It’s no surprise that tensions are high between birdwatchers and lovers of cats. Noah Strycker, a master’s student in the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences who currently works in the lab of Dr. Heather Lynch, Department of Ecology and Evolution, recently published the provocative “To save birds, should we kill off cats?” in National Geographic. In the piece, Strycker takes a level-headed approach to an otherwise contentious topic of debate. Approximately 1,768 million birds are snatched up by feral cats each year, with house cats contributing an additional 764 million deaths to the total count, according to a 2013 joint study by researchers at the Smithsonian Institution and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Strycker is a celebrated author of several books on birds and birdwatching. His second book, The Thing With Feathers: The Surprising Lives of Birds and What They Reveal about Being Human, was hailed as “Bird journalism of the highest order” by The Washington Post. In 2015, Noah set a record for a worldwide big year of birding, traveling across all seven continents and 41 countries, encountering 6,042 of the world’s estimated 10,400 bird species. Given this impressive record of bird-related accomplishments, one could be forgiven for questioning Strycker’s impartiality when it comes to thinking about the question raised in the title of his article.
But then there’s Bernstein, a kitten abandoned at birth who Strycker rescued in 2016. Strycker, like many of us when it comes to the issue of cat-bird relations, has a bit of a divided heart. But having stakes in both camps proves a virtue when it comes to thinking through how to take realistic steps toward minimizing loss, as is evident from Strycker’s careful consideration of possible courses of action in his National Geographic piece.
He first became fascinated with birds as a child growing up in rural Oregon. “My fifth-grade teacher suction-cupped a bird feeder to our classroom window and had us identify each arrival, from Purple Finches to Black-capped Chickadees,” Strycker shared. “I was fascinated by the birds’ intricate plumages and behaviors, and started paying attention to birds at home, too. That’s all it took. I was hooked.”
Strycker’s early enamourment blossomed over time into a serious interest in science. He completed undergraduate studies at Oregon State University, majoring in Fisheries and Wildlife Science with a minor in Visual Arts. After finishing his bachelor’s degree, Strycker took to the field, spending a summer on the ice at Cape Crozier, Antarctica to study a nesting colony of 300,000 Adélie Penguins. Inspired by that experience, he worked as a bird specialist for several years on small, ship-based expeditions to the Antarctic Peninsula from Argentina. “I’ve been on almost 50 polar trips now, and the birdlife in these extreme environments is especially charming,” he said. “Who doesn’t love penguins?”
What prompted Strycker to return to the lab? “The more time I spend in Antarctica, the more I wonder about the birds that live there,” he said. “How do they survive the harsh conditions? What’s their social life? How will they be affected by climate change? There’s a lot we don’t know about the ends of the Earth, and I’m excited about doing original research to solve some of these mysteries.”
Although certainly a change of pace when compared to traveling around the globe or braving the Antarctic in search of penguin colonies, Strycker sees his work at Stony Brook as continuous with his past trajectory. “For the past 10 years, I’ve spent about two-thirds of every year away from home on one bird-related mission or another. Graduate study represents both a continuation of my ornithological interest and a new adventure in itself.”
Strycker’s research and thesis work at Stony Brook focuses on Chinstrap Penguins, zeroing in on their population dynamics in the Antarctic Peninsula region. This field season, he’ll spend two months down south, hoping to get to several windswept, barely explored Antarctic islands as part of a larger science expedition.
Strycker’s previous efforts to share the knowledge gathered through scientific exploration with the wider public have been met with tremendous success, and he plans to keep bringing scientific findings to a general audience. “I am passionate about birds, science, writing, and traveling,” he said. “I’m especially interested in the connections between birds and people. I have found my niche in interpreting birds for a popular audience through various media — which I think will become increasingly important in a world flooded with all kinds of information. Birds are naturally engaging — anyone can feel a sense of awe and curiosity about them.”
Given Stony Brook University’s commitment to the sort of interdisciplinary work of which Strycker’s is so emblematic, we asked if he had any advice for aspiring science and nature writers. “For me, science and writing grew out of a natural, driving interest in birds, and my inspiration really comes from the heart,” he said. “Follow your passions! The mechanics of enlisting a literary agent or applying to work in a research lab are less important than the pursuit of something you truly care about. Birders know better than anyone, after all, that to see amazing things all you have to do is look up.”
— Nicholas Raffel