The first thing I notice about Purchase College senior Tiffani Rushford is a pleasant burst of color. In her tie-dye T-shirt, with long hair pulled back into a yellow bandana, she looks a bit how I’d imagine the artsy girl from summer camp.
Rushford, 24, an environmental studies major, is currently working on her senior project, under Dr. Allyson Jackson, a study that compares human and avian use of Long Island beaches.
Her road to Purchase senior wound through multiple career ideas, two majors, and three schools. Rushford enjoys teaching and learning about the environment, dreams of traveling when the pandemic fades off, and recalls working with species from hawks to howler monkeys.
We talked recently via Zoom, and I suspect you’ll enjoy her as much as I did…
SONIA BARKAT: (SB) What is your senior project about?
TIFFANI RUSHFORD (TR): I’m doing avian ecology, so I’m studying bird behavior. I did field work on four beaches on Long Island Sound. I walked the whole length of the beaches and counted how many birds I saw, and compared that to the amount of humans I saw. My hypothesis was that if there are more humans, there’ll be less birds, because of the disturbance they pose. They’re just so loud, and whooping and hollering on the beach. But as I’m analyzing my data now, I’m actually finding that they’re symbiotic. To birds, humans are a food source. People have a bunch of picnics, so birds know ‘this is good, I don’t have to do any work.’
I grew up on the North Shore—I’ve been going to these beaches my whole life. After doing this project, I’m more in tune as to what bird species are on the beaches.
SB: Why did you choose the topic?
TR: Pre-COVID, my topic was supposed to be to study the mercury levels in songbirds, but I had to cancel that because I needed to get permits through the state of Connecticut. At the time, state offices were closed, and getting a license for bird-banding to capture them and take their blood isn’t essential. So what Dr. Jackson and I came up with is birding.
We looked at the map and we saw where I was geographically; I have four beaches near me that are pretty much all the same. We wanted to see if the bird populations on each beach would be the same, and compare that to the humans on the beach. I think all birding is pandemic-proof, because you can just be by yourself with binoculars and observe from a distance.
SB: Are you looking to see if certain kinds of birds show up more than others?
TR: That wasn’t a main thing I was looking at, but studying it I have found that certain birds, like herring gulls, Bonaparte’s gulls, and ring-billed gulls, are the more prominent birds that go near humans. But the smaller kinds of songbirds, like song sparrows, house sparrows, piping plovers… those are more scared of humans, so they’re not really near them. And they don’t really eat human food. So it’s more of like, your stereotypical gulls eating a bag of chips.
SB: Do you have a favorite kind of bird?
TR: Ooh I do! It’s either between an osprey or a red-tailed hawk. The birds of prey are really where my interest is. I work at a nature center on Long Island [Sweetbriar Nature Center] where I’m thankful that I get to interact with some. They have an injured red-tailed hawk that I do programs with, and she’s the best bird ever. It’s really amazing to have this bird of prey on your arm, knowing that this thing is powerful. In nature, this is like the apex predator, but here it’s a nice, kind, sweet animal.
SB: Have you always gravitated towards the natural world?
TR: Definitely. Ever since I was a kid, I was the girl outside in the mud and dirt playing with bugs, or messing around with dogs and cats. I’ve always loved being outside. I have a garden, and every summer I’m in it all the time. I put up a bird feeder so I get to see the birds come by my backyard.
SB: Going back to your senior project, what excites you most about it?
TR: I kind of figured out that certain birds enjoy human presence and some don’t. I kinda assumed all birds didn’t really like people. Another enjoyable part of it was the field work. I would often find myself sitting and watching a flock of birds, and seeing how they interact with each other. Most people don’t realize that these birds, they have personalities. And they’re actually pretty entertaining.
SB: How are they entertaining?
TR: Well, I’ve noticed that juvenile herring gulls and older herring gulls—they’ll be like fighting over a fish, or crab. They make a bunch of noises at each other and yell at each other, and it’s so funny to watch!
SB: Have you picked up any new hobbies during the pandemic?
TR: I started to make earrings, actually. I would go to the beach and gather a bunch of seashells or sea glass, and I have jewelry wire that I’ve been wrapping them with—that’s definitely something I’ve picked up during the pandemic. Also playing with clay, making little clay pots. And my local Dollar Tree has these little jars, so I went to the beach and filled one up with seashells and sand and water. So I kind of made a little beach in a bottle.
SB: If you could’ve done anything this past year, what would you have done?
TR: Right before COVID hit, I got accepted to study wildlife conservation in Belize. I would’ve loved to do that. I had everything set up and I was ready to go, then they canceled it. It tied my veterinary technology knowledge [from a previous major] and wildlife conservation knowledge together in one program.
SB: Do you think in the future you’ll try to travel somewhere like that?
TR: I definitely think so. In the past, I’ve been to Costa Rica, which is the same type of environment. Through going there, I developed a deep love of the rainforest, and saw how important it was, and how unique the ecosystem was.
SB: When did you visit Costa Rica?
TR: I went there in 2018, for a month. I went there by myself. Probably not the smartest idea, but no one wanted to go with me. I set it up myself, and I went there and volunteered at Costa Rica Animal Rescue Center for two weeks. I got to work with a bunch of sloths, which was really cool. Sloths, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, kinkajous, all the different types of rainforest animals that were at this nature center. In the last two weeks I was exploring around the country, and I was fascinated by how Green it is! Like, everyone composts, there’s no plastic anywhere. Going there kinda made me more environmentally conscious. It’s a beautiful country.
SB: What are your thoughts on graduating?
TR: I have mixed emotions about it, especially during COVID. I’ve been in college since 2015 and I’ve been working very hard. I didn’t expect my graduation to be like this. There’s no big ceremony, there’s nothing. I also feel like I’m gonna be graduating with less experience than other people with the same degree, because a lot of my classes got cut short. I didn’t get to do a lot of the things for my ornithology class. I was supposed to take an outdoor gym class called Outdoor Skills, that would’ve been really helpful… I feel a little shortchanged. At the same time, I’m thankful to be finishing up. I don’t think I could take any more Zoom school. It’s definitely a weird, bittersweet ending.
SB: What’s something you could talk about all day long, or get really passionate about?
TR: Oooh, that’s many things. I can talk about trees for a while. I can talk about my cat for a long time. Something I could talk about forever is the environment, that’s a main reason why I love my job. I can take everything that’s in my head and teach people about it. There’s so many interconnections that people overlook.
SB: Like what?
TR: Like, most people don’t know that trees are just like us! And under the ground, they have a whole interconnected network of roots. The roots are kind of like veins, and they can transport nutrients to each other. If you see a really big tree and smaller trees around it, all the smaller trees are thriving from the big tree’s nutrients, and something that I think is really cool is that trees and certain plants do like, chemical warfare. It’s called allelopathy. So if there’s a certain tree that wants all the nutrients, they’ll actually taint the soil to kill another tree, so they get the nutrients. I feel like that’s stuff people should know, because they think of trees as landscaping. They look pretty. They’re just there to be shade. But there’s so much going on. They blow my mind.
SB: Thank you so much for talking to me, this was great!
TR: Yeah, I thoroughly enjoyed this. I never thought in a million years that I would get interviewed. But it was fun. It made me realize that I’m kinda cooler than I think I am.