As part of a class project, I was fortunate enough to interview and profile Josh Engel of the Field Museum’s Bird Division.
Birders Flock Together
As I approached Chicago’s Field Museum on the shore of Lake Michigan, I heard a crow cawing in a nearby tree. The man walking ten paces in front of me turned toward the sound the same way I did. When he pulled out a pair of binoculars to scan the lake shore, I knew I had my man. “Excuse me,” I said, “Are you Josh?”
Josh Engel, a research assistant in the Field Museum’s Bird Division, was starting his day by checking if the Ring-Billed Gulls had returned to their nesting site on Lake Michigan. “I have this app on my phone where you can log bird sightings, and it goes to the Cornell Lab database,” he explained. “My new year’s resolution was to do one entry per day. Something to get me outside in the winter. I hate cold weather.” Josh’s skinny frame was bundled in a puffy coat and hat. He finished his observation before we headed up the sweeping front steps of the Field Museum.
The echoing central hall of the Field Museum is loud and busy on weekday mornings, usually populated by kids and teachers on field trips. Sue the T-Rex skeleton is the most well-known site at the museum, residing right in the center of the hall. Many people don’t know that behind the scenes of the exhibits and galleries holding fossils, stuffed birds, artifacts from ancient Egypt, and more, the Field museum is bustling with scientific endeavors. The museum employs dozens of experts and collaborates with other institutions worldwide, sharing specimens and collections on numerous scientific and historical subjects. The Bird Division, which Josh is a part of, studies birds locally in the Chicago area, as well as researching birds worldwide by collecting data and samples. Josh has a hand in many of the Bird Division’s most well-known projects, including the Chicago Peregrine Program, where he helps monitor Peregrine Falcon nests and breeding in the springtime. He has appeared on the local news channel, WTTW, several times over the years to talk about the unique and important birds that can be found in the city.
Josh is younger and more charming than you would expect from a researcher and birdwatcher, which as Josh confirms, are usually “an older crowd”. All awkwardness fades away when he talks about birds, because he is comfortable in his element. His eyes twinkled when he talked about the kinds of birds he studies, and he spoke of his colleagues at the Field Museum as if they are his heroes. When I asked how Josh got interested in birds, the story started in a familiar way, but ended differently. “I’ve always liked them,” he said simply. “My grandfather was into birds, he had binoculars and a field guide, and he was the first person to take me out birding,” he said, “and there was a bird watching store a few blocks from where I grew up.”
I couldn’t help but envy the community that Josh was able to find at such a young age. As a child, I was very interested in birdwatching for owls in particular. I told Josh about how my dad, although he knew nothing about birdwatching, would take me out at dawn to look for owls, always to no avail. “But it’s really about the thrill of the hunt, isn’t it?” he said, laughing, “The early mornings are a necessary part of the job, but its something I have always, and will always, struggle with. A lot of early mornings and early nights, much to my girlfriend’s dismay.” Josh recollected how he had started going on the free field trips that ran out of the birdwatching store, and the owner of the shop would also take him out birding. Eventually he started meeting birders his own age.
“There weren’t a lot of young people interested in birds, so we formed kind of a tight-knit group,”Josh said. A few of those friends had been graduate students working at the Field Museum, and Josh had reconnected with them in that way. Many people that Josh knew growing up stayed with the field, and still comprise the birding community that Josh is a part of. He explained, however, that he is a bit unique among scientists who work with birds. “Not everyone studying birds is a birdwatcher, they might only know birds from DNA sequences or something like that.”
Josh said he doesn’t have a favorite bird to study. “I’m sort of equal opportunity; I like all birds,” he said jokingly. With over 500,000 specimens in the museum’s collection, it’s not really a fair question. We used the staff elevator to ascend over the hustle and bustle of the public museum floor, into the halls of the research labs and departments. Josh led me down the old wooden hallways toward his lab.
“This is where the magic happens!” interjected another museum employee walking behind us. Our first stop is the library, which isn’t Josh’s territory, but he wants to show me one book in particular. My eyes widen when I see what’s in the huge glass case in the center of the library. A massive book, perhaps four feet tall, lays open on display. I immediately recognize John James Audubon’s Birds of America, containing prints of the original paintings.
“This was made for Dr. Benjamin Philips, who was a close friend of Audubon,” Josh said, “and every day they open up the case and turn the page to a different plate.” I marveled at the book, currently open to the White-Throated Sparrow. Audubon had lived in the early 1800s and had nearly succeeded in his goal to paint every species of bird in the United States. I had seen so many of these paintings before, and I felt truly lucky to be able to see the original publication with my own eyes. Josh let me bask in the presence of the book for a while before we moved on to the Bird Division.
