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October Big Day—6 October 2018

All About Birds - Fri, 09/21/2018 - 13:42

October Big Day—6 October 2018
By Team eBird September 7, 2018

Every year for the last four years Global Big Day has set new heights for a single day of birding. This massively international collaborative birding event has been so great we want to have another worldwide eBird Big Day in October. Why October? Because spring is rejuvenating the southern hemisphere and the northern reaches of the world are in the midst of migration. No matter where you are, we’re confident you can find some great birds on 6 October. Let’s see what we can find together on the first October Big Day!

How to participate
Get an eBird account: eBird is a worldwide bird checklist program used by hundreds of thousands of birders. It’s what allows us to compile everyone’s sightings into a single massive October Big Day list—while at the same time collecting the data for scientists to use to better understand birds. Sign up here. It’s free.
Watch birds on 6 October: It’s that simple. You don’t need to be a bird expert or go out all day long. Even 10 minutes in your backyard counts. October Big Day runs from midnight to midnight in your local time zone. You can report birds from anywhere in the world.
Enter what you see and hear in eBird: You can enter your sightings via our website or—even easier—download the free eBird Mobile app. You can enter and submit lists while you’re out birding, and the app will even keep track of how far you’ve walked, so you can just focus on watching birds. While you’re downloading free apps, try out the Cornell Lab’s Merlin Bird ID app for help with identification. Please enter sightings before 9 October for our initial results announcement.
Watch the sightings roll in: During the day, keep an eye on how the lists are growing in different parts of the world. Follow along with sightings from more than 100 countries. Stats will be updated in real-time on our October Big Day page.

Contributing sightings is easy with the free eBird Mobile app. Download for iOS or Android.

Global Big Day Pro Tips
If you’re looking for a new place to find birds, explore eBird Hotspots near you.
Use Merlin Bird ID for help with tricky species.
Get together with friends and set a goal for your birding—most unusual species? Biggest flock? All the species in your favorite family? The possibilities are endless.
Take photos and add them to your checklist—they might end up on the October Big Day page!
Make your sightings valuable to science: submit complete checklists; keep counts of the birds that you see; and keep multiple checklists throughout the course of your birding—if you get in the car, end that checklist and start a new one when you get to the next location.
Share what you’re seeing with #OctoberBigDay! Here are some promotional graphics that you’re free to use, available in English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, and Traditional Chinese (3.5MB download).
This is the first October Big Day—our chance to set a benchmark for the future. Can we get 5,000 species from 125 countries for the inaugural event? No matter what you do, have fun, enjoy the birds you find, and share your sightings on eBird. Because in our world, every bird counts.

Gallery: A Downy Woodpecker’s Swiss Army Beak

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:19
Downy Woodpecker by Bartels Science Illustrator Phillip Krzeminski. More From Living Bird

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Downy Woodpeckers drill for their food, but this species has a less chisel-shaped bill than other North American woodpeckers. Downies can also use their beaks as a pick to pierce open insect tunnels just beneath the surface of tree bark, and as a pair of fine-pointed forceps for picking up tiny insect eggs from a leaf.

Find out more about Downy Woodpeckers in our All About Birds species guide.

Bartels Science Illustrator Phillip Krzeminski created this illustration for the Beak Adaptations Exploration Station—an interactive exhibit at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that helps visitors understand how birds’ beaks are adapted to what they eat.

Birdword: An Illustrated Guide to Some Tongue-Twisting Ornithological Terms

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:18

Birdword is a recurring feature in Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

They’re sometimes called technical terms, eight-dollar-words, jargon, or just plain gobbledygook. But hidden inside those multisyllabic ornithological utterances are keys to fascinating behaviors, time machines to take you back to ancient Greek and Latin, and sly insights to the minds of scientists at work. In this recurring feature, we break down a few of the “birdwords” we enjoy the most:

Bar-tailed Godwit photos by Jon Irvine via Birdshare, featured in Living Bird, Autumn 2018.Rhynchokinesis: n. [rhyncho (Greek, beak) + kinesis (Greek, movement)] A bird’s ability to independently flex its upper mandible, a trait most pronounced in long-billed shorebirds and a few other groups such as cranes and hummingbirds. In shorebirds, the action assists with the capture of slippery items when the bill is thrust deep into the sand or mud.

Allopreening Laysan Albatrosses by Cliff Beittel, featured in Living Bird, Spring 2017.

Allopreen (v.), allopreening (n.): the grooming of one bird by another of the same species; birds allopreen to clean feathers in hard-to-reach places and to strengthen pair bonds.

Photo by Dan Tallman, Handbook of Bird Biology, Third Edition, featured in Living Bird, Autumn 2016.

Zugunruhe: n. [German] migratory restlessness; when songbirds are ready to migrate, they literally cannot sit still.


Pileated Woodpecker by John Fox, Yellow-billed Cuckoo by Lindell Dillon, both via Birdshare. Featured in Living Bird, Winter 2016.

Zygodactyl: adj. [Greek zygo (yoked, or paired) + dactyl (toed)] Having two toes facing forward and two facing backward. A feature of several orders of birds, including cuckoos, woodpeckers, and parrots.

Birds Put Billions into U.S. Economy: Latest U.S. Fish and Wildlife Report

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:09

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

This year the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service published the latest edition of its national survey of outdoor recreation: how many people participate and what sorts of associated purchases they make in pursuit of their hobbies. The report’s official title is the 2016 National Survey of Fishing, Hunting, and Wildlife-Associated Recreation (download the PDF). It takes a couple of years for economists to crunch the numbers, that’s why it’s the 2016 report, not the 2018 report). Any way you look at it, though, birding stands out as a powerhouse in the outdoors economy. Here are the big numbers:

45 Million Bird Watchers:

The number of Americans 16 years and older who are bird watchers, including more than 16 million who travel beyond their home to watch birds and 10 million who specifically travel to seek out songbirds.

$1.8 Billion Spent on Equipment:

Dollars spent annually on binoculars and spotting scopes for wildlife watching, more than the amount spent by hunters purchasing rifles and shotguns.

$4 Billion Spent on Bird Food:

Dollars spent annually on bird food, more than the amount spent on rods and reels by anglers.

Note: We present comparisons with the hunting and fishing industries out of a sense of friendly competition, acknowledging that hunters and anglers have been and continue to be strong partners in conservation of our shared outdoors.

Calling Photographers: Share Your Favorite Shots, For Science

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:08
Red-legged Honeycreeper shared with the eBird/Macaulay Library archive by Kacau Oliveira. Thank you, Kacau!

Originally published in the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

In the last decade, photography has become a huge part of bird watching. Thanks to a wave of technological advances, many digital cameras can now take photos that even pros could only dream of a generation ago.

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The happy result is that more and more bird watchers are returning home with photos they can’t wait to share. And that’s why November’s theme for our celebration of the Year of the Bird is “Share Your Shot.” Bird photography challenges are all over the place (see the BirdSpotter contest, which runs during the Project FeederWatch season, or National Geographic’s Your Shot online community), and there’s no better time to join one and share the photos you’ve been taking.

We’ll go out on a limb and say the very most valuable place to share your images is in the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library archive. It’s a great way to record where you were and what else you were seeing when you took the photo—and your image will go into an ever-growing archive, now nearly 9 million strong, that scientists can use in research and development. For instance, the archive’s imagery helps us in projects such as MerlinVision, an artificial-intelligence project that powers the automated photo ID tool in our free Merlin Bird ID app.

It’s simple to share photos with our archive:

You’ll end up with an illustrated checklist and an easy way to catalog your best bird photos—and you’ll be helping scientists at the Cornell Lab and elsewhere in their work. Now you’re part of the eBird community, you can also rate images in the archive, creating a catalog of beautiful bird photos from around the world, and make customized bird quizzes for yourself featuring sounds and photos of birds from anyplace in the world.

More resources:


First-of-its-Kind Reserve for Bicknell’s Thrush in the Dominican Republic

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:03
Bicknell's Thrush. Photo by Jim Tietz/Macaulay Library.

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

Conservationists recently purchased more than 1,000 acres in the Dominican Republic containing ideal Bicknell’s Thrush wintering habitat to create the Reserva Privada Zorzal (zorzal is the Spanish word for thrush).

More From Living Bird

The reserve is the Dominican Republic’s first private conservation area under the recently established National Protected Area System, and marks a major step forward for conserving one of North America’s rarest and most endangered songbirds.

Female and male Bicknell’s Thrushes winter in somewhat different habitats, with the males preferring higher-elevation forests. Conservation of the middle-elevation, female-rich winter habitats is a top conservation priority for the species, in part because these areas are more likely to be altered by people.

More than half of the Bicknell’s Thrushes in the world spend the winter in the Dominican Republic. But due to their secretive nature and preference for remote habitats, they are notoriously hard to study. So researchers found another way to assess Bicknell’s Thrushes on the Dominican landscape. By combining GIS information (such as forest cover, elevation, and slope orientation) with field surveys, biologists were able to create a model to identify the most important female Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. Their results indicated thrushes were most common in dense forests around 600 meters (1,900 ft) in elevation.

