Bill Cook Interview (2014)

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Name: William E. Cook
Hometown: Claverack, NY
Profession: Professor of Biological Sciences and the Founder and Director of the Natural History Institute at Columbia-Greene Community College (Hudson, NY); Ornithologist
Associations: Alan Devoe Bird Club- Board of Directors (Field Trip Chairperson), Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club- Life Member, Federation of New York State Bird Clubs, Inc.- Life Member, American Birding Association (ABA)- Life Member
First Year Birded: 1976
Countries Birded: Australia, Belize, Bolivia, Borneo, Botswana, Brazil, Canada, China, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Egypt, England, France, Indonesia, Jamaica, Kenya, Loyalty Islands, Madagascar, Malaysia, Mexico, Namibia, New Caledonia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Panama, Peru, South Africa, Turkey, United States, US Virgin Islands, Zambia, Zimbabwe.
Birding Lists Kept: World=life, North America, South America, Africa, Australasia, Europe, Pacific Ocean, ABA, Canada, Lower 48, US, AOU, Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, Asia, all 50 states, 6 of the Canadian provences, Total Ticks, all 62 NY counties.
Life List Total: 4125 (as of January 1, 2014).


Chad Witko (CW): Bill, before we begin, on behalf of Chat Happens, we want to thank you for joining us here, in this the first interview to be posted to our site with such a high caliber birder! So, to start off, you consider yourself an Ornithologist, but I’ve come to know you through your day job as the Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia-Greene Community College (CGCC). How long have you been there? And of the current courses that you teach are any of them bird related, and if so what is the focus of the course?

Bill Cook (BC): I have been teaching at CGCC for 35 years. I currently teach a course called Museum Bird Study which uses our museum collection of 2000 study skins to teach students how to identify birds and how to do research using a museum collection.

Bill tending to one of the museum's many trays

Bill tending to one of the institute’s many trays

CW: Aside from your teaching duties, you are also the Founder and the Director of CGCC’s Institute of Natural History (INH). Could you describe what this is, including when and why you founded it?

BC: The Institute of Natural History was begun in 1986! The INH is a volunteer organization of CGCC faculty. Our mission is to foster education and research in the field of Natural History.

CW: As a former student of your Museum Bird Study course, I myself have been able to utilize the school’s bird skins- which now number over 2,000 specimens- on several occasions. Aside from your students, who else makes use of this wonderful resource and what are your goals for its future?

BC: The INH provides educational resources, particularly museum specimens, for students, scientists, artists and civic organizations. We regularly visit local schools and civic organizations to give presentations on environmental topics. Artists use the study skins as models for fine art as well as field guide illustrations. Our 19th century egg collection has been helpful to many researchers in documenting the past distribution of bird species. For example we have the only know specimen of Passenger Pigeon eggs from Texas. Furthermore, we have sponsored many projects in the past such as the Osprey Nest Platform project where a group of junior high students constructed 12 Osprey nest platforms and erected them along the Hudson River.
Future goals include using the collection, and student research papers, to provide data on sexual size dimorphism in birds with monomorphic plumage.

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Bill teaching one of his many biology courses at CGCC

CW: As many can now realize, you are known by thousands of past students as a Biology professor first and foremost, however many more people in the local community know you as an avid birder. Did you get your start birding here in the Hudson Valley of New York, or did you discover birding at a different locale?

BC: I started birding here in the Hudson Valley in 1976 when I took a Saturday adult education/credit free course of bird study offered by CGCC and taught by Richard Guthrie who eventually became my mentor.

CW: While the Hudson Valley remains one of my favorite places to bird, I have also had the fortune of living near some of the greatest epicenters of birding across this country including areas just north of Ithaca and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to Point Reyes National Seashore, California. What are your thoughts on the birding opportunities here in the Hudson Valley, as well as the birding community which surrounds it?

BC:  There are many active bird clubs in the area offering many local field trip opportunities.  I belong to the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club (Albany area), Alan Devoe Bird Club (Columbia County area), and The Hoffmann Bird Club (Pittsfield area).  Rich Guthrie calls our area, New York’s Region 8, “The Black Hole of Birding” because few rarities are found here.  But one of the factors, in addition to the geographical ones, is that there are fewer birders here than in places like New York City.  The other side of that coin is that there is a greater opportunity for each individual birder to make a contribution and possibly find that rarity that would otherwise pass through unnoticed.

