Birds

Meet Mary Geis, the Montana biologist who studied Mountain Bluebirds for 30 years

In the foothills outside of Bozeman, Montana, there is a winding trail known as the Mountain Bluebird Trail. For more than 50 years it has been a breeding ground for intellectual curiosity and bluebirds alike. On cool summer mornings, sky-blue mountain thrushes chirp from fence lines and bring food for little chicks that thrive in more than 300 wooden nesting boxes.

The trail has come a long way since 1969 when it featured only 12 nesting boxes made from cans and milk jugs. Its transformation began in 1975 thanks to the work of Mary Geis, a biologist who transcended the social norms of the time and paved a path through the male-dominated graduate school. Over the course of nearly 30 years, Geis collected detailed records of nearly 1,500 bluebird nests.

Each breeding season, Geis and a small group of volunteers kept meticulous records and submitted data to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s North American Nest Record Card Program. This historical collection will be featured as part of the Nest Quest Go! Along with 30 others. transcribed and digitized. Project. 95-year-old Geis is one of the collection’s few living employees with a life story that encompasses major changes in society and technology.

Geis discovered her passion for ornithology as a teenager on afternoon outings with the Natural History Club in her hometown of Oyster River, New Hampshire. She remembers that she knew “the difference between a magpie and a robin” back then, but she really wanted to know more. During the Second World War, Geis studied zoology at the renowned Smith College in Massachusetts. After graduating in 1947, she took a position as a biologist at Martha’s Vineyard and in Washington, DC, and then taught natural history to elementary school students for the Massachusetts Audubon Society.

Students from the Yosemite School of Field Natural History. Mary Geis is in the top row, second from the right. She graduated from the top of her class in 1951 at the age of 25. Photo by Ralph Anderson / Yosemite Online Library.

After years in the northeast, Geis longed to explore the world. Leaving a reluctant friend behind, she made her way to California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains and the Yosemite School of Field Natural History. In 1951, she graduated from the top of her class at the age of 25 and worked as a forester for a year before applying for graduate school.

Mary Geis (left) and Lou Ann Harris in 2007 at work on the Mountain Bluebird Trail near Bozeman, Montana. Geis handed the project over to Harris in 2009 when Geis was around 82 years old. Photo courtesy Lisa Vick.

Cornell University and the University of Montana offered Geis admission to her Masters programs, and she decided to continue her adventure in the West – only to face men who didn’t think ornithology was a common space. “Men didn’t think women should do that sort of thing,” Geis said, noting that her professors used to place her in the classroom, where she was hard to hear. “I had to ask to be transferred to the front,” Geis told me.

Despite the challenges of being the only woman, Geis focused on her studies. Geis drove her motorboat around Flathead Lake, Montana, counting Canada geese nests to study their population fluctuations and inform hunting and management practices. In 1954 she published the biology of the Canada Geese (Branta canadensis moffitti) in the Flathead Valley of Montana and published as the first woman a scientific paper for the forestry school of the University of Montana.

Shortly after graduation, Geis married her fiancé Anthony and settled in Bozeman, Montana. There she taught at a public school and was involved in the Sacajawea Audubon Society, where she met Louis Moos, the founder of the local Bluebird Trail. When she took over the project from Moos in 1979, the Mountain Bluebird population was only a fraction of what it is today.

“I did it because I was interested in what was going on,” said Geis. “I wanted to know why this thrush nested here, what destroyed its nest and what this sparrowhawk” [American Kestrel] on the aviary. “

In a 1980 report, she noted the practical value of birds – what we would now call their “ecosystem services” – and wrote, “In addition to the joy we all have when we see the flying swallows, the flashing thrushes and the musical wrens and tits have around … I also believe they are beneficial to insect populations in our area. ”In a calculation using some of her nesting box data, she credits local tree swallows for about 1,000 pounds each summer Have eaten insects.

When Geis wasn’t recording the observations she made along the way, she led nature walks for the Bozeman Women’s Activities Group, taught natural history for the Sacajawea Audubon Society, or led scouting troops. Karin Utzinger, a fellow traveler of the women’s group, remembers: “It’s like going out with a guide or a naturalist. She knows the flowers, the birds, even the droppings. ”Geis led these group hikes every Tuesday until the early 2000s, when she was well over 70.

In 2009, Mary Geis handed the torch to Lou Ann Harris, who is currently leading the Mountain Bluebird Project. “When she started tracking me down, she taught me everything she knew and nothing upset her,” Harris told me. The project now has three separate ways that volunteers conduct weekly nest checks from April to August. To this day, these volunteers report Nest records to NestWatch.

All in all, combining nest records from the Moos, Geis, and Harris eras, the group has collected more than 50 years of data on Mountain Bluebirds. Geis and her volunteers began collecting this data with pencil and paper. Now, nest checkers enter data by computer or smartphone, and scientists can use NestWatch to merge those records with others across the continent.

What has driven Geis through so many decades of research and teaching? “Intellectual curiosity, I guess,” she said, noting that it helps to be born with a sense of adventure and maybe a little patience. When it comes to developing knowledge, she said, “It’s not a question of time, it’s about wanting to know.”

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