Matt Fuirst, an '07 alumnus, can be found imparting knowledge to students at the University of Guelph or traversing the Canadian wilderness on snowshoes. In Algonquin Provincial Park, he diligently collects samples and takes measurements of Canada jays, adhering to rigorous research standards to ensure the well-being and safety of these avian creatures.
While looking for birds, Eagle Hill alumnus Matt Fuirst saw a lot of moose. The research biologist for Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans spent the early months of each of the last four years living with colleagues in a remote cabin in the far reaches of the Canadian wilderness. (Average temperature: between 0 and -20° Fahrenheit.)
Fuirst loved it. By day, they’d snowshoe many kilometers through deep snow in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario to monitor the nesting and movement patterns of Canada jays. Using radio tracking tools to locate and track the birds over a long period of time and across a huge area, they aimed to find out where the jays traveled (and why!) and what they ate.
“Canada jays nest in spruce trees,” explained Fuirst. “And what’s neat about them, compared to many other birds, is that they begin nesting in late February. Most other birds build their nests in May. Canada jays are up against predators, starvation, competition, and lots of other things. And they are heavily reliant on the winter climate.”
As the climate changes, Fuirst asserted, it’s important to know what threats populations face so we can understand ways to lessen them. He likens the predicament of the Canadian Jays to that of a freezer gone awry. “Canada jays rely on the winter climate to preserve their food. It’s like you keeping your chicken in the freezer until you’re ready to eat it. Because of warmer winters, their freezer is breaking down and the food is going bad. So, if jays can’t store thousands of berries and mushrooms and meat that they eat throughout the winter, what do they do?”
Fuirst’s research is ongoing, and has its unique challenges. “When you’re navigating the wilderness, you have to improvise,” he said, “Many times, I thought I was going to be able to cross a river and I found it wasn’t frozen anymore, so I had to climb over a beaver dam. And I’ve had many instances of snowmobiles getting stuck in the snow. I had to dig them out for hours on end.”
Originally from Chappaqua, New York, Fuirst grew up loving animals, being outdoors, and camping with his family. He attended middle school at Eagle Hill.
Reflecting on those years, he said, “Eagle Hill’s curriculum and advising transformed my ability to navigate my emotions and the learning process. I learned to effectively absorb information and be a comfortable and confident student. And if I wasn’t doing well at something, I knew how to seek help and how to troubleshoot. That was really it for me, because by no means were my high school grades phenomenal.”
After high school, motivated by a desire to pursue his love of the outdoors, Fuirst landed at Paul Smith’s College. Its 14,000-acre lakeside campus is tucked into New York’s Adirondack State Park.
Fuirst remembers thinking, “This is such a peaceful place to spend four years.” He did—while earning a bachelor’s degree in wildlife sciences. Fuirst later got his Ph.D. at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, where he now teaches.
Fuirst’s continued research on Canada jays seeks to answer the questions, “Where do animals go?” and “How do those decisions impact their survival?” The answers will allow us to make more effective conservation decisions. He’s hoping his findings help protect Canada jays and other birds, mammals, and species that rely on the winter climate, too. Click here to keep up with Matt's adventures and research.