Interview with Ruth Tingay about the Raptor Research Foundation

Date of the interview: 23 May 2010

In this interview Dr. Ruth Tingay, President of the Raptor Research Foundation (RRF), talks about the goals and work of the RRF.

Ruth Tingay

Ruth Tingay with two Grey-headed fish eagle chicks in Cambodia.

Markus Jais: What is the Raptor Research Foundation (RRF)?
Ruth Tingay: The Raptor Research Foundation (RRF) was founded in 1966 and is the professional society for raptor researchers and conservationists worldwide. http://raptorresearchfoundation.org

Markus Jais: How many members does the RRF have?
Ruth Tingay: Our 850+ membership spans 46 countries on six continents. The world’s leading raptor researchers are members of RRF, along with other professional scientists, wildlife managers, educators, conservationists and students, as well as amateur raptor enthusiasts.

Markus Jais: What are the goals of the RRF?
Ruth Tingay: Our primary goal is the accumulation and dissemination of scientific information about raptors. We also promote an awareness and appreciation of raptors amongst the general public. Our goals are achieved in the following ways:

  • Organise annual scientific conferences (recent locations have included USA, Spain, Israel, Scotland, Mexico, Italy, England & Canada).
  • Produce a quarterly scientific journal (Journal of Raptor Research), available in hard copy or electronic PDF and free to members.
  • Produce a bi-annual newsletter (Wingspan) with raptor and RRF news from around the world, available as an electronic PDF.
  • Provide expert advice on international raptor conservation issues to governments, wildlife agencies, zoos, non-profit organisations etc.
  • Provide competitive grants & awards for student researchers & conservationists.
  • Provide support & networking opportunities for students & early career raptor researchers.
  • Provide grants & awards of recognition for established researchers & conservationists.
  • We have recently published a revised edition of the highly-acclaimed Raptor Research & Management Techniques book, and translations into Spanish and Japanese are currently in production.
RRF logo

Markus Jais: Where is the RRF active?
Ruth Tingay: Historically, RRF was viewed by many as a predominantly North American – focused society. This was probably a reflection on the founding members of the organisation, who were responding to the catastrophic effects of DDT on many North American raptor populations. RRF membership for international raptor researchers was always welcomed by our US colleagues, but for practical reasons it wasn’t an easy society in which to participate fully. For example, to join RRF, international members had to visit the bank to convert their local currency into US dollars, mail those dollars with an application form to the US, and wait several weeks to receive their membership card whilst hoping that their dollars hadn’t gone astray in the mail. Members from developing countries were expected to pay the same subscription fee as those in the US. After joining, international members often had to wait for their quarterly Journal of Raptor Research to arrive surface mail, usually three or four months after publication. In addition, the annual conferences were always held in North America, making it prohibitively costly for regular attendance by international members. Clearly, these practical barriers didn’t do much to foster the global appeal or relevancy of RRF. However, with the advent of the internet revolution over the last ~15 years, things have changed dramatically. Although the majority of our members are still US-based (67%), our international membership continues to grow (currently 33%). Our members are active on all six continents, as highlighted by the diversity of international studies that are published in the Journal of Raptor Research (which is now available on-line to members). Members can now join on-line using a credit card, and we have lower subscription rates for students (all geographic areas) and for members in less-developed countries. RRF has plans to reach out in many other ways over the coming years, joining forces with our highly effective North American colleagues to share experiences and provide support to our international members. Our newly-revised Conservation Committee is in the process of establishing several regional sub-committees (including Europe) to identify and highlight regional raptor conservation issues that could benefit from international support. Our newly-formed Early Career Raptor Researchers Committee has been established to facilitate a communication network for all raptor research students and early career professionals worldwide. In Spring 2010, we began distributing free back-issue sets of the Journal of Raptor Research to publicly-accessible organisations throughout Latin America, Asia and Africa. The RRF website is currently being overhauled and we hope the new version will better reflect the activities of RRF on each continent.

Markus Jais: What is the RRF doing in Europe?
Ruth Tingay: In Europe, we have members from the following countries: Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Netherlands, Norway, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey and the UK, with particularly high membership levels in Spain, UK, Germany and Italy.

In recent years, we have held special European conferences for those who found it difficult to attend the traditional annual conference in North America. Our European conferences were well-attended and took place in England, Italy and Spain. Last year we took a big step and moved our 2009 annual conference from North America to Europe. ~300 delegates from 34 countries convened for six days in Scotland – a wonderfully diverse collection of experience and perspective that we hope to repeat at future conferences.