I noticed the laid back sense of community as we walked down the halls. We passed by an open office door where one researcher was playing loud rock music while working at his desk. Josh greeted many of the people we encountered. He spoke briefly to one frazzled-looking mammologist who was almost finished with the “damned elephant” skeleton downstairs. When we reach the bird collections and lab, it seemed like the floor-to-ceiling white cabinets stretch on forever. Josh opened one of the cabinets and pulled out a drawer of belly-up dead birds, whose wings and feet were pressed tightly to their bodies. The acidic scent of preservative chemicals burned my nostrils, like permanent marker, but stronger.
“I like to look at the labels,” said Josh, “some of these samples are really old. Feathers don’t really deteriorate.”
Sure enough, the inscrutible label attached to the little parrot’s foot was yellowed with age. The field museum was born out of the 1893 world’s fair, and since then, has been collecting samples of birds from around the world. They are constantly adding to the collection, and using the samples to study the distributions of bird populations, their evolution, and more. One type of research they do is using the samples to track different features of different birds over time as well as geographic differences. He showed me how the same type of bird can have darker or lighter feathers, depending on where they come from. “We know that beaks are getting shorter,” he mentions, “and the hypothesis is that it’s because of climate change.”
Next, Josh showed me a drawer full of eggs. “From 1880 to 1920, collecting eggs was the cool thing to do,” he told me, “so when that went out of fashion we got a lot of donations.”
He showed me the Peregrine Falcon eggs, and told me that scientists had used samples at the Field Museum to compare eggshells from before the DDT era during the Peregrine Falcon’s period of endangerment. I realized that if the Field Museum contributed to the study of falcon decline at that time, the samples I saw might have actually played a hand in Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring.
One set of eggs was shinier than the rest, almost iridescent. “These are Tinamou eggs,” Josh said. Tinamou are ground-dwelling birds from central and south America. They have some of the most unique-looking eggs, although the bird is not well-known. “I was amazed because I took a tour group in here for some of the Illinois Young Birders, and I open the drawer and this little girl gasps and says, ‘are those Tinamou eggs?’ I couldn’t believe she knew that. She kind of reminded me of myself when I was a kid.” I couldn’t help but think the same thing. I remember astounding a naturalist who came to our elementary school by identifying an owl wing and knowing that owls fly silently while other birds make noise while moving through the air.
When it comes to his work in the Field Museum, however, Josh seems to have been born for the job. Growing up in the nearby suburb of Evanston, he first started working at the Field Museum with an internship in high school. He went to Pomona College in California to study Biology, and was then able to study abroad in Ecuador, where he was able to work on a tropical ecology project surveying birds, and studying Spanish. Shortly after, he got his first tour guide job at a lodge in Ecuador, with a touring company that eventually sent him to South Africa. He spent four years in Cape Town, South Africa, studying birds and leading upscale birding tours. Josh enjoyed being able to both lead tours and do research in South Africa. It helped him balance his time between working with people and working with humans. When Josh returned from Africa in 2010, he began working as a research assistant at the museum. “It just so happened they needed someone who researched African birds,” he said.
Since he has always been working on grant-funded position, there are no guarantees about his future employment. “But I would like to be here longer,” he said. In the meantime, he has started his own bird tour company, Red Hill Birding, as an alternate path. “I sort of fell into it. Tourism isn’t something you ever think you’ll get into,” Josh seems to love two parts of his job equally- fieldwork and giving tours. “I think they complement each other really well,” he said. He enjoys the different perspectives and approaches to ornithology- both for professional and recreational purposes. “We had a researcher here that I worked with who thought that fieldwork is much easier, but I think that guiding is much easier,” Josh said.
Giving tours presents a unique set of challenges, as well as rewards. “When I first started as a tour guide I was 24, very serious about my birds, and I thought I would be birding all day and that’s that. Very quickly you learn that not everyone wants to be out in the field from sunrise to sunset. People need their bathroom breaks, people need their coffee.” Being a good tour guide means managing expectations, and making sure everyone in the group is having a good experience. There is a steep learning curve, but Josh has a lot of experience by now. “There’s a lot of pressure to know everything when you’re a tour guide. You have to learn how to say ‘I don’t know.’”
Josh seems to love being the link between people and birds. This past winter, there were an unusual amount of Long-Eared owls breeding in the city, and I encountered a video of Josh describing how a Chicagoan could spot and owl, and how to approach one respectfully.
When I brought up his frequent appearances on the news, Josh shrugged it off as a coincidence. The Field Museum doesn’t coordinate with WTTW at all. “I happened to have a friend who knows the producer of WTTW,” said Josh. “He asked if I would go on and talk about birds. Birds aren’t in the news a lot, but we want to promote them positively, as something people can relate to.”