Fog settles in the rolling valleys of the Reserva Zorzal, a new reserve in the Dominican Republic dedicated to preserving winter habitat for Bicknell’s Thrush. Photo by Charles Kerchner/Zorzal Cacao.

The researchers used this model to find private lands that were available for purchase and also fit the criteria for prime Bicknell’s Thrush habitat. They keyed in on the site that would become the new preserve–a 1,000-acre abandoned farm located between existing protected areas along the Cordillera Septentrional mountain range.

“Based on our results, this available property looked like it had all the ingredients,” said Kent McFarland of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies, one of the lead researchers on the project. McFarland said there was some habitat left for thrushes on the farm, while other areas could be reforested. Importantly, McFarland said portions of the farm were suitable for growing cacao (for chocolate) as a sustainable farming operation.

After the preserve was established, a field survey of the property detected Bicknell’s Thrushes in nearly 50 percent of the survey points.

“We were very pleased at the number of thrushes that have been found on the new reserve in these fragments of forest,” McFarland added. “It bodes well for increasing numbers as the forests regenerate more, a great sign of hope for us.”

George Archibald Wins Arthur A. Allen Award

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:02
George Archibald dances with a crane in 1983. Photo courtesy the International Crane Foundation.

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

In a ceremony at Sapsucker Woods on May 31, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology honored George Archibald with the Arthur A. Allen Award. Established in 1967, the award is named after the Cornell Lab’s founder and honors those who have made significant contributions to ornithology, while making the science of birds accessible to the public. Past winners of the Arthur A. Allen Award include Roger Tory Peterson, Alexander Wetmore, Victor Emanuel, Tom Cade, and Linda Macaulay. Archibald has dedicated his life to the conservation of the world’s cranes, working for nearly five decades as cofounder, director, and now senior conservationist at the International Crane Foundation.

More From Living Bird

“For a generation of ardent conservationists, George has represented one of the most dedicated, passionate, inspiring, focused, tireless, and inclusive practitioners any of us has ever met,” said Cornell Lab director John Fitzpatrick during the ceremony. Archibald’s life with cranes took off when he arrived at Cornell University as a graduate student in 1968. He quickly converted a dilapidated former mink barn at Sapsucker Woods into a crane research facility, housing nine of the 15 species of cranes from around the world to study their behavioral displays. When the barn was scheduled for demolition, Archibald and fellow Cornell student Ron Sauey hatched a plan to continue their work in barns on Sauey’s family property in Baraboo, Wisconsin—from that, the International Crane Foundation was born.

In the proceeding decades, Archibald and the crane foundation pioneered techniques in captive management and reintroduction of crane species, including the use of crane costumes, puppets, and courtship dance performances to induce successful reproduction in captive cranes. In the late 1970s, he famously spent three years acting as a male Whooping Crane to elicit a reproductive response from a female that had imprinted on humans. Archibald’s crane mating dance performances were such a phenomenon, they garnered him a spot on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson in the 1980s.

George Archibald and John Fitzpatrick at the unveiling of the sculpture in Archibald's honor. Photo by Patrick Shanahan, Cornell University.

Today, the International Crane Foundation houses aviaries containing all 15 of the world’s crane species (11 of which are still threatened) and receives 25,000 visitors a year—but its reach goes well beyond the work with captive birds. The foundation works in more than 50 countries to preserve habitat, educate communities, and advocate for policy changes in areas where cranes live. In addition to his continuing work with the International Crane Foundation, Archibald leads a World Conservation Union commission on crane survival.

When asked what achievement he was most proud of, Archibald reflected: “Thanks in part to the efforts of the International Crane Foundation, genetically viable populations of all species of cranes are maintained in captivity at many zoos and centers worldwide, nature reserves for all 11 threatened species have been established, and populations of the rarest cranes are slowly increasing. The achievements of the past half-century give me hope that at the end of the next half-century, all of the cranes will still bring their magic to landscapes worldwide.

View From Sapsucker Woods: Achieving Impact for the Planet

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:58
Read our 2018 Annual Report. Bar-tailed Godwits by Gerrit Vyn, Earth image courtesy of NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring.

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

This past year has been one of comprehensive introspection and forward-directed visioning at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Our strategic planning process has engaged our faculty and staff at all levels, our administrative board, and some key Cornell administrators. Recognizing that the Cornell Lab is larger and more broadly engaged than at any point in its history, our goal is to identify emergent priorities by which we can capitalize on our strengths to serve key audiences and maximize our impact for the planet.

Consistent with strategic planning exercises of previous decades, our most important conclusion has been affirmation that the mission and programs of the Cornell Lab must remain rooted in science of the highest standards. All of our training, technology, citizen science, outreach, public engagement, and conservation efforts depend on maintaining strong and authentic scientific values and enterprises at our core. Accordingly, our 2018 Annual Report found provides glimpses into some of our recent scientific milestones.

Over the next few years, we will continue to strengthen the positions of the Cornell Lab as an unparalleled center of ornithological and biodiversity research, and of Cornell University as the premier academic institute for students of ornithology. To accomplish these objectives will require, among other things, harnessing the power of big data, from its acquisition and curation to its analysis and applications in the real world. (An example of our big-data analysis can be seen in the special foldout in this issue, which features models of shorebird habitat use across the Western Hemisphere using complex analytical algorithms fed by the eBird database of more than a half billion bird sightings worldwide.) As a globally focused center for the advanced study of avian populations, we will serve partners by providing data, visualizations, and technical analyses to advance understanding of how populations interact with the world across their full life cycles, and how they are changing through time.

As part of the 2018 Year of the Bird partnership, the Cornell Lab's Bird Academy collaborated with National Geographic to create a popular interactive online feature based on eBird data, which includes a series of dynamic maps showing bird migration across the Western Hemisphere. Check it out.

We recognize that being a center for data accumulation and analysis is not enough. Over the coming years we are determined to increase how the Cornell Lab’s science can inform policy making and public debates about conservation policies and laws. Key to this goal is our commitment to partnerships, as no single institution can be effective in this arena by acting alone. We will strengthen our existing collaborations with Audubon, the American Bird Conservancy, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, Point Blue Conservation Science, and others. Working with these organizations, we are committed to helping grow a strong public movement for bird conservation. We will also significantly expand our growing presence as a global center for conservation media, working with partners around the world to create stories that help educate and inspire key audiences for conservation action at the local scale. (Look for some of these stories in future issues of Living Bird.)

Public engagement in nature remains a cornerstone priority, as it has since the earliest years of the Cornell Lab. We will build on our existing investment in digital resources, courses, games, user-friendly apps, and participatory experiences. Our goal is to provide lifelong learners, citizen scientists, and students in and out of classrooms with resources that motivate them to get outdoors, enjoy and embrace nature, and contribute to its conservation.

Arguably our most challenging but urgent intention is to accomplish all these ambitious goals while expanding the diversity and inclusiveness of our staff and our engaged audiences. Globalization, urbanization, and the deepening economic divide are forces that threaten to diminish humankind’s interest in, and willingness to protect, our planet’s natural systems. For the Cornell Lab to make a real difference in the world, we must actively widen our internal culture, we must engage with all the diverse cultures in our country, and we must deepen our educational and scientific ties with key biodiversity countries across the planet.

All of our strategic planning work is focused on our vision, one that you can be proud to invest in as a member of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: to use the power of birds to generate long-term impacts on understanding and conserving earth’s biological diversity.

Add Flair to Your Life List By Tracking Down Evolution’s Most Distinctive Birds

All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:49

From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

More From Living Bird

Do you keep a life list—a list of birds you’ve seen over the course of your life? What about a county list? Or a year list? Or a list of birds you’ve seen out your office window, or on your birthday?

Many birders keep these types of lists. The common currency in most is the species: one species equals one entry on the list. It’s very egalitarian. But to an evolutionary biologist (like me), not all birds are equal.

Evolution offers a different form of currency for valuing bird species. For example, the Magpie Goose of Australia is only distantly related to any other modern bird species. Fossil evidence demonstrates that other species in its family went extinct 20 or 40 million years ago. That makes the Magpie Goose a living fossil, gracing us with fantastic traits from avian ages of the past—feet that, unlike those of other geese, are only partially webbed, and an elaborate, elongated trachea for broadcasting their honking vocalizations. This is not your average goose; surely it deserves some distinction on a life list for being the only currently living species of its genus and family.

There are a variety of ways to measure the evolutionary uniqueness of a species. The most informative of these measures involve the use of a phylogenetic tree —a depiction of the evolutionary relationships among a set of species. Looking at the phylogeny of all the world’s bird species provides a different perspective on some of the world’s most unique birds.