Since 2006, RRF has been involved in a collaborative effort with key raptor groups in 21 European countries to instigate an ambitious pan-European Raptor Monitoring Network (EURAPMON). The wider aim of the programme is to strengthen the contribution of research and monitoring for and with raptors in Europe, to deliver biodiversity, environmental and human health benefits, including maintenance and recovery of raptor populations and their habitats, and reduced chemical threats to ecosystem and human health. The immediate objectives of EURAPMON are:

  • To establish a pan-European network for monitoring for and with raptors, linked to international networks.
  • To establish consensus on Europe-wide priorities for monitoring for and with raptors, based on an inventory of existing monitoring, and of the needs of key users (policy makers, risk assessors, environmental managers).
  • To share best practice and help capacity-building in Europe for harmonized monitoring for and with raptors.
  • To build a web-based database, populated with data on European raptor population trends and contaminant and other pressures on raptors in Europe, and to produce European and EU- scale analytical outputs which meet the priority needs of users.

EURAPMON efforts from 2006 – 2009 were focused on identifying key partners for the proposed network, and putting together a joint funding proposal. In June 2009, the European Science Foundation agreed to support the project, and funding has also been received from government agencies and non-profits within many of the participating countries. 2010 will mark the beginning of this five-year project and RRF looks forward to participating in such a dynamic European venture.

Markus Jais: Why should researchers and raptor enthusiasts join the RRF?
Ruth Tingay: There are many benefits to joining RRF, in addition to becoming part of a global network of raptor experts. Members receive our quarterly scientific journal, the Journal of Raptor Research; our bi-annual newsletter, Wingspan; reduced rates to attend RRF conferences, and opportunities to apply for competitive grants and awards. Our subscription fees are modest in comparison to many ornithological societies, and we provide reduced rates for students (any location) and for members in less-developed countries. There are also many opportunities for members to get involved with RRF leadership activities, to help shape the future of RRF and also to enhance professional and personal development. Everyone involved with RRF leadership activities have been elected from within the RRF membership. These opportunities include running for a Director or Officer position on the RRF Board, and getting involved with a suite of Committee activities (e.g. Conservation, Education, Membership, Website, Awards, Nominations, Conference, Financial, and Early Career Raptor Researchers).

Markus Jais: How can interested people help the RRF?
Ruth Tingay: The best way to help RRF is to become a member! We are a non-profit organisation so our members’ subscriptions are essential for us to achieve our goals. Other ways to help include increasing an awareness about RRF – we have produced a downloadable poster to encourage new membership that could be placed in locations such as universities, ornithological research centres, libraries etc (click here to download). Fundraising activities would also help RRF, either through organising small local events or through finding a business/commercial sponsor who would be interested in supporting parts of our work.

Markus Jais: What are the important research topics in raptor biology and conservation at the moment?
Ruth Tingay: It depends on your perspective and how you define ‘important’. Some would say that the most important research topic right now is focusing on the analysis of long-term data from relatively well-studied and common raptor species to further our understanding of the impact of climate change on raptor populations worldwide. Others would say we should be focusing our efforts on the molecular structure of raptor populations so we can try to protect the genetic components required for evolutionary potential. Some may argue that all our research should be primarily on critically endangered raptors to prevent their imminent slide to extinction. All these topics, and others, are salient. Ultimately, any new research on any topic that helps our understanding of raptor biology and conservation is important.

Markus Jais: Some raptors like golden eagles are some of the best studied birds in the world. But for many species we still don’t know much about their basic biology and population size. Why is that?
Ruth Tingay: Widely-distributed and relatively common species like the golden eagle are very well-studied because they mostly live in countries where the expertise and financial resources are available for such studies to take place. Golden eagles also occupy open habitat, making them fairly easy to find and observe. Many of the poorly-known species have restricted ranges in regions where expertise and financial resources are lacking. In addition, many of these species are often secretive, dense-forest specialists, which makes studying them even more difficult.

Markus Jais: What could be done to increase our knowledge of those species?
Ruth Tingay: What is happening already is that experienced researchers are visiting these regions and teaming up with enthusiastic local researchers to provide training and help develop long-term ecological studies on little-known raptors. This type of local, in-country capacity-building is essential if we want to learn more about these species and how best to protect them. I have personally seen this process working to great effect in countries such as Mexico, Madagascar, Mongolia and Cambodia, and I’m also aware of many other countries where this approach has been successful. It’s by no means an easy option though, as typically there are hurdles in the way such as securing long-term funding, dealing with cultural sensitivities, language barriers, infrastructure difficulties, gruelling field conditions, dangerous wildlife, local politics and sometimes outright suspicion and corruption from the national authorities. However, with persistence and drive, these initially small-scale studies can develop into sustainable, long-term efforts where basic biological information about a species can be used to inform an appropriate conservation strategy, if that is what is required.

