Katherine Emery and kids

As the new Executive Director of Santa Barbara's  Audubon Society, Katherine Emery MS ’05, Ph.D. ’13 focuses on saving species (including our own).

“I grew up in New York City with pigeons and Pale Male (the famous Red-tailed Hawk who ruled Central Park and, to the residents’ humor, nested above my father’s office,” she recalls.

“I spent holidays in our wooded backyard in the Poconos, PA, making birds’ nests using mud and twigs.  Birds never used them; however, I deeply appreciated the nature and dirt play."

Little did Emery know that her childhood affinity and education (B.S., Cornell University, M.S. and PhD in Marine Science, UCSB) would lead to her new role as Executive Director of Santa Barbara Audubon Society.

We recently read of the disappearance of 3 million birds since the 1970's. Why should that be of concern to people beyond bird-lovers?

The presence of birds is a key indicator of the quality of our air and the amount and health of our open spaces.  In addition to joy from watching birds, the disappearance of birds matters to us because it indicates that our ecosystem is deteriorating.  We need to work together to stop loss of habitat, protect critical remaining natural habitats and open spaces, and spark appreciation for birdlife.

More than one in four birds (including common sparrows, blackbirds, warblers, and finches) have disappeared in almost 50 years.  Dr. Hillary Young, conservation biologist at UCSB, says, “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact” (Carl Zimmer, 9/17/2019, “Birds Are Vanishing From North America”, New York Times).

How did you plan to apply your undergraduate degree from Cornell with your master’s and doctoral education at UCSB? 

After a year studying abroad, I transferred to Cornell to study pre-med.  My first biology job was doing bug stream ecology research in a campus lab.  I loved fieldwork.  Because of my passion for nature and an eye-opening summer living with red-eyed medical student residents, I refocused my aspirations towards marine science.  After completion of my PhD, when this new Executive Director opportunity opened up, I seized it.  A combination of academic and professional experiences empowered me to become an environmental leader with Santa Barbara Audubon Society (SBAS.)

When you applied for your current role, did you see it as a chance to do conservation work or were you specifically interested in birds? Were you, for example, a bird watcher at any point in your life?

Exploring nature has always been a passion of mine.  Now, the mother of an avid 8 year-old birding son, and two curious and adventurous daughters who love to camp, it is my pleasure and duty to protect birds and their habitat.  As part of the interview process for this position, I had extensive discussions with SBAS’s Board President and I knew right away that this was a dream opportunity to do good work and lead energizing education and conservation projects in our Santa Barbara community.  

Are there any species of birds that you think of as particularly associated with the Santa Barbara area?

Because of Santa Barbara’s diverse geology and geography we have iconic birds for ocean, wetland, and chaparral habitats (among others.)  Each year, there is a national Audubon Christmas Bird Count.  Santa Barbara Audubon is consistently in the top five in the country for number of bird species spotted (220 species last year.)  That being said, White-tailed Kites are species particularly associated with Santa Barbara.  We like the fact that they have returned to the area.

Can you describe your experience at UCSB? 

Originally from New York City, I traveled west to pursue marine science studies at SBCC and graduate work at UCSB.  Two experiences shined at UCSB.  First, a few dynamite mentors stood out for supporting me when I applied for and obtained a Fulbright to explore ecology, conservation, and fishery issues in Italy.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, these caring individuals advocated for the successful completion of my PhD while I had two children during graduate school.  I learned time management, perseverance, and the value of humor and keeping perspective.

I am forever grateful to these mentors and close graduate student friends.  Because of their support and my persistence, I now have the privilege to be a mom and an education and conservation leader in our community as Executive Director of SBAS. 

You have just been on the job a short time but do you think that there may be a class, a professor, or an experience while studying here that you will be able to apply directly to your work?

I learned how to collaborate in working groups and how to communicate science with clarity for environmental decision making.  I use these skills each day for the work we do at SBAS: we use science data as evidence to inform policy makers about local environmental issues.  

In addition to your “day job,” you are also a realtor. Crazy as it may sound, do you see any overlap between your two jobs? 

I dove into real estate after personally spending five years researching a lot of homes for our family, and finding a great one!  With three young children and hands-on real estate experience, I decided to become a Realtor® to support our family as it grew.  To succeed as a nonprofit Executive Director and Realtor®, you need specific skills: integrity and knowledge, to be a caring listener and communicator, and to be persistent and adroit at problem solving with diverse groups of people.  In conservation and policy negotiations, it’s vital to objectively see different sides of an issue and then, when possible, professionally communicate and combine distinct ideas so that multiple parties can “win.”

You may be reluctant to play favorites but would you be willing to share your personal "top 3" species of birds?

As a graduate student researcher in Antarctica, I had the opportunity to assist the ornithology group at Palmer Station and witness the beauty and fun of penguins waddling and sliding down snow ramps.  In the Santa Barbara area, my 2 favorite birds are the California Thrasher and the American Avocet because they have easy to identify and opposing bills.

For information about the UCSB Campus Chapter please contact: Conor McMahon at  conor.mcmahon@geog.ucsb.edu