News and events

A male Virginia peregrine

Virginia peregrines have mixed year in 2017

January 16, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

Virginia supported a known population of 29 pairs of peregrine falcons during the 2017 breeding season (download 2017 report).  Two new breeding sites were documented but three long-standing territories were unoccupied.  The population had a relatively high hatching rate (81%, 56 of 69 eggs hatched) but some losses both before banding (16.1%, 9 of 56 young lost) and after fledging (3 young known to be lost post-fledging).  Of 21 clutches that could be followed completely from laying to fledging, 41 of 53 (77.4%) eggs hatched and 35 of 41 (85.4%) young survived to banding age.  The reproductive rate (1.62 young/occupied territory) was considerably lower than in recent years. 

Efforts continued in 2017 to identify breeding adults via field-readable bands to better understand dispersal and demography throughout the mid-Atlantic region.  The banding status of 47 (81%) of the 58 adult peregrines known within the breeding population was determined.  Ten (21%) of the 47 birds were unbanded.  The alpha-numerics were read for 29 adults and of these the USGS bands have been recorded for 26.  Of the banded birds where state of origin could be determined, 22 were from VA, 5 from NJ, and 3 from MD.  Birds ranged in age from 2 to 17 years old. 

In addition to adults breeding in Virginia, bands for 12 additional falcons were read and reported over the past year.  Seven of these birds (all females) originated in Virginia and were found breeding in other states, including 3 birds in Pennsylvania and 4 birds in New Jersey.  A second-year female was photographed multiple times on Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge.  A hatch-year male from Richmond was photographed in Lyndhurst, NJ and a hatch-year female that had been hacked in Shenandoah National Park was photographed near Silver Lake in Rockingham County, VA.  A 5-year-old female was identified in Westchester, NY during the early breeding season and may have been on a territory.

The translocation of falcons from the coast to the mountains in an effort to re-establish the historic mountain range continued in 2017.  Ten young falcons (including five females and five males) were moved to Shenandoah National Park and hacked.  All birds were from bridges that have experienced poor fledging success except two birds that were found on the ground under the Possum Point stack around the time of fledging.  All birds fledged and dispersed successfully. 

The Virginia population continues to benefit from a tremendous community of dedicated agencies, corporations, and individuals including the Virginia Department of Game & Inland Fisheries, the Virginia Department of Transportation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, the U.S. Coast Guard, the U.S. Department of Defense, Dominion, and The Nature Conservancy.

A sample of more than 40 pounds of cedar waxwings killed along less than 100 meters of Interstate 64 in Virginia

Using the sword of Damocles to decapitate The Migratory Bird Treaty Act

January 3, 2018

By Bryan Watts, Center for Conservation Biology

On 22 December as the nation was gearing down for the festive Christmas holiday, the Department of Interior quietly released a memo redefining the terms of how the Migratory Bird Treaty Act (MBTA) will be enforced.  The document, written by the agency’s new Principal Deputy Solicitor, Daniel Jorjani, will have far-reaching impacts on bird conservation throughout the United States and represents the culmination of a decades-long fight by lobbyists to undermine the Act.  The action effectively removes (by interpretation) a key prohibition and constrains the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) from pursuing the original intent of the Act.   

The MBTA (and its predecessors) has been the legal cornerstone of bird protection in the United States for more than 100 years.  The Act represents the legal first-line-of-defense for more than 1,000 species and its mere existence and long history is a reflection of how our society has valued bird populations.   By drawing a line in the sand defining acceptable conduct, the Act has educated generations of conservation-minded citizens and set a standard for corporate behavior.  The memo released on 22 December shifts the line and by doing so represents a sea-change in the value that our society places on bird populations.

Wildlife laws are often vague and include terms that are open to interpretation.  From a practical standpoint, implementation of these laws requires that regulatory agencies formulate working definitions that may be used to clarify prohibited activities to telegraph intended prosecutorial boundaries.  Changing the definitions effectively changes which behaviors will be prosecuted under the law.  The MBTA clearly states a prohibition on “killing” protected birds.  Over the past several decades, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has recognized killing to include “intended take” (e.g. shooting and capture) and “incidental take” (unintended killing) as prohibited behaviors under the Act.

