WEC Seminars: Andrew Cox

Seminar Summary: Finding cause for optimism in avian conservation

By: Molly Tuma

“Sometimes it is hard to get out of bed” read the opening slide, accompanied by various article titles proclaiming in dramatic language the onset of earth’s sixth mass extinction. Dr. Andrew Cox is the Avian Research Lead for the Florida Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), and his seminar, titled “Finding cause for optimism in avian conservation,” got much more, well, optimistic after that.

Dr. Cox earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Florida in English in 1997. He returned to school to take some biology courses, and went on to participate in field jobs, earn his Ph.D. from University of Missouri, and complete a post-doc with the US Forest Service, and another with the University of Nebraska. He started his position with FWC in 2014, and has since worked on a variety of avian projects. His current focus is on Florida Grasshopper Sparrows, Reddish Egrets, Sandhill Cranes, and shorebird management and monitoring.

Dr. Cox started his seminar highlighting the sense of pessimism and gloom that many biologists tend to feel today. Species are going extinct, sea-levels are rising, habitat is disappearing, and no matter how hard we try, success seems fleeting. However, Dr. Cox went on to encourage us that a gloomy, pessimistic attitude is not helpful to us as biologists, or to the general public. The fact is, there is a lot to be optimistic about in wildlife today! Dr. Cox highlighted the three steps he takes to recognize successes and remain optimistic, even in pessimistic circumstances.

The first thing Dr. Cox does is to accept shifting baselines. As habitats change and disappear due to human disturbance and climate change, wildlife populations levels will have to shift as well. Many of Florida’s avian populations will never return to the numbers they were pre-European settlement. Although this is unfortunate, it is not always a bad thing. Dr. Cox noted that he was not saying that we should simply accept decreases in populations, biodiversity, and habitat, but that we should recognize that we can still be optimistic, even while working with shifting baselines.

The second thing Dr. Cox does is to remember that there is support for conservation in America. In 2017, 75% of Floridians voted to pass the Florida Water and Land Conservation Amendment, a big victory for state conservation efforts. Although the amendment is still tied up in litigations, Dr. Cox reminded us that this is an issue with the legal system, not the people of Florida. It was the people of Florida who voted for this bill.

Finally, Dr. Cox celebrates conservation successes. He spent the majority of his talk highlighting successes, from increases in populations of Sandhill Cranes, Red-cockaded Woodpeckers, and Florida panthers, to promising management and conservation efforts such as prescribed burning at Ocala National Forest for the benefit of Florida Scrub Jays, or the implementation of signage and public education to protect nesting shorebird species on the coasts.

“What I am saying: the evidence suggests we can succeed” read the final slide—an encouraging conclusion to a dreary beginning. Dr. Cox cautioned that these successes do not mean that everything is rosy for the species he highlighted. Continued management must be implemented and we must be vigilant as scientists to the continued and evolving needs of the natural world. In conclusion, Dr. Cox encouraged us to discuss the gravity of conservation issues with the people around us, but to also remember to always impart our exciting successes and continued efforts in avian conservation.