Emeritus Spotlight: Dave Manuwal

“I’ve known what I wanted to do for an awfully long time, probably more than 60 years,” says Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal of the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). Growing up in South Bend, Ind., he remembers when his parents bought a cottage on a lake in southern Michigan. One of their neighbors had a bird bath, and he loved watching all the colorful visitors—cardinals, orioles, blue jays—come there to splash and drink. “I watched them and thought, ‘Wow, these are cool animals!’”

Dave ManuwalManuwal quickly realized he had a real knack for ornithology. If he heard a bird song once, he could remember it, and by the time he finished high school, he says he knew virtually all the birds you could find in Indiana. But he can trace it all back to those first trips to Michigan. “I was 9, 10 years old,” he says. “I never really wavered since then.”

Now, after 41 years as part of the SEFS community, Manuwal is officially retired and no longer teaches, but you’ll find his indelible fingerprints all over this school and the history of the wildlife program. We caught up with him the other day to learn more about his lifetime of teaching and studying birds and forest ecology.

Career Beginnings
Manuwal went to the same high school one class below SEFS Professor Bruce Bare, and they both stayed in Indiana and attended Purdue University. Bare decided to study forest production, and Manuwal earned a degree in wildlife conservation in 1966 (years later, as it happened, they would have offices next to each other at the University of Washington).

Before graduating, Manuwal had landed a job as an undergraduate research assistant in Manitoba, Canada. Another researcher there—a graduate student at the University of Montana—told him that if he was interested in studying wildlife after Purdue, he really ought to contact Professor Richard (Dick) Taber.

Dick Taber

This past August, Manuwal spent several hours catching up with Dick Taber, now 92, under a huge ponderosa pine tree in the Lubrecht Forest, where Taber initiated several studies back in the 1950s and ‘60s. “The Richard D. Taber Outstanding Wildlife Conservation Student Award,” which Manuwal created, is given each spring to an exemplary SEFS wildlife student.

So he did. Manuwal wrote Professor Taber and expressed his interest in continuing his ornithological studies in Montana. Taber accepted him as a graduate student in 1966, and off he headed to Missoula to earn a Master’s in Wildlife Management.

Two years later, word of mouth once again steered Manuwal farther west. By that time, he had developed an interest in studying marine birds, and two members of his master’s committee suggested he consider contacting Professor Thomas Howell at the University of California at Los Angeles. So he wrote Howell, expressed his interest and ended up getting accepted there as a doctoral student in zoology.

When he completed his Ph.D. work in 1972, Manuwal didn’t have long to savor the peace. One of the last jobs he had applied to that summer was for an assistant professor of wildlife science with the College of Forest Resources (now SEFS). He was offered the position but was hesitant at first because he still wasn’t sure he wanted to teach. As an undergrad at Purdue, in fact, he says he was “deathly afraid of standing in front of people.” That pretty much held until he started graduate school and was appointed as a graduate teaching assistant. “All of a sudden I realized, ‘I know this stuff,’ and then I wasn’t afraid to talk about it.”

But did he want to make a career doing it? He’d find out awfully fast, because when he accepted the position he learned he’d be teaching his first class within a few weeks of arriving on campus. “It was pretty scary,” he says, and he still vividly remembers that first lecture in September 1972.The course was WS 401, a “Wildlife Biology” class for wildlife science and fisheries majors—and Manuwal was almost starting from scratch. “This was long before the advent of the personal computer,” he says. “I spent a lot of time in journals and libraries, and it took me almost seven hours of research to create those lectures.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal organized the first SEFS field trip to Yellowstone National Park back in 1994. “I felt our students needed a broader wildlife experience than what they could get in western Washington,” he says. The annual weeklong trip continues today, now led by professors John Marzluff, Monika Moskal and Aaron Wirsing.

As the 65 or so students filed into Winkenwerder 201 on the first day, Manuwal sat inconspicuously in the second row and listened to some of the chatter speculating about the new wildlife professor. Nobody had seen him yet, and of course he didn’t have an online profile to search. “I was 29 years old and looked pretty much like the majority of the male students,” says Manuwal. “When the bell rang, I got up and walked to the podium. One of the students who had sat next to me rolled his eyes as if to say, ‘Oh no!’”

Alaskan Adventures
The next summer, from June to August 1973, Manuwal was invited to take part in the Noatak Expedition in Alaska’s Brooks Range. The federal government knew very little about the new Noatak National Preserve, and Manuwal was part of an 11-man crew to catalog wildlife in the Noatak River Basin. They traveled by float planes into incredibly isolated and unexplored wilderness areas, where they encountered wolves, grizzlies, caribou, many species of tundra birds, and hordes of mosquitoes on calm days. They worked long hours with nearly constant daylight, and even got caught in a snowstorm in August. “That’s the way it is in the Arctic!”

