Bird enthusiast Claire Johnson is now a full-time avian ecologist with the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)!
Spending time outdoors with her family sparked Claire’s early interest in science. Little did she know then that her early love of the outdoors would lead to her future career!
“I have to thank my parents for taking me and my brother camping and river walking when we were little and always encouraging us to be curious about the world, even if that meant bringing toads and praying mantises and earthworms into the house,” Claire said.
High school marked a turning point.
“My high school biology teacher was an entomologist in a past life and offered an excellent field biology course,” Claire explained. “Hearing them talk about fieldwork experiences it finally dawned on me that I could make a career of playing outside.”
Claire went on to study integrative biology and chemistry as an undergraduate at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I). It was there that she first fell in love with ornithology—the study of birds.
“Taking ornithology with Mike Ward got me excited about birds and helped me land my first field job,” Claire said.
After graduating, Claire spent several seasons conducting bird surveys in the Sierra Nevada, working on an organic farm during the fall and spring.
“I then did a stint as a carpenter and managed a solar installation team before going back to get my master of science degree studying the ecology of Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoos at the University of Illinois,” she said.
Claire pursued her master’s degree in the U of I’s Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences department.
Advised by INHS ornithologist T. J. Benson, Claire values the collaborative and supportive environment she first found at INHS as a graduate student.
“So many people at INHS have gone out of their way to give me information or advice, helped me in the field at a moment's notice, and acted as a sounding board while I figured out my project on Black-billed and Yellow-billed Cuckoo ecology,” Claire said. “It feels like we are all working towards the same goals and has made for a fun and much less stressful graduate experience.”
Claire is hopeful that her master’s research on cuckoos will have a lasting impact on not only management efforts directed at Black-billed Cuckoos but also the shrubland habitat that they and other birds depend on.
“I hope my work adds another reason to appreciate and fund management of shrublands, which tend to be undervalued by the general public,” said Claire. “Black-billed Cuckoos are state threatened in Illinois and seem to be shrubland dependent in this region, but they're not the only species using this habitat type.”
“Shrublands are ephemeral and hugely productive, supporting a diversity of plants and animals, she continued. “By managing for the state listed Black-billed Cuckoo, many other species could benefit from the creation or maintenance of shrublands.”
Now, with her master’s degree completed, Claire is really excited to continue working at INHS as a full-time avian biologist.
But what does a day in the life of an ornithologist look like?
“Everyone in my family asks me what I actually do all day, and the good thing is, it depends! I love getting to be in the field during the summer and then having time to work on analyses and writing the rest of the year,” Claire said.
One thing is for certain—Claire is ready to dive into her new role and research!
“Birds are a great study system for asking all types of questions,” she explained. “I’m more interested in conservation and management, and birds can be excellent indicators of environmental health and how a community responds to management actions.”
Claire will be conducting applied research that touches on all of these topics—birds, conservation, and management.
“I’m excited to join a project examining which species use different Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program (CREP) plantings and how avian communities change as these plantings mature,” she said. “I hope what we learn will inform future management of these lands.”