortality factor. It may not be that great, as it is among some of the songbirds, but you’re going to have that factor. And then need to integrate that, and somewhere along the way, they’ll just stop breeding. They’re going to be too old to breed, if they’re not already killed, or died of old age or whatever.
Keith Arnold [00:31:09] I have no real idea, but I’m sure there’s not been a lack of effort to see these birds, or look for these birds, other than the fact that maybe people are mistaking whimbrels for Eskimo curlews or vice versa. More likely, knowing Ben, I know he didn’t. He knew what he was doing, looking at. I don’t know Joe Heiser, but I have no way of knowing his capabilities. But I would say probably a large majority of the people birding in that area wouldn’t have the ability to recognize Eskimo curlew. I may be wrong, but that would be my only thinking on why there’s such a discrepancy between. In terms of the sightings.
David Todd [00:31:57] Easy to confuse with a whimbrel or other curlew.
Keith Arnold [00:32:02] Or one of these other curlews. There’s a, I think it, I can’t remember if it’s West coast or East coast, a little curlew, is a Eurasian bird and there are some records for the U.S.. It’s not that different from, to the casual observer, it’s not that different from the Eskimo curlew.
David Todd [00:32:28] Well, it’s impressive that this is little curlew, the Eskimo curlew, ran the gauntlet of all these observers. I’m just really struck by how the birding community and interest in birding has grown.
Keith Arnold [00:32:46] Oh it’s unbelievable. Unbelievable.
David Todd [00:32:47] And, you’ve been doing this for nigh on 60 years. You have any sort of remarks about how birding as an avocation and really as a scholarly interest has evolved?
Keith Arnold [00:33:01] Well, there are two points. One is that it’s a lot of fun. People enjoy it. And secondly, the level of knowledge of birders has just gone skyward. I have a young man I was coaching for a couple of years. He was I think he was like 13 or 14 when I started with him. Well, that kid, he birds the world. And not just knowing what they were, but he a lot about their habits. He is from Hutto by the way, by the way. It just amazed me.
Keith Arnold [00:33:37] I had another young man from here that I coached for a couple of years. He came in and in fact, he and I published a paper together. And he’s, he’s an environmental engineer, but he’s still probably one of the best birders we’ve had in this area in a long while.
Keith Arnold [00:33:57] They just have, they just take the time to learn what’s going on, where to find birds, what are their habits, what are their field marks. And it’s, it’s more than just casual to them. It’s a passion. And we’re seeing more and more of this taking place, there’s still a lot of casual birders who go out, tick off the birds they see, they have a good time in the field, enjoy it. If they see something rare, they have a lot of fun. We held the annual meeting or winter meeting of the TOS [Texas Ornithological Society] here in January and several rare birds shocked us. I can’t think of the word right now.
Keith Arnold [00:34:39] Anyway, we had one of the main places where we did sight for seven years came in with vermillion flycatcher, phoebe. And those are both very rare birds around here. In fact, that was the first documented record for the phoebe in 10 years, something like that. So people just flocked there to see those birds. But they found them because they were looking for it, had a good group looking for birds on that, on that property. And so we have the casual birders still and that’s fun. It’s a lifetime hobby you can enjoy until you’re unable to get out of the field again. Or you get serious about it, and then more and more people who are really serious about their birding.
Keith Arnold [00:35:25] And as a result, birders probably providing more information to the science of ornithology than any other “ology” you want to talk about – mammalogy, herpetology, ichthyology, entomology. I take it back. Entymology might, they might provide a heck of a lot of information, but none of the vertebrates at least. Birders have provided a lot more information. And now there’s a lot of what we call citizen science, especially promoted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In Houston, Dan Brooks Brook, he’s my student, yeah, Dan Brooks at the Houston museum, and Fred Collins at Kleb Woods are both interested in these escaped populations that are living in Houston and both of them have a citizen science program where people help them, actually go out and census these birds. So there’s a lot more of that taking place now than there were 50 years ago.
David Todd [00:36:39] So just the public is offering their eyes and ears to a professional like yourself and.
Keith Arnold [00:36:47] It’s often more than that. They’ll take on small projects, maybe to follow a species. Well, what we got here in College Station, Lick Creek Park has a small population of Swainson’s warblers, and it was followed by the general public for some time until finally, a young man, an undergraduate, took it on as a special problems in his field and studied the territories of these birds, that and the Kentucky warbler, which are both fairly rare in this area, and now he’s going to pursue it as his master’s degree.
Keith Arnold [00:37:32] There are other things like that. Bluebirds. The local Audubon Society has several Bluebird trails and they keep very accurate records of when they start nesting, when they finish nesting, how many eggs were young, how many nests succeeded, how many young were produced and so forth. So now all information is available on the Eastern bluebird in this area. And there are similar things like that that exist throughout the country.