Some birds stick out of the avian phylogenetic tree, demanding your attention. They are the one-offs, the austere branches where a single bird species is the only representative of its evolutionary lineage.

On a Phylogenetic Tree, the Most Distinctive Birds Sit on the Long Branches The phylogenetic tree of birds. (Finding it hard to read at this size? Here’s a larger image.) Bird evolution graphic source from Gavin Thomas, University of Sheffield; Infographic by Jillian Ditner.

If you see one of these special birds, maybe add a star or an asterisk next to its name on your life list. For you’ve seen a species unlike many others on the planet today, a bird that has followed its own evolutionary trajectory for millions of years. There are many such birds (look for them on the red branches of the illustration above). Here’s a short list of some of our favorites:

    • Magpie Goose. Photo by miketabak via Birdshare. Magpie Goose

      (Anseranas semipalmata)
      The Magpie Goose of Australia is spectacularly distinct; its closest relatives went extinct 20 to 40 million years ago. This living fossil graces us with fantastic traits from avian ages of the past—feet that are only partially webbed, an elaborate, elongated trachea that turns its voice into a honker of a wind instrument, and more.

    • Cuckoo-roller by Nigel Voaden/Macaulay Library. Cuckoo-roller

      (Leptosomus discolor)
      Cuckoo-rollers are endemic to Madagascar and nearby islands off the east coast of Africa. They are so unique they are assigned their own taxonomic order, a rank above the level of family. These birds are so rarely studied that their evolutionary relationships to other birds are unclear, and scientists are not even entirely sure what they eat. The Cuckoo-roller’s island-restricted distribution is a good example of the way large islands act as museums, allowing the long-term persistence of evolutionarily unique lineages (like the Magpie Goose).

    • Oilbird by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library. Oilbird

      (Steatornis caripensis)
      Oilbirds are assigned their own taxonomic family. Oilbirds live mostly in South America and subsist almost entirely on high-fat fruits like palm fruits, which they eat while flying around at night. Oilbirds fly through the dark during the day, too, nesting and roosting deep in caves that they navigate with echolocation.

    • Limpkin by Chris Payne via Birdshare. Limpkin

      (Aramus guarauna)
      Limpkins have a very unusual diet among birds, subsisting almost entirely on snails. The Limpkin’s bill is uniquely adapted to snail foraging. When closed, its bill has a gap just before the tip that makes the bill act like tweezers. The tip itself is often curved slightly so it can be slipped through the chamber of the snail.

    • Upland Sandpiper by Charmaine Anderson/Macaulay Library. Upland Sandpiper

      (Bartramia longicauda)
      Upland Sandpipers are accorded their own genus, and have the relatively unusual habit within sandpipers of living, at all times of the year, in tall grass. Their impressive long-distance migration takes them from the Great Plains of North America to the pampas and grasslands of the high Andes of South America.

    • Pied-billed Grebe by Etienne Artigau/Macaulay Library. Pied-billed Grebe

      (Podilymbus podiceps)
      Many of the world’s oldest extant bird lineages are associated with water, and grebes are no exception. The Pied-billed Grebe is the last living member of its genus, and thus unique among grebes. They are so acutely adapted to an aquatic existence that they are virtually unable to walk on land, so they build a nest atop a mat of floating vegetation.

    • Elf Owl by Dan Behm via Birdshare. Elf Owl

      (Micrathene whitneyi)
      Elf Owls have always been a bit of a taxonomic mystery, and are assigned to their own genus. They are the lightest owls in the world, with the unique habit of frequently using woodpecker cavities in saguaro cacti for nesting.

    • Osprey by David Brown/Macaulay Library. Osprey

      (Pandion haliaetus)
      Taxonomically, Ospreys are assigned to their own family, and they live on every continent except Antarctica. Ospreys have been successfully subsisting on a diet of fish for an estimated 50 million years. Having originated so long ago, it’s very likely that they occurred on Antarctica, too, when the continent was warmer.

  • Cuckoo-roller by Nigel Voaden/Macaulay Library. Cuckoo-roller (Leptosomus discolor) Cuckoo-rollers are endemic to Madagascar and nearby islands off the east coast of Africa. They are so unique they are assigned their own taxonomic order, a rank above the level of family. These birds are so rarely studied that their evolutionary relationships to other birds are unclear, and scientists are not even entirely sure what they eat. The Cuckoo-roller’s island-restricted distribution is a good example of the way large islands act as museums, allowing the long-term persistence of evolutionarily unique lineages (like the Magpie Goose of Australia).
  • Oilbird by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library. Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis) Oilbirds are assigned their own taxonomic family. Oilbirds live mostly in South America and subsist almost entirely on high-fat fruits like palm fruits, which they eat while flying around at night. Oilbirds fly through the dark during the day, too, nesting and roosting deep in caves that they navigate with echolocation.
  • Limpkin by Chris Payne via Birdshare. Limpkin (Aramus guarauna) Limpkins have a very unusual diet among birds, subsisting almost entirely on snails. The Limpkin’s bill is uniquely adapted to snail foraging. When closed, its bill has a gap just before the tip that makes the bill act like tweezers. The tip itself is often curved slightly so it can be slipped through the chamber of the snail.
  • Upland Sandpiper by Charmaine Anderson/Macaulay Library. Upland Sandpiper (Bartramia longicauda) Upland Sandpipers are accorded their own genus, and have the relatively unusual habit within sandpipers of living, at all times of the year, in tall grass. Their impressive long-distance migration takes them from the Great Plains of North America to the pampas and grasslands of the high Andes of South America.
  • Pied-billed Grebe by Etienne Artigau/Macaulay Library. Pied-billed Grebe (Podilymbus podiceps) Many of the world’s oldest extant bird lineages are associated with water, and grebes are no exception. The Pied-billed Grebe is the last living member of its genus, and thus unique among grebes. They are so acutely adapted to an aquatic existence that they are virtually unable to walk on land, so they build a nest atop a mat of floating vegetation.
  • Elf Owl by Dan Behm via Birdshare. Elf Owl (Micrathene whitneyi) Elf Owls have always been a bit of a taxonomic mystery, and are assigned to their own genus. They are the lightest owls in the world, with the unique habit of frequently using woodpecker cavities in saguaro cacti for nesting.
  • Osprey by David Brown/Macaulay Library. Osprey (Pandion haliaetus) Taxonomically, Ospreys are assigned to their own family, and they live on every continent except Antarctica. Ospreys have been successfully subsisting on a diet of fish for an estimated 50 million years. Having originated so long ago, it’s very likely that they occurred on Antarctica, too, when the continent was warmer.
  • -->

    Eliot Miller is an Edward W. Rose postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

    The Sky Above: It’s Not Just Air, It’s Habitat

    All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:47

    From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

    More From Living Bird

    Consider the sky. Between the treetops and the moon lies a layer cake of opportunities for a migrating bird. We can’t see them or feel them, but they are there: bands of warm and cool air; headwinds, tailwinds, crosswinds. Mist, fog, clouds, rain. Winds that push migrants on course or off, or sweep insects together like a broom.

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    To put it simply, air is habitat. But it’s only recently that ornithologists—after generations of cataloging earth and ocean into ever-finer habitat types— have begun to consider it as such.

    “It probably bucks what most people think of as a habitat,” says Kyle Horton, a postdoctoral researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. “It’s not land and it’s not water, but it’s still something that birds make use of.”

    Historically, Horton says, we’ve thought of the air as something birds move through between habitats. As an example, check what a bird guide like All About Birds has to say about aerial species like Purple Martins: Habitat type—towns, cities, forest edges, ponds, marshes. Not air.

    But that’s changing. In 2013, U.S. Geological Survey ecologist Robert Diehl called into question this reluctance to accept airspace as habitat. Sure, it’s invisible to us, he noted, but it’s still a swirling mixture of wind, temperature, precipitation, light, and magnetic field, with just as much potential to concentrate resources as any ocean current. He closed his paper with a sly parting shot: “Either the airspace is habitat or flying animals are exceptional for their ability to be outside it.”

    This reassessment is not limited to aerialists like swooping swallows and skydiving swifts. Even birds that seem positively earthbound, like Ovenbirds and Grasshopper Sparrows, become connoisseurs of the atmosphere twice a year during migration.

    A recent study led by Horton and published in the journal Biology Letters is helping to sketch out the main features of this new realm, and in the process offering insights into the hazards birds face in the air. The 2016 study took advantage of a new generation of high-resolution radar stations that can estimate the numbers of birds in the air, their altitude, speed and direction over the ground, and even the heading, or direction the flying bird is pointed.

    More About Migration Science

    By comparing three inland radar stations with three radars along the Atlantic coastline, the study found that birds routinely seek out helpful winds. They wait until a favorable weather system arrives and, once aloft, seek out atmospheric layers with better winds.

