Meet Sierra Glassman

Sierra Glassman recording Anna’s Hummingbird calls at the UC Santa Cruz Arboretum.

A 17-year-old senior at the University of California, Berkeley, Sierra Glassman is majoring in Integrative Biology with an emphasis in Ecology, Evolution, and Organismal Biology. She studies Anna’s Hummingbird behavior with the Animal Flight Laboratory and has also assisted Golden-crowned Sparrow and coyote research. Sierra is an officer of Bears for Birds, the UC Berkeley student chapter of the National Audubon Society. She is interested in researching ornithology and animal behavior, particularly how birds alter their behavior due to environmental challenges.—Teresa Connell, WFO Student Programs

What was the start of your passion for birding?

My desire to become a bird in preschool evolved into my general intellectual interest in birds. My family supported my passion through birding trips on family vacations. Before these trips, I would memorize field guides for the area we were traveling to. While I no longer possess the motivation to memorize plates, I have become interested in pursuing and understanding specific species through research.

Do you have favorite hotspots or favorite species that call to you?

Domestic chickens are my favorite birds, both because of my experiences with them and because they are extremely underrated. Growing up, I raised chickens, and they are really such amazing charismatic animals. At one point, I trained them to peck at colored cardboard squares for food. When I stopped putting out the colored squares, one of my roosters, Bombi, started pecking my pant leg to tell me to give him food.

Unfortunately, many people do not even associate chickens with birds, in both a literal and a moral way (see the paper “Thinking Chickens” by Lori Marino if you’re curious). We are rightly concerned that about 3 billion breeding adult birds in the US and Canada have been lost over the last 50 years to anthropogenic change. A less acknowledged fact is that more than 70 billion chickens are killed each year, and 9 billion in the US alone. The biomass of chickens is also almost double that of wild bird species. These facts are not widely known even among the bird nerds, and I really think if more people realized how amazing but exploited chickens are, there could be changes made that benefit both chickens and wild birds.

I also think Red-legged Seriemas are very majestic. They are kind of like the Secretary Birds of South America. They have beautiful pale brown feathers, pale green or blue eyes, and a swept-forward crest. Like their extinct relatives, the Terror Birds, they have a dinosaurian raptorlike sickle claw on their inner toes. Ruffs, a species of Eurasian shorebird, have a really interesting breeding system, with three morphs of males, each with distinct genetics, morphology, and strategies to procure mates. And I have always been interested in the mutualism between ravens and wolves.

Can you share a memorable birding experience? 

A few years ago, I paddle-boarded on the lake near my house. It was early morning, and the fog was just starting to roll back from the end of the lake. I heard loud peeps from the water ahead of me and saw a floating reed platform—a grebe nest. There were no grebettes in the nest, so I continued to scan the surrounding water. All of a sudden, a newly hatched Pied-billed Grebe surfaced next to the nest. Much to my surprise, it started swimming toward me. I was a bit worried because there were no adults or siblings in sight.

I stayed still and watched as the grebette climbed up onto my paddle board. It continued to waddle toward my leg and then nestled next to my ankle within the fabric of my pant leg. I was astounded but also confused about what I should do. I was relieved when I spotted the grebette’s siblings camouflaged in the water hyacinths. I paddled over to the tangle of vegetation. I set the grebette back in the hyacinth with its siblings. As I paddled back toward my house, I heard the whooping calls of the Pied-billed Grebe parents.

How did you hear about WFO? Do you have suggestions for helping WFO bridge the age gap?

I think my mom signed me up for WFO in 2017. I am mostly interested in the field component of animal behavior research and regularly read Western Birds. I first attended a WFO conference in Ventura, California, in 2018, and I went to this year’s conference in Copper Mountain, Colorado. I think two ways WFO could bridge the age gap is by supporting young people leading their own projects within ornithology and by doing outreach through educational programs.

Where do you see yourself in 10 years?

In 10 years, I hope to be in a postdoctoral or professorial position, researching and teaching bird behavior.

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