David Todd [00:38:03] You know, it’s, it’s intriguing to me that that while it seems like there are more people, and they’re more schooled and maybe more experienced, but that also the technology has improved from the old days, when someone would call a friend and you know, then there is a phone tree to sort of alert people. But now with eBird, it’s is pretty extraordinary. Have you seen that or am I imagining things?
Keith Arnold [00:38:31] Oh, absolutely. We get to the point now where if someone’s out in the field and they find something rare they immediately send the message out to Texbird or something like that. And everybody immediately knows at this point in time at this day, at this place, this bird appeared.
Keith Arnold [00:38:49] And that’s exactly what happened with the white-tailed in Austin. The person who found it immediately got on his little phone and sent the word out to people and people were flocking from all over Texas to see that bird. And, yes, the advent of iPhone or the other type where you could send out things immediately like that. And taking pictures, bygosh, the pictures you could take with an iPhone, or what’s the other one called, a Samsung. Anyway and a recording. You can record vocalizations very easily, so all this technology, as you said. Before, you’d get into a tree-line where you’d call two people, they’d call two people, so forth. It took a while to do that. Now it’s instantaneous. It’s absolutely instantaneous. And it just boggles the mind how quickly this information gets out there.
Keith Arnold [00:39:51] Several examples – a yellow-billed cuckoo was found out in west Texas, I forget which lake it was. And the same, same day within hours, everybody in Texas knew about it. All the birding community knew about it. And some of them rushed out to see that both.
David Todd [00:40:09] And then I guess these sightings are often uploaded to an archive like eBird? Is that true?
Keith Arnold [00:40:18] Yeah, we’ve got some local, I keep a, in the full records, county records, stuff like that. We’ve got some good birds turn up. Recently we had a fork-tailed gull, or Sabine’s gull, show up at one of our lakes. We had a ash-throated flycatcher and a mynah. And again, those are two rare birds in this area. So I’ve already gotten photographs of those, but I’ve yet to get photographs of the gull, even though I know people took pictures of it. But same thing in this case, so the people who discovered those were immediately on the local bird list, the Audubon bird list, and everybody knew the same day, went flocking out to see the birds. All because the person who saw one communicated instantly to a website or in this case, an email site and like you said, being able to actually take decent photographs with a camera. It’s in you in your phone or being able to record, and there’s a lot of very good quality recording devices out there that are not that expensive you can carry in your pocket. And you get a little microphone and if you’re into it, if you’re that much into it, it’s not that costly to do that.
Keith Arnold [00:41:48] On the other hand, if you’re in the photography, you can spend thirty thousand dollars on equipment to photograph birds. And I’ve got friends who’ve done that. But, but you can you can document with very little cost between your iPhone and a small recording device. This miniaturization that’s taking place is amazing. Now, of course, the iPhones are getting bigger again, which boggles my mind, but it is what it is. So to answer your questions, yeah they do it almost instantaneously, they can transmit the information out to the community.
David Todd [00:42:31] Well, this this reminds me of another question I’d like to ask you. I think birders like yourself are observant people who are in the field a lot. And I was wondering if, you know, in the course of the decades that you’ve been birding, if you could comment on any of the changes in the habitats that, you know, are in Texas that support these birds.
Keith Arnold [00:42:57] Let me give you a fine example.
David Todd [00:42:57] Yes.
Keith Arnold [00:43:00] We have these breeding bird counts sponsored by the Fish and Wildlife Service, in the springtime, where you travel 25 miles with 50 stops. And at each stop, you record what you see and hear. I had a route from Brookshire, ended up in Waller. And over a period of three or four years, probably three fourths of the land I was dealing with became suburban housing developments. So I finally gave up. This may have been a mistake in some respects because we were able to document the changes to bird life as well. But when you drive mile after mile making these stops and all you see are house sparrows and starlings and pigeons and cardinals and bluejays, things like that, and don’t see the grasshopper sparrows, dickthissels, things like that, you’d like to see and record. It becomes kind of monotonous, I guess is the best way to describe it.
Keith Arnold [00:44:15] So that’s one example.
Keith Arnold [00:44:18] But that is taking place all over Texas. We are becoming much more urbanized. It doesn’t make any difference whether you’re talking about Corpus Christi or Galveston Island or east Texas. East Texas is perhaps less affected thus far, than let’s say, the coastal region, because people like to go there for recreational purposes. Now we have the problem of lost, losing the longleaf pines, which has had a tremendous effect on the red-cockaded woodpeckers, but people doing research on that, have found ways to increase the population anyway. They’ve done a really good job on that. I’m not sure about the Bachman’s sparrow, how it’s doing. But as a whole, east Texas has been less affected by urbanization than, well, even here in Bryan-College Station. When I came here, less than 50,000 people. Now we’ve got over a million in the general area, Bryan-College Station and the nearby communities. And we’re projected to add 50,000, 500,000 in about 30 years. Now, obviously, that’s a big difference.