A few years later, Manuwal secured funding to return to Alaska to study seabird colonies and island vegetation in the remote Barren Islands from 1976-1979. There were five people in the research crew, including Manuwal’s wife Naomi, who earned a bachelor’s in biology from California State University at Northridge, and later a master’s in forest ecology from the College of Forest Resources. Their team focused on the biology of Fork-tailed Storm Petrels, Rhinoceros Auklets and Parakeet Auklets (hence the “auklet” in Manuwal’s email address). They were trying to obtain basic information on the ecology and population sizes of birds nesting there in case of an oil spill—and their data proved helpful in understanding the effects of the Exxon Valdez spill, which reached as far as the Barren Islands.

Dave Manuwal

In the late 1970s, Manuwal got to take part in several seabird studies in Alaska, British Columbia and Washington, including on Smith Island (pictured here). “Being in these seabird colonies is a unique environment,” he says. “There’s a tremendous about of activity, birds are coming and going all the time—lots of noise, especially in a big gull or tern colony.”

A Gaggle of Grad Students
At the College of Forest Resources, Manuwal was now a colleague of his former advisor and mentor, Dick Taber, who had recently come over to start the wildlife program. “One day, I heard a commotion in Dick’s office,” he says. “I looked over there in time to see him rush out with a very agitated look on his face. That was the first and only time I saw him like that. Later, he came back and told me that one of the associate deans had accepted, on our behalf, 13 new graduate students.”

Despite a new policy of the wildlife faculty accepting their own graduate students, the acceptance letters had already been mailed; there was no going back. So at one point in the next year, Manuwal had 11 graduate students, and Taber had around 15. It was a pretty hectic time trying to find research support for all of those extra students, he says, but amazingly all of them made it successfully through the program. “That’s the phenomenal part of it. Kind of funny in retrospect, but it wasn’t funny at the time!”

The shock of that story may linger, but Manuwal would never trade the relationships he developed with his graduate students—bonds that have endured long past the last paper or degree. “Perhaps the highlight of my time at UW was interacting with my graduate students,” he says. “Helping them with their research, visiting them in the study areas, offering advice at important times.”

In total, he had 51 graduate students during his time with SEFS. Forty-nine of them completed degrees, and all but two of them entered the wildlife ecology/conservation field (one became a medical doctor, the other a computer specialist).

With so much invested in his students, he knew retiring wouldn’t be easy. Yet after four decades of teaching scores of courses, from wildlife research techniques to field ornithology to wildlife biology and conservation, Manuwal stood in front of his last class in the fall of 2012.

Dave Manuwal

In August 2008, the year he officially retired, Manuwal invited all of his former grad students to a reunion in Ocean Shores, Wash. Not all of them could make it, but some came from as far away as Virginia, North Carolina, Alaska, California and Hawaii. “That was a great time,” he says.

“That last lecture was hard,” he says, “and I didn’t realize how much I’d miss teaching. The day-to-day interactions with students, helping them understand some concepts we discussed in class, people coming in and talking to you about their career choices, what courses to take. I just miss all that—it’s hard to leave.”

Next Chapters
As an Emeritus Professor of Wildlife Science, though, Manuwal hasn’t exactly kicked up his feet just yet. His first move after retirement was to head back into the field as an affiliate professor with the University of Montana. It had been 40 years since he first collected data as a graduate student in the Lubrecht Experimental Forest, about 30 miles northeast of Missoula. His research had concerned songbirds associated with riparian vegetation along three streams where he had originally done surveys in 1967 and ’68, and then in 1980. This time, he wanted to see how bird populations might have changed, and also do a second study on the pattern of territory establishment along those streams.

So, just as he had done 40 years earlier, he borrowed a little trailer and placed it near his study areas. He had a black Labrador with him back then, and he brought a black Labrador with him this time. He also had his whole family participate in the study at various times, and they’re all authors on a manuscript he has in review right now. “That was a blast to go back there and do it again,” he says. “It was a good way to go out.”

Dave Manuwal

Manuwal with a class in the Skagit Valley.

But not all the way out. Back in Seattle, Manuwal has a new research project under way, but this time not involving wildlife. He’s been preparing a tribute to military veterans who became professional wildlife ecology and conservation professionals, whether in academia, government agencies or with nonprofits. He’s read more than 2,000 obituaries and talked to several veterans in person and by email, and he’s identified about 190 veterans so far. Manuwal placed an advertisement in several outlets to gather more information, and if you happen to know of anyone who might fit this description, he would love to hear from you.

Research, clearly, is in his genes, and he still exudes the same infectious energy and curiosity that has defined his career as a scientist and educator. Just ask his students, like SEFS undergrad Tara Wilson, who was in Manuwal’s final ESRM 350 class a year ago: “You could just tell he’s passionate about what he does, and that he’s excited to get us passionate.”

That seems like a fitting tribute—and a pleasant irony—for someone who was once terrified of  standing in front of an audience, yet ended up inspiring hundreds of students to share his love for birds, research and all things wild.

Photos © Dave Manuwal.