In practice, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has long recognized two forms of “incidental take,” including accidental killing where the mortality could not have been reasonably anticipated or avoided and unintended killings where the mortality could have been reasonably anticipated and prevented.  No one wants to prosecute every homeowner who has had a bird fly into a window or every driver who has hit a bird flying across the road, and no prosecutions of this type have been brought forth.  However, situations where a party knowingly places large numbers of birds at risk of being killed should be avoided (see example below following the main story), and it is in the public’s interest to have legal deterrents to these activities.  In the past, the USFWS has used the MBTA to work toward resolving these types of incidental takes to protect bird populations.  The 22 December memorandum eliminates the legal avenue to find a reasonable solution.

The MBTA was passed during a time when very large numbers of birds were being taken for commercial enterprises for collections or to prevent perceived impacts to game or farm animals.  However, the intent of the MBTA was not merely to restrict recreational collecting and other activities, but instead to preserve bird populations in perpetuity.  In his long and winding memorandum, Solicitor Jorjani abandons the original intent and redefines “killing” as only including acts with the “intent” to kill birds.  Birds that are killed during activities where the primary intent is other than to specifically kill birds are no longer subject to the Act. 

In making this change, Jorjani invoked the words of Justice Thurgood Marshall, “the value of the sword of Damocles is that it hangs – not that it drops.”  Marshall used the anecdote to refer to the chilling effects that power or the overbroad interpretation of laws may have on the liberties of those subject to the law.  Without question, balance is the key to effective implementation of wildlife laws.  However, bird populations belong to the public, and reasoned measures should be taken to protect our shared heritage.  In making this change, Jorjani has in effect hung the sword over the heads of many bird populations and left them without a legal advocate.



I have worked in the bird conservation business long enough to have seen many, many examples of how the MBTA has been used reasonably and effectively to avoid unnecessary impacts to bird populations.  In the majority of cases, birds could be protected with minimal impacts to business.  One example from the past comes to mind.

In June of 1994, while surveying for piping plovers on the north end of Wallops Island in Virginia, I could see an unusually white wrack line in the distance as the tide ebbed out.  The mystery was not resolved until I actually reached the line, examined the white objects, and realized that they were the bleached keels of red-throated loons.  The line of keels stretched more than a mile to the north and represented 10,000+ loons.  Sometime during the winter there had been a significant kill and the keels piled up by the surf were what remained.  Later investigation revealed that the loons were bycatch from the nearshore gill netters, the same group that had been responsible for scores of sea turtles and bottlenose dolphins that had been washing up on the islands for years.  The netters were not charged, but with full consideration of the implications of MBTA, they were convinced to move farther off shore beyond the normal foraging area of the loons.

Under the MBTA that Jorjani envisions, the loons killed by gill netters would not be subject to any legal violation.  After all, the gill netters were there to catch fish, not birds. Yet since they had to remove the loons from nets, they had to be aware of the hazard they were creating for a federally protected species.  But here killing the loons was a mere nuisance.  Removing any legal liability from parties who recklessly kill large numbers of protected birds, despite being able to avoid doing so, is a clear perversion of the original intent of MBTA and serves no one but those in special interest groups.



Dr. Ed Crawford leads a workshop at VCU Rice Rivers Center for ENVS 201

ENVS 201 2017 Rice Rivers Center Field Day

December 6, 2017

(Photo credit: Larkin Petrelles)


Each year, Dr. Vickie Connor’s Introduction to Earth System Science class (ENVS 201) visits the VCU Rice Rivers Center to experience a few typical field research activities at the center. Dr. Ed Crawford, deputy director of Rice Rivers Center, and teaching assistants Alissa Nicholsson, Hannah Coovert, Rebecca Dahlberg, and Lindsay Schneider, joined Dr. Connors and 35 students on an overcast and windy Saturday in November.  

The day began with an orientation presentation by Dr. Crawford, where he shared the history of the ongoing evolution of the center. Following the presentation, the students broke into four groups of 8-10, which then rotated through different activity stations hosted by the teaching assistants.

