James Gilardi, '96 Ph.D. Ecology
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Betsy Towner Levine
For James Gilardi, saving parrots is a cause close to home. In fact, it's at home.
One of the world's leading parrot conservationists, Gilardi not only directs the World Parrot Trust from his house in Davis, he keeps two parrots bequeathed to him by his UC Davis major adviser.
"Cathy Toft left us two African gray parrots, Coco, 30, and Zeke, 20 years old," Gilardi said of the late Evolution and Ecology professor, who passed away in 2011. "Cathy spent the last eight or nine years of her life writing a book about parrots but had not spent much time around this reputedly brainy species, so while writing she adopted the two greys and often referred to them as her muse."
Coco and Zeke now live in Gilardi's backyard, where they mimic not only the sounds of the family—"They have sharp calls for my kids' names, 'Maya!' and 'Jasper!'"—but also wild birds like woodpeckers.
"They are especially amused by the hummingbirds, squirrels and scrub jays," he added.
Inside Coco and Zeke's house, Gilardi works to save parrot species all over the planet.
"Parrots are still the most threatened group of birds out there, with about 100 endangered species," he said. "There are quite a few species which number in the hundreds and some you can count on both hands and feet."
Through the World Parrot Trust, Gilardi oversees projects that support local NGOs working to save at-risk birds.
"We try to locate local people doing good work, then help them take it to a higher level to ensure the survival of an individual species," he said.
According to Gilardi, the outlook for parrots worldwide is generally optimistic, with some species rebounding since an international trade ban has halted the practice that decimated their numbers in the wild.
In fact, some places are now showing larger numbers of birds than researchers have ever counted in the past. But Gilardi added that it's not known whether the higher numbers are due to migration from other areas or greater reproduction population growth.
Gilardi first got involved in parrot conservation in the mid-1990s, when leaders in the field held a conference in London to organize at an international level. Doing his Ph.D. work at Davis on the birds, Gilardi attended as an active parrot researcher, meeting many professional conservationists.
Five years later, the World Parrot Trust was recruiting its first paid director, and Gilardi got in touch with the connections he'd met at the conference. They hit it off immediately. The Trust wanted to hire him—but first he had to convince them that the director didn't need to live at headquarters in Cornwall, England.
Luckily he was successful, and has run the Trust from his home office in Davis ever since. (To see Dr. Gilardi's conservation work with the World Parrot Trust, visit the links at the end of the article.)
This works out well for Gilardi, whose wife, Kirsten, is assistant director of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center and is on the faculty of the veterinary school.
"She's the one with a real job," he joked.
But Gilardi also travels a lot, on multi-week trips to visit active and potential projects. There he offers his expertise on everything from financial organization to how to climb trees and work in parrot nests.
Gilardi also enjoys shooting video of wild parrots and editing clips for World Parrot Trust website and presentations.
Although he has found that directorship cuts his time for scientific research, he still collaborates with conservationists various projects and still publishes from time to time.
In fact, conservation has always been Gilardi's primary mission: Finding a graduate program where he could prepare for active conservation work was "a pre-existing condition" for getting his Ph.D.
"After my undergrad degree, I did a lot of field projects in different parts of the world and a lot of them were conservation focused," he said. "I realized that if I was going to be out there doing the work anyway, I should get a Ph.D. so that I could do planning rather than being a field assistant."
Throughout his graduate work, Gilardi remained active in conservation, running a project on St. Lucia in the Caribbean.
"The day after I got my thesis signed off, I got on a plane and left for St. Lucia and directly into the applied world," he said.
Gilardi says that applied work is the perfect blend of making a tangible contribution to wildlife while still addressing scientifically interesting questions.
"I never intended to take my sense of curiosity and bury it for the future because I wanted to do this other selfless thing," he said. "I still do field work and get to explore interesting scientific questions, but hopefully with a measurable outcome that makes a difference in the fate of a species."