George Mason University
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George Mason University

Off to a flying start—finance student calculates the value of endangered birds

May 22, 2019   /   by Mariam Aburdeineh

Eleri Burnett, who graduated in May, estimated the value of Virginia's population of piping plover, an endangered bird species, is $27 million per year. Photo by Lathan Goumas.

Calculating the value of a stock or bond is relatively straightforward, but have you ever thought about the monetary value of an endangered species? Finance major and May graduate Eleri Burnett has.

“Ever since I was little I always loved watching birds,” said Burnett, an Honors College student from York, Pennsylvania. She said she was looking for a way to combine her interests of finance and environmental science. The result is what she calls bird finance.

Piping plover. Pixnio photo

Burnett looked at the piping plover, an endangered bird species in Virginia, to put a tangible value on its East Coast population.

“I used research [from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Environmental Valuation Research Index] to fuel mine, by going through databases and looking at the concluded value of a coastal ecosystem through its biodiversity or ecosystem services,” Burnett said.

She then crunched the numbers to calculate the bird population’s value, which came out to $27 million per year.

Putting a value on nature is not an exact science, Burnett said, but she believes there’s a larger impact this research could have for relationships with local businesses and the environment.

“[If] the value of this bird is worth its conservation for the economic benefit it brings communities, more citizens can relate to the money factor and may be more willing to provide resources to help with wildlife conservation,” Burnett said. She gave the example of a business profiting from tourists coming to see the species, and the business in turn having an incentive to conserve the bird’s habitat.

After graduation, Burnett plans to be a financial advisor, but her long-term dream is to make environment valuation a reality, she said. She believes her research, funded by the Undergraduate Research Scholars Program via Mason’s Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities and Research, is a first step.

“When [Burnett] decides she wants to do or learn a specific thing, she is excellent on focusing on the details but also maintaining a big-picture view of what the final result would look like,” said associate biology professor David Luther, who advised Burnett on her research. “Eleri is also very persistent, which is an excellent quality in science as it allows someone to persevere in the face of challenges.”

One of Burnett’s challenges was that nature valuation isn’t simple to calculate and can vary by researcher, Burnett said. Even so, her research was supported at Mason.

That’s not a surprise, since Mason’s inclusion of the unconventional is what brought Burnett to the university in the first place.

At an event for prospective students, she found herself enamored with the Green Machine, Mason’s pep band that is ranked No. 1 in the nation by the NCAA.

“What sparked my interest was the use of a harp,” Burnett said.

“I figured if they would allow a harp into a band—a nonconventional pep-band instrument—perhaps they would allow me to play my instrument, too,” said Burnett, who plays the electric xylophone.

She figured correctly. Whether it was finding support for bird finance or playing in the Green Machine at Mason, “I loved the ability to be yourself,” she said.

Topics: Graduation