Markus Jais: What research should be done in Europe to improve our understanding of raptors and their conservation?
Ruth Tingay: In relative terms, raptors in Europe are well-studied and fairly well protected by European legislation, although the effectiveness of legislation enforcement is questionable in certain countries. Many raptor populations are relatively well monitored at a national, and in some cases, a regional scale, but there is an increasing need for these monitoring schemes to be standardised and linked at a continental scale to help us better interpret the data and identify areas of concern. Illegal persecution remains a big issue for European raptors, both on the breeding grounds and for migratory species, en-route to their wintering areas. The scientific research on this issue is already available – what is needed now is the will of the governments concerned to enforce appropriate and effective sanctions for those found guilty of this out-dated practice.

Markus Jais: What research should be done on a global scale to improve our understanding of raptors and their conservation?
Ruth Tingay: With the current rate of global environmental change, combined with both direct and indirect persecution, there is an increasing urgency to determine the basic ecological requirements of many raptor species to identify and then protect areas that are critical to their survival.

Markus Jais: How do you see the global status of raptor populations around the world?
Ruth Tingay: On a global scale, there are relatively few raptor populations that are fully understood, mainly because the long-term data required to understand population dynamics are lacking. The populations of some species are well-studied and are thriving, because humans either have left them alone or have intervened to protect them; other populations have declined and are facing imminent extinction because of direct or indirect human interference. The status and distribution of further populations are unchartered. It’s very difficult therefore to generalise about the global status of raptor populations – some are ok, some are not, and for others we simply don’t have a clue.

Markus Jais: What should be done to secure a future for the world’s raptors?
Ruth Tingay: In addition to undertaking basic ecological studies on little-known raptors (see above), we also need to find innovative ways to help change negative perceptions and attitudes towards raptors, as it is these that create the most problems for most raptor species. The only way to do this is through education. The majority of people in the world will never read a scientific paper – and who can blame them? They’re usually exceptionally boring, dry, full of jargon and only interesting to others who specialise in that particular area of research, be it raptor ecology, cardiovascular research or nonequilibrium quantum transport physics & nanosystems. If the general public are not reading scientific papers, we need to find better ways of translating the science in ways that are accessible to and understandable by the average, ordinary person. It won’t be the raptor scientists that secure a future for the world’s raptors – it will be the average, ordinary humans who share their world with raptors and understand the fundamental importance of biodiversity conservation.

The Eagle Watchers

Markus Jais: You recently published a book called “The Eagle Watchers”. What is the book all about and did you enjoy working on the book?
Ruth Tingay: The Eagle Watchers (Cornell University Press) is an anthology of field stories, written by 29 eagle researchers from all over the world. The book is aimed at a general/popular science audience, especially those who may never have had the opportunity to be up close and personal with an eagle, to try and dispel some often-repeated myths about what eagles do and how they live. Reading the book is like going on a series of virtual field trips with the biologists who know these species better than most, to study some of the most remarkable raptors in equally remarkable places. I co-edited the book with a colleague from the US, Todd Katzner, and we both have found it a hugely rewarding experience, not only to work with some of the world’s leading eagle researchers, but also to see what began as a bit of a wild idea turned into something tangible that people might actually enjoy.

Markus Jais: What was your most amazing experience with raptors?
Ruth Tingay: It happened on 18th October 1997, in Veracruz, Mexico. It was mid-way through my second season working on the project to monitor the incredible raptor migration (4-6 million raptors from North America funnel through this small area each autumn, on their way down through Central America to their wintering areas further south). We were used to seeing daily counts of hundreds of thousands of raptors, as our job was to try and identify and count the passing migrants, but 18th October was something special. From 9am to 7pm, the sky was black with flying raptors swarming in-front, overhead and to both sides of us. I was counting with three experienced Mexican boys and we recorded over a million raptors that day (1,173,776 to be precise – I have a copy of the day’s data sheet framed on my wall!). I don’t think our binoculars left our eyes all day, as we watched a seemingly endless stream of turkey vultures, broad-winged hawks, Swainson’s hawks, ospreys, hook-billed kites, northern harriers, sharp-shinned hawks, Cooper’s hawks, American kestrels, red-tailed hawks and merlins cruise past. Simply phenomenal. And for someone who is enthralled by the presence of just one single raptor, it doesn’t get much better than that.

Further Information

Raptor Research Foundation (RRF) website

RRF Poster

Book “The Eagle Watchers” at the publishers website