Spotlighting our Migratory Bird Program Employees
An Interview with Nicole N. Virella Maldonado, Biologist and Grant Administrator
Tell us about yourself. Where did you grow up and what was your family life like?
I’m the oldest of two girls, and I was born and raised in San Juan, Puerto Rico in more of a suburban area. During the weekends and holidays, I visited family out in more rural areas such as Guayama, Arroyo, Salinas, and Las Piedras, which allowed me to spend time outdoors with my family. I particularly remember picking fresh fruits like oranges, starfruits, cherries, and tamarinds right off the trees. In particular, my grandparents always enjoyed taking my little sister and I out to see the countryside and the piers on the water, and each outing would end with all of us eating a local fruit, beverage, or ice cream.
How did you get into the outdoors and conservation?
I remember getting a children’s conservation magazine delivered to my door and attending activities with my mom that were organized by a local conservation non-profit that further fed the flame of learning to care for the environment. Spending time outdoors came to be lifelong feeling that was associated with being happy and surrounded by family, and/or really good food. I eventually went to the University of Puerto Rico and got my B.S. in Environmental Science, which further validated that anything related to the conservation of the environment was my true north!
How did you get started with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service?
I had a summer internship that led to a job opportunity as a National Environmental Policy Act Planner with the Bureau of Land Management’s Eastern States State Office. However, my dream agency was always the U.S. Fish and Wildlife, as it was the most well-known conservation agency to me while growing up on the island. Therefore, when the opportunity to work for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Migratory Bird Program materialized, I was honored to join the Service.
Have you always loved birds or are you are you learning to love them now that you work for the Migratory Bird Program?
I officially started birding during the pandemic, therefore I’m completely new to birding. I decided to participate in the Migratory Bird Program’s Big Year Friendly Competition in the Beginner Birder category to push myself as a newbie. While birding with my husband, which I admit that I roped into my new found pastime, I caught myself thinking about home while identifying bird species that also reside in Puerto Rico and that I have seen through most of my life – like the red-tailed hawk, the mourning dove, the great egret, the northern mockingbird, and the eastern kingbird. This realization makes me feel closer to my family and it actually makes me feel like I’m really not that far away from home anymore. Therefore, I’ve come to experience first-hand that birds really do connect us all.
Why is conservation and public service important to you?
As cliché as it sounds, I think it just makes me feel like I’m contributing to protecting a small piece of the future for both the Earth and its inhabitants, and I don’t think there is a more honorable and meaningful role than that. Serving our many publics makes me part of the overall effort to make our country and world a better place and at the end of the day, that does bring a smile to my face.