Boise State University

Mark Rudin: Universities and agencies are birds of a feather in research

In Idaho, we’re fortunate to be located along an important bird migration route. Our skies are filled with an unusual array of raptors and songbirds, and our sagebrush plains are alive with ground-nesting birds. The state’s vast, untamed wilderness areas provide unparalleled bird research opportunities for universities, state and federal agencies, and nonprofit organizations across the West.

Because birds are fairly easy to spot and their populations and behavior so readily monitored — including their flight patterns, food preferences, mating rituals and nesting routines — they are excellent indicators of environmental and ecological health. In addition, birds also translate to billions of dollars in economic impact through sport, including hunting and bird watching, and through retail sales for bedding, clothing or food, making their well-being of particular interest.

Thanks to a critical confluence of people, places and partnerships, Southwest Idaho is a hotbed for exploring basic research questions about ecology, evolution and conservation efforts as they relate to birds. Researchers are privileged to have access to the highly regarded World Center for Birds of Prey and to protected areas across Southwest Idaho, including the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey Conservation Area. Its nearly half million acres are home to the largest concentration of nesting raptors in North America — about 800 pairs of owls, hawks, eagles and falcons.

A number of key government and nonprofit organizations also are invested in this area of research, including the U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Boise State University and the Peregrine Fund.

Boise State supports the Raptor Research Center and offers a master of science in raptor biology — the nation’s only graduate program focused exclusively on birds of prey and their habitats. The university’s Intermountain Bird Observatory, or IBO, has expanded its hands-on activities promoting bird conservation from the Lucky Peak field station — where more than 2,000 adults and children visit annually to help band, capture and release birds — to an additional site along the Boise River. Located near Highway 21 and Warm Springs Avenue, the new site can accommodate as many as 10,000 visitors per year.

The IBO also has taken the lead in the creation and management of the Idaho Bird Conservation Partnership, a cooperation among federal, state, private and nonprofit stakeholders promoting bird conservation. Over the past 20 years, the IBO has compiled data on western populations of birds as they migrate from Canada to as far south as Argentina. Data collected is being used around the globe.

One species benefiting from IBO partnerships, including work with The Nature Conservancy, is the long-billed curlew. Although their slender, curved bills allow curlews to graze a wide range of habitats, their numbers have experienced alarming declines. Boise State researcher Jay Carlisle is part of a team working with the BLM and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in western states to find out why. Significant support also comes from private foundations and individuals.

And a long-running National Science Foundation project evaluating the abundance and quality of sagebrush as a source of food and shelter for the greater sage grouse has become even more crucial, given the increasing loss of habitat due to fires and invasive species and the potential for this bird to be listed as threatened or endangered.

Research partnerships also are revealing how human activity is affecting a variety of raptor populations.

• The BLM is using information gleaned from Boise State biologist Julie Heath to fine-tune management policies as the agency balances the needs of golden eagles that nest in the Owyhee Front with the rights of recreationists.

• Boise State biologist Jim Belthoff has collaborated with colleagues at the University of Utah, Washington State and UCLA to understand and document issues relating to owls, such as the high mortality rate of barn owls along I-84 in southern Idaho.

These are a few of the many partnerships helping us better understand the vital role of birds in the world’s ecosystem and the consequences of human and natural activity. The more we learn, the more prepared we’ll be to safeguard the ecology of our great state and beyond.

Learn more about bird research in Idaho at or

Mark Rudin,, is vice president for research and economic development at Boise State University, where he oversees the Office of Sponsored Programs, the Office of Research Compliance, and other administrative and technical offices.