Cindy Margulis Is an Avian Advocate

As the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s general director, she’s for the birds.


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Photo by Lance Yamamoto

If you follow the bird in front of you, said Cindy Margulis, the Golden Gate Audubon Society’s general director, it will tell you a story about humans’ connection to the rest of the ecological system. Margulis believes it’s our right to know this story, “but sometimes we tune it out.”

Margulis is an East Bay transplant from St. Louis, where, she said, neither summer nor winter are great for exploring the outdoors. “As a child, I loved all wildlife, but I was not a birder,” she said, explaining that it was a close friendship developed with a parrot while working as a docent at the Oakland Zoo that “deepened my view of what is going on in a bird’s heart and mind.”

From that point on, she started to look carefully at shorebirds, taking photographs and then looking them up to learn about them. “The Bay Area has global significance for migrating birds — you don’t have to go father than a bus stop to see creatures that have traveled half a hemisphere,” she said. Describing her view of the complex ecological system, she compared each of the birds to a thread in the world’s tapestry.

Margulis does not have a background in science. Her degree is in philosophy with a minor in religion. But the impact on wildlife of the 2007 Bay Bridge oil spill, believed to have killed more than 6,000 birds, motivated her to take an active part in conservation. She became a docent for the East Bay Regional Park District, as well as a volunteer for the Golden Gate Audubon Society, and worked on a project at Alameda’s Crown Memorial State Beach to protect the threatened snowy plover population.

It was at this point that a board member of the society suggested that she should apply to become the organization’s next general director. That was five years ago, and by all accounts, her hire was a brilliant move on the organization’s part.

“She is one of my favorite people,” said JD Bergeron, executive director of International Bird Rescue. “She is a ball of energy and positivity.” The two have worked together on multiple projects, including the successful ongoing effort to relocate night herons and snowy egrets from their downtown Oakland nesting spots. Margulis, he said, went above and beyond to create relationships with the developers doing construction in the area. “She won them over to the side of the birds,” he said.

“The herons were a challenge,” Margulis said, “but the way we develop our cities impacts whether we can have wildlife among us.” She commended the developers for their willingness to work with conservationists, and added, “Oakland is a ‘can-do’ city. There’s creativity and imagination here to foster collaboration.”

Another highly successful project launched under Margulis’s leadership are the osprey cams, high above the Red Oak Victory ship on top of the historic Whirley Crane in Richmond. Huge numbers of viewers visit www.sfbayospreys.org to watch osprey mates Rosie and Richmond raise their broods. The site is used in multiple other ways as well, tracking the number and type of fish the ospreys bring to the nest, for example, and distributing lesson plans for teachers to use in the classroom. Watching the birds allows the students to see how trash in the bay impacts them and the whole watershed, said Margulis, quantifying the problem for a new generation.

The cams’ biggest hit, however, has been its popular “live chat” feature. “There wouldn’t be a live chat without Cindy,” said its “unofficial moderator” Craig Griffeath, describing her approach since the cams’ launch as “notably hands-off.” 

“She prefers to let the nestcam chat group set its own rules and boundaries, which has helped define the group and contributed significantly, in spirit and in action, to the reach of Rosie and Richmond into the community,” Griffeath said. 

The organization under Margulis’s stewardship also participates in eight shoreline cleanups, including the ongoing one at Pier 94 in San Francisco. Margulis is particularly proud of what’s been accomplished at Oakland’s Martin Luther King Jr. Regional Shoreline Park, where wetlands restoration has attracted what she described as “bird marvels.”

After identifying a black turnstone by its banding as having come from the western coast of Alaska, she contacted the Russian scientists who had banded it to let them know about its migratory pattern. “They told me, ‘We feel like you found our daughter,’” she said, smiling.

Another way the public can easily observe birds starts at the reopened Rotary Nature Center at Lake Merritt. Starting in the fall, the society will partner in offering a range of walks, docent programs, and classes. And those who become Golden Gate Audubon Society members have access, Margulis noted, to more than 175 bird walks around the area year-round.

All of this activity demands leadership from people who are organized, creative, and able to put themselves in the shoes of people in the community. Margulis, Bergeron and Griffeath agreed, possesses all those qualities.

“In the role she’s in, some of negative stuff can roll towards her,” Bergeron said. But she handles it with aplomb. “She is a local hero, who brings her heart to doing good.”

Griffeath pointed to her knacks for persuading people with differing interests to collaborate, and finding competent, reliable allies. “She knows how to apply pressure when needed, and she also knows when to play the long game,” he said.

Asked about the best ways to support birdlife in the East Bay and region, Margulis listed joining a the society bird walk, which might showcase the shoreline avians of the Bay Trail, or the burrowing owls of Berkeley — and, of course, becoming a Golden Gate Audubon Society member.

She believes “people in the Bay Area are longing for more ways to unite.” Learning about birds is also a direct window into the threat climate change poses to their habitats and continued existence. A hummingbird can be a way for someone to connect to what is happening in South America, she said. “People become engaged, and translate that engagement to a new level of action.”

 

To learn more about the Golden Gate Audubon Society and its activities, visit GoldenGateAudubon.org.

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