Other Animals

Getting to Know Jerome Ford, the Government’s Top Bird Official

If you’re a birder, Jerome Ford’s work matters to you. As the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s assistant director for migratory birds, a job he’s held since 2011, Ford runs the national program in charge of conserving bird populations. His team of biologists and managers track avian populations, issue grants to conserve habitat for waterfowl and neotropical migrants, and build appreciation for birds and birding, among other duties.

Ford’s program became embroiled in controversies during the Trump era. Most prominent among them was the administration’s gutting of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, the bird protection law that Ford’s program administers. Since Audubon magazine spoke with Ford, the Biden administration announced it is scrapping that policy and will replace it with something stronger. Ford, who has been with the FWS since the late 1980s, declined to discuss the rule change in detail. “Our job was to try to find that cohesiveness, regardless of what the policymakers had decided,” he says. “That was our role, to be the scientists and put forth the best data.”

The FWS also caught flak for a rule change, first reported by Audubon, that requires all artworks submitted to the federal duck stamp contest—the winner of which appears on a waterfowl hunting permit the following year—to include hunting imagery. Some artists and conservation leaders were concerned that the change would depress sales and decrease funding for habitat protection by alienating non-hunters who buy the stamps. But Ford, who doesn’t hunt waterfowl but does buy two duck stamps a year to support the cause, tells Audubon there’s been no detectable change in sales, though the rule change only became permanent last year. Ford says his team is now planning the 2021 contest for September but did not say whether the agency will reconsider the hunting-scene requirement. 

Audubon recently caught up with Ford via Zoom to learn more about the man in charge of managing migratory birds. Among the other topics discussed, Ford shared his thoughts on the spike in interest in birds during the pandemic, ongoing efforts to diversify birding and conservation, and—of course—his favorite bird. 

Audubon: Do you have an elevator speech about why your program’s work to protect birds is important? 

Ford: I ask my teammates all the time: Let’s save the world, and let’s save one bird at a time, each day. They add so much therapeutic benefits to people. People hear birds, and those melodic songs, and we take it for granted and we don’t think about it very much. But they’re providing that benefit, that sense of calm to people. 

If we pay attention, birds will help us understand where threats are, where the healthy habitats are. So birds are critically important to our society, if we give them a chance and stop to look at what those benefits are. That’s what our program is trying to do, is to keep birds relevant and keep birds common to people. 

A: I’m guessing your work mostly happens indoors at this point in your career, but did you have any experiences out in the field earlier on that were especially memorable, or that confirmed for you that bird conservation was really what you wanted to do? 

F: I grew up on a small farm in northern Louisiana, and I took interest in a variety of animal species. We could only get three channels on the TV, so I had to find other things to keep us busy and find an interest in. Birds were one of the most intriguing species to me because it was difficult to get close to them or to get them in hand and learn about their habits and behaviors. And since I didn’t own a pair of binoculars or a spotting scope, I thought it was impossible to learn more about our feathered friends there. 

But one morning, as my mother was cooking breakfast, she asked me if I’d heard the mockingbird singing. And true enough, I heard a bird singing, but I didn’t know which species it was. So my mother took me outside and pointed out the mockingbird sitting on the electric wire in our backyard. And she explained that mockingbirds were very special because they can sing the songs of all other birds, and that we should never hunt them or harm them in any way. So from that day forward I would sit on the porch and watch mockingbirds sing, and try to compare their varied songs to a few other birds. So I guess the mockingbird, in an odd way, helped me to maintain an interest in birds and to realize their importance. 

A: What your mother said sounds like To Kill a Mockingbird a bit, what Atticus says. 

F: [Laughs] It does. 

A: There’s been a real surge of interest in birds and birding during the pandemic. What’s it been like for you, as the person in charge of federal programs to protect birds, to see people paying more attention to them? Has this new spotlight on birds had any effect on how your program operates? 

F: I’m always looking for that silver lining, so the newfound interest in birds has been energizing for me. I’ve often believed that we as humans take birds for granted. Generally, people often hear and see birds, but rarely take the time to listen and watch them. So in a strange way the pandemic has afforded people an opportunity to slow down and enjoy the treasures of life and nature, which includes birds. 

I’m happy when I see people walking around with binoculars here in my own neighborhood, and stopping and looking up in trees, and hearing the birds sing, and having conversations about that, and stopping by my house or in my yard and asking me what kind of bird that is, and when birds migrate. Those discussions weren’t happening so much before the pandemic.

My sister, who is a few years older than I am, within probably the last year has become totally interested in birds, in part because she started to pay attention to what I do at work every day. And the Cerulean Warbler has become her favorite bird. In her mind she believes it’s the same color from the tip of its beak down to its toes, and she thinks it’s got feathers all the way down to its toes. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that’s just its color. But she can believe whatever she wants to believe as long as she’s interested in birds.

