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New state ornithologist shares her love
of birds with students, public
October 19, 1998

For UConn ornithologist Margaret Rubega, birds aren't a living. They're a way of life.

Rubega joined the UConn faculty this fall as assistant professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, a position that carried with it the appointment as state ornithologist, succeeding George Clark, who retired from the University.

Rubega's appointment to the UConn faculty is a homecoming. She grew up in Groton and studied biology as an undergraduate at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven, before going to graduate school at the University of California, Irvine. Her husband, Chris Elphick, also an ornithologist, joined UConn this fall as a research scientist. They previously were at the University of Nevada at Reno.

Rubega and Elphick spend many weekends looking for birds - and like many Connecticut birders, they have feeders at home. "You will find as a regular thing that for anybody who does ornithology for a living - it's not so much a way to make a living, it's a way of life," she says. "You tend to get drawn into it because you're interested in birds in the first place."

The state ornithologist has been a UConn appointment since the legislature created the position in the early 1900s, when the university was Connecticut Agricultural College. Rubega notes that when the legislature originally decided to appoint a state ornithologist, it didn't appropriate any funds to support such a position.

"The state ornithologist functions as a human ornithology encyclopedia, " she says. "If somebody needs to know something about the birds of the state or in general, the state ornithologist is someone you can call."

She notes a telephone correspondence she's been having with a man who has homes in New Britain and Madison, about what birds are doing at his feeders and why he sees different birds in Madison from the ones he sees in New Britain.

"For someone like him who is interested in birds and animals in a casual way, it's the ability to talk to a human, as opposed to wondering where to look," Rubega says. "It's a way for the taxpayers of the state to get something back on their investment in the university of the state."

If a state legislator called me up and said 'I need to know the status of birds in the state,' I'd be available for that," she says. "So far that hasn't happened, but I'd be happy if it did."

She notes there is no state herpetologist or state mammologist, though there is a state entomologist. "That's partly because birds are much more visible. They tend to be more popular with the general public."

This fall Rubega is teaching vertebrate biology and in the spring she will teach ornithology, both for undergraduates. Ornithology has been taught as a lectures-only course, but she plans to add a lab session in the spring of 2000. "I feel strongly that it's impossible to understand birds without looking at live ones," she says, "and it's impossible to get students excited about birds without seeing them."

Rubega says she'll take students into the field to show them how to identify birds and how the birds live in the wild. "My goal is to turn the class into something where students not only get a good survey of ornithology as it exists as a modern science, but also get an opportunity to see how cool birds are."

Ken Ross