Doug Collister has been passionate about bird conservation since he was young. After a career in the oil and gas industry, he pursued his interest in birds and discovered a hobby in bird banding.
However, he realized more involvement was needed in this area to help scientists track the health of bird populations. As a result of this, he formed the Calgary Bird Banding Society, despite the ongoing challenge of getting people to care about bird conservation.
Collister’s own attitudes towards birds were shaped early on. When he was three, his grandmother gave him a coffee table book on birds.
“That’s quite clear in my memory,” Collister said.
His curiosity of birds was furthered when his fifth-grade teacher presented a print of a Canada goose to the class.
“She had us all write a story related to that print,” Collister said. “Whoever was best would get that print. And I wanted that print so bad. I ended up writing a story and it turned out that was the one she chose. That was a big reinforcement for me.”
From there, Collister became an avid birdwatcher throughout high school, despite finding it a lonely hobby.
“Not lonely in a sad way or anything, but just the fact there weren’t many other people interested,” Collister said.
After high school, Collister applied to the University of Manitoba, graduating in the mid 70s with an engineering degree. He worked in the oil industry as an engineer for about 15 years, all the while pursuing his interest in birds on the side through watching, and eventually bird banding.
Bird banding is the process of capturing migratory birds, generally in mist nets, and retrieving them to take measurements such as species, sex, age, weight and general health. A bander applies a uniquely numbered band to the bird’s leg that fits like a watch on a wrist.
The number and date are recorded and the bird is released. If the bird is ever re-caught at the same banding station or elsewhere, researchers can use that data to learn about bird survivorship, population and migration routes.
When Collister got into bird banding in the mid 80s, there wasn’t much scientific oversight in the practice.
After apprenticing under permitted banders, Collister was able to receive a master permit from the Canadian Office of Bird Banding. This allowed him to take part in more administrative roles and spearheading research projects.
The Inglewood Bird Sanctuary was a place of interest for such projects — located in southeast Calgary, it has been registered as federal migratory bird sanctuary since 1929 due to its popularity as a stopover site for the migratory birds that pass through twice a year.
“I wasn’t happy just being bird banding. I wanted to do something that would contribute and cherish the science in population monitoring,” Collister explained, “That’s where the project, our project in Inglewood arose up.”
Around this time, Collister was also attending the University of Calgary, pursuing a master’s degree in environmental design. After graduating in 1994, he found his new career as a consulting biologist which opened his schedule and allowed him to start investing more time at the Inglewood Bird Sanctuary.
This inspired Collister to advertise a bird banding course which had a turnout of about 20 people. In doing this, he discovered there are many others who want to do something more for birds.
“I had already tried to get a project going at Inglewood, but realized it took more than just one or two people with the organization to do that.”
Collister officially founded, and became president of, the Calgary Bird Banding Society in 1995, which became part of the newly formed Canadian Migration Monitoring Network.
The CMMN is a network of independent bird migration monitoring stations that collaborates with Bird Studies Canada and Environment Canada’s Wildlife Service. This network allows isolated bird observatories to compile and compare data sets, creating a more detailed picture of bird populations’ health.
Collister explained it is challenging for academics to gain resources for long-term monitoring programs such as these, so the Calgary Bird Banding Society relies on support from the community and its members to keep the project going.
“A good way to get those long-term data sets — which are vitally important because there’s so much variation out there in nature — is through citizen science, which the Calgary Bird Banding Society does,” Collister said.
Citizen science is an integral part of the work Collister does at the Calgary Bird Banding Society — it occurs when members of the general public aid in collecting scientific data, often under the supervision of a professional scientist.
Volunteers of the Calgary Bird Banding Society help curb issues such as funding, the prime obstacle when conducting long-term studies through a non-profit.
“I find that pretty rewarding, you know, the Calgary Bird Banding Society is primarily non-biology types, but there’s enough biology folks with biological and ecological expertise sprinkled in there so that we can actually make a contribution.”
Community members don’t have to work or volunteer with the society to help conservation efforts. Collister believes things such as keeping your cats indoors or donating to organizations that are dedicated to conservation efforts can help to a degree.
“I don’t think we’re going to wipe birds out, but I think going forward we just have to assume a small population,” Collister said. “I think society, our society certainly here in Canada, has changed to be more conscious and more careful in wanting to do things to try and maintain bird population.”
Despite this increased awareness on conservation issues, Collister feels there are still a lot of roadblocks when it comes to getting people to care.
“I’m still struggling with how to do that in terms of finding a way to get a message out there to folks and have them open to it.”
Collister has also struggled with this on a personal scale. He currently lives just outside of Calgary in the countryside with his wife and has found some people have more “traditional” views of nature.
“When they have that ‘us against the wilderness’ attitude, oh boy, they’re really closed off to hearing some of those arguments,” Collister said.
“I just cringe when I talk to someone who decided they want to live in the country, and then they have a woodpecker come and peck on their house and they want to shoot it.”
He explained living alongside nature means people are going to interact with different critters, and people should accept that some interactions may be negative.
“You need to find a way to manage that without killing them or having an adverse impact,” Collister said. “Maybe don’t put cedar siding on your house or use cement board siding so that the woodpeckers aren’t attracted.”
So what can be done to make people more mindful of the creatures we share our environment with? Collister feels there might not be a definite answer.
“I just think they're intrinsically valuable. I think if people can't get there, to where they see them as intrinsically valuable, just because they're a product of evolution and a part of our biodiversity here… It's hard otherwise, if we don't carry that in our instinct, that brings down potential,” Collister explains.
“The way to get people outside is to try and introduce them to the magic, the beauty and the interest of birds and other natural phenomenon, and hope it sticks.”
- By Kourtnee Burnett