Meet Konshau Duman

Konshau Duman at Grand Teton National Park. Photo: Lynette Williams Duman

Konshau Duman grew up in Phelan, California, in the western Mojave Desert. He was always drawn to birds but did not become a serious birder until his undergraduate years at the University of California, Davis, where he met Lynette Williams. The pair became passionate about birding, sought out field work they could do together, and returned to UC Davis to pursue PhDs. Konshau received a 2023 WFO research grant that will help support his PhD work studying Red Crossbills.—Teresa Connell, WFO Student Programs

When did you first get interested in birds?

My parents were not birders, but when I was a kid, they gave me a Sibley field guide. That got me looking at birds. I remember seeing Scott’s Orioles in my yard! I think the main reason I love birds is that they fly. My true passion is for natural history in a broad sense, and I also spend a lot of time identifying and observing plants and insects and fishes. Birds really express the most amazing diversity of movement styles, so they often feel most special to me.

You must have started birding at young age.

I didn’t get into birding seriously until my undergraduate years, when I took a bird lab course (which I now teach) at UC Davis and dated my now wife, Lynette Williams Duman. We had both gotten into bird biology and were planning our career paths to that end, but neither of us thought about listing or chasing until we started dating.

For our second date, we went to an area where Lewis’s Woodpeckers were overwintering and spent the rest of the day birding and finding things we had never seen before. We have never been bored ever since. We both have a passion for natural history and conservation in California’s Central Valley, and we wrote a paper together on the flora of a conservation property in the northern Sacramento Valley.

After we graduated, we applied for a bunch of field jobs as a package deal, and amazingly we both got hired to survey Yellow-billed Cuckoos on the Colorado River in Southern California. The next few years we hopped from field job to field job, counting birds for a few months, then packing everything into Lynette’s Honda CRV and driving to the next job.

We returned to UC Davis and are in our second year of grad school working through our PhDs. We find a powerful support system in each other, and our long history together helps us get through the hurdles of grad school. We are constantly thinking about new and exciting things to work on, and I look forward to the many other papers we will write together.

The Central Valley of California is a great place to bird. Do you have spots you like to visit or particular birds you like to seek out?

Probably my favorite birds to watch are the shorebirds, largely because they have such amazing migrations with a whole range of strategies among them. If I had to pick a shorebird, I think it would be Pectoral Sandpiper since they have such a beautiful adaptation for long-distance migration. My favorite hotspots change year to year, but I like places in the Central Valley where there is a small patch of muddy shorebird habitat in the middle of dryland or agriculture, and I can watch birds drop out of the sky and decide if they are going to land and stay or keep going. Places like the Yolo Bypass, Yolo Central Landfill, and Woodland Wastewater Plant/North Drainage Pond can be good depending on the year.

What is the focus of your PhD work at UC Davis?

I am interested in the relationship between food resources and movement. Red Crossbills (Loxia curvirostra) are a great study system to look at this in, and I also like that they are so mysterious and have lots of basic life history questions that still haven’t been answered. The way that they move from place to place with no predictability in the resources they will find along the way is just fascinating.

What was a breakthrough moment in the field for you?

This past June, I was driving down a steep rocky road on Shadow Mountain in western Wyoming. The morning air was still cold and misty, so I threw on a jacket and kept the windows rolled down in case I could hear a Red Crossbill fly over. Well into a vast aspen forest, I started hearing dozens of calls. My heart skipped a beat—What were they all doing here so far from conifer forest?

I tracked down the flock and lay in the wet grass, looking up at the birds in confusion as I watched them clamber out to the tips of the aspen branches and manipulate the leaves with their feet and bills like tiny boreal parrots. Eventually I was able to see what all the commotion was about. The aspen leaves had been covertly sandwiched together by leaftier caterpillars, and the crossbills were using their crossed mandible tips to pry these sandwiches apart and grab the caterpillar inside.

Not only was this the first documented instance of Red Crossbills using this food source, but the following days of field work revealed that these leaftiers (Enargia decolor) constituted most of the foraging I encountered in the brief time that the caterpillars were abundant. I try not to let what is “known” about birds limit the things I observe in the field, and something that I love about birdwatching is that you can learn so much about a species all on your own with a pair of binoculars. This and other observations helped me think of what kinds of questions to ask in my research and how best to approach answering them.

What do you see for the future, after you and Lynette complete your PhDs?

After we graduate, we want to move to southeast Arizona and live somewhere like Patagonia or Tubac or Sierra Vista. We took a trip to the area six months into our relationship and have wanted to move there ever since. Being a consultant designing new restoration projects would be her dream job because she is passionate about doing conservation by looking at landscapes in unique ways and taking no land as valueless. I would be happy working at a university or a conservation nonprofit. Anywhere I am able to continue doing research in the natural sciences would be good for me.

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  1. What a fascinating article – and person! I learned a lot just reading the article. Birds leave room for surprises, particularly when you are not looking!
    Congratulations Konshau!

  2. Wonderful and informative article. The Red Crossbills, what an interesting species! To be the first to find that they eat leaftier caterpillars off of aspen leaves and not pine seeds from a specific conifer, bravo!
    As a committee member of the WFO Student Programs, I hope you will be attending future WFO Annual Meetings and sharing your experiences with the many fine WFO students.