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News | Arts and SciencesMay 26, 2023

Birds Call to Well-Traveled Professor

Lucille Speakman would have liked Dr. Ragupathy Kannan’s reply to a question about his plans for a travel grant: “I’m teaching the Belize course now and may not have ready access to email.”

The UAFS biology professor is the 2023 recipient of the Lucille Speakman Legacy Endowment award. The grant is made to faculty to underwrite the cost of academic travel.

The Speakman endowment was started by Randy Wewers, class of 1958, and expanded by other alumni to honor Speakman, a beloved educator from the university’s Fort Smith Junior College days. Speakman famously traveled the world during the summer break, returning to campus each fall to share her experiences and insights with Fort Smith students who might never travel beyond the Arkansas-Oklahoma region. The endowment is meant to help faculty improve their classroom teaching through their travels.

The Belize course, which Kannan leads in May, takes students on a trip to Latin America that is part birding tour, part biology course, and, like everything Kannan does, a significant part climate change education.

Kannan plans to use the Speakman award to expand his “significant and growing published collection of bird call audio recordings from all over the world” with a trip to Gambia, West Africa, sometime during the upcoming 2023-2024 academic year.

Kannan publishes his bird recordings at, Cornell University’s global online platform for bird recordings. In 2019, Cornell recognized him for his contributions and encouraged him to continue posting. All the audio publications are peer-reviewed to ensure correct species identification.

To date, he has published 566 recordings covering 351 species from five continents. In the past two years, he uploaded 174 recordings, including 111 from Sri Lanka, where he was a Fulbright International Scholar. The number from Sri Lanka, where Kannan and his wife landed in February 2020, might not have been so high without the outbreak of COVID-19, which stranded them in the island country off the coast of India for a full year.

Nearly one-third of the recordings are from Central or South America. Kannan has the fewest recordings from Africa, and he will use this trip to increase those numbers. He noted that West Africa is unique in its number of endemics, species that do not occur anywhere else in the world.

The Speakman award is meant to bolster classroom teaching, not just research or professional publications.

In his application for the grant, Kannan notes that he uses the recordings heavily in his ornithology course, which has a chapter dedicated to bird calls.

“As professional educators, we know that students connect better to an instructor who uses his/her own published works in the class,” he wrote. “These audio files help me communicate to them as a real expert in the field.”