Making the career switch into conservation: Bill Boteler and The Macaw Society

The world of conservation is a complex one, made up of many different organizations, job descriptions and people from various backgrounds. There is also no standard path to conservation work, with people entering the field in different ways.

Career switchers and those over 50 may feel that the door has been shut on them in regards to working in conservation, but this is quite far from the truth. A great example of this fact is career switcher, Bill Boteler.

For Bill, who originally went to college for political science and has had several non-science careers throughout Washington D.C., USA, spanning a few decades, conservation work may seem somewhat off-brand. However, for Bill, a passionate lover of nature, the issues facing the natural world inspired him to take a leap of faith into the world of conservation.

“I am very motivated by the fact that many species are going extinct,” Bill said. “Some scientists say we are losing 150 to 200 species a day.”

This leap took him from Maryland, USA to the thick jungles of Costa Rica volunteering with tropical birds at The Macaw Society. Run by biologists Dr. Donald J. Brightsmith and Dr. Gabriela Vigo-Trauco, the organization works both in Costa Rica and Peru, studying and conserving macaw and other parrot species that are at risk due to human activity such as deforestation and the pet trade.

The mission of the Macaw Society is “to collect scientific information that produces clear documentation of the natural history, ecology, and conservation of parrots and macaws in the Neotropics and make it available to scientists, researchers, and the public.”

Bill’s daily tasks involved heading out for field work three times a day, starting at around 5am each day. Field work would include tasks such as observing and documenting behavioral data of key species such as the Yellow Naped Amazon Parrot.

Prized by the pet trade for their immense intelligence and bright green coloration, wild populations of this species are listed as threatened with extinction. Bill and other volunteers spent their time traversing the forest through a complex network of trails, documenting any sightings of key species, as well as checking nest boxes and feeders for wildlife.

A Yellow-naped parrot, released into the wild. Credit: Roshan Taylor / The Macaw Society.

Along with this, volunteers would have to observe and maintain large free-flying cages that house birds preparing to be released back into the wild. This is a unique opportunity for volunteers to be immersed into the world of avian conservation.

Bill, who originally was more comfortable with data in an office, at first found this type of work overwhelming. The vastness of the jungle, the abundance of wildlife and the physically demanding work can be disorienting to anyone who is not used to such a life.

However, the comradery that came with volunteering at the biological station with such a diverse group of people allowed Bill to quickly become accustomed to life in the Costa Rican jungle.

“I felt comfortable with these younger people, I really liked it,” Bill said. He cited not only the energy that came with the volunteers, but the comradery at The Macaw Society that helped him eventually emerge from his shell and become more and more comfortable in his new surroundings.

Colpa Colorado (a clay lick). Credit: The Macaw Society.

Once acclimated, Bill was able to fully embrace the beauty of Costa Rica – from the smallest of insects traversing the leaf covered forest floor to the tallest old growth trees. “This area [of Costa Rica] has regenerated and old growth forests; it’s incredibly biodiverse; it’s endless,” Bill said.

Eventually Bill was able to lend some of his other skills to The Macaw Society. Having experience in carpentry and design, Bill was able to create a new design for perches throughout the research station, constructing them by hand.

Having useful skills such as these are something that are always in demand at places like these, and Bill encourages others to learn applicable skills along with gaining more biological science experience.

In the world of conservation, you never truly know how you can be of service to the overall goal until you begin working with an organization you would like to be a part of.

Bill attributes being able to join The Macaw Society as a volunteer to creativity and grit. As someone who is older than the usual demographic of volunteers that work at the station, Bill said that the idea of volunteering was daunting at first, with the symphony of doubters saying that volunteering his time with no monetary gain was a bad idea.

However, Bill pushed those intrusive thoughts and ideas away and persevered, knowing that this was something that he wanted to do. Eventually he was able to take that leap, and hopes that others do not hold back when trying to volunteer at conservation stations around the world.

A blue-headed parrot. Credit: The Macaw Society.

Many of these organizations rely on volunteers to continue their work. It is up to inspired individuals such as Bill to join projects and volunteer time and effort into continuing the vital work of studying and protecting the natural world. Regardless of age or previous employment, if you have what it takes and a drive to help wildlife, then career switching into conservation could be for you.

“You gotta be tough,” said Bill. “But you get the reward of being in a beautiful place, an amazing place.”

Organizations such as The Macaw Society are always looking for volunteers with a good work ethic, applicable skills, and a desire to learn more about what goes into conservation work.

If you are interested in volunteering for conservation organizations in the field, reach out via email or phone call to see what kind of volunteer programs are available. In a case like Bill’s, you may be surprised about how many skills you already have that can be applied to conservation work.

If you are interested in getting involved with The Macaw Society, click here to visit their website.

If you are a career switcher looking for more advice in getting into conservation, here are some helpful tips for conservation career switchers, as well as other Conservation Career guides to help you start your path towards working hands on with the natural world.


Author Profile | Aaron Chimelis

Aaron Chimelis is a recent Eckerd College graduate with a degree in environmental studies and communications. Going further, he hopes to not only become involved with human/wildlife conflict research with a focus in reptiles and tropical species, but also to act as a documentarian to the work of other conservationists. In doing so, he wishes to bring light to the various triumphs and struggles facing those who devote themselves to the study and preservation of the natural world. You can find Aaron on LinkedIn.


Main image credit: The Macaw Society.

Interviews, Wildlife