Keith Arnold [00:45:35] I did a Christmas count. I hate to keep talking about myself. I did a Christmas count southwest of College Station for several years. It was really good, good habitat. Some woodland, got pieces of the Brazos River, pastures and so forth. The last time I did it, I was amazed at the number of developments that had taken place. And we’re talking about pretty expensive homes to start with. I guess they want the urban, I mean suburban living or whatever. But gone were a lot of the places where I look for birds.
Keith Arnold [00:46:13] And unfortunately, that’s taken place anywhere you’ve had major housing developments, you’ve wiped out large areas. They’re just not going to hold the same birds.
Keith Arnold [00:46:26] Now at home, my backyard, I have a rose arbor which harbors 30 to 40 house sparrows each winter. And if I’m lucky, a Cooper’s hawk will show up and feast on them for a few days until he gets stored up to leave. And when he runs out of food, he leaves and they come back. But I’m tired of my backyard bird list starting with house sparrows every time I go out there.
David Todd [00:46:56] So there’s just a really close relationship to these habitat changes and then the bird changes, the population changes that ensue.
Keith Arnold [00:47:05] Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. You can do that with the golden-cheeked warbler over there in central Texas. The problem with that is that historically they weren’t that numerous anyway. Because, because before white men arrived, Caucasians, the fires kept the bird pretty well confined to the canyonlands. Once Eurasian man arrives and began to suppress fires, the junipers spread out and with it the bird spread out.
Keith Arnold [00:47:38] So now the question is. How many birds do you have? Is that enough to sustain the population? Probably the best thing out of that whole thing was the development of the Balcones Canyonlands refuge because that served not only the golden-cheeked, but also served the black-capped vireo, which is very important.
Keith Arnold [00:47:57] But the same problem there – urbanization. Austin is obviously much larger now than it was when I visited to look for those black-capped back in the 1970s. The one negative aspect of that is that a number of people actually bought land with the idea they would either build retirement homes or it was their savings for retirement, knowing that they could sell the land. And when you have a bird that’s on the endangered species list, that makes a big difference what you could do.
Keith Arnold [00:48:29] But nonetheless, I think overall it’s been very positive in that, well, one thing it’s done is raise the level of, not interest per se, consciousness, perhaps, of the problems we have between urbanization and our native fauna, whether they be birds or herps. Our Texas lizards, horny toads, are having problems because of urbanization. So it’s not just birds, but it just so happens, birds are my major emphasis.
David Todd [00:49:07] Well, I think I read that you have been interested in museum science and nature centers and active with the Brazos Valley Museum of Natural History.
Keith Arnold [00:49:21] Yeah, well, they can’t get rid of me.
David Todd [00:49:26] Well, you know, when there are these changes in habitat and wildlife, I’m curious how you teach these issues to people and make them understand what’s going on and why it’s important.
Keith Arnold [00:49:43] Well, the museum science course and the natural centers course, I took over because the fellow who developed them and taught them before left. And that would seem to be my position – every time somebody would leave, I would teach a course until we get a replacement, not always, but generally speaking, I taught several courses that way. And I have an interest in museums. We have a collection. It’s not technically, it’s not technically a museum, it’s a collection. And of course, I was associated with the museums both at LSU and Michigan. I was interested in making our collections more representative of the state. And nature centers have always been appealing. In fact, when I was a student at Michigan, I ran, I was director of the, let me start over again, I was assistant director of an Audubon summer camp, and after the executive director resigned, I ran a summer camp for a year after that. So I’ve been involved with nature centers and nature camps for some time, and they do a good service.
Keith Arnold [00:50:55] I’ve spoken to the camp at, oh, gosh. What is that? Nature center, there in Houston. Oh, my mind is a blank. Anyway, I’ve spoken to several things. I’ve spoken to groups. I’ve spoken to, not county agents, county agents put on courses of certain types. I’ve spoken about doing bird identification to a group out of Calhoun county several times.
Keith Arnold [00:51:31] So I’ve tried to keep my hand in it until I retired. Now, I have a wife who’s got some mental problems, mental issues, and so I stick pretty well close to home.
Keith Arnold [00:51:42] But don’t put that, sweetheart. We’ve been married for 52 for years. So it is what it is.
Keith Arnold [00:51:52] But I’ve tried to, I’ve been involved with the local museum since 1970. And they got to the point where there’s made me a lifetime member of the board.
David Todd [00:52:08] Well, they must like having you around.
Keith Arnold [00:52:11] Yeah.
David Todd [00:52:11] Well, so tell me, you know, thinking once again about the Eskimo curlew. And I think that recently the Galveston Island Nature Tourism Council hired Todd McGrain, or helped fundraise for him to install sculpture commemorating the Eskimo curlew. And I was curious if you have any insights about that as a way to teach about wildlife and changes in..
