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Wildlife in the City – An Interview with Jeff Young

Kathleen Murphy interviews Wildlife Photographer Jeff Young about his focus on capturing wildlife in cities, discovering the Great Horned Owl in Golden Gate Park, and the importance of citizen science.
wildlife in the city

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KM: I have started this beginner’s path into birds after I received my dad’s first bird book and binoculars. I’m  interested in how cities can preserve nature and wildlife. I’d like to start by asking you about your experience with the Great Horned Owl in San Francisco.

JY: When I moved to San Francisco, Golden Gate Park became one of my sanctuaries-a slice of nature right in the middle of the city, and the birds see it that way as well. I was inspired to reach out to other birders after I watched a Great Horned Owl pair raise their young one season right next to the bison paddock. Every evening a small group of people would gather around the tree and watch the two adult owls sing, feed, and take care of their young. 

Great Horned Owl born at the Bison Paddock in San Francisco 
Photo Credits: @Jeffy_San

KM: What did you learn the most from this experience of watching wildlife in a city?

JY: The collective sense of awe at something natural, something as fierce and wild as an owl, existing in the dead center of a modern city, created an instantaneous sense of camaraderie among the owl watchers. Strangers, opening up to each other, shooting the breeze as if they were old neighbors. It’s a phenomenon I’ve noticed multiple times in the city now. Some folks would stay all evening, others would stop their run or bike ride to watch, but every time I went, a general feeling of good will permeated the gathering. I was already very stoked on birds at this point, but this experience opened me up to the sense of community that can exist around a collective connection with nature. 

Photo of the Great Horned Owl in San Francisco by Jeff Young @jeffy_san

KM: You grew up in South Dakota. What was it like growing up? Can you share how nature was for you there? What you found especially important? Is there a place in South Dakota that is really special to you?

Jeff Young in the field

JY: I’m fortunate enough to have grown up in the Black Hills, an island of stone and pine surrounded by a sea of grass. It is a haven of unique ecosystems, a sacred place of deep cultural significance, and a reserve of natural resources. I think it’s also a place defined by tension with the natural environment.

KM: When we had our first call, you mentioned this struggle between some South Dakotans and conservation. Can you talk about how you see yourself bridging the gap between different views of nature? 

Photo of Red tailed Hawk and Golden Gate Bridge by @jeffy_san

I definitely can’t speak for the region, but from my personal perspective there is significant tension between living off the land vs. exploiting it, and between a general love for nature contrasted with distrust for science and environmentalism. I believe there is a deep undercurrent of love for nature in society, but this affection is most powerful when it is coupled with reverence and respect. Hunting is a great example. On one side you have respectful hunters, harvesting meat in a humane and sustainable way, living out their connection with nature, and on the other, you have things like bounty and killing contests, trophy hunting of endangered species, and other practices that revel in destruction. 

As a storyteller, I want to find and amplify stories of respect for nature, and showcase how the benefits can create a positive feedback loop. There’s a company called Wild Idea based near where I grew up. They’re raising bison, but doing it in a way that regenerates the prairie. A lot of their methodology, and especially field harvesting techniques, are based on traditional cultural and philosophical ideas held by the Lakota people. Wild Idea, in turn, has partnered with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, to help bison return to native lands. In this story you have business and conservation coming together, acknowledging (and benefiting from) traditional land stewardship and cultural practices, to create systems that benefit the environment, decrease emissions, and benefit people economically. 

Photo by Jill O’Brien of Wild Idea

KM: I know that you have worked for a company called Better Place Forests. Can you share their mission and what was your job at Better Place Forests?

JY: They buy and conserve forested land by offering individual trees as memorial markers to families for their loved ones. It has been incredible to meet so many people who are connected through nature to their loved ones and who wish to have a natural legacy of that connection. 

Photo by Better Place Forests

KM: I find this a great possibility. When my dad died, I was able to connect with him through his love of birds and his belief in being a responsible part of the natural world. He was very strict about how we camped and by example, showed us what a quiet observation of wild life can reveal; much like your Great Horned Owl experience. 

Photo of Sharp-shinned Hawk in San Francisco by @jeffy_san

JY: I left the company this year to pursue full-time nature photography (and hopefully filmmaking!).

KM:  When did photography and film become the profession that you wanted to pursue? 

JY: I think it’s always been there, but I was afraid to take the plunge. Nature filmmaking isn’t a career field particularly known for its career stability. I’m almost out of my twenties, and I think I’ve realized that, in the short term, my desire to get these skills, outweighs the fear. I’ll need to cultivate more grit, that’s for sure, but I’m ready to give it a shot. 

KM: I had a great experience of seeing this mystery bird in my backyard. I tried to identify it for months. Finally, I learned from local birders who knew quickly by my description that it was the Northern Flicker, which I knew nothing about.

You also taught me that there is a red-shafted and a yellow-shafted Northern Flicker, and you can only tell when you wait to see the color underneath its wings when it flies. You said that birders wait for these moments when a bird’s action reveals “who they really are.” I love this. This is what motivates me to learn about birds and how we all can participate in what you called “citizen science.” Can you explain what you mean by “citizen science”?

Photo by @jeffy_sans

JY: It’s the idea that members of the public can get involved in real scientific work, usually by contributing field observations and other data. The immense amount of data provided by public observations is useful for studies such as monitoring population or migration patterns in different species.

Here’s an animated map showing Flicker abundance throughout North America. The data is informed by observations from individuals reporting through eBird. Not only is the data useful, but directly involving folks in impactful scientific work is a great way to build public interest in science and conservation. 

Photo of Terns at the Golden Gate Bridge by @jeffy_sans

KM: What way do you want to contribute to citizen science through your filmmaking and photography?

For starters, I love to contribute my photography to eBird and iNaturalist for use in their databases. Longer term it’d be a dream to document some of the citizen science programs taking place today and their effects. As I mentioned, I’m a huge fan of eBird and iNaturalist as well as their new app Seek, which has a cool species ID tool using your phone camera. iNaturalist/Seek and eBird are both available on the app store.

KM: I just got the Seek app. Thank you Jeff. We appreciate all your work and will be following your journey.

You can follow Jeff on Instagram @jeffy_san and @young_outside. For photography, visit his website wildlifeprintshop.com.

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