    For a migrating male songbird in spring, making the right choice could mean the difference between arriving early to get first pick of breeding territories or showing up late and being stuck with leftovers. For a female, it could affect how much energy she has left for laying eggs. Horton and his colleagues measured the so-called “wind profit” that birds gained by selecting favorable altitudes. They determined that spring migrants flew on average 15 miles per hour faster than they would have in still air—almost twice as fast as a bird’s typical flight speed without help from the wind.

    “If they can double their distance by selecting the right height layer, I think that has a strong evolutionary pressure” on birds to key in on specific parts of the atmosphere, Horton says. “There are so many examples of how winds have shaped migration.”

    Bird watchers may not think of air as “good habitat” or “bad habitat” in the way they might size up an old field or a patch of second-growth forest. But favorable air is the reason why North America’s Central Flyway is the “habitat” chosen by hundreds of millions of birds for their migratory flights. “Not a lot of [forest] birds breed along the Central Flyway,” Horton says, “but that’s the route they take to the boreal forest, because that’s where the winds are most favorable.”

    The same goes for why songbirds migrate at night: the “habitat quality” of the air is better, because the air cools and turbulence—dangerous to a half-ounce songbird—subsides.

    Estimates of migration activity from our BirdCast project show how birds respond to atmospheric conditions and weather systems when they migrate. Image courtesy BirdCast project.

    Despite their savvy, birds are still at the mercy of strong winds when they blow in the wrong direction. That’s perhaps one reason behind a long-standing pattern in which young-of-the-year songbirds concentrate along the coast of the eastern U.S. during fall migration.

    “Look on any weather map. The thunderstorms almost always move from the west to the east,” Horton says. “If you dropped [any kind of] particle in the airspace, it would get blown to the coast.” For instance, a 1981 study noted that 98 percent of Palm Warblers caught at coastal banding stations in the fall are hatch-year birds. Fifteen other warbler species show a similar pattern, with young-of-the-year birds making up more than 90 percent of coastal captures.

    These first-time migrants may wind up at the coast because they’re less adept than adults at navigating an airspace habitat of unfavorable winds. Radar data is also helping to put more precise numbers on how high birds fly, and it’s not as high as once thought. Before radar became widespread, height records were opportunistic, giving unwarranted weight to extreme sightings. For example, a Mallard once collided with an airplane at 21,000 feet, setting a height record for the species, even though most waterfowl migration happens below 5,000 feet.

    Horton says small birds tend to fly the lowest, with waterfowl, shorebirds, and herons flying the highest. Raptors tend to fly relatively low (below 3,000 feet) to take advantage of thermals.

    But “most birds are almost always below 500 meters [1,640 feet],” Horton says. “Many people think birds fly super high, and 500 meters is still high, but it’s fairly close to the surface of the earth.”

    Most birds migrate relatively low to the ground, putting them at risk of hitting human-made structures. Deaths from collisions with various structures were estimated by Loss et al. (2012), Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics. Migration elevations from Ducks Unlimited, Kerlinger et al. (1985) Journal of Field Ornithology; Able 1970 Bird-Banding. View larger image. Graphic by Bartels Science Illustrator Megan Bishop.

    And unfortunately, it’s where virtually all the human-caused hazards are. For example, a bird flying at 500 meters still wouldn’t clear the needle on top of Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly known as the Sears Tower), the second-tallest building in the United States. Combine buildings with the disorienting effects of lights, and the night sky becomes a forest of dangers for migrants, luring them toward windows, causing them to waste time and energy flying off course, or just pulling them down into an urban habitat that may not have enough food for the bird to refuel.

    That’s why organizations like Toronto’s Fatal Light Awareness Program work to get unneeded lights turned off in the city during migration. Tall buildings can kill tragic numbers of birds in an evening. And single-family homes, because of their sheer number, kill many millions of birds each year due to collisions.

    To Horton, the difficulties that migratory birds face as they navigate their aerial habitat are at least as compelling as dangers in their breeding or wintering grounds. He dares to imagine a day when key parcels of airspace are protected as lands or waters are now.

    “It’s kind of a pie-in-the-sky idea,” he says. “Let’s box out a national park that’s an airspace. No lights, no airplanes, no drones, no wind turbines, no cell towers, no buildings. It seems ludicrous, but if that’s where a lot of birds are, then it’s not any different than saving a grassland.”

    Fantastic Journeys: Shorebirds Are Next-Level Athletes

    All About Birds - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:42

    From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

    More From Living Bird

    Shorebirds may be the most incredible migratory animals on Earth—tiny creatures that can weigh less than an apple and fly about as far as a Boeing 737.

    Shorebirds are the undisputed marathon champions among migratory birds. About 20 species of shorebirds have been recorded making nonstop flights longer than 5,000 kilometers, or 3,100 miles—about the distance from Boston to San Francisco. No other species of migratory bird has been recorded completing a nonstop flight longer than 4,000 km.

    The longest known shorebird flights—about 12,000 kilometers and nine days in length—belong to the Bar-tailed Godwit during its migration from Alaska to New Zealand. But even small shorebird species make epic flights. The Semipalmated Sandpiper, which at about 22 grams weighs less than an apple, makes nonstop flights of 5,300 kilometers from Canada to South America—that’s the aerial equivalent of completing 126 consecutive marathons.

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    To accomplish these incredible migratory feats, shorebirds are legendary gorgers. Red Knots stopped over in the Delaware Bay on migration feast on horseshoe crab eggs and more than double their body mass in just three weeks. Not all of that food goes toward fuel. Research on Whimbrels stopped over in Chesapeake Bay showed that the protein from a feast of crab eggs went directly into producing eggs when the Whimbrels arrived on their breeding grounds in Churchill, Manitoba, just days later.

    In this way, shorebirds rely on habitat across hemispheres, which means shorebird conservation requires international efforts. Protecting important habitat for a single shorebird species could unite a native Inuit community in Alaska, a California rice farmer in the Central Valley, and a Mexican fishing village in a shared goal. Shorebirds are a unique opportunity for conservation diplomacy—a chance to bring the peoples of the Americas together for birds.

    How Do They Manage Such Extreme Endurance?

    Flight is one of the most energetically costly forms of locomotion, with long-distance flight being especially expensive and requiring a suite of incredible physiological adjustments. Scientists are still just beginning to understand the incredible athletic feats of shorebirds, only recently discovering that some shorebirds migrate at the altitudes of jet-liners, while others fly their entire migrations at speeds approaching 100 kilometers per hour (or more than 60 mph). Future research will continue to elucidate what makes it possible for shorebirds to push the boundaries of what humans think is possible. At present, here’s what we know about how they do it:

    Bar-tailed Godwits hold the record for longest nonstop flight of any bird: 7,250 miles in 8 days. Read more in our story Flight of the Kuaka. Illustration by Jillian Ditner. They Have the Right Shape

    Long pointed wings allow shorebirds to efficiently carry heavy loads, while a long, sleekly shaped body helps them minimize drag while in the air. This aerodynamic design allows shorebirds to fly at high speeds while migrating, enabling them to travel long distances while maintaining their heading in the face of crosswinds that threaten to blow them off course. Shorebirds’ body shapes may also enable them to climb to high altitudes more easily, where they can avoid high air temperatures and find favorable tailwinds.

    They Build Up Fat Stores

    Unlike humans, birds rely predominantly on fat to power their endurance exercise. Fat holds significantly more energy per unit than carbohydrates. Before departing on their migration from Alaska to New Zealand, Bar-tailed Godwits more than double their body weight. Most of that added weight comes in the form of fat, which comprises up to 55 percent of a departing godwit’s mass.

    They can Fly While They Fast

    Bar-tailed Godwits burn about a calorie over every 3 km of flight, but they don’t add back any calories over their 12,000-km flights—fasting for the entire two weeks of their fall migration. Upon arrival in New Zealand, the Bar-tailed Godwits weigh about half of what they did when they departed Alaska, as they have burned through nearly all of their fat.

    They’re Incredible Body-Builders

    Because they grow so heavy for their migrations, shorebirds also need to bulk up their flight and respiratory muscles to help carry all that weight and pump blood to supply all of the extra tissue. Bar-tailed Godwits nearly double the size of their pectoralis (breast) muscles, as well as the size of their heart and lungs. To accommodate their musclebound migratory physique, shorebirds shrink the organs they don’t need, reducing the size of their stomach and gizzard prior to departure.

    If cyclists prepped for the Tour de France the way godwits do for migration, they would need to double their body weight in fat before getting into the saddle and attempting to ride! Illustration: Jillian Ditner. What Would It Take for a Human to Measure Up?

