Q: Why are the ducks on campus?

William Searcy studies birds and other wildlife on the University of Miami's Coral Gables campus including the Muscovy ducks that are invasive species in South Florida. Photo credit: Tej Joshi

William Searcy is a professor of ornithology at UM, specializing in behavioral ecology and animal communication. Although the campus ducks might be a charming yet strange element of UM life, Searcy is no stranger to analyzing wildlife. He received his doctorate in zoology from the University of Washington in Seattle and has had a long and decorated career in ornithology. In 2014, he was awarded The Exemplar Award, given to individuals who have made major contributions to public policy by “valuing the knowledge resident in academia and using research and analysis” to craft solutions to policy problems, according to the Animal Behavior Society.

He shared insight on birds and other wildlife on UM’s Coral Gables campus, including during the removal process of a number of the Muscovy ducks in 2016 due to health and safety concerns. Searcy said the removal of the ducks would have no major impact on the campus ecosystem. Now, he tells more about his profession and the wildlife on the campus.

TMH: How did you first get involved in ornithology?

WS: Well, it was through a class I took when I was an undergraduate at UC-Berkeley. I took a class called natural history of the vertebrates, a very famous field course. And part of that was looking at birds out in the field, and I really fell in love with it, and it all followed from there.

TMH: Why did you decide to specialize in ornithology and not a different aspect of zoology?

WS: In large part, it is because you can observe them [birds] so well in nature. They are primarily visual and auditory, so their two main modes of communication are by sounds and by sight. Also, they are very active in the day, while mammals are often mostly active at night when they are hard to see. You can watch birds and follow their communication behavior in a way that you can’t with mammals or fish.

TMH: How would you describe the amount of wildlife on UM’s campus?

WS: I’d say we sort of fall in the middle of the distribution. It is true that we have some really interesting bird species on campus, and the lake especially attracts a variety of birds. But there are other campuses that have larger numbers of birds. Those are campuses that are more rural.

TMH: How would you generally describe the types of species on UM’s campus?

WS: Miami in general has a lot of invasive species, and there are some invasive birds on campus that are really cool. The blue and gold macaws are quite spectacular. There are a whole lot of invasive lizards on campus, and they are at very high densities, so that is very fun.

TMH: What about the Ibis and Muscovy ducks? They seem to be everywhere on campus.

WS: Well, the ibis are great. They are beautiful and they are native. The Muscovy ducks are a little different in that they are an invasive species in Florida. South Florida has a whole lot of fresh water marshes, and the ibises like salt water marshes. What’s different about the ibises is that they flock together, and we often have flocks of ibises on campus.

TMH: Can students interact with wildlife on campus?

WS: In general, it is best not to interact with wildlife. I’d be surprised if you could actually pet any of these birds. But people do feed ducks, and having small children feed ducks is fine.