This year’s activities included:

Canoeing and Prothontary Warbler Research — (Alissa Nicholsson)
The canoeing was difficult because of the strong winds and choppy waves on the James River. Yet, several groups did manage to enjoy the opportunity to see the Rice Rivers Center from the perspective of the river. From one of the student’s essay: “On the canoeing expedition, Alissa talked about the species that lived around the area and in the water. She also explained how the creek is tidal, meaning there is a high tide and a low tide. We canoed during the low tide time and it was very easy to touch the bottom of the water. We also got to see a blue heron and two bald eagles fighting over food during the time on the water.”   

Plant (Identification) Bingo — (Rebecca Dahlberg)
Rebecca led the plant identification activity with a Plant BINGO game that was created for the 2016 Rice Rivers Center Field Day. The packet contained identification guidelines and pictures of a variety of plants found at the center.  Students were asked to locate as many plants as they could find and collect samples if possible.  When the students found plants either on a diagonal or straight across they were to say “BINGO!”

Rock Identification — (Hannah Coovert)
Hannah guided the rock identification activity with the assistance of a rock sample kit generously provided by Dr. Arif Sikdar, assistant professor at the Center for Environmental Studies. She had the students examine and identify several different rock types.  Lindsay shared an amazing rock that her grandfather had found in Europe 80 years ago.

Measure Tree Attributes (DBH) and examining Soil Horizons from Upland to Wetland Zones— (Lindsay Schneider)
Lindsay led a nature walk to look at some trees. The students took turns measuring how much carbon each tree was taking out to the atmosphere by measuring up the tree about one meter and then taking the circumference of the tree using a DBH tape. Lindsay also encouraged the students to identify what types of trees that they passed. She then showed the students how to examine the soil horizons from the dry, upland area, down to the wetland area near Harris Creek.



CSBC Director search open until February 1, 2018

December 4, 2017

VCU Life Sciences has the following position open until February 1, 2018:

 Director, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity

VCU Life Sciences invites applications or nominations for the position of Director of the Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC). VCU Life Sciences promotes transformative learning and integrative scholarship through an interdisciplinary, systems-based approach. Its university-wide matrix structure provides a framework for borderless academics, and promotes collaborative learning opportunities among students, molecular biologists, mathematicians, computational scientists, ecologists, physicians, and artists. The Center for the Study of Biological Complexity (CSBC) engages a broad community of scholars in advancing institutional capabilities in genomics, proteomics and computational systems biology and bioinformatics and offers rich learning and research opportunities, including BS, MS (both thesis and professional) and a PhD track in Bioinformatics.

The Director will guide the CSBC through an expanded realization of its mission by promoting collaborative research across the university in basic and applied science, and by growing the Center’s educational programs. The Director will mentor and support the professional growth of faculty and staff in an inclusive environment for collaboration and student learning. Through proactive recruiting strategies, the director will identify new faculty to complement the Center’s teaching and research activities. The new director will have a tenured faculty appointment in Life Sciences and will bring an active research program with a history of multidisciplinary applications and external funding. The successful candidate must have demonstrated experience leading and fostering a diverse faculty, staff, and student environment.

Virginia Commonwealth University is a public research university that has been designated by the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education as very high in research activity and as community-engaged. VCU is committed to creating a campus community that embraces diverse perspectives, cultures, experiences and people. Located in downtown Richmond, VCU enrolls more than 31,000 students in 226 degree and certificate programs in the arts, sciences and humanities. VCU serves an integral role in the economic health of the city of Richmond and the region by educating the current and future workforce, advancing research, and enhancing patient care. Learn more about Richmond:

Application Process Interested candidates must apply online at and include a cover letter that includes a brief description of research interests, future research directions, and a vision for the Center, a CV, and contact information for three references. Review of applications will begin immediately. This position offers a competitive salary, start-up, and relocation package. For additional information, please contact Dr. Gregory Triplett (

Virginia Commonwealth University is an equal opportunity, affirmative action university providing access to education and employment without regard to race, color, religion, national origin, age, sex, political affiliation, veteran status, genetic information, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, or disability.