    Cyclists competing in the Tour de France burn more than 8,000 calories per day in order to maintain metabolic rates five times higher than their base metabolic rates. Bar-tailed Godwits migrating from Alaska to New Zealand must be able to maintain metabolic rates more than nine times higher than their basal rates for over nine days. In order to duplicate the feats of these migratory shorebirds, cyclists would have to nearly double that energetic output—and do so without food or water. The average professional cyclist weighs 160 lbs and maintains 2 to 3 percent body fat. Were they to prepare for a Bar-tailed Godwit’s migration, they would need to put on more than 160 additional lbs, of which at least 126 lbs would need to be fat. Can you imagine a 320-pound cyclist (the size of former NFL defensive lineman William “The Refrigerator” Perry) pedaling through the French Alps?

    eBird Analysis: Finding the Habitats Shorebirds Use Most Prairie Pothole Region. The prairie states and provinces are often called America’s "Duck Factory," but prairie wetlands are also critical for many shorebirds, especially during migration. A recent study estimated that more than 7 million shorebirds use prairie habitat during spring migration. Prairie grasslands by Wing-Chi Poon/Wikimedia Commons. Great Basin Saline Lakes. The saline lakes of the Great Basin—such as Great Salt Lake in Utah, Mono Lake in California, and Lake Abert in Oregon—are major stopover areas for migratory shorebirds. Lake Abert hosts flocks of more than 250,000 Wilson’s and Red-necked Phalaropes in autumn. Lake Abert by Miguel Vieira/Flickr Creative Commons.Lower Mississippi River Valley. The river-bottom forests of the Lower Mississippi have been heavily converted to row-crop agriculture, and even aquaculture (fish ponds). But these areas can still serve as important shorebird habitat. Drained aquaculture ponds and flooded crop fields can host high densities of shorebirds during fall migration, offering farmers a chance to participate in conservation-incentive programs in between harvests. Panther Swamp by Karen Hollingsworth/USFWS.Amazon River Basin. Who would have thought that Hudsonian Godwits—those denizens of the windswept, frozen tundra of Hudson Bay—spend an average of nine days in the middle of the Amazon during fall migration? The Amazon provides crucial stopover habitat for several migratory shorebird species. Where do the shorebirds stop among all the trees? Along the shores of lakes and rivers nestled between patches of forest. Ecuadorian Amazon by Dallas Krentzel/Flickr Creative Commons.PreviousNext

    In the slideshow images above, the map depicts an eBird model of the densest concentrations of 41 shorebird species throughout the year in the Western Hemisphere. While shorebirds are often thought of as creatures of ocean coastlines, some of the habitats that pop out in this eBird model are inland areas—the saline lakes of the West, the Prairie Pothole Region, the Lower Mississippi River Valley, and the Amazon River Basin. From the High Arctic to Tierra del Fuego, shorebirds rely on a network of habitats throughout the Americas to sustain their annual life cycles.

    Source: Important sites for 41 shorebird species that breed in North America were generated using eBird estimates of bird abundance and an algorithm to identify sites that often hold high numbers of a variety of shorebird species.

    Three Species, Three Ways to Use the Hemisphere Hudsonian Godwits breed in arctic Alaska and Hudson Bay, and they migrate almost to the southernmost tip of South America. They take several main routes; important stopover sites are indicated with gray dots. View larger image. Illustrations by Bartels Science Illustrator Megan Bishop. Hudsonian Godwit: A North–South Extremist

    A large shorebird with a long, slightly upturned bill; breeds at the top of the world (in the Arctic) and winters at the bottom (in southern South America). Remote breeding and wintering grounds made Hudsonian Godwit migration a mystery for much of the last century, but scientists deployed tracking devices to figure out how these gangly shorebirds execute their hemisphere-spanning flights.

    Power Meals. Godwits need high-quality habitat—sedge marshes and intertidal mudflats teeming with insect larvae—to fuel their migration. By lift-off, the Hudsonian Godwit weighs twice its normal weight, with half its body mass being fat for fuel.

    All-You-Can-Eat Rest Stops. For spring migration, a Hudsonian Godwit flies the distance of three Tour de France courses laid out back-to-back over 170-plus consecutive hours. During a stopover in Nebraska on the way to Alaska, godwits put on as much as 3 percent of their body mass in fat each day. That’s like a 200-pound person chowing down on cheeseburgers to put on an additional 6 pounds of weight every day.

    A Critical Island. Hudsonian Godwits that breed in Alaska spend winter on Chile’s Chiloé Island. Aquaculture operations currently threaten many intertidal habitats on Chiloé, and sea-level rise may soon affect these habitats as well. Godwit conservation efforts should include reducing disturbance in intertidal habitats and protecting roost sites.

    Spotted Sandpipers have a very broad breeding distribution (red) and are among North America's most familiar shorebirds. Their winter range (blue) is similarly spread out and encompasses both inland and coastal habitats on both continents. View larger image. Illustration by Bartels Science Illustrator Megan Bishop. Spotted Sandpiper: Fanning Out Across Both Americas

    A great ambassador for North America’s shorebirds; dapper and handsome with bold dark spots on a bright white breast. Charismatic, too, with a characteristic teetering motion that has earned them many nicknames, such as teeter-peep and tip-tail. The most widespread breeding sandpiper species in the U.S.A. and Canada. Migrate to spend winter along the coasts in North America or on beaches, mangroves, and rainforests in Central and South America.

    Ladies First. Female Spotted Sandpipers arrive at the breeding grounds earlier than males in spring, and she is the one who establishes and defends the territory. She also may have more than one mate. Spotted Sandpiper females may lay eggs for up to three different males in a breeding season. The males, on the other hand, take the primary role in parental care, incubating the eggs and taking care of the young.

    Where There’s Water. During migration Spotted Sandpipers can show up anywhere there is water, including lakes, rivers, marshes, and estuaries and ocean beaches. During fall migration, large numbers of Spotted Sandpipers have been seen gathering on sandy beaches in Venezuela.

    Spreading Out for the Winter. Spotted Sandpipers have one of the largest nonbreeding distributions of any Western Hemisphere shorebird. On the Pacific Coast, they can be found from British Columbia to Peru, while on the Atlantic Coast they range from Maine to Argentina. Many Spotted Sandpipers also winter in the Amazon Basin.

    Fly South. Spotted Sandpipers begin to exhibit restless behavior associated with migration, also called zugunruhe, as high-pressure fronts arrive in late summer and fall. Decreasing photoperiod (or day length) also appears to stimulate the Spotted Sandpiper’s molt into new feathers for fall migration.

    Piping Plover: Caribbean Commuter Piping Plovers breed in three distinct populations, each of which has its own separate wintering area. Great Plains breeders migrate to the Gulf Coast; Great Lakes birds head to the Mid-Atlantic; and the East Coast population winters in Florida and the Bahamas. View larger image. Illustration by Bartels Science Illustrator Megan Bishop.

    Prone to hiding in plain sight, with sandy gray backs that blend into sandy shores on the ocean and lakes. Most people don’t even notice plovers on a beach until these big-eyed shorebirds scurry down the sand on their orange legs. Nest in soft sand away from the water’s edge. Endangered due to habitat loss, disturbance, and predation. Conservation efforts have helped stabilize populations along the Atlantic Coast, but the Great Lakes breeding population still hasn’t yet reached its Endangered Species Act recovery goal of 150 breeding pairs.

    Home Sweet Home. Despite migrating hundreds of miles from their wintering areas, many Piping Plovers return to the same beaches every year to breed. Individuals that return to breed with the same mate often nest within 130 feet of the previous nest site.

    Midwesterners and East Coasters. There are three main Piping Plover breeding populations—on the Great Plains, along the Great Lakes, and along the Atlantic Coast—that remain separated on migration.

    Bahamas Getaway. Everyone needs a secret beach hideout. Researchers recently discovered that more than one-third of the Atlantic Piping Plover breeding population spends winter in the Bahamas. This exciting discovery led to a major conservation victory with the declaration of the Joulter Cays National Park by the Government of The Bahamas in 2015.

    Do Not Disturb. People love to play at the beach, but if plovers are present, the birds need their quiet space. A recent study found that Piping Plovers wintering on heavily used beaches had 7 percent lower body weights and 13 percent lower survival rates than plovers overwintering in less visited areas.

    About the Authors
    • Nathan Senner studied Hudsonian Godwits for his PhD at Cornell University and has worked with shorebirds across the globe over the past 20 years. He was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Montana and became an assistant professor at the University of South Carolina in January 2019.
    • Alison Johnston is an ecological statistician who enjoys number-crunching bird datasets to discover more about the natural world. She is an eBird data analyst based at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom.

    Special thanks to the David and Lucile Packard Foundation for funding the large-scale eBird data analysis project to produce and refine distribution and abundance models for shorebirds. The project will help scientists identify and move forward on conservation work to protect the most important shorebird habitats in the Western Hemisphere.

    Improving “Silvopastures” for Bird Conservation

    Research From The Auk and The Condor - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:34

    Black-crowned Antshrikes are among the insectivorous birds that forage less efficiently in silvopasture habitat. Photo credit: B. Tarbox

    The adoption of “silvopastures”—incorporating trees into pastureland—can provide habitat for forest bird species and improve connectivity in landscapes fragmented by agriculture. But how do silvopastures measure up to natural forest habitat? New research from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that birds in silvopasture forage less efficiently than those in forest fragments but offers suggestions for how silvopasture habitat could be improved.

