Over the coming months, we will be profiling the previously announced winners of this year’s AOS awards in a series of posts on Wing Beat.
The Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award is an AOS senior professional award that honors extraordinary conservation-related scientific contributions by an individual or small team. The award is named for Ralph Schreiber, a prominent figure in American ornithology known for his enthusiasm, energy, and dedication to research and conservation, particularly of seabirds. This award consists of an original piece of avian art, framed certificate, and an honorarium. One of this year’s two awardees of the Schreiber Award is professor Francesca (Francie) J. Cuthbert.
Dr. Cuthbert has worked on a number of waterbird conservation efforts but, in particular, has spent more than 30 years successfully carrying out the near-impossible task of recovering the near-extinct Great Lakes population of the Piping Plover. She teaches undergraduates and graduates during the academic year at the University of Minnesota Department of Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology and for 25 summers taught “Biology of Birds” at the University of Michigan Biological Station in northern Michigan. She has trained more than 50 graduate students and has also worked on research, management, and conservation of Double-crested Cormorants and Common and Caspian terns.
When Dr. Cuthbert began her research on Piping Plovers in the 1980s, only a dozen pairs remained in the Great Lakes breeding population, reproductive success was near zero, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Great Lakes/Northern Great Plains Piping Plover Recovery Team deemed it a lost cause for population recovery. Undaunted, Dr. Cuthbert and her students persisted in their efforts for years, experimenting with various means of protecting nests from predators and humans, estimating annual survival by banding essentially all adults and chicks since 1993 and starting a captive rearing program to incubate abandoned eggs and raise chicks for release back into the wild. Gradually, the birds started coming back. Not only did they return to Dr. Cuthbert’s sites near the University of Michigan Biological Station on the northeastern shores of Lake Michigan, but they began appearing in places they had not been seen in decades, such as the highly urban beaches in Chicago, Toronto and near Toledo, Ohio. While studying individually marked non-breeding Piping Plovers, her students also identified the population’s winter range along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts as well as Cuba, the Bahamas and Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula. Today, Great Lakes Piping Plovers have not reached the original U.S. recovery goal set in the 1980s, but the generally positive population trajectory can be viewed as an unmitigated success, almost completely due to the diligence and persistence of Dr. Cuthbert and her students as well as efforts by dedicated stakeholders in the region.
In short, there is no doubt that the effort to recover the Great Lakes Piping Plover population would not have occurred without the skills and dedication of Dr. Cuthbert and her students. The increase in adult breeding birds and return of nesting plovers to all five of the Great Lakes as well as to six of eight states with historical nesting records (plus Ontario), has provided a critical link between the Northern Great Plains and Atlantic populations that will help bolster all three populations. In recognition of her contributions to avian conservation, AOS is pleased to name Dr. Francie Cuthbert as a 2021 recipient of the Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award.