Prairie and Native Plant Careers

Sarah Kendrick

State Ornithologist
Missouri Department of Conservation
Columbia, MO

 

Where did you study and what was your major field of study?
University of Missouri for my undergrad and Master’s degrees. My undergrad degree was in English, because I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do but people had told me I was a good writer. Then I did a Student Conservation Association Internship in Wyoming after I graduated and did an AmeriCorps year with the Stream Team Program back in Columbia. I realized I wanted to go into the natural resource field but that I would need a degree to do so. So I went back to school taking undergrad coursework that I had missed in my English degree while working part time for the Missouri Department of Conservation assisting the Stream Team Program and finally got into a Master’s program with Frank Thompson (US Forest Service) studying breeding bird response to savanna and woodland management in the Ozarks.
Briefly describe your current job.
My job is incredibly diverse. Each day is different. I’m one of many conservation partners in the state that makes sure bird populations are stable and hopefully increasing! I work on various bird surveys to monitor populations, and I coordinate the placement of Motus Wildlife Tracking System receivers to track long-distance migratory birds in Missouri and the Midwest. I led and coordinated the Brown-headed Nuthatch reintroduction to Missouri, with many conservation partners. I am also on multiple regional, national, and international working groups and committees to work for full life-cycle conservation to help protect migratory birds and their habitats when they are outside the U.S. during the non-breeding season. I help coordinate the Great Missouri Birding Trail, which was completed in 2017 in my previous position. I’m also the public and MDC contact for all things bird! It’s a great job.
How do you use your native plant and/or prairie knowledge in your career today?
In 2019, a landmark study published in the journal Science quantified net bird loss since 1970 – we’ve lost 2.9 billion birds, or 29% of the North American avifauna. That’s huge, and can be paralyzing when thinking about what we as a public can do to reverse those trends. My go-to solution when speaking to anyone about these declines in planting native plants, shrubs, and trees in your yard or on your property. Natives provide native insects and birds need native insects, now more than ever.
One of the most steeply declining groups of birds are grassland birds, so the preservation and protection of healthy native prairie and grassland systems is essential. Birds are also indicators of environmental and habitat health, so grassland bird surveys are one way that we assess the health of grassland and prairie systems in Missouri.
What is the most satisfying aspect of your current work?
All the different people I get to meet and collaborate with. I love talking to the public about birds and answering their questions. I’ve also worked with colleagues from Costa Rica, Colombia, Nicaragua and all across the U.S. in the spirit of protecting migratory bird habitat in the Neotropics during the non-breeding season. One-third of the birds that breed in Missouri leave the U.S. up to 8 months of the year! We cannot ignore the threats these birds (many declining) face while on the wintering grounds.
What native plant/prairie classes or trainings were especially important to your career?
I haven’t gotten the opportunity to take a native plant/prairie class in my training, but I would love it. My unusual career track meant that I didn’t take some of the coursework or gotten some of the opportunities provided to someone who earned an undergrad degree in natural resources.
What other subjects have you studies that have been important to your career?
Ornithology, of course. Ecology, conservation biology, dendrology, ecosystem management.
Please describe volunteer or field work that was formative to your education and career.
Summers doing field work for PhD students or researchers nest-searching and conducting point counts (the best) – travel as much as you can and do field jobs! Student Conservation Association internship, AmeriCorps. Try anything and everything, meet lots of new people different than you. The beauty of field work is seeing new places and meeting people you’d probably never bump into from all over the world.
What materials and technology are must-haves for your field?
Binoculars, a field guide, bird ID app with songs, email, Motus Wildlife Tracking System receivers and materials, bird banding and telemetry equipment
What advice would you give students or others wanting to go into your field?
Try new things. Meet new people. TRAVEL FOR FIELD JOBS in the summers and after you graduate for a few years. Get in there, immerse yourself, and learn what makes you tick. If you find a part of this field that you love and stick with it, you’ll never work a day in your life. You won’t be rich, but loving what you do is worth it every day.
Also ask questions. Never stop asking questions. Even ones you think are dumb, because other people have those questions too. Put yourself out there and oftentimes you will be rewarded.
You will learn something from every experience, even if it’s not a great experience. Get outside and work outdoors! It’s awesome. Apparently I have a lot of advice.