“All of a sudden, I’m holding a golden eagle that’s almost as big as I am, and I’m using all my strength to hold it.”
This is Melanie Madden, a wildlife biologist and golden eagle conservationist in San Diego, California. Every day for over 20 years, Melanie has been dedicated to providing research that protects wildlife. She is our Je Ne Se Quois of the Month because we are amazed by her commitment to making a difference for the planet and the animals who live here. We recently got to go out in the field with her and talk golden eagles, science and punk rock, and here is some of that conversation.
Melanie: I went to school at the University of California, Irvine. While I was there, I went from wanting to go to medical school to wanting to study wildlife. I did a lot of independent research with one of my professors and started studying a threatened species of bird that lived on one of the reserves on campus, and that changed my path. I just fell in love with birds, basically. That’s what started it off for me and I realized, okay, I’m not going to medical school. I want to study birds and wildlife and be outside instead.
While I was studying at UC Irvine, I actually ran into my now-current boss. At the time, he was a postdoctoral research fellow doing research on reptiles and amphibians. I started volunteering for him and after I graduated, I found out that he wanted to give me a job because I could do reptile and amphibian work but also bird work, and he needed someone for bird field work. That’s basically what got me started, and I’ve been working for him for most of my career. We started out at San Diego State University and then moved to a federal research agency. I’ve been working there for about 20 years.
I could make more money being a consultant, but I’m more interested in doing research-based work. It doesn’t pay nearly as well, but it’s more rewarding for me personally. The work we do actually goes towards helping wildlife. We mostly do work for other agencies and federal, state and local governments. They need information about certain species and ask us to collect data that they can use to better inform their management decisions—for example, by informing land managers about where certain species of birds are perching, nesting or foraging, they can plan projects around where those birds like to be. It’s cool to see your data get turned into management actions that make a difference. That’s what has kept me in my current position for so long—having the satisfaction of seeing my work go towards a good cause.
I recently became the project manager of our golden eagle project.I had always studied small song birds, so I didn’t have much prior experience with raptors.As you can imagine, going from small songbirds to eagles is a big change. I’ve done a lot of monitoring work on avian productivity and survivorship, which basically involves monitoring bird populations over time using mark and recapture techniques. I’ve spent a lot of my career doing that with songbirds, and that involves catching little tiny birds and collecting data on their age, sex, morphology and health condition. You hold them so gently and you’re very delicate with them. Then I went from that to assisting and capturing golden eagles. All of a sudden, I’m holding a golden eagle that’s almost as big as I am, and I’m using all my strength to hold it. So yeah, it’s a big difference. I was humbled and in tears the first time I held a golden eagle and got to release it. There is video of me holding a golden eagle where I am like, “Please hurry up and get the camera ready because I am about to start crying.” I just couldn’t believe it. They are such amazing creatures, and if you look one in the eye, close-up, you can just see the intelligence. They are also shy creatures and don’t like humans. When you see one in person it makes you think, “You are this huge, amazing bird. Why are you so scared of humans?” I kind of relate to them in that way. I am kind of shy. I like to keep to myself and mostly stay away from other humans.
In this kind of work, animals often keep you guessing. You think you might know something, then they prove you wrong. We often don’t get the result we want or find what we were hoping to find, but negative data are still data. It’s a lot of detective work. It’s more difficult when your subject can’t talk so you have to base answers on their behaviors and their environment. We’re constantly coming up with more questions than we’ll get answers for. It keeps us busy.
“SOMETIMES I FEEL LIKE I HAVE TWO LIVES—THERE’S THIS HIPPIE BIOLOGIST SIDE OF ME AND THEN THIS CRAZY, PUNK ROCK SIDE. I’M DEFINITELY NOT YOUR TYPICAL WILDLIFE BIOLOGIST.”
- MELANIE MADDEN
Sometimes being a federal employee has its challenges. We’re required to stay politically neutral. We’re always recalibrating every four to eight years. There’s turn-over and new policies, and sometimes with new administrations, you get new people in charge. It’s challenging in that respect. We try to not focus on it. I try not to watch the news too much. I just try to focus on my work.
Even the golden eagle work can be political. My boss tries to keep us out of it so we can focus on the science. A big part of it is that eagles don’t want to be where humans are, so human use of the landscape is an important factor. Nobody wants to hear us say, “Humans are bad for eagles,” but that’s what the data are showing us. We have to be careful and tread lightly. Anyone from private landowners to local governments have made plans for land use over the next 50 years, and they’ve made decisions that were not well-informed in regard to golden eagles because at the time, good quality data weren’t available. But as part of our current research, we attach solar-powered GPS transmitters to the eagles we capture. The transmitters are highly accurate and can tell us exactly where an eagle is located, it’s altitude, and how fast it is moving for almost every second of the day. They didn’t realize there were golden eagles in places and now they may have to do something about it, based on the data the transmitters provide. We just say, “Look, we’re not giving any opinions. We are just telling you what the data say.”
I wish people would become more aware of the value of the natural environment around them—the value of the plants and animals. It’s difficult because in what I do, a lot of people will think, “Ugh, that’s where my tax dollars are going?” But it does benefit you—with great views, higher property values, beautiful places to hike—and it helps save places and helps land owners know which areas are most valuable to save. There is always a balance between humans and the environment, and that’s what we have to find. Some people have the attitude of “I’m human, and I’m the dominant one,” but animals are part of this, too. It’s disappointing, but I think it’s a lack of education. And people are scared. They ask, “Aren’t you afraid of coyotes and bears and mountain lions?” and I’m like—no, I’m not scared at all. I’m actually more scared of places that are filled with humans. I’m educated about animals, and I feel comfortable in their environment because I’m exposed to it. It’s like home to me. It can be difficult in Southern California, though, because of the wild fires. It’s sad to see some of your favorite places burning. It’s been rough the last 10-20 years.
I’m vegan and I’ve been plant-based for over ten years now. I’m also a single mom to a really great girl. She’s 13 and she also has a love for animals and the environment. She’s a very compassionate and caring person. I’m really lucky. I don’t often have a lot of time for myself, though—I have this demanding job, and my life is really my job and my daughter. One thing I like to do when I get free time is go out to see live music. I’m really into the music scene here in San Diego. I’m really into punk, indie and alternative. Sometimes I feel like I have two lives—there’s this hippie biologist side of me and then this crazy, punk rock side. I’m definitely not your typical wildlife biologist. You gotta balance it out—I can’t be ALL nerd. While I’m still young enough, I’m going to go out and do a 12 hour field day, then go to a punk show at night and get up the next morning and do it all over again. I’m pretty hardcore. Most people can’t keep up with me.