Keith Arnold [00:52:45] The statues per se? Oh not really.
David Todd [00:52:48] Art in general.
Keith Arnold [00:52:50] Well, oh, art in general, no doubt. You ought to see my house here. Terry Maxwell is one of my fellow students, taught out at San Angelo until his death about four years ago. I’ve got six of his drawings here, three of which came out of a book that was dedicated to me. I’ve got behind me, John O’Neill, one of the preeminent, preeminent ornithological artists of the late 20th century, also a classmate of mine at LSU, a graduate student. I have the only human he’s ever painted. It’s a Peruvian Indian with these bird feathers on it. Fantastic. I’ve got paintings from Africa.
Keith Arnold [00:53:47] And they draw attention. People walk in, they want to start knowing. What is that bird? What is that bird? Of course, artists have been important in the development of the field guides. Roger Tory Peterson and now currently a, gosh, another blank. The two most recent field guides.
David Todd [00:54:08] Sibley?
Keith Arnold [00:54:09] That’s it. Sibley. Thank you. The artwork is important in those field guides. There are some photographic field guides, but they are just not as good. You can’t do with a field guide, taking a picture and get the nuances that you get with an artist. Now, I’m not knocking those field guides which use photographs, because they are useful for some people. But artistic values have been important in developing field guides, which in turn are important developing the abilities of individuals to identify birds and develop an interest in birds, and occasionally we get one to become an ornithologist.
David Todd [00:55:08] Go ahead. Yeah. Well, so maybe these artworks help kind of highlight the field markings that are a bird watcher.
Keith Arnold [00:55:20] I wouldn’t expect that with a sculpture, but the idea of having this big sculpture down there, by the way, I’d been invited to speak at that thing which was canceled because of COVID-19, but the idea of having a sculpture should draw attention to people. Oh, those are the kind of neat looking birds. And then maybe bother to read the inscription, and learn a little bit more about the effects of humans on the extinction.
David Todd [00:55:53] Well, maybe, like you were saying, visitors to your home see the artwork on the walls and then it’s a conversation starter, it makes them think.
Keith Arnold [00:56:01] Absolutely, absolutely.
David Todd [00:56:04] That’s interesting. Well, you’ve taught me a lot today. Let me ask you just one last question.
Keith Arnold [00:56:15] Sure.
David Todd [00:56:16] We’ve talked about birds and birding and of course, about curlew. Is there anything you’d like to add along those lines, some last insights?
Keith Arnold [00:56:28] Well, I guess, I guess my take on all this is that I’m so happy to see so many people going beyond being merely bird watchers, to interest in these birds as they are and interest in maintaining healthy populations and being very willing to participate in programs that help those birds, even citizen science programs. I think that’s a big plus. And that comes about because people are going beyond just bird watching.
David Todd [00:57:05] So that may be sort of an entry way for them to start learning and caring?
Keith Arnold [00:57:10] Well, sure, they’ve got to get interested in birds to start with. Absolutely. But, but they’ve got to and some people never do. That’s fine. That’s fine. They just enjoy going out and seeing birds. That’s fine. Picking up birds, as they say in England. It was the first states are people that keep track of all those towns, like eBird, if people who put an “X” or check mark rather than the numbers. And one of my friends is a regional editor for the, a local editor, really. He translates every “X” or checkmarks as “1”. Says they knew they saw one. He had no idea how many they saw. And of course, that’s true I of the numbers of birds over the years, that skews our numbers quite a bit.
Keith Arnold [00:58:06] But it is what it is. And if it’s changed markedly in the, in the half century or so that I’ve been involved with teaching about birds.
David Todd [00:58:20] Well, thank you for your time sharing some of this with us, and, of course, of all the many graduate students and amateur birders that you’ve taught over the years as well.
Keith Arnold [00:58:34] Let me tell you one last thing. I taught over 2500 students in ornithology. And I think that’s probably as good as I could say of anyone in the United States.
David Todd [00:58:47] That’s a legion of birders.
Keith Arnold [00:58:48] Yep.
David Todd [00:58:48] A regiment, a battalion!
Keith Arnold [00:58:51] It’s amazing how many of them come back and say I’m so glad I’ve taken up birding. I’m so glad I took that class, which, of course, was mandated but anyway.
Keith Arnold [00:59:00] Anyway, it was good talking to you, David. I appreciate it.
David Todd [00:59:05] Well, you’re very kind to take the time. Thank you so much. I hope you have a good afternoon, and that our paths cross sometime soon.
Keith Arnold [00:59:13] I hope so, too. Thank you so much.
David Todd [00:59:17] All right.
Keith Arnold [00:59:17] Bye bye.
David Todd [00:59:17] Thank you.