    The University of Florida’s Bryan Tarbox and his colleagues observed the foraging and flocking behavior of insect-eating birds in silvopastures on farms in the Colombian Andes between 2013 and 2015. They found that silvopastures were less structurally complex than forest fragments, with fewer and smaller trees, a sparser understory, and less diversity of tree species. Birds in silvopastures attacked insects less often, were less selective about where they foraged, and were less likely to join mixed-species flocks. Flock members attacked prey more frequently than solitary birds in forest fragments, but not in silvopastures, suggesting that something about silvopasture habitat negated the benefits of joining a flock.

    The results show that silvopasture habitat could be improved by managing for higher tree species diversity and greater structural complexity, but that preserving natural forest fragments in agricultural landscapes is also crucial. “I hope people don’t get the impression that our results mean silvopastures aren’t a good idea,” says Tarbox. “The existing literature makes it clear that silvopastures are beneficial for biodiversity conservation. I think the big takeaway here is the importance of getting to the details of how specific land uses impact particular species or functional groups, so that we can figure out the best regional configurations of land use, given the competing needs of wildlife and agriculture.”

    “Protected areas alone will be insufficient to conserve biodiversity at global scales. Instead, we must find ways to safeguard species and ecosystems while also sustaining human communities and livelihoods that depend upon local resources,” according to Cornell University’s Amanda Rodewald, an expert on bird responses to human land use who was not involved with the research. “In their study of insectivorous forest birds, Tarbox and his colleagues report that Andean silvopastures provided low quality foraging habitats and, as such, may fail to support resident and migratory birds as well as forest fragments. Fortunately, the study points to several strategies, such as planting preferred tree species and creating specialized microhabitats, that can be implemented at local and regional scales to improve suitability of silvopastoral habitats for birds.”

    Foraging ecology and flocking behavior of insectivorous forest birds inform management of Andean silvopastures for conservation is available at

    About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

    Newly Identified African Bird Species Already in Trouble

    Research From The Auk and The Condor - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:34

    A Mountain Sooty Boubou. Photo credit: J. Engel

    Central Africa’s Albertine Rift region is a biodiversity hotspot consisting of a system of highlands that spans six countries. Recent studies have shown that the population of sooty bush-shrikes occupying the region’s mid-elevation forests is a distinct species, and new research from The Condor: Ornithological Applications reveals that this newly discovered species may already be endangered due to pressure from agricultural development.

    The newly identified mid-elevation species has been dubbed Willard’s Sooty Boubou, as opposed to the previously recognized high-elevation species, the Mountain Sooty Boubou. The Field Museum’s Fabio Berzaghi (now with the CEA Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment in France) and his colleagues used museum records and bird survey records to analyze the ecological niche occupied by each species, and their results confirm that there is very little overlap between the ranges of the two species—Willard’s Sooty Boubou is found at approximately 1200–1900 meters and the Mountain Sooty Boubou at 1800–3800 meters. In Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda, 70% of the potential for Willard’s Sooty Boubou lies outside of protected areas and has been converted to agriculture, and the numbers for the Democratic Republic of Congo are only slightly better.

    Willard’s Sooty Boubou joins several other imperiled bird species that depend on the region’s mid-elevation forests, which have been largely overlooked by conservation efforts. “The Albertine Rift is a crossroads of amazing biodiversity, dramatic and diverse landscapes, and heartbreaking social and political unrest. It goes from glaciers to volcanoes to plateaus to lakes, with a succession of vegetation types from high-elevation cloud forests to lowland tropical forests,” says Berzaghi. “It is home to gorillas and forest elephants as well as a high number of endemic animal and plant species. Unfortunately, much of the region has gone through never-ending conflicts, with very negative consequences for both humans and biodiversity, and conservation involving local populations is paramount.”

    “This paper provides additional data in support of the recognition of Willard’s Sooty Boubou as a species distinct from Mountain Sooty Boubou. Clarification of the niche that Willard’s Sooty Boubou occupies, that of mid-elevation forests, distinct from the higher-elevation Mountain Sooty Boubou, is important, because these habitats are among the most heavily impacted in Africa from agriculture,” according to UC Berkeley’s Rauri Bowie, an expert on African birds who was not involved in the study. “Conservation agencies have an opportunity to move beyond taxonomic debate and use the models derived from this species to improve conservation outcomes for not only this species, but also a broad set of mid-elevation Albertine Rift endemic vertebrates through protection of mid-elevation forests that have received relatively little protection in comparison to high-elevation montane habitats.”

    Comparative niche modeling of two bush-shrikes (Laniarius) and the conservation of mid-elevation Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift is available at

    About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

    AUTHOR BLOG: “Bird-in-the-middle”—a mid-elevation tropical species stuck in limbo

    Research From The Auk and The Condor - Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:34

    Fabio Berzaghi & John Bates

    Linked paper: Comparative niche modeling of two bush-shrikes (Laniarius) and the conservation of mid-elevation Afromontane forests of the Albertine Rift by F. Berzaghi, J.E. Engel, A.J. Plumptre, H. Mugabe, D. Kujirakwinja, S. Ayebare, and J.M. Bates, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, October 2018.

    A search through the tropical forest literature for “mid-elevation forests” reveals relatively few results compared to a search for high-elevation or lowland forests, and looking at a map of protected areas and land cover in mountainous tropical regions makes it clear why. For example, in the African Albertine Rift, most national parks tend to be in high elevation areas where slopes are steep and land conversion for human use is more difficult. As we move down the slopes, the habitat starts degrading until we arrive in the lowlands, where almost no intact habitat remains, particularly on the eastern side of the Rift.

    In 2010, Voelker et al. described a new species of bush-strike, the Willard’s Sooty Boubou (Laniarius willardi), and noticed that this species occurs at lower elevations than its sister species, the Mountain Sooty Boubou (Lanarius poensis). We were thus wondering how much habitat was left for this mid-elevation species, knowing that in this region lower-elevation forests are degraded or have been converted to agriculture. Using niche modeling and land cover data, we discovered that these two species of birds reside at different elevations across a small portion of montane Africa, overlapping only in part. Unfortunately, the habitat for L. willardi has been greatly reduced, because mid-elevation forests are outside protected areas and national parks. L. willardi may not be able to move to higher elevations, as its preferred environmental conditions are between 1200 and 1900 meters; a large portion of its suitable habitat is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s Itombwe Plateau, technically a protected area but problematic to protect.

    The plight of L. willardi is probably similar to that of many other mid- and low-elevation species in the area. Even though our results are not such good news for birds and other mid-elevation species in the region, we also want to highlight the importance of scientific collaborations with local researchers and conservation units. These collaborations help us define habitats and species in need of attention. Importantly, the authors of our study are a combination of Africans and non-Africans, with a range of research foci including ornithology and conservation but also niche modeling and bioinformatics. The data used in our study are based on both museum specimens (historical and modern) and modern field observations, which were carried out by teams that always included African students and scientists from the countries where the data were collected. Conservation can only be successful in the long run if in-country capacity for conservation science is developed around the world.

    The discovery of L. willardi and its description were made possible through modern scientific collection during collaborations between local Albertine Rift ornithologists and the Field Museum. Data from such modern collections will help clarify lingering concerns in the taxonomic community (particularly Birdlife International and the IUCN) in regards to the status of these two species relative to other black boubous occurring far to the west in the Cameroonian Highlands. Work like this has great value, because it allows highlighting issues of conservation concern at both regional and local scales. Each region of the Albertine Rift has its own history and ongoing issues with deforestation, instability and protection. There is no “one size fits all” solution to conservation in the Albertine Rift, but this paper helps emphasize that there is regional expertise in the form of researchers and conservation professionals who will make a difference. Opportunities to work with international colleagues to combine conservation and science, as in this paper, will be instrumental in building efforts to protect the incredible biota of this wonderful region.

    4 Billion Birds Will Fly Through American Airspace This Fall

    All About Birds - Mon, 09/17/2018 - 10:09
    Cornell Lab of Ornithology researchers used weather-radar data to count the numbers of birds crossing the northern and southern borders of the United States in fall and spring. View larger image. Source: AM Dokter et al. (2018). Graphic by Jillian Ditner.

    From the Autumn 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

    Fall migration will bring 4 billion birds into the skies over the United States. That’s not a guess—it’s hard data, gleaned from the first-ever national bird count using weather radar.

    Cornell Lab of Ornithology scientists picked through data from 143 weather radar stations from 2013 to 2017 to provide the first large-scale counts of migratory bird activity across the United States. Their research, published today in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution, provides a peek into how many migratory birds use American airspace.