CW: Besides avidly birding the Hudson Valley and other parts of New York, you also faithfully bird the rest of the country, and Canada as well. In the ABA Area, where does your list stand (Life/Ticks)? And are there any birds in particular you have yet to find in North America that you would one day like to observe?

BC:  My ABA list is 663 as of January 1, 2014.  I’m planning a trip to the Dakotas in the spring with Will Yandik in hopes of finding a Mountain Plover.  I still have not seen any of the rosy finches and several western alcids would be new to my list.

CW: As impressive as your birding efforts in North America are, more impressive to me and certainly to others, is your level as a world birder. Not a year goes by that you don’t seem to be abroad searching for more of the world’s feathered gems. I am currently in the time of my life where my interest in birding the tropics for the first time is peaking, something I credit to living with other bird biologists from Latin America. What was the transition period for you that made you want to leave behind the search for birds in New York and the rest of North America in pursuit of new and exciting birds across the globe?

BC: Early in my birding career, 1979 when my life list was only about 170, I participated in several college study trips to the Caribbean. So I began “world birding” early and kept at it.

CW: Ryan and I both agree that birds are wonderful not only for their own inherent and obvious reasons, but also because they lead us to places that we might not visit otherwise. Of all the countries that you have visited in search of birds, describe some of the places that you would recommend to a traveling birder as a ‘must-visit’ and give some of the reasons why?

BC: Having birded New Zealand I believe that it is the nicest place to bird in terms of climate and lack of bothersome diseases and pests. Although the biodiversity on land is small, they have lots of fascinating endemics and the seabirding is unbelievably great. The Mediterranean is also very pleasant. Birding western Turkey during fall migration is quite nice. However, in terms of biodiversity, there is no substitute for the tropics: Southeast Asia, Africa and most especially South America are essential for building a big world list. One just has to remember to bring malaria pills and “cipro” for those nasty intestinal parasites.

CW: Having talked to you on many occasions about travel, it seems that in your pursuit of birds around the world, professionally guided trips such as those from Victor Emanuel Nature Tours play a major role. However, I also know that you freelance a good portion of your trips as well. In the end does the birding destination decide how you conduct your trip? And of these two methods for taking a trip, which one do you ultimately prefer?

BC: When traveling to a foreign county I prefer to go with a group, especially in a non-English speaking country. They take care of all the logistics and provide a substantial degree of safety. Furthermore, by traveling with an experienced guide who knows where the birds are I see a much larger percentage of the target species. I prefer “freelance” trips alone or with a friend when birding for a few target species in the US or to just add to my state or county lists.

CW: Knowing you for over ten years now, I recognize that you truly have a deep passion for birds that goes beyond listing. This is something that has been evident to me everywhere from birding with you in the field to listening to you in the classroom. What are your thoughts on other birders who also have a strong passion for birds, but often dismiss listers saying it [listing] takes away from the birds themselves?

BC: Well I am indeed a lister. That is what drives me to the ends of the earth. On the other hand, I get pleasure from simply being in the wilderness. I don’t quite know how to explain the “passion” for birding, but I know that I feel more connected to the earth when I hear birds interacting and I can tell who they are and what they are doing without even seeing them. That enhances my moment and I feel like I am “seeing” more of the world around me.

CW: What are your goals for world birding? Do you one day hope to reach 4,000 species? 7,000? 10,000?

BC: My only goal is enjoyment of the quest, to keep going and see what is around the next bend. And share it with my best friends.

CW: Speaking of plans, where is the destination of your next big birding trip, and what species do you most hope to find there?

BC: I’ve signed up for a trip to Madeira Island with Birdfinders, a British organization, for July 2014.  If the trip goes I hope to see the endemic Trocaz Pigeon and possibly Zino’s Petrel.  It will also allow me to practice speaking Portuguese which I studied for my two Brazil trips.

CW: Lastly, for those interested in running into you in the field, you often lead some trips for some local bird clubs. What are some annual trips that they should look out for, and who are the trips organized through?

BC: I lead field trips for the Alan DeVoe Bird Club (Chatham NY), the Hudson-Mohawk Bird Club (Albany NY) and the Hoffmann Bird Club (Pittsfield MA). A popular one seems to be the search for waterfowl along the Hudson River from Coxsackie to Catskill that I do each March.

CW: Bill, as always it has been a pleasure. Everyone here at Chat Happens wishes you the best of luck on your future birding adventures and we sincerely hope to run into you in the field sometime soon. Come back anytime.

BC: Good Birding, Bill