Editor’s note: This is part two of two about Debi Talbott. Talbott, a native of Osceola, worked for over thirty years as a zookeeper, starting at Busch Gardens in Tampa, Florida before moving to the bird house at National Zoo in Washington, D.C.
Birding and return to Iowa
It wasn’t just with her work at National Zoo that saw Debi Talbott involved with birds. A member of the Audubon Society, Talbott was active with a chapter in Maryland, leading bird walks twice a month around one of the lakes there.
“I live and sleep birds…I find them fascinating. I knew I wanted to pass on that passion,” said Talbott.
Following her retirement in November of last year, Talbott moved back to Osceola with a Springer Spaniel and two African Spurred Tortoises. She joined a Des Moines chapter of the Audubon Society, and has started hosting monthly bird walks at East Lake Park.
The walks are held on the first Saturday of each month at East Lake Park at 8 a.m., rain or shine. Birders will meet at the Bobcat Shelter and, depending on the weather, follow a path around the grassland area and then around the lake. They will watch and listen for any birds in the area.
“People don’t have to be experts - they can be novices,” said Talbott.
One should dress for the weather and bring binoculars with them; Talbott has a couple of extra pairs of binoculars that can be borrowed that morning if needed. Field guides are not necessary, and a free birding app, Merlin, can be downloaded to one’s phone to help with bird identification.
If it’s a slow day birding wise, then it is what it is.
“Birding is luck of the draw…I will offer my knowledge and expertise as best I can. I may learn something from the people who come out there…it’s a give and take,” said Talbott, who encourages everyone to get out and watch the birds.
Already, Talbott has had people thank her for starting the bird walks, saying they were pleased someone was finally offering them in the area.
Outside of the bird walk Saturday mornings, Talbott said she spends three or four days a week at East Lake getting a profile of the birds in the area.
“[I’m] trying to get a feel for who is here now and when do they leave, when do they get here,” said Talbott. As she observes birds, she reports her sightings on eBird, an online bird tracking database created by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society in 2002.
Talbott is excited to compare what birds are common in Iowa that would be considered an oddity in Maryland, and vice versa. Birds that people don’t get too stirred up about here - bobolinks, red-headed woodpeckers, black capped chickadees, and house wrens for example - are ones that would Marylanders would be excited to see. On the other hand, Iowa doesn’t get near as many Carolina wrens and black-throated blue warblers as there are in Maryland.
Migration patterns are of particular interest to Talbott, and she is looking forward to having a full year to study that in Iowa over the winter and summer months.
While never having completed a Big Year, which is a personal challenge for birders to identify as many species of birds as possible within one year in a specific geographic area, she has completed feeder watches, seasonal counts of birds, and is interested in working on a breeding bird atlas.
“I have a lot to learn, I have goals I want to achieve,” said Talbott, and she is ready to help put the birds of Clarke County on the map.
Passing on her passion for birds is only one part of Talbott’s mission, however.
“Birds are in trouble in the world,” said Talbott.
A study conducted by scientists and published in the ‘Annual Review of Environment and Resources’ journal in May of this year stated that 48% of existing bird species are known, or suspected, to be suffering population declines worldwide. 39% of species have stable population numbers. Increasing population trends are only shown for 6% of bird species; 7% remain unknown. A 2019 study found that about three billion breeding birds in the United States and Canada had disappeared over the last 50 years. Globally, there are an estimated 11,000 bird species, with just over 2,000 in North America.
For Talbott, she believes that people in Iowa are more aware of what is in their environment, being closer to the land. She wants to encourage people to plant for pollinators, and choose plants that produce bugs that the birds eat for food, adding that birds are important for seed dispersal and pest control. Tablott is currently taking webinar classes to learn more about pollinators and their habitats, and what she can do to help. She notes that global warming is also having an effect on birds, and is part of what she’s interested to see in regards to migration patterns.
Bobolinks, the previously noted common Iowa bird, are one whose numbers are in trouble, but Talbott remains hopeful as she has observed them at East Lake.
“They’re paired up, defending territories. They don’t do that for any reason; they do that because they’re nesting,” said Talbott.
Having grown up here, Talbott wants to showcase to others that this is an important area for birds, to be proud of that, and to do their part to preserve them. That is a goal of her bird walks, to get people more involved.
“If I can do anything, pass on education and information and get people excited about birds…wanting to save birds and be bird champions,” said Talbott.
How to help
For those interested in helping bird numbers, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology has a list of seven easy thing to do:
1. Make windows safer, day and night
Install screens on windows, or use something to break up the reflections.
2. Keep cats indoors
In addition to habitat loss, cats are the number one human-caused reason for the loss of birds.
3. Reduce lawn, plant natives
Native plants will increase shelter and nesting area for birds, including food by way of nectar, berries, seeds, and insects.
4. Avoid pesticides
Consider reducing pesticide use around your garden and house.
5. Drink coffee that’s good for birds
Shade-grown coffee versus sun-grown coffee helps preserve forest canopies for migratory birds.
6. Protect our planet from plastic
Reducing single-use plastic, and recycling when you can.
7. Watch birds, share what you see
eBird, Project Feeder Watch, and more are way to record the birds you observe.
Further information can be found at https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/.
With a wealth of stories from her years as a zookeeper, here are a few more that Talbott shared:
• Whoopi Goldberg once visited Busch Gardens and took a tour on Talbott’s feed route, helping to feed the animals for an afternoon.
• A redbilled magpie named Romeo who lived at National Zoo liked to steal the mittens from visiting children. One day, a door to his outdoor flight cage didn’t get closed behind a group of visiting children, and Romeo escaped. Knowing where his food came from, Romeo hung around for a week as his keepers tried every method they could think of to get him back in, but it was to no avail. After several days, someone spotted Romeo in a nearby tree, and another effort to catch him was made. The door to the flight cage was opened and in was tossed Romeo’s favorite treat - pinky mice. In Romeo flew for a feast, and he was captured.
• Talbott traveled to China with a group from the zoo to help teach workshops on husbandry and enrichment.
• In addition to the collection of Alice’s feathers on her mantle, Talbott also has feathers of: peacock, different cranes, great argus pheasant, king vulture, blue-billed curassow, storks, ostrich, Andean condor, kori bustard, red billed magpie, peacock crest feather, cockatoo crest feather, green-winged macaw, brown kiwi, motmot, mouse bird tail feather, Mandarin wood duck sail feathers, and more.
• She traveled to White Oak Conservation in Florida to learn husbandry of blue-billed curassow, a critically endangered species from Columbia.
• Talbott used to work with trumpeter swans, and some born at National Zoo were later released in Iowa.