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.
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 early. But it was on a camping trip with his father that his fascination intensified. They were visiting Malheur National Wildlife Refuge and had spotted a barred owl swooping down from a tree to grab a snake. Just then, a great horned owl flew in from nearby 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. He was hooked.
Strycker soon discovered that Oregon is a good place for a novice birder to become established. Oregon has the fourth highest number of bird species of any state in the nation, primarily because of its diverse habitats, including deserts, mountains, and coast. Yet, in a state that has jousting owls, majestic eagles, and a treasury of jewel-colored songbirds, Strycker's favorite bird is the turkey vulture.
"Vultures don't get much 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," Strycker said. "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. 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 admits he doesn't fit the profile of the traditional birding demographic. Most birders are older, maybe retired, with plenty of time and disposable income. His age isn't a factor in his multiple roles as editor, artist, and columnist for various birding magazines. "I don't generally make a point of my age since it doesn't affect my work," he said. "Either they already know me, or they'll find out eventually.""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." But his best friends don't see anything out of the ordinary; although most stop short of collecting roadkill.