If you don’t know of Biology Professor David Craig’s passion for birds, his office leaves no room for doubt. Behind rows of books about birds and next to a framed portrait of another is a taxidermied golden eagle, impossible to ignore.
“It probably showed up six or seven years ago, came in a big box,” Craig said. “It came with no return address and a note that said that ‘This was originally Willamette’s property. I’ve had it for a long time and I really shouldn’t have and I’m returning it.’ Somebody, at some point, hijacked that eagle and then mailed it back.” Now, it roosts on a high shelf above his desk.
“Something about birds and their movement definitely captured my imagination more than anything else,” Craig said. Now both a professor and a behavioral ecologist, he spent his childhood in the small town of Scappoose, OR, reading books on birds and using his family’s binoculars to explore on his own.
Because he was the first in his family to attend college, at the time he did not know all of the opportunities available to him. He originally thought he would become a medical doctor or a veterinarian because that was all he saw on television.
“[Say you are] a behavioral ecologist. You could go and do work with artists, scientists and gender studies,” Craig said. “Now that I’m on the other side of a whole bunch of class barriers, I know all kinds of things you can do. But you have to be kind of an insider and have that professional or social network connection [to know] those things can be done.”
When Craig went to Lewis & Clark College to pursue his undergraduate degree, he met a group of professors who asked him about his bird watching. “They told me I was super talented and I was really good, that I was a scientist and I should go do research,” he said. “And so I did that in the summer of 1987.”
He credited the professors who intervened in his life and told him he could turn bird watching into a career, and now looks to open doors for others. “That summer, I decided I want to be a professor in a small college in the Pacific Northwest, so I can study birds and then I can help people,” Craig said, referring to his students.
Craig started working at Willamette in 2000. While his research focuses on birds, he is interested in knowing what every “critter or plant or weird slimy thing on the ground” is. He uses an app called iNaturalist to take photos of and log plants and animals he finds outside. Last year, he and members of one of his classes documented over 10,000 organisms on campus.
While Craig said that books and lectures are valuable ways to introduce a topic to students, he emphasized that it is important to get students outside in order to get them exploring and learning.
Any of his office hours can be turned into a nature walk and sometimes he makes his assignments simply to go outside and sit somewhere for 30 minutes and observe. On Wednesdays at 8 a.m., Craig hosts a nature walk open to all which departs from the Olin lobby.
He also has a financial incentive to get students outside: there is a $100 prize waiting for the student who can find a hummingbird nest with active chicks in it. Additionally, he plans to compose an “ode to the person who found the nest” as the challenge enters its 19th year without a winner.
Another reason Craig uses the outdoors as his classroom is to combat students’ anxiety surrounding climate change. “Folks have a general sense of anxiety and wonder about [climate change] based on the media… so I’m like, let’s go out and see what we can do. Let’s go plant some trees or let’s look at what’s here and get engaged,” Craig said. “It’s super empowering. You can think, okay, the climate is changing, and I can be resilient and persistent and I can be part of that group of people who are doing something, versus just being scared and worried.”
On Feb. 1, Willamette University celebrated its 178th anniversary, but Craig said that’s the wrong way to think about the day because “that’s when we officially took something away from somebody else.”
Craig encouraged students to go visit the large trees in the Sparks parking lot. “Those are trees that are the direct product of the fire technology of the prairie maintenance [by Indigenous peoples]… They’ve been here longer than we have as an institution. So go take a look at those trees, and think about the way in which the world has changed. That is a thing that we can include in our stories today and not take for granted. And then also what we can do reconciliation and restoration. Do that. Then look around to see some cool birds there, too.”