The July/August 2020 issue of BirdWatching magazine includes a new regular column called “Good Birders.” The name is a play on the phrase that you often hear when birders are discussing others with superior skills in bird-finding and ID: “Oh, she’s a good birder.” It’s often said with an aspirational tone. In our case, the column will be a series of profiles of birdwatchers who make a difference. They’re people who devote their time, talent, and treasure to scientific or conservation efforts, public outreach, or the like. They may be “good birders” in the traditional sense, but that’s not a requirement for being featured. We’ll be introducing you to people who should make us all proud to be in the birding community. Now that is something to aspire to. The first installment of the column features Corina Newsome, one of the leaders of Black Birders Week. Enjoy.
Corina Newsome is a graduate student at Georgia Southern University who studies the MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow, a bird found in coastal marshes of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. She came to my attention more than a year ago through her Twitter account, where she frequently posts about her field work with birds, her past experience as a zookeeper, and other topics. She has more than 58,000 followers, plus an additional 22,000 on Instagram. On both platforms, her handle is @hood_naturalist.
Newsome wrote a chapter about birds in the book Rooted & Rising: Voices of Courage in a Time of Climate Crisis, published in 2019 by Rowman & Littlefield, and this year, her university presented her with an award for excellence in graduate research. She has also been featured by NPR, Grist, BBC Wildlife, Diversity in Action magazine, and other media.
I recently asked her about her work with birds, how she got into studying wildlife, and her efforts to teach young people about nature.
Which species do you study? What projects are you working on? And what are the goals of your research?
I study the MacGillivray’s Seaside Sparrow, a subspecies of the Seaside Sparrow that is found along the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida in salt marshes. This species has been listed as “climate endangered” by the National Audubon Society (may lose more than 50 percent of current range by 2050; for this species, the cause is sea level rise).
The Seaside Sparrow is in a tough spot. If a nest gets flooded and they lose their offspring, they will immediately build another nest, but higher. However, when they elevate their nests, the nest is more visible to predators; they are essentially caught between a rock and a hard place.
My project focuses on understanding the predictability of nest predation threat for Seaside Sparrows. I want to know if predator activity/abundance changes predictably along certain habitat gradients (specifically distance from human structures and water bodies). Are predators in the marsh more abundant as you get closer to human structures, such as roads, and/or closer to water bodies, such as rivers? And in areas with more predators, do we see a higher instance of nest predation?
I ask these questions because as the salt marsh habitat of the sparrow gets reduced and fragmented by sea level rise, wildlife managers may be able to reduce predation threat in the most sensitive areas, thus relaxing the constraint that predation places on the bird’s ability to respond to nest flooding. If wildlife managers can target the fragments that are most at risk from predation, an effort that requires the information my research can provide, they can be maximally effective and efficient in such initiatives.
My goal is to provide useful information to wildlife managers regarding where the threat of predation is likely to be highest for Seaside Sparrows and therefore contribute to the conservation efforts of this imperiled coastal species.
What sparked your interest in nature and/or birds specifically? And how did you decide to pursue this passion academically?
I have always been fascinated by wildlife around the world, but as a child, I was not exposed to any such careers. One day, a zookeeper who was an African American woman, Michelle Jamison, reached out to me to shadow her behind the scenes. After that single exposure, my career trajectory was set on wildlife conservation. However, despite subsequently interning at my local zoo in Philadelphia, I had very little exposure to native wildlife. I grew up in the inner city and never encountered many native species.
It was not until I took ornithology in college (as part of my zoo and wildlife biology major at Malone University) that I even noticed native birds. On the first day of lab, my professor, Dr. Jason Courter, was introducing us to the 10 most common birds in our region (northeast Ohio), and the first one was a Blue Jay. I had never seen one before and was smitten by its beauty. Since then, I’ve been hooked. After graduating, I continued to pursue birding recreationally, attended my local bird banding site, and cared for birds as part of my job as a zookeeper. Birds were my favorite taxa, by far. I decided to leave my job and return to school because I wanted to learn and develop my skills in in situ conservation research for birds. I am now at Georgia Southern University doing just that!
You’re very open and honest about your life and work on social media. Do you consider yourself a role model for younger people of color or other marginalized communities to pursue studies or careers in zoology or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics)?
I am cautious to self-identify as a role model, but I take as many opportunities as I can to expose younger people of color to someone like them in the field of wildlife conservation. Had Michelle Jamison not done that for me, this would absolutely not be my career today. Because I have firsthand experience with the power of having exposure to this career field and seeing reflections of myself within it, I know that such experiences can also change the lives of other young people.
I have been fortunate enough to have people in my professional circle — allies — who support my vision and have supported my efforts to design formal programming to accomplish those very goals. As a result, I’ve been able to design and lead programs that reach out to local students from underrepresented demographics in the field of wildlife science. These programs include the Wildlife Careers program at Malone University in Canton, Ohio, and the Pathway to Animal Care Careers program at Nashville Zoo in Nashville, Tennessee.
You’re also part of the Brown-headed Nuthatch Project at Georgia Southern. What is it, and how is it going?
The Brown-headed Nuthatch (BHNU) Project was funded by a Sustainability Grant at Georgia Southern, and I was the graduate student leading the project along with my advisor, Elizabeth Hunter. We purchased 20 BHNU nest boxes from Atlanta Audubon and placed them around campus with temperature data loggers inside to see if there was a pattern to the nuthatch’s preferred nest box temperature. However, no Brown-headed Nuthatches selected our nest boxes, but Carolina Chickadees did! So, we set up a video camera on the nest and watched the whole process, from egg incubation to fledging, which took about a month in total. The project ended up focusing on public outreach education about the process of bird offspring development in the nest. I made a series of videos of all the nesting stages that can be seen on YouTube.