    An average of 4 billion birds passed from Canada across the northern border of the U.S. in autumn, with 2.6 billion birds returning across the Canada–U.S. border in spring. Activity across the southern border was on an even grander scale: an average of 4.7 billion birds left the U.S. for Mexico and other points south each autumn, with 3.5 billion birds heading north across the U.S. southern border each spring.

    Radar ornithology is an emerging field that extracts avian activity from weather-radar data to track birds’ nocturnal movements. Researchers in this field employ the power of cloud computing and use algorithms to identify bird activity among meteorological phenomena, such as thunderstorms and drizzle. Scientists can then estimate flight altitude, speed, direction, and number of birds per unit of airspace using a wide assortment of radar tools along with existing knowledge of flight behavior, such as how close together migrant birds fly.

    Wood Thrush populations are down 60 percent since 1970. Photo by Andrew Spencer/Macaulay Library.

    The numbers from this study provide a measure of year-to-year bird survival. By comparing the number of birds moving back and forth each autumn and spring, researchers were able to determine an average annual return rate. For birds crossing the U.S. northern border—which includes many short-distance migrants such as sparrows, Snow Buntings, and Dark-eyed Juncos that fly from Canada to spend winter in the Lower 48 states—the average rate of return was 64 percent. But for birds crossing the U.S. southern border—which includes more of the long-distance migrants such as warblers, tanagers, and orioles that travel to Central and South America, three to four times farther than the short-distance migrants—the average rate of return was 76 percent.

    “That was probably the most interesting finding,” said Benjamin Zuckerberg, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who studies the impacts of modern climate change on bird populations, and who was not involved with this research. “That you potentially have higher survival in Central and South America for these Neotropical migrants than you do for these short-distance migrants, that’s an interesting finding for many groups of ornithologists and conservationists. We find that kind of surprising.”

    Read More

    One explanation for the higher mortality among birds that overwinter in the U.S. may be a higher number of hazards. “All birds need to stay safe from predators, find enough food, and not get hit by a car,” says Ken Rosenberg, research coauthor and conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab. “Birds wintering in the U.S. may have more habitat disturbances and more buildings to crash into, and they might not be adapted for that.” Another reason for the disparity in return rates between migrant birds may be breeding strategy. Short-distance migratory birds appear to follow a strategy of high recruitment—that is, they have high reproduction rates that generate many offspring, so the populations can offset mortality rates. The long-distance migrant birds, on the other hand, follow a strategy of high survivorship. Their populations depend on adult birds living through the winter and returning to reproduce the following spring, even if that means expending large amounts of time and energy to travel thousands of miles to favorable wintering grounds.

    Ironically, this high-survivorship strategy may provide a clue as to why so many populations of long-distance migratory songbirds are declining. Tropical deforestation has continued in Central and South America in recent decades, according to the 2016 State of the World’s Forests report. Accordingly, populations of birds that overwinter in the Western Hemisphere tropics have declined dramatically, such as Wood Thrush (down 60 percent since 1970) and Canada Warbler (down 62 percent since 1970).


    A. M. Dokter, A. Farnsworth, D. Fink, V. Ruiz-Gutierrez, W. M. Hochachka, F. A. La Sorte, O. J. Robinson, K. V. Rosenberg, and S. Kelling. 2018. Seasonal abundance and survival of North America’s migratory avifauna determined by weather radarNature Ecology & Evolution. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-018-0666-4.

    “Longer-distance migrants seem to be gambling on having high survival in the tropics. They might be more sensitive to what happens to their wintering grounds,” noted Adriaan Dokter, an Edward W. Rose postdoctoral fellow at the Cornell Lab and lead author on the research. For the University of Wisconsin’s Zuckerberg, this study opens new doors to bird conservation—on their wintering and breeding grounds, and their travels in between.

    “We are entering a new age of big-data ornithology,” says Zuckerberg. “We can take data sets, either collected through citizen science, weather surveillance, or other novel ways of capturing information on bird populations and explore historical questions and think about them in a new light.”

    Carley Eschliman’s work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, thanks to Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

    How do hurricanes affect migrating birds?

    All About Birds - Wed, 09/12/2018 - 11:40
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    Each year, migratory birds cross the Gulf of Mexico during hurricane season. Most birds wait for favorable winds and weather before starting a migratory flight, so seldom strike out over water during a hurricane, but some birds may be well offshore when a storm begins. Although migrants have enough fat (fuel reserves) to make the 600-mile Gulf crossing in favorable winds, they may not have enough energy to survive if they have to fight against headwinds.

    Before and after flights, when migrants have higher than normal food requirements, they may have problems finding safe supplies of food in areas devastated by storms. Resident birds in hurricane areas also suffer when their food supplies, such as fruits and berries, are stripped from trees and shrubs. Like migrants, they may wander to other areas in search of food. Preserving critical coastal habitats is essential for these birds. It’s also crucial for them that we enforce strict regulations to prevent hazardous materials from leaking or spilling during storms and floods.

    Large storm systems may drive some birds far off-course. Strong-flying birds often move ahead of the storm, carried by the winds at the forefront of the weather system. Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigatebirds, and other oceanic birds have been recorded far inland, sometimes more than a thousand miles from the coast, after hurricanes. Some of these birds may find their way back; others, unable to deal with the unfamiliar terrain or to find appropriate food in freshwater, may die.

    Birds and hurricanes have coexisted for millennia, and given the chance, healthy bird populations rebound from the effects of such natural disasters. Unfortunately, humans make this difficult for some birds because we have destroyed so much natural coastal habitat, and so nowadays hurricanes pose greater threats to vulnerable bird populations than they once did. Working to preserve and restore as much coastal habitat as possible, to minimize toxic spills and leaks during storms by enacting and enforcing strict regulations, and to keep bird populations healthy year round are our best strategies for minimizing the long-term effects of hurricanes on birds. Providing food and water for birds after hurricanes can also help birds who lost food resources in a storm, or who may need a little extra fuel to continue their migrations.

    For more about the effects of hurricanes on birds—and the birds’ coping mechanisms:

    For a more detailed discussion about bird watching during and after hurricanes, see these posts from eBird and BirdCast:

    Mini Video Cameras Offer Peek at Hard-to-Observe Bird Behavior

    Research From The Auk and The Condor - Wed, 09/12/2018 - 09:56


    Fledging behavior—when and why baby birds leave the nest—is something scientists know very little about. Rarely is someone watching a nest at just the right moment to see fledging happen. To get around this, the researchers behind a new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances deployed miniature video cameras to monitor over 200 grassland bird nests in Alberta, North Dakota, Minnesota, and Wisconsin, and they found that fledglings’ decision-making process is more complex than anyone guessed.

    Christine Ribic from the U.S. Geological Survey and her colleagues tested two competing hypotheses about fledglings’ decision making. Birds might leave the nest early in the day to maximize the amount of time they have to find a safe place to hide from predators before nightfall. Alternatively, once their siblings start to leave, the remaining birds might decide to stay in the nest longer to take advantage of reduced competition for the food their parents provide, resulting in spread-out fledging times. Video data analyzed by Ribic and her colleagues showed that the more siblings in a nest, the longer it took for all of them to fledge, consistent with the idea that some young may stay behind to take advantage of reduced competition after the first nestlings leave. Ribic and her co-authors discovered that 20% of nests took more than one day to completely finish fledging. Fledging behavior also varied between species and over the course of the breeding season, for reasons that remain unclear.

    As they decide when to fledge, the nestlings of grassland birds are balancing two competing demands. On one hand, staying in the nest longer gives them more time to grow and develop before facing the risky outside world. On the other hand, predation risk might increase with time spent in the nest.

    “It was exciting to see events naturally occurring in an area of avian biology where very little is known, and was only possible due to the use of video surveillance systems,” says Ribic. “It seems fledging is more complex than we previously thought. We were surprised by the span of time over which grassland bird species fledge, with some species starting to fledge in the early morning and others closer to noon, and by the frequency of fledgings that spanned multiple days.”

    “Considerable research attention has focused on the breeding biology of birds, but until recently some events have been difficult to observe. Luckily, decreases in the size and cost of video equipment have allowed researchers to study these hard-to-observe events, such as the brief moments when a predator causes a nest to fail. This study took things a step further to begin exploring the point in time when young birds fledge from the nest,” adds the University of Illinois’s T.J. Benson, an expert of bird nesting behavior who was not involved in the study. “There are relatively few existing ideas for what influences the timing of nest departure by young birds, and Ribic and her colleagues put forth an interesting idea about the potential role of food availability in influencing fledging. Use of video technology to examine nest predation has become widespread, and this paper provides a great example of the other interesting aspects of breeding biology that can be examined in such studies.”

    Diel fledging patterns among grassland passerines: Relative impacts of energetics and predation risk is available at

    About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology published by the American Ornithological Society. The Auk commenced publication in 1884 and in 2009 was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

    AUTHOR BLOG: What time do baby birds leave home?

