Flying low across the water, looking for a good meal, the black-crowned night heron quickly caught the attention of Mississippi catfish producers.
Farmers first noticed the 22- to 28-inch, stocky-bodied bird in the spring of 2004. With its black cap, gray wings and red eyes, the bird concerned producers because it appeared to prefer feeding on 6- to 7-inch catfish fingerlings.
Catfish producers turned to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Wildlife Services agency in Starkville, Miss., for help in assessing the threat to their business from the species. Before 2004, it was found primarily in swamps and other natural wetlands.
“Farmers first called Wildlife Services and complained about a weird bird they were seeing at night,” said Andrea Cooper, a wildlife and fisheries graduate student at Mississippi State University.
Cooper had just completed a bachelor's degree in wildlife science at MSU and was interning for the federal agency. “The call came in at just the right time to give me an opportunity to study the catfish predator,” Cooper said.
She surveyed catfish ponds from June until September in 2004, 2005 and 2006 to gain a better understanding of the nocturnal bird and to provide information to develop a plan to alleviate a potential problem for catfish producers.
Support from the Berryman Institute gave Cooper the opportunity to solve a problem for the catfish industry and to pursue her graduate degree.
The institute works closely with the USDA Wildlife Services agency to help minimize human-wildlife conflicts and to develop innovative solutions that allow for a harmonious coexistence.
Established in 1993 and named for Utah native Jack H. Berryman, a 30-year U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veteran, the Berryman Institute consists of two branches: Berryman West at Utah State University and Berryman East at MSU.
The institute focuses on long-term strategies to benefit wildlife while reducing the potential damage and nuisance that animals can cause. It also provides education and outreach programs to help people better understand wildlife behavior.
“The Berryman Institute facilitates research through requests for proposals and solicitation for experts,” said co-director Bruce Leopold, department head of wildlife and fisheries at MSU. “Instead of hiring someone to solve a problem, the Berryman Institute finds the best expert in the subject area and funds the research through graduate fellowships.”
This approach allows the institute to be proactive in solving human-wildlife conflicts.
“The board of advisers is careful not to duplicate research but rather to identify all available knowledge and then fill in the information gaps,” Leopold added.
The Berryman Institute has funded 55 separate research projects in 25 states and provided 13 undergraduate internships and 20 graduate fellowships.
“The research subjects are diverse and include the economic threat posed by cormorants, black-crowned night herons and other predators in catfish ponds; the impact of feral hogs on forest and wildlife communities; and ways to reduce deer-vehicle collisions,” Leopold said.
The institute also provides an extensive outreach component. Currently, Jessica Tegt, a doctoral student from Milwaukee is surveying the federal Wildlife Services employees to develop a national needs assessment.
“Berryman finds the current needs in the work force and locates a national expert to provide training on subjects such as conflict resolution, stress, team building and other skills,” Leopold said. “We build the work force and provide critical training that would not be possible without the Berryman Institute.”
The outreach program also is developing a national education program to assist biologists and others in collecting samples.