Volume 43 | Number 2 | Fall 2013

5000 Reasons to Love Birds... and Buy Binoculars

Fall 2013 Issue | By Andrew Taylor

In the 1940s, many 11- or 12-year-old boys used their saved-up allowances to buy model airplanes or trains, a BB gun (perhaps with the passion of the kid in the movie "A Christmas Story"?) or maybe an erector set.

At that age in that time period, however, Chuck Trost, 79, Idaho State University professor emeritus of biological sciences, used his precious savings to buy a pair of binoculars. He's been a hardcore birder since that purchase.

Trost, who started life living on a ranch in Colorado before moving to Pennsylvania when he was 12, picked up his passion in Harrisburg, mentored by his biology teacher, Mr. Knorr.

"He knew I was kind of introverted and would never do sports, so he suggested I do a bird list of a city park and that's when I used my allowance to buy binoculars," Trost said. "Once you buy binoculars, you're committed."

Exactly 4,770 bird species later (but who's counting?) Trost's commitment and passion towards birding remains intact and has been a constant throughout his existence.

Trost was passionate about birds during the three years he was in the Army and was stationed in Germany from 1953-56. He birded wherever and whenever he could in Europe during this period without the benefit of having any kind of field guide.

"There were no bird books," Trost said. "I had to write down pages and pages of notes about the birds I was seeing to figure out how to identify them."

Using the GI Bill, Trost kept learning about birds and biology, earning a bachelor's degree in biology from Penn State University, a master's at the University of Florida and a doctorate from the University of California Los Angeles before landing a job at ISU.

"Birds just happen to be the hook that lets me see these fascinating fields of science," Trost said.

At ISU, he transferred his love of birds, and probably his second greatest intellectual passion — the teachings of Charles Darwin and Darwin's contemporary Alfred Russell Wallace — to his undergraduate and graduate students at ISU during his 32 years teaching at the university.

"It was a fantastic job," Trost said. "My god, think about it, I got to babble about birds all the time and teach about evolution. I taught about evolution in my Comparative Anatomy class to a bunch of people who might not have been exposed to it otherwise."

During his time at ISU he mentored 35 master's students and seven Ph.D. students who earned their degrees, and several more who didn't.

"It was a wonderful experience," he added. "They (the graduate students and some of his undergraduate students, too) are like family. I'm still traveling with a lot of them."

Another part of Trost's legacy in Pocatello is his involvement with the Portneuf Valley Audubon Society, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013. Trost founded the local chapter. The PVAS has been one of the area's most active conservation and educational groups, raising money and volunteering for a variety of causes and projects (more on the PVAS is available at www.pvaudubon.org).

Since retiring in 2000 Trost has been on a birding bash. His goal is to identify 5,000 different species of birds. As of late June 2013 he had 4770.

During his lifetime bird chase Trost has visited all the earth's continents and 40 countries, including 32 since retiring. Post-retirement countries he has visited include Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Galapagos (three times), Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica, Honduras (three times), Mexico (three times), England, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Namibia, South Africa (three times), Lesotho, Madagascar, Malaysia (Bali, Flores, Komodo and Borneo), Vietnam, Thailand, Sri Lanka, N. India, China, Australia (three times) and New Zealand. He also has visited Antarctica.

As of this writing, in 2013 Trost had plans to travel to Indonesia to the islands of Sulawesi and Halmahera on a July jaunt, and then to Australia and Tasmania in December.

Trost will keep birding as long as he can.

"It's a game and fun to see new birds, and I learn so much by doing it," Trost said. "You're looking at the history of the earth by looking at birds."

"I used my allowance to buy binoculars. Once you buy binoculars, you're committed."

— Chuck Trost