Research facility

Help us meet our goal!

November 20, 2017

As the end of 2017 quickly approaches, NOW would be the perfect time to suppport the VCU Rice Rivers Center, where the impact of your gift will be doubled. 

VCU was awarded a one-million-dollar challenge grant from the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation which, when met, will complete all fundraising for our critically needed research building.  We continue to focus on water resources and restoring critical habitats and the fish and wildlife that depend on rivers while training the next generation of environmental scientists...but the center needs to increase the impact of the good science that we do to inform effective environmental policies and build conservation capacity both locally and globally.  We expect much of our present global outreach to grow into significant collaborations where those scientists we are already working with can come on-site to further their research. And this will happen once our critically needed research building comes on line. 

We hope you will take this opportunity to support us when any amount you can give will be matched.  Please help us reach our goal with your end-of-year gift by clicking on this link and choosing VCU Rice Rivers Center from the drop-down menu.  Your gift will make a difference. 


Flight Safety

November 15, 2017

By Leah Small, University Public Affairs

A Virginia Commonwealth University scientist is demonstrating that drone photography can be used for more than creating fantastic aerial shots and panoramas of landscapes. It has real-world applications in a variety of areas — from environmental science to defense and emergency response planning.

William Shuart, environmental technology coordinator for the VCU Rice Rivers Center and the Center for Environmental Studies, is currently using aerial imagery to create 3-D models of parts of the Monroe Park Campus. The models will be used in a mapping project by researchers funded by the Office of the Director of National Intelligence.

Continue reading "Flight Safety."

VOSRP featured on Virginia Sea Grant website

October 31, 2017

VCU is one of seven partner universities collaborating with Virginia Sea Grant. The organization advances the resilence and sustainability of Virginia's coastal and marine ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.  

The Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) is featured in the lead story on the Virginia Sea Grant website.

Read "Seventy-five percent of the menu. Fresh, local and sustainable - one chef's goal."

Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline

October 26, 2017


(Photo: Ben Colteaux, Ph.D., in the Integrative Life Sciences program holds a snapping turtle in the field. Photo credit: Courtesy of Team Snapper)

By Leah Small, University Pubilc Affairs

Crawling through neck-high mud on riverbanks is a dirty job, but someone has to do it for the sake of Virginia’s snapping turtles.

That task falls on Benjamin Colteaux, a Ph.D. candidate in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Integrative Life Sciences program, and other members of “Team Snapper” working in the lab of Derek Johnson, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology in the College of Humanities and Sciences.

For four years, the researchers spent several weeks at a time trekking through muddy turtle turf to catch and tag the animals, and record indices of health and growth for multiple studies on the impacts of wild turtle harvesting. 

Read the full article, "Study shows commercial harvest of snapping turtles is leading to population decline"

VOSRP on Virginia This Morning

October 18, 2017

Virginia Oyster Shell Recycling Program (VOSRP) Director Todd Janeski sat down with Virginia This Morning Host Bill Bevins to talk about the Shell-Raiser's Shindig.  The third annual Shindig is Sunday, October 22 from 2 - 5 p.m. at Libbie Mill-Midtown.

There is still time to purchase tickets to this popular event supporting VOSRP.


Study abroad in Panama

October 16, 2017

(Photo: last year's Team Warbler)

The popular Panama Avian Field Ecology class is back, and time is running out for students to apply.  Wednesday, October 25 is the last day that applications and letters of recommendations will be accepted.

Students will study abroad in Panama January 2 - 15, 2108, and will meet weekly during the spring semester.  Dr. Cathy Viverette and Dr. Ed Crawford will lead 18 new members of Team Warbler. The ENVS 515/BIO 415, 4 credit hour program can fulfill ENVS and BIO capstone requirements. 

For more information on the course, visit the Panama Avian Field Ecology ram page.

To submit your letter of interest and recommendations: Yes, I am interested in going to Panama!

For more information, contact Dr. Viverette or Dr. Crawford.  

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