Talking turkey with naturalist David Lukas

November 23, 2011

Connecting with: David Lukas, Naturalist and Author

To David Lukas, a freelance naturalist and author who lives just outside of Yosemite National Park, observing plants and animals in their native habitats is as essential as breathing or eating. The author of Sierra Nevada Birds, the first comprehensive guide to the life history and distribution of all the birds in the Sierra Nevada, David leads natural history programs and walks in the Sierra and the Bay Area.

BN: It’s Thanksgiving time. What do we need to know about wild turkeys?

DL: First of all, wild turkeys are surprisingly wily critters. They quickly learn to avoid people in areas where they are hunted, but they become almost tame in areas where they are not hunted. And because they live mostly on the ground, where they are vulnerable to predators, they fly up into trees at night to sleep. There’s nothing more unexpected than running into a flock of turkeys perched on branches over your head! Here’s another fact: During the winter, males and females live in separate flocks, and not only do individuals within each flock develop a hierarchy, but each flock acts as a unit to establish hierarchies with other flocks in their neighborhood.

I once found a turkey in my yard with a metal identification band on its leg. When I called California Fish and Game with the band number, they told me that this bird had been brought from Kansas and released about 30 miles from my house, on the other side of a huge rugged river canyon. So that bird had walked a long ways through some really tough terrain!

BN: What originally inspired you to become a naturalist?

DL: I grew up on the Oregon coast and began studying plants and animals at the age of five. I don’t remember any particular inspiration; there simply wasn’t any other possibility in my mind. Even before I could read I memorized all the pictures in field guides and later I memorized all the text, and even today I study every field guide I can find. Because I grew up in small rural towns with no role models, I invented my own idea of a “naturalist” from thin air – and only later did I discover the work of great naturalists like Charles Darwin and Gerald Durrell.

BN: You’re from Oregon and now live in Yosemite Valley, but you do come to the Bay Area to lead birdwatching tours. What draws you here?

DL: I lived in Marin County for four years and led many local tours, walks, and classes during my time in the Bay Area. In a way, I am a seasonal vagabond who works in the Sierra Nevada in the spring and summer when the birds and flowers are at their peak, then in the Bay Area in the fall and winter when the birds are incredibly exciting. I deeply love the excitement and feel of coastal ecosystems during the winter, so it’s a pleasure for me to come down and teach in the Bay Area every year.

BN: What are some of your favorite natural places around the Bay Area to see birds?

DL: I am fond of any birding location in Marin County, but I am particularly drawn to the dynamic energy of tidal mudflats such as those around Richardson Bay, Corte Madera Marsh, and Tomales Bay. Mudflats are exciting because they offer rich food rewards to birds and because the shifting tide keeps re-sorting the composition of the birds.

BN: You are an authority on birds. What are some of your most interesting finds? Do you have a life list?

DL: Surprisingly, I would say that my most interesting find has more to do with birdwatchers than with birds. I am increasingly amazed at the breadth and coverage of interactive bird observations that are being posted on sites like eBird, or on any of the local listserves. These vast compilations of records are becoming incredibly powerful tools for studying and documenting bird populations. In the course of writing my recent book, Sierra Nevada Birds, I was able to detect and describe patterns of seasonal movements that had never been described before, and this is entirely due to the sum total of thousands of valuable bird records posted by individual birdwatchers.

I used to keep a life list, and I still have a sense of which birds are on it, but these days I rarely see new species. And at the same time I’ve become much more interested in bird behavior and how birds fit into the larger landscape than in keeping a list of the birds I’ve seen.

To learn more about David Lukas, his books (including Sierra Birds and Sierra Nevada Natural History) and upcoming hikes, visit Lukasguides.com.

About the Author

Beth Slatkin is Bay Nature's marketing and outreach director.

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