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Byrd recounts 50 years, They call him the man who saved the eagles

Byrd holds a falcon. Courtesy of Mitchell Byrd.Mitchell Byrd likes to tell people that his 50 years at William and Mary are due either to his perserverance or administrative benevolence.

“I’m not sure which it is,” Byrd, director emeritus at the Center for Conservation Biology at the College, says with a sly smile that accompanies his trademark dry wit.

Either explanation would be a severe understatement. Listed chronologically, Byrd’s contributions to the College during the past half century would fill pages, but his impact on the institution—and the world—is much more profound. Byrd is the man who, many say, has saved the bald eagle. They also say he is the man who brought the peregrine falcon back to life east of the Mississippi River. In Millington Hall, they say the nationally recognized biology program housed there truly took shape during the 13 years that Byrd chaired the department.

The humility and the gentle demeanor that define Byrd will not let him take such credit. Reminded of his reputation with bald eagles, Byrd turns his head, shrugs a bit and says, “I don’t know that I’ve saved it, but I have worked with the bald eagle for about 28 years now.”

It started in 1977, about two years after the bald eagle was added to the endangered-species list. The state of Virginia had decided to pursue non-game and endangered-species research but was without any in-house expertise. Byrd and William and Mary were tapped to conduct research on eagles, peregrine falcons and red-cockaded woodpeckers. Byrd started out doing aerial surveys to assess the eagle population. “At that time, in 1977, there were about 33 breeding pairs in the state of Virginia, and they produced a total of 18 offspring. Pretty pathetic,” Byrd said.

Years of DDT use had created that dire situation. Although the pesticide had been banned from use in the early 1970s, its effects lingered in avian populations. The chemical was discovered to have depressed a liver enzyme that prevented adequate shell formation. “This is kind of an insidious effect. It wasn’t so much direct mortality, although there was some of that. It was more of depressing reproduction. The thin-shelled eggs were not hatching properly, and of course, if eggs aren’t hatching, over time the population is going to decline,” Byrd said.

With few young birds coming along, their recovery started slowly. Byrd continued taking aerial surveys, fighting to protect habitats and raising the awareness of landowners. The result is that now, in the Tidewater region alone, there are about 428 active bald-eagle nests.

Byrd also led the Chesapeake Bay Bald Eagle Recovery Team, a group appointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior. The team developed a plan that called for the repopulation of 175 to 225 breeding pairs of bald eagles in the bay region—numbers Byrd called “a wild guess.” “We’re probably closer to 1,000 breeding pairs in the bay by now, so obviously that number was picked out of the blue,” he said.

Still, Byrd deflects most of the credit for the miraculous recovery of one of the country’s most revered species. “It’s been a combination of things—the ban on DDT and the protection afforded habitats under the provisions of the Endangered Species Act of 1973. I didn’t tell these eagles to get busy and start producing. This was a natural phenomenon. Our impact has been in calling attention to the conservation needs, and we’re still pushing that point,” Byrd said.

Protecting habitats is where much more work is needed. The Chesapeake Bay recovery team also sought to ensure that one-third of the suitable eagle habitats in the bay area had some sort of protected status, whether through conservation easements or actual land acquisitions. A study showed that only a small percentage of eagle habitats were on protected lands. “That is where we are going to continue to have conflict with the management of eagles—this increasing population of both eagles and people who want the same chunks of land, and we’re just seeing the tip of the iceberg on this. In my experience, whenever in life there is a conflict between man’s interest and the interests of another species, I’ve never seen the other species win. It’s very unfortunate,” Byrd said.

People, in Byrd’s opinion, deserve the land no more than any other species. There is no way to know just how valuable a particular species—eagles or others—is to a natural ecosystem. “Why are we here? We’re not very important. If you look at us as a species, what do we have going for us—an opposable first digit and a large cerebral hemisphere. The only thing that enables us to do is to take input, integrate it and, hopefully, make a conscious decision to do the right thing, which we don’t always do,” Byrd said.

In coastal Virginia, land management is essential. The habitat is extremely desirable to many species, including peregrine falcons. Prior to concerted efforts to return the birds, peregrines had completely died out east of the Mississippi River. Leading the Eastern Peregrine Falcon Recovery Team, also appointed by the U.S. Department of the Interior, Byrd helped to re-introduce peregrines to the region. The hope was to re-introduce the birds to an area ranging from the coastal marshes of New Jersey down to Virginia, a habitat where, in the past, peregrines rarely nested.

“We viewed this as an experimental area. Could we breed these birds in captivity and introduce them into an area successfully where they don’t normally occur? Unfortunately, it worked too well. We want them in the mountains, but there seems to be something about Virginia,” Byrd said. “We would take them and release them in the mountains, and we find that they’re just zapping out of the mountains once they start fledging and going right to the coast. I’m sure it’s a food-related phenomenon—this is where all the good food is.” Regardless of why the birds prefer the region, ensuring they have adequate habitats is essential to their continued success. This is where Byrd and his colleagues continue to be extremely instrumental. In 1991, as he retired as Chancellor Professor of Biology at William and Mary, Byrd and one of his former students, Bryan Watts, co-founded the Center for Conservation Biology, a nonprofit organization within the College’s biology department. Watts now serves as the center’s director.

“My thought and Brian’s thought was that with the center, we’d have an opportunity to continue endangered-species research activities at the College, and, at the same time, provide some opportunities for students that they might not otherwise have because of directional changes. I’ve been here long enough to know that things change,” Byrd said.

Research emphases were beginning to shift away from endangered species, and Byrd was keenly aware of how much work still lay ahead. The need for research and continuing public-relations work with landowners was and still is as crucial as ever.

“Things have changed a lot. They inevitably do. Biology has changed along with a national trend, drifting away from things that are more organism-related or ecologically related to things that are more molecular [related] or cell biology [related],” Byrd said.

The Center for Conservation Biology preserves opportunities that might not fall into newer trends in biology. Byrd and Watts have worked with dozens of graduate students—sometimes on their own, unsupported time—to keep efforts focused on endangered species.

Interest in the work has never been an issue. Scholars from all over the world contact Byrd and Watts, hoping to work with the center, but resources are limited. “Nationally, the work has exploded, but the amount of resources going into it has not. I think it goes back to public interest,” Byrd said. “There is a gap in public knowledge about what’s happening to the avian species. Some of the declines are precipitous. It’s my general impression that the populace, as a group, may be interested in birds, but they really don’t have any concept of what’s happening to these species around the state, country and world. There are hundreds and hundreds of species around the world on the verge of extinction, and there will be in this country if we don’t make some radical changes.”

Those changes have to come in terms of land-use management, Byrd said. Land-use planning rarely, if ever, accounts for anything other than the economic aspects. It is a trend that must change, according to Byrd, and through the concentrated efforts of Byrd, Watts and their students—past and future—might begin to change, as things inevitably do.

“I think if we’ve done anything here at William and Mary to bring the bald eagle back, it was to call the attention of the state to where the population was and where it needed to go,” Byrd said. “Also, [it was important when] working with landowners to convince them that even though they were legally obligated to do something that they really ought to consider it—as I always put it—a status symbol to have an eagle on their property. I think we did a lot good public relations over the years with landowners,” Byrd said.

With the success of eagle and peregrine falcon populations in the state and across the nation, it is difficult to tell how many more species can be saved during the next half century. Byrd’s legacy will have been to give hope to the continued successful rebound of avian species. It is the Center for Conservation Biology—the accomplishment of which Byrd is most proud, that will keep that hope alive now and in the years to come.