CORVALLIS, Ore. – Noah Strycker didn’t mention his predilection for scavenging birds on his applications for prestigious scholarships. And that may have been a good thing.
The Oregon State University senior, who is majoring in fisheries and wildlife science, has snagged two of the top national scholarships for students in environmental studies – the Udall and Goldwater scholarships.
“That,” said his department chair, Dan Edge, “is practically unheard of.”
Noah Strycker isn’t your average college student. The 2003 graduate of South Eugene High School has parlayed a lifelong interest in birds into a growing reputation as a researcher, artist and writer. By the time he was 19 years old, he was the associate editor of Birding magazine, a columnist for WildBird, and a book reviewer for Birder’s World.
His artwork illustrates magazines and books. And he has spent thousands of hours observing and documenting different bird species in Oregon and abroad.
Strycker’s interest in birds began as a fifth-grade student in Oak Hill School in Eugene when his teacher began pointing out different birds on the school grounds. He soon began building birdhouses to place around his home.
But it was on a camping trip with his father in the fall of 2000 that his fascination with birds intensified. They were visiting Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and had spotted a barred owl swooping down from a tree to grab a snake. Just seconds later, a great horned owl flew in from a nearby tree and the two owls began to clash.
“They fought on the ground for a couple of minutes over the snake – feathers flying, hissing and spitting,” Strycker said. “It was a memorable experience. In fact, my early experiences at Malheur were so impressive that I’ve returned during every month of the year and recently spent four months there as a volunteer, which is unusual, because typically I’d rather go someplace new than return to the same place twice.”
Growing up, Strycker discovered that western Oregon is a pretty good place for a novice birder to become established. Oregon has the fourth highest number of bird species of any state in the country, he says, primarily because of its diverse habitat, including desert, mountains and coast.
In a state that has majestic bald eagles, stately great blue herons, graceful cormorants and other seabirds, reclusive owls, highly sought game birds, iconic gulls, and beautiful diminutive hummingbirds, Strycker has developed a favorite species of bird.
The lowly turkey vulture.
“Vultures don’t get a lot of respect,” he protested, “but they’re cool birds – once you get past the ugliness factor. They can smell a dead mouse two miles away.”
Right. So how did this infatuation begin?
“I’ve liked them ever since the time I decided to photograph one. They eat dead meat, so I drove around looking for roadkill and finally picked up a dead deer on a hot summer day. I took the smelly carcass home in my trunk and set it out in a pasture next to our house, and sat in a blind next to it all afternoon, trying not to gag.
“About 20 vultures showed up for the feast and picked the bones clean within a few days,” Strycker added. “A couple of years later, I found a vulture nest site, one of the few to be located in Oregon. They are remarkably secretive birds.”
Strycker is the son of Bob Keefer, a reporter at the Register-Guard in Eugene, and Lisa Strycker, a senior analyst at the Oregon Research Institute, who support their son’s pursuits – even when he drags home carrion.
“As parents, we figured our job was to encourage Noah to be the individual he is – and stinking up the car with putrifying flesh just went with the territory,” said his mother. “Noah’s extraordinary passion for birds seems to be sparked by something deep within himself. It’s been fun to nurture that spark and watch him follow his passion.”
This summer, Strycker spent a month on a study abroad program in Australia and Fiji, learning about the environmental sustainability of different societies there. It was, he said, “a blast.”
“We lived with families in a village in Fiji, snorkeled with whales on the Great Barrier Reef, slept under the stars in the Australian Outback, learned a lot and generally had fun,” Strycker said. “In my free time, I went bungee jumping and skydiving, and birded whenever I could.”
He added about 120 new species to his “life list” of sightings that has reached nearly 1,600 different kinds of birds.
Strycker admits he doesn’t fit the profile of the traditional birding demographic. Most birders are older, tend to be retired, and have plenty of time and disposable income. His age isn’t a factor in his multiple roles as editor, columnist and reviewer for different magazines.
“I don’t generally make a point of my age since it doesn’t affect my work,” he said, matter-of-factly. “Either they already know me, or they’ll find out eventually.”
His friends accept Stryker’s unusual hobby, but stop short of collecting roadkill for his “pet” turkey vultures.
“Some of my friends think I’m crazy, some think I’m weird, but most respect the ability to know a lot about a certain subject and be passionate about it,” Stryker said. “My goal is to make birding cool by being normal – and also being a birder. Sometimes those are two separate lives, but my best friends don’t see anything out of the ordinary.”
Graduation is still a year away for Stryker, and he is contemplating graduate school. Eventually, he says, he would like to work for a magazine or private organization with enough flexibility to pursue travel and, of course, more birding.
“When I first started birding, I didn’t really know anyone who was serious about it,” Stryker said. “I acquired a field guide and some binoculars and just started looking. Eventually I knew the birds around my house well enough that I started going farther afield to find new ones. And that’s when I started meeting other birders.
“The more people I met, the more I realized that this was a serious game, with lots of different ways to approach it. I wouldn’t go birding if it wasn’t fun, though. I just think the more you get into something, the more fun you can have.”
One of his mentors, Edge, says Strycker is special.
“We always have several outstanding students in the fisheries and wildlife program,” said Edge, who also is on the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission, “but Noah’s talents – including being an accomplished author, artist and budding scientist – are a unique combination in my experience.”
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