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The Bird Man of Saint Anselm College

Dr. Jay Pitocchelli is a biology professor interested in birdsby Laurie D. Morrissey
Originally published in Portraits fall 2003

If you take a walk on Saint Anselm's campus with Dr. Jay Pitocchelli on an April morning, you're likely to see 20 or 30 species of birds. You might spot an Eastern Bluebird on the athletic fields, a tiny Ruby-crowned Kinglet singing outside the North Annex, or a Cooper's Hawk soaring over Saint Anselm Drive. And he's excited about every one of them, from the commonest crow to the rarest warbler.

"Even if you've seen thousands of crows, you can observe something new about them," he says. "Every time you step outside, it's an opportunity." He's interested not only in what birds are spotted, but where they're seen, and what they are doing.

The aptly named "Dr. Jay" is a biology professor who is passionate about birds: bird behavior, bird song, bird genetics, bird plumage, and everything else avian. (He can even tell you about bird symbols in ancient art.) Although ornithology is not offered every year, Pitocchelli often includes bird labs in his general biology, biostatistics, and evolutionary biology courses. His enthusiasm is infectious, according to Dave DesRochers, '00, who has just finished a master's degree and is going on to a doctorate in ornithology. If the professor could fit birds into his human anatomy and physiology course, most likely he would.

Dr. Jay's interest in birds began in an undergraduate ornithology course at Hobart and William Smith College. The Bryn Mawr, Pa. native soon found himself recording bird songs in the woods of upstate New York. Fascinated with the behavior of birds and other animals, he went on to study psychology at Newfoundland's Memorial University. Part of the attraction was the rugged maritime coast, home to some of the largest seabird colonies on the continent. Here, he observed the social behavior of Gannets and Storm Petrels on windswept Baccalieu Island. But while the swarms of dive-bombing seabirds were exciting, he chose to do his thesis on the musical little Savannah Sparrow.

Pitocchelli's ornithological odyssey then took him to City University of New York, where he earned a Ph.D. in biology. His thesis topic was the Mourning Warbler. He spent six years teaching at Queens College, close to what he considers one of the best birding locations in the country: Central Park.

All this time observing the courtship behavior of his feathered subjects left him little time for his own romantic pursuits. Three years ago, he married Kris, a doctor completing a residency in radiology. She shares his love of outdoor recreation, including tennis, alpine and Nordic skiing, canoeing, and cycling.

Many bird watchers keep a life list, a steadily growing record of every species observed. Pitocchelli doesn't have a life list as such, but his life is marked by a series of birding highlights. He vividly recalls his first sighting of a Rhinoceros Auklet (Alaska), and the sensation of waking up to the sound of Sandhill Cranes battling for territory (Alberta, Canada).

Dr. Jay Pitocchelli is a biology professor interested in birdsWhenever he goes someplace new, the "must-see" pops up in his mind: a mental box to be checked off if at all possible. Some people headed for Hawaii at the end of a long New Hampshire winter would dream of tall drinks and luaus. Pitocchelli's fervent hope was catching sight of a Nene (pronounced nay-nay), the endangered goose that is the state's official bird. After a wild goose chase all over Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, he finally found about a dozen of the world's population of 250 on a golf course. Should he go to Bermuda, Dr. Jay will be on the lookout for a White-tailed Tropicbird. And the next time he's in Alaska, he'll be scanning the sky for something he failed to spot in six summers there: a Short-tailed Albatross.

Pitocchelli's own back yard, on a back road in Dunbarton, N.H. provides many wildlife sightings. The forest edges right up to the deck of his log cabin and harbors moose, deer, bears, and the occasional bobcat. He feeds birds winter and summer, taking note of the single Fox Sparrow that visits annually, and the welcome visit of an Indigo Bunting. He plants fruit trees and blueberry bushes to attract mockingbirds and waxwings; bee balm and phlox to attract hummingbirds; and Christmas trees to attract deer and turkeys. Those deer unwary or unlucky enough to wander onto his 17 acres during hunting season are taking their chances: Piotocchelli has a lifetime New Hampshire hunting license. (An avid oenophile, he can pick out a good red wine to go with venison.)

Pitoccchelli began teaching at Saint Anselm College in 1992 and received tenure in 1996. His service to the college seems to indicate an infinite appetite for hard work. But the duties he takes on simply reflect his many interests: he has been faculty advisor to the ski club, headed the college recycling committee, and led efforts to evaluate and upgrade the college's information technology systems. He's even made a name for himself as a party organizer. (His puffin liver pate was a memorable contribution to the biology department's holiday party).

Pitocchelli makes biology and statistics classes relevant even for non-majors by bringing in current issues such as SARS, anthrax, and cancer. "Dr. Jay boils over with enthusiasm," recalls Paul Music, '96. "We set up a couple of birdfeeders behind Gadbois and counted the birds and the number of species we saw. I became somewhat of a statistics geek," he says.

The professor's zeal has motivated many students to continue in biology after graduation. Music has worked as a plover biologist for the Audubon Society, a conservation aide on an Atlantic salmon project, and a contract biologist for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association). Still trying to figure out whether he's
more interested in fish or birds, he plans to pursue a graduate degree in ecology.

Dan Rizzolo, '96, who is pursuing a master's degree in wildlife science, says, "Dr. Jay was a big help when I applied for my first job in Alaska because of his reputation and the amount of field work he's done up here. The connections and references I got from that job have led to everything I've done since."

Pitocchelli also enjoys involving students in his own research and supervising majors in directed studies and independent research. Publishing a paper with two undergraduates was one of his most rewarding interactions with students, he says: "I got to watch them synthesize what they've learned and be successful in the writing and publishing process."
For now, the bird man of Saint Anselm can be found close to home: in the classroom, on the ski trails, and on the tennis court. Next summer, however, he will be trekking through the Canadian woodlands with his electronic parabolic microphone, recording the musical notes of sparrows and warblers. He will revisit his thesis topic, the Mourning Warbler, this time to look for changes in song patterns.

SIDEBAR: Dan Rizzolo, '96, recalls a slide show of Professor Pitocchelli's field studies in Alaska. "He was sticking his head inside a puffin burrow. Those burrows are infested with fleas and ticks, but for him it was clearly a small price to pay for getting to hang out with puffins." Rizzolo went on to study songbirds in Alaska and geese in Mexico, and is now researching Harlequin Ducks for his master's thesis at Oregon State. "They still haven't recovered from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in '89. The standard thinking on oil spills is that things are really bad for a year or two but then everything goes back to normal. But that isn't true of all species," he says.

SIDEBAR: It's not unusual for Kristin Conte,'03, to go to five beaches on a single July day. But she's not there for swimming and tanning. She spent the summer as a paid intern with the N.H. Department of Environmental Services (DES), monitoring public beaches for water-borne pathogens and toxins that can cause health problems from liver damage to "swimmer's itch." Unhealthy bacteria levels result in state-issued advisories and sometimes beach closings. It was her second summer with the DES. Always interested in science, she decided on her major after taking Dr. Jay's general biology class. "Field work is what I love to do," she says.

PHOTOS: Electronic photo of Dan Rizzolo holding duck: credit Dan Esler
Pitocchelli on mountaintop: credit Kris Eschbach
Other photos George Barker