    Research From The Auk and The Condor - Wed, 09/12/2018 - 09:56

    Christine Ribic

    Linked paper: Diel fledging patterns among grassland passerines: Relative impacts of energetics and predation risk by C.A. Ribic, C.S. Ng, N. Koper, K. Ellison, P.J. Pietz, and D.J. Rugg, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:4, October 2018.

    A Grasshopper Sparrow chick leaves its nest. Credit: C. Ribic, USGS

    We know that human kids grow, mature, and gradually move towards a life that is independent of their parents’ home.  The same is true for baby birds: they also have to decide when the time is right to leave the nest and start on their journey to independence. This seems to involve a balancing act between making sure they are big and healthy enough to survive independently, while leaving the nest quickly to avoid predators. Nests are busy places where chicks beg for food and parents are constantly coming and going with food deliveries. All of this activity could easily draw predators to the nest! The timing of chicks leaving the nest (fledging) isn’t well understood, particularly for birds that live in grasslands, many of which are threatened or endangered due to habitat loss.

    Our new research focused on a variety of grassland songbirds, such as meadowlarks, sparrows, and longspurs. We found that the time baby birds leave the nest has more to do with having enough food (energetics) than avoiding predators. This is surprising because research on birds nesting in shrubs says that risk of predation is the most important thing affecting when chicks leave the nest. This suggests that nests in grasslands (hidden on the ground with protective cover from surrounding grasses and a few low shrubs) face different risks than nests placed in shrubs.

    We found that grassland chicks can start to leave anytime throughout the day and when they leave depends on what species they are. Some chicks, like Clay-colored Sparrow and Grasshopper Sparrow, usually left the nest in the early morning, while Eastern Meadowlark and Chestnut-collared Longspur left closer to mid-morning. But sometimes chicks delayed leaving until the afternoon, with their siblings waiting until the next day to depart. The time it takes for all the chicks to leave a nest can be several hours to more than a day! Maybe some chicks are taking advantage of their siblings’ early departures to get more food and attention from mom and dad before they finally leave, too.

    Measuring fledging time can be tricky because chicks run in and out of the nest multiple times before leaving for good. We don’t know why they do this; maybe they are exploring their world and gaining confidence before leaving to brave the world outside their home. Remember these birds have only been alive for a week and a half or so!  Regardless, it’s a bit like kids going off for college but returning for school breaks … nestlings may leave and return repeatedly before fully fledging. Fledging is not nearly as simple as people think it is!

    Understanding the fledging process allows us to better understand the biology of grassland birds. Learning about the pressures they face in their daily lives lets us understand what threats they face and how those threats may change as people alter grasslands. Grassland birds are declining more than birds of any other habitat type across North America. Research like this is part of understanding why they are declining and what we can do to help them recover.

    The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World

    All About Birds - Thu, 09/06/2018 - 15:05

    NEW 2018 Updates & Corrections and downloadable spreadsheet.

    The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World, 6th Edition was published and released by Cornell University Press in June 2007. The book was produced from a nearly completed manuscript left by James Clements upon his death in 2005.

    The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has accepted the job of maintaining the ever-changing list of species, subspecies, English names, and approximate distributions, beginning with publication of the 6th Edition. Our procedures for accomplishing this ongoing task include using the considerable expertise of our research ornithologists on staff, aided enormously by input from knowledgeable professional and amateur cooperators worldwide. We invite input on known or suspected errors or updates at any time.

    This website serves as the clearinghouse for keeping your Clements Checklist up to date. We will post all corrections once a year in August. At the same time, we’ll post updates to the taxonomy, scientific and English nomenclature, and range descriptions, to incorporate changes that have made their way into the literature and are generally accepted by the appropriate scientific body or community. In the future, we will also be posting a list of alternative English names.


    John Fitzpatrick, Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director
    Cornell Lab of Ornithology

    Slideshow: If You’ve Seen These Birds, Thank the Endangered Species Act

    All About Birds - Wed, 09/05/2018 - 15:58
    The national emblem of the United States might have gone extinct without the Endangered Species Act. In the 1960s, Bald Eagles hit a low of just over 400 pairs in the Lower 48. Today, a quarter-million of the magnificent birds soar over North America. Bald Eagle by Brian Kushner via Birdshare.Goofy, graceful, and gregarious, Brown Pelicans are beloved sights along many U.S. beaches as long lines of the big birds cruise on broad wings just inches above the water. This species nearly vanished in the 1970s but recovered so strongly that it was delisted in 2009. Brown Pelican by Salah Baazizi via Birdshare.Often described as the fastest animal in the world, Peregrine Falcons nearly vanished from the eastern United States because of DDT pollution. Thanks to intense conservation efforts and captive breeding, this magnificent raptor was delisted in 1999. Peregrine Falcon by Tom Blandford via Birdshare.Like other large birds, Wood Storks were vulnerable to the effects of the pesticide DDT, which weakened their eggshells. And as wetland specialists, they were affected by changing water use and draining of wetlands. They were listed in 1984, and the U.S. population has more than doubled since then. Wood Stork by B.N. Singh via Birdshare.Simultaneously a success story and an ongoing project, the California Condor was brought back from the brink of extinction—just 22 birds in the early 1980s—to more than 250 free-flying individuals today. Yet continuing problems, particularly poisoning from lead ammunition, mean the condor still requires major effort and investment to survive. Learn more in our story. California Condor by CT_Imagery via Birdshare.Aplomado Falcons range across grasslands from the Mexico to South America, but they disappeared from the extreme southern U.S. by the 1950s. An intensive captive breeding and reintroduction program led by the Peregrine Fund brought them back, and the species now flies in South Texas and the Southwest again. Aplomado Falcon by Christian Fernandez /Macaulay Library.One of the most recognizable and beloved of all endangered species, the Whooping Crane is an ongoing recovery project involving captive breeding and innovative projects to reintroduce the birds and teach them their migratory routes. The species now numbers about 400 in the wild. Whooping Crane by Tom Blandford via Birdshare.The Piping Plover is vulnerable to beach and nesting-area development and disturbance. It was listed in 1985 and since then conservation efforts have helped their numbers to increase more than threefold. Piping Plover by B.N. Singh via Birdshare.A casualty of intense logging of the majestic longleaf pines of the southeastern U.S., the Red-cockaded Woodpecker hangs on in scattered longleaf preserves and frequently burned loblolly and slash pine stands. The ESA has allowed scientists to learn an incredible amount about this small, colonially breeding woodpecker with a meticulous approach to creating its nest holes—leading to a 42% increase in their numbers. Red-cockaded Woodpecker by Craig Brelsford /Macaulay Library.A species emblematic of the controversy over the protection of natural resources, the Northern Spotted Owl continues to survive in the last of the great old-growth forests of the Pacific Northwest, although it's being further threatened by newly arrived Barred Owls. Read the full story. Image by Ben Phalan/Macaulay Library.Thanks to intensive management and protection from cowbirds, Kirtland's Warbler numbers have climbed tenfold since the species was listed in the 1970s, and it was proposed for delisting earlier this year. Learn more in our story. Kirtland's Warbler by Jason Jablonski via Birdshare.The Black-capped Vireo once numbered fewer than 1,000 individuals. It was listed in 1987 and by 2018 had recovered to some 14,000 individuals—enough for the species to be delisted. Black-capped Vireo by Bradley Hacker /Macaulay Library.The striking Golden-cheeked Warbler breeds only in a small region of Texas, where habitat restoration and efforts to reduce cowbird parasitism have helped the population rebound. Golden-cheeked Warbler by Jesse Huth/Macaulay Library.The state bird of Hawaii is this small, beautiful goose. Once restricted to a few high elevation sites, the Hawaiian Goose or Nene now occurs on multiple islands and is one of the few native Hawaiian species with an increasing population. Image by SharifUddin59 via Birdshare.The Florida Scrub-Jay hangs on in scattered pockets of sandhills in the midst of intense development in Central Florida. Sadly, its numbers continue to fall, even with ESA protection—which may be at least slowing their decline. Florida Scrub-Jay by Cleber Ferreira via Birdshare.Sadly, not all species survived long enough to come under the protection of the ESA. Two examples are the Passenger Pigeon (left) and Carolina Parakeet (right). These paintings by John James Audubon are stark reminders of how much is at stake when we weigh the costs and benefits of conservation.PreviousNext

    Birds are all around us—even birds that were once on the brink of extinction. Bald Eagles now occur in every mainland state in the U.S. Peregrine Falcons scream over barren coastlines and hunt Rock Pigeons in cities. Brown Pelicans delight beachgoers with their low-slung glides and crashing dives. And the list goes on.

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    Many of these recoveries are thanks to the hard work and commitment represented by the Endangered Species Act and the people who dedicate their careers to helping species. To celebrate, we’ve put together this slideshow showing just some of the birds the Act has helped turn around. You can see a comprehensive list in a report published by the American Bird Conservancy: it finds 70% of all listed bird species are better off today.

    When you see any of these species, take a moment and thank the Endangered Species Act.


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