The setting: somewhere in New Mexico. Oil field waste pits have not been properly netted to protect wildlife from their toxic mixture. Migratory birds, mistaking these holding ponds for water, have become trapped and died. The oil companies are in clear violation of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, but Fish and Wildlife Special Agents need help in building their case. How many birds have been affected? How many species? Are any endangered? Time to call Pepper Trail, bird detective.

Ornithologist Pepper Trail

As the nation’s only forensic ornithologist, Trail is the go-to expert for federal wildlife crimes involving avian species. Working at the US National Fish and Wildlife Forensics Laboratory in Ashland, Oregon, he identifies the remains of birds in evidence items ranging from oil-covered carcasses to ornate feather headdresses and is often called as an expert witness in court. His data analysis in oil pit cases concluded that between 500,000 to 1 million birds, and more than 170 species, die each year in these pits.

Of course, Trail’s preference is identifying living birds—which he does with enthusiasm and a great deal of humor while accompanying our expeditions around the world.

His bird-watching began while still a boy in upstate New York and an early family trip to Mexico solidified a lifelong love of travel that has now taken him to all seven continents and across every ocean on the planet. Trail earned his Ph.D. in ornithology at Cornell University, where his field studies of the spectacular Guianan Cock-of-the-Rock in Suriname were featured in National Geographic. The article was illustrated with his own photographs.

Guinean Cock of the Rock

Other accomplishments over the years include post-doctoral fellowships at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and the California Academy of Sciences, serving as the senior wildlife biologist for the government of American Samoa, and authoring numerous research papers and natural history articles.

In between, he even pens a poem or two.

As for helping to reduce bird mortality, Trail’s work has resulted in monetary fines, proper netting, and even the closure of numerous oil pits around the country. Just another day in the life of Pepper Trail, bird detective.