Actress and conservationist Jane Alexander challenges quiet birdwatchers to speak up for birds

10/9/2013 | 1

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Jane Alexander. Photo by Joan Marcus

Last Saturday, September 28, was quite a day. Not only did I attend the International Crane Foundation’s 40th-anniversary gala, where Jane Goodall gave a stirring speech, but I also had one-on-one interviews with ICF co-founder George Archibald and actress and conservationist Jane Alexander (right), who was the gala’s master of ceremonies.

Alexander and Archibald met in 2006 at the inaugural presentation of the Indianapolis Prize, a biennial initiative of the Indianapolis Zoo that honors one of the world’s leading conservationists. Archibald received the $100,000 prize that year; Alexander MC’d the event. (Goodall is one of 39 nominees for the 2014 Indianapolis Prize.)

“George and I just hit if off,” Alexander recalls. The connection was due partly to places they had in common: He grew up in Nova Scotia and she has a home there, and her father was raised in North Platte, Nebraska, near the site of the Sandhill Crane spectacle on the Platte River, a site Archibald visits every year. Of course, they also share the common goal of conserving cranes — and all birds. In the years since, the two have traveled with other ICF supporters and friends to see Sandhills in Nebraska and to Bhutan, where a large portion of the Black-necked Crane population winters.

In addition to her long acting career in theater, film, and television (including her current role on NBC’s “The Blacklist”), Alexander has been a birder for 40 years. She conducts a Breeding Bird Survey route every spring and participates in the Christmas Bird Count every winter. She has served as a trustee of the Wildlife Conservation Society and was a founding board member of the American Bird Conservancy.

She is completing a term on the board of the American Birding Association, and this year she joined the National Audubon Society’s board. In 2012, she was the spokesperson for the joint ABA-Audubon Raise Your Voice for Arctic Birds campaign.

To recognize her commitment to conservation, Indianapolis Prize officials created the Jane Alexander Global Wildlife Ambassador Award to recognize “individuals who support the natural world by leading others to action and who lend a credible, consistent, and effective public voice for the sustainability of wildlife.” The first recipient was Alexander. (You can see a video of the presentation here.)

“Right now, I feel conservation work is what I want to devote the next 10 years and maybe the rest of my life to,” Alexander told me. “People just don’t realize how many species we’re losing, and they don’t realize how precarious an existence it is for the birds right now with global warming, development, and habitat loss. I just had an interview with public television, and I said ‘It’s projected that 20 to 45 percent of our bird species could be gone by 2050 or 2070.’”

The interviewer, Alexander said, was shocked. The anecdote shows that in addition to a global biodiversity crisis, she’s said, there’s a widespread lack of understanding of the problem. “This is what we’re facing.”

What can birders do?

“A lot,” she said. “Hard-core listers know so much about birds: where they live, what they do, what they’re facing. ABA has an extraordinary resource, like a library of people that could pitch in more. The average birder can really start to make a difference in terms of conservation with their own family. Just teach people (about birds).”

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Birdwatchers should teach others about birds such as Tufted Titmouse, Jane Alexander says. Photo by Joshua Clark

Non-birders may overlook or not notice even common species like Tufted Titmouse, she said. It’s our job as birdwatchers to say, “‘You know that little titmouse there? That one produces maybe four eggs, and it puts them in this nest. And that tree has to be (a certain height). But you better watch out for Cooper’s Hawks because they love to eat those guys.’ You know, that kind of thing.”

“I have a lot of birding friends,” Alexander added. “They tend to be a little closed-mouthed. It’s a beautiful solitary occupation, and I love to be with groups of birders who are quiet. But later on, you should talk. Tell what you know, and to everybody. And say, ‘You know, we have a real crisis with birds now.’

“It all starts in your patch. You protect your patch. Everybody protects their patch, and then we’ll be OK. But you have to be aware of what’s in your patch, what the dangers are, and if you spray your rose bush and there’s no more beetles that such-and-such a bird is eating, well…

“Save your own patch. That’s what Jane (Goodall) is saying to people all over the world.”

Alexander laments that so many young people today are disconnected from nature, but she has found hope in children who love birds. At the BirdLife International World Congress in Ottawa last summer, Alexander met “an extraordinary little girl from China. Tina, 12 years old. Ace little birder from a village outside Shanghai.”

Tina told Alexander that three years ago, “There were only three birding clubs in China. There’s 29 now. That gives you hope. And they’re mostly young people. A teacher introduced her to birdwatching. She thanked her teacher profusely. That’s where you and I come in. We have to say, ‘Look, come with me. I want to show you something.’” — Matt Mendenhall, Managing Editor

How do you teach people about birds? Leave a comment and let us know!

 

  • Heather Wolf

    Great article! I teach people about birds by leading bird walks in Brooklyn Bridge Park. I was amazed at the species showing up there, and felt people should know that their park is filled with much more than Rock Pigeons! I also hope to one day teach classes on beginning birding.