Aaron Yetter, a waterfowl ecologist at the Illinois Natural History Survey, is the recipient of the Prairie Research Institute’s 2020 Distinguished Research Specialist or Technician Award.
Yetter has worked at the Forbes Biological Station since the early 1990s, wearing a variety of hats, gaining broad expertise, and making an impressive impact during that time. When nominating him for this award, Forbes director Auriel Fournier wrote that his responsibilities are so varied that “many days he is fixing a toilet, or repairing the roof, and managing a half a million-dollar grant budget, while fielding questions from field technicians.”
“He is one of the most capable scientists I have worked with in a long time,” she added, “carefully managing almost 20 projects, and their associated needs, while also being a helpful and dedicated member of the station and a dedicated mentor to technicians and graduate students.”
Yetter is the observer for the Forbes Biological Station’s popular aerial waterfowl and shorebird survey. He’s now in his 16th year as just the fourth observer for this longest known inventory of North American waterfowl, which means he spends more than 200 hours a year in an airplane. This project demands flexibility, since Yetter needs to juggle all of his responsibilities while being prepared to jump in the plane to survey every week for more than six months of the year, when the weather permits.
Fournier also praised Yetter for his upbeat attitude, sense of scientific curiosity and wonder, and skill in mentoring staff and students. “He takes the time to explain the ‘why’ to everyone involved with a task and to teach and provide opportunities for learning to everyone involved.” she wrote.
Yetter recently answered a few questions about his work.
What do you enjoy most about your job at the Forbes Biological Station?
I enjoy my job at the Forbes Biological Station/Illinois Natural History Survey because of the variety of research projects. I am very rarely “stuck” doing the same thing for long periods of time. On any given day in the fall or spring, I may be flying around in an airplane about 150 ft off the ground, or sitting on a rocket net during the pre-dawn hours to catch ducks, or on the water collecting samples or mapping vegetation, or sitting at my computer entering and analyzing data, or editing/writing a report or manuscript, or mentoring a young technician or graduate student and seeing them grow intellectually along the way. I work with some of the most dedicated people in the world and that’s the best part!
What things do you wish more people knew about your field, or what are the misconceptions that you think people may have about your area of expertise?
I wish people, especially duck hunters, understood that we need to take care of our wildlife over the course of the entire year. Too many times, we think about managing for birds and critters during hunting seasons or when we go out and look for them. We have to think about what the animals or organisms are doing at any particular time of the year. What resources birds need to grow feathers, lay eggs, or migrate? Also, why their dietary and habitat needs change throughout the year depending on the demands each life cycle event puts them through.
What drew you to waterfowl ecology initially?
My admiration of my father and his passion for wildlife and land stewardship inspired me to pursue waterfowl ecology.
It sounds like you put a lot of care and effort into mentoring young scientists. Who were your mentors when you began your career in science?
My mentors include Bob Williamson, retired Illinois DNR Waterfowl Project Manager; my M.S. advisor, Robert Gates, The Ohio State University; Frank Bellrose, INHS; and Steve Havera, INHS. I will always remember the coffee table discussions with Frank about the good ol’ days. The discussions continue to this day as Dr. Havera provides input and support while making sure our research program is going in the right direction. I greatly respect all of them.
How do you feel about receiving the Distinguished Research Specialist or Technician Award?
It is very nice to be recognized by the institution for which we work. Everyone deserves a pat on the back from time to time. Much appreciated!