This newfound interest in birds has helped us expand our focus and influence. It is now apparent that there are birder enthusiasts out there representing every walk of life. Birds can be a catalyst to bring communities and even countries together as we seek ways to address loss of habitat, climate change, and even the racial divide. Birds are everywhere and often signal healthy places to live for other critters, including humans. 

A: You’ve spoken before about how, as a young Black man studying wildlife biology at Grambling State University, you didn’t see a lot of folks who looked like you in the field you were pursuing. It seems like that had an effect on you back then. Do you feel a sense responsibility to show other people of color that this work is for everyone?

F: Yes, absolutely. There’s always that sense of responsibility. It’s important to me overall to demonstrate to everyone that’s got dreams of becoming a wildlife biologist and—trying to help that dream become a reality with hard work and dedication, and to let them know that it is possible. Regardless of their background or the color of their skin, a person should pursue their passion in a respectful and unapologetic way. And if my accomplishments and presence can inspire people of color to reach the conservation mountaintop, then I am honored and obligated to be a shining example for them. So I am proud to say that I am and will always be my brother’s keeper. 

A: People might think of birding as an escape from problems in our society, but last spring we saw clear evidence that even while birding people can encounter racism. Do you remember when you first heard about the racist incident in Central Park, where a white woman called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black birder, and lied to the police that he was threatening her?

F: My initial thought was, Mr. Cooper had plenty of trouble ahead of him and his life would be ruined or even lost because of a blatant mistruth. I wasn’t thinking about birding at the moment. I was thinking of him as an African-American just trying to enjoy the outdoors. So the emphasis of his race was clearly unfair and frightening. I have a 19-year-old son, and it is a little bit frightening to think about someone could use your race to further get you in trouble. So I think about that constantly. 

But Mr. Cooper was out enjoying nature by birding. The only thing he was guilty of was offering sage advice and being Black.

A: One direct response to the Central Park incident was the creation of Black Birders Week, which aimed to increase representation of Black people in birding, conservation, and the outdoors. Have you followed that initiative? 

F: We just had a discussion this morning about how to engage in that movement. I’ve definitely followed the initiative. We are interested in connecting with Black Birders Week organizers to expand their reach, to help them lead by the power of their example. Birding exists in every corner of the world and is appreciated by all people in some fashion. So for me, it is a wonderful thought that birds are beginning to bring people back together again. That’s amazing. 

A: Has your program started any new projects or approached projects in a different way with this awareness that more people from more walks of life are getting into birding? 

F: Yeah, good question. Our Urban Bird Treaty Program is often looking at underserved communities, so we see that as an opportunity for us to engage more of those. And we’re also looking at farmers. You don’t have to have a large, hundred-thousand-acre farm to be able to contribute to bird habitat and bird conservation, so we’re going to put forth a concerted effort to look at smaller farms out there to see how they can assist in our bird conservation efforts and restoring and enhancing habitat. 

Im thinking specifically about our North American Wetlands Conservation Act program, which is a grant program where we can go out and look at enhancing wetlands. Oftentimes, as we know, in the off-season farmers are not using that habitat, but we could utilize that habitat for waterfowl and other birds out there. So we’re thinking primarily our NAWCA program and expanding that to include some of the smaller farms. So we’re excited.

A: A little bit of online sleuthing tells me that your favorite bird is the Wood Duck. Is that still the case, and can you talk a little about why it’s your favorite?

F: That is my favorite bird. I don’t hide that very much, but I have to be careful when we’re having our duck stamp contest. The reason the Wood Duck is my favorite bird is it’s the first bird I had the opportunity to band while in undergraduate school at Grambling State University. It was difficult for me to look in books and at paintings and fathom a bird being so naturally beautiful in the wild. I thought artists were enhancing the colors to attract people, and they painted these pictures so vividly just to make it more beautiful. 

But once I had a Wood Duck in hand, I realized the artwork did not overstate the beauty of this bird. And at that moment it became the most beautiful bird in the world to me. And later, as I continued to study and learn about Wood Ducks, I learned that this fast-flying duck could maneuver through trees like a jet fighter in a dog fight, and never fly into a tree. That characteristic coupled with its captivating beauty solidified it as my favorite bird for life. I’ll never change. I think the Wood Duck is the best bird of all, and I’m sure there’s a lot of other people who feel the same way. 

A: I just realized you’ve got a painting of one right behind you, haven’t you?

F: I do. [Laughs.] That was not planned, but yes, they’re all in my house and they’re all in my office.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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