Life is tough for the Western Yellow-billed Cuckoo. It needs plenty of healthy, water-adjacent habitat to survive, which is becoming increasingly rare in the arid southwestern United States. And it’s not so easy for people who want to help protect these birds by conducting field surveys of their populations, but also don’t like getting up early in the morning. Watching these birds means starting at 4:30 a.m.—sometimes even earlier—to get to the survey site at sunrise. If you want to pace cuckoo clocks, you must have a passion for it.
The volunteers, interns and those who work at Sonoran Audubon in Arizona have this passion. Bob McCormick, a volunteer at Sonoran Audubon, is a regular at Cuckoo Survey Life. McCormick says he and the other volunteers and interns would go out and investigate the cuckoo clocks five times during the two-month survey season, which runs from mid-June to mid-September.
The cuckoo survey program, says Karen LaFrance, co-president of Sonoran Audubon, has been going on since at least 2010, when the Arizona Department of Game and Fisheries worked with partners like Audubon Southwest (then known as name of Audubon Arizona) to designate Important Bird Areas along the Agua Fria River and set up monitoring of the sites to understand what was going on there. About four years later, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service declared the western yellow-billed cuckoo an endangered species, and interest and resources were committed to studying it.
After nearly a decade of surveys, some of the survey organizers wanted to expand the program and also attract new people—and especially the next generation of environmental defenders—interested in collaborating with Sonoran Audubon. Members of Sun Devil Audubon, the campus chapter of Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, were thrilled to learn of this new opportunity for on-the-job training.
Mikaela Joerz was one such student. Growing up, Joerz says she always admired the National Audubon Society, and when she heard about ASU’s new student chapter, she “brought up the courage” to attend a meeting. Joerz says at first she felt like Audubon as a whole was not for younger generations, but that first student chapter meeting completely changed her perspective. And then she heard about the possibility of doing field work.
“The internship was a great way to get into the field. Audubon has always sounded like fancy old people, but this internship was a great way to introduce young people to the job,” says Joerz. “I was thinking ‘wow, they would really want or need us’, and it turned out to be totally doable.”
Although Joerz didn’t know exactly what she was going to encounter until she went to her first Sun Devil Audubon meeting, she certainly didn’t expect to get paid employment out of it. Because budgets are very limited, much of the work of monitoring cuckoos and other species is strictly a volunteer affair, which is why most volunteers are usually older and often past retirement. But as Sonoroan Audubon sought to recruit young surveyors, Steven Praeger, Audubon Southwest’s staff biologist, told LaFrance about some available grants. This gave Sonoran Audubon the ability to pay interns a stipend for their work.
“It’s much easier and fairer to recruit interns and find interns if you can pay them for their work,” says LaFrance. “I’ve always been in this camp, and when I run organizations I prefer not to rely solely on volunteers. I also don’t assume that people love doing these things, especially something like this which is so rigorous.
Joerz, along with four other interns and two volunteers, spent their survey time this year in various shoreline habitats in Arizona. From late June to September, from sunrise to noon, their team was out in the field playing peekaboo in hopes that some would call back, or even show up to see what the fuss was all about. In total, Arizona’s 2021 Audubon Southwest team made 163 individual cuckoo detections and surveyed 13 routes across three watersheds. But curiously, Joerz said that in the 15 hours she was in the field, she never spotted a single cuckoo.
Joerz says it didn’t matter, because the opportunity to do fieldwork was enough. The opportunity gave all interns work experience, helped find Sonoran Audubon a new board member for one of the interns, and another intern went on to work as a field trip coordinator for Maricopa Audubon, another chapter in Arizona. As for Joerz, she says the work she has done has prepared her for her next opportunity.
“I actually had a job opportunity this summer to go investigate cuckoo clocks somewhere else, and the experience with Sonoran Audubon really helped prepare me for that,” says Joerz, who will be helping with the efforts of surveying range-wide cuckoos as a field technician with the Southern Sierra Research Station. “But anyway, I definitely plan to come back and do some volunteering. It was really a great experience!”