Humboldt State University

Matthew Johnson, Ph.D.

707 826 3218


Habitat Ecology ...a unifying theme

I am fascinated by all aspects of wildlife Habitat Ecology--from the theoretical to the practical. Habitat ecology is the study of how animals interact with their habitats, which my lab investigates by identifying animals' critical resources and the factors that constrain their use. Such studies advance our ecological understanding and refine our conservation and management efforts. Though much of my work focuses on on songbirds, I purposefully work with a variety of taxa to better understand emergent relationships between animals and their habitats. Therefore, students in my lab work on a diversity of study systems, yet share a unified focus on habitat.

Habitat Models

Habitat models are mathematical or cartographic constructions that wildlife ecologists use to predict & understand animals' distribution in space and time, usually in reference to types of vegetation. They are especially useful for land managers because they can help assess the impact of proposed land use changes. Many habitat models incorporate Geographic Information System (GIS) technology. I am interested in both the construction of new wildlife habitat models and evaluation of existing models.

See my current students' projects »

Jamaica Research

For many years my students and I studied the ecology of birds in Jamaica, where my dissertation research was focused. I was first fascinated by how migratory and non-migratory (resident) birds are distributed among natural and agricultural habitats, and how their populations are influenced by food supply. This research led my students and I to work in coffee farms, where we discovered that birds can help control insect pests, an example of an ecosystem service (see below). Our work led to many publications, and has been occasionally featured in popular articles, such as in National Geographic and Audubon magazines.  I am no longer actively pursuing research projects in Jamaica.  Instead, my students and I have turned our attention to other coffee growing regions, including in Kenya (see Graduate Students).

Learn more about this research »

Kenya Research

With the Jamaican research coming to a close, my students and I have turned some attention to related research questions in Kenya. With collaborators Dr. Tim Bean here at HSU and Dr. Julie Jedlicka at Missouri Western State University, my students and I are studying birds and insects in coffee farms. Specifically, we are working to understand how habitat, such as the amount of shade trees on a coffee farm, can influence the bird community and whether this has implications for the birds’ potential to control insect pests. We are also examining how projected climate warming might affect the distribution of birds and their impact on pests. I hope to continue this line of research in the future (see Graduate Students).

Barn Owls & Vineyards

Most recently, my students and I have begun to research the role of barn owls in California’s winegrape vineyards. Many winegrape farm managers have installed nest boxes for barn owls with the hope that the birds may help control rodent pests such as gophers and voles. My lab is pursuing this line of research with a series of related projects (see Graduate Students), starting with determining how the owls select boxes, how they hunt across the landscape, how surrounding habitats affect hunting in the vineyards, and farmers’ perceptions of the owls and their potential to control rodents. We’re working mainly in Napa Valley, where there are over 300 barn owl nest boxes. This line of research is important because it could help one of California’s most economically important industries become less reliant on chemical rodenticides that have negative impacts on the environment, and it is fascinating to me because it combines my interests in birds, agriculture, and ecosystem services (see below) right here in California. Not to mention I love owls…and wine. Here’s short video on the topic by Great Big Story featuring my former student Carrie Wendt.

Ecosystem Services

Ecosystem services are processes provided by nature that help sustain and fulfill human life. Some ecosystem services are provided mainly by plants - such as the regulating services of air purification and of carbon sequestration. Other services are provided by entire ecosystems - such as erosion control, moderation of weather and climate. Cultural values such as the provisioning of aesthetic beauty and spiritual stimulation can also be considered "services" provided by nature. In addition, some animal species provide important ecosystem services - such as pollination, pest control, seed dispersal, and waste removal. These animal-delivered ecosystem services can be extremely important both ecological and economically, and they offer a powerful incentive for wildlife conservation. My students and I examine ecosystem services provided by wildlife, and I am especially interested in examining how mobile organisms provision ecosystem services across a landscape.

Interdisciplinary studies related to wildlife

I believe there is general consensus that higher education's most fundamental purpose is, in David Orr's words, to build a citizenry prepared to work toward achieving healthy, resilient, just, and prosperous human communities that are living within their means economically and ecologically. Many different skills and disciplines must be brought to bear: economics, politics, and the natural, environmental, and social sciences. The classic humanities are critically necessary as well, to provide the context, for example, of how history, philosophy, and the arts both reflect humanity's past and shape its future relations with the natural world upon which our fate now so clearly depends.

I am interested in examining interdisciplinary questions relating to sustainability and wildlife. As such, I am a member of the Environment and Community (E&C) program here on campus, which is an interdisciplinary Master's of Arts program. Students interested in examining social science research questions related to wildlife conservation or pursuing projects that lie at the intersection of social movements and conservation work should contact me about this program.

See my current students' projects »