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A Night at the Museum (of Vertebrates) [video]

Tue, 02/06/2018 - 14:48
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The best natural history collections are vibrant, dynamic places that reveal new insights into the workings of the natural world. Join Vanya Rohwer and Casey Dillman, curators of the Cornell University Museum of Vertebrates (CUMV), to learn how natural history collections are used to teach, conserve, and inspire new ideas. The lecture takes place in the auditorium as usual, but we also get a special behind-the-scenes peek at the specimens and spaces of the CUMV.

The talk took place on February 5, 2018. It is part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

See our index of archived livestreamed seminars to enjoy more talks from the Cornell Lab.

The Great Backyard Bird Count

Thu, 02/01/2018 - 07:08

Bird watchers of all ages count birds to create a real-time snapshot of where birds are.
Count birds anytime, anywhere, with eBird »
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About the GBBC
Great Spotted Woodpecker by John King, 2015 GBBC
Great Spotted Woodpecker by John King, 2015 GBBC

Launched in 1998 by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, the Great Backyard Bird Count was the first online citizen-science project to collect data on wild birds and to display results in near real-time.

Now, more than 160,000 people of all ages and walks of life worldwide join the four-day count each February to create an annual snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds.

We invite you to participate! For at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, February 17-20, 2017, simply tally the numbers and kinds of birds you see. You can count from any location, anywhere in the world, for as long as you wish!

If you’re new to the count, or have not participated since before the 2013 merger with eBird, you must create a free online account to enter your checklists. If you already have an account, just use the same login name and password. If you have already participated in another Cornell Lab citizen-science project, you can use your existing login information, too.

Click here for more info on how to get started.

In 2016, Great Backyard Bird Count participants in more than 130 countries counted 5,689 species of birds on more than 162,000 checklists!

During the count, you can explore what others are seeing in your area or around the world. Share your bird photos by entering the photo contest, or enjoy images pouring in from across the globe. New in 2016: you can add photos and sounds to your checklist. Read more.

Your help is needed every year to make the GBBC successful!

Then keep counting throughout the year with eBird, which uses the same system as the Great Backyard Bird Count to collect, store, and display data any time, all the time.

Why count birds?

Red-tailed Hawk by Peter Ferguson, 2015 GBBC
Red-tailed Hawk by Peter Ferguson, 2015 GBBC

Scientists and bird enthusiasts can learn a lot by knowing where the birds are. Bird populations are dynamic; they are constantly in flux. No single scientist or team of scientists could hope to document and understand the complex distribution and movements of so many species in such a short time.

Scientists use information from the Great Backyard Bird Count, along with observations from other citizen-science projects, such as the Christmas Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird, to get the “big picture” about what is happening to bird populations. The longer these data are collected, the more meaningful they become in helping scientists investigate far-reaching questions, like these:

• How will the weather and climate change influence bird populations?

• Some birds, such as winter finches, appear in large numbers during some years but not others. Where are these species from year to year, and what can we learn from these patterns?

• How will the timing of birds’ migrations compare with past years?

• How are bird diseases, such as West Nile virus, affecting birds in different regions?

• What kinds of differences in bird diversity are apparent in cities versus suburban, rural, and natural areas?

The Great Backyard Bird Count is led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and National Audubon Society, with Bird Studies Canada and many international partners. The Great Backyard Bird Count is powered by eBird. The count is made possible in part by founding sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

How to Have a Gaggle of Fun at the Great Backyard Bird Count

Mon, 01/29/2018 - 19:32
Here’s how to have nearly as much fun as these three seem to be having. Trumpeter Swans by Victoria Sokolowksu/GBBC.

Mid-February is the time of year when the world’s hourglass flips over and birds slowly start to reverse direction—toward their spring (or, in the Southern Hemisphere, autumn) haunts again. The Great Backyard Bird Count is designed to capture that moment of stillness and give scientists a picture of bird populations at one extreme of the year. Over its 3-decade history it has expanded from a 2-country count (U.S. and Canada) to a global escapade that tallies about 60% of the world’s bird species. It’s one long weekend that’s perfectly situated as a good excuse to get out your binoculars and not put them back down again for 4 whole days. Here’s how to make the most of it—for you and for the birds.

It all starts with just 3 easy rules:

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  • Count birds for at least 15 minutes on Feb 16, 17, 18, or 19, 2018
  • Keep track of how long you counted and how far you walked
  • Start a new count for each new place or day/time

Go to your favorite spot—or any spot. It doesn’t have to be your backyard, it can be anywhere. Literally anywhere on Earth. We’ve had people in Antarctica count penguins. We’ve also had lots of counts from metro centers and kitchen windows. All birds everywhere is what we’re aiming for—and “your” birds are as important as anyone else’s.

Get Your Feeders Ready

Greet’em with a feeder or two. You don’t have to watch birds at a feeder—but if you’re counting at home it’s a great way to up the activity. We’ve got lots of suggestions and advice about what kinds of feeders to use, the advantages of birdbaths, and what kinds of food each bird species likes best.

Grab your own gaggle. Bird watching is fun in a group, and extra eyes mean you’ll often see more. Grab a friend, child, grandchild, parent, spouse, or cousin—you can even print them a participation certificate afterwards as a badge of pride. Or check your local birding club to see if there’s an outing you can join.

Get ready to enter your sightings. You’ll need a free eBird account, or an account with Project FeederWatch or NestWatch. This allows all your data to go smoothly into the central eBird database, where they’re available for scientists to analyze.

  • Here’s a handy download to walk you through the data entry
  • If you see something unusual, your checklist might get flagged for review. Please don’t take offense! It’s just a standard procedure to make sure erroneous entries don’t become data. A volunteer reviewer will contact you and ask for a bit more information—here’s how the review process works.

Gear up with free apps. Our eBird Mobile app will track how far you walked, how long you’ve been out birding for, and will let you enter data straight from the field, making data entry about as easy as can be. And our Merlin Bird ID app can help you narrow down which sparrow, chickadee, or finch you saw. (There’s also help on the GBBC tricky ID pages.)

Give your camera a chance to win. Every year we get thousands of photos in our GBBC photo contest. Awards and prizes are given in six categories—Overall, Behavior, Habitat, Group, People, and Composition. So keep your camera handy and show us what the birds look like around your neck of the woods!

Psst…. you can have fun counting birds on any day of the year. So if you miss the Great Backyard Bird Count—or just don’t want to stop—you can use these same tips to count and enter birds into eBird any and every day of the year.

More questions? See the official GBBC FAQ page, and the Participant Toolkit for more explanations and examples.

Understanding Wildfire and Managing Fire-Prone Landscapes

Tue, 01/23/2018 - 13:45

Understanding Wildfire: Human Contributions to, and Solutions for, Managing Fire-Prone Landscapes
Megan Whatton January 23, 2018
Healthy Ecosystems Wildfire
Wildfire is becoming a household term throughout North America–millions of us have heard about it in the news, donated to recovery efforts, or have been directly threatened by active wildfires in the last year. Unfortunately, it is predicted that this kind of natural disaster is only going to become more prevalent and fierce in the future.open_in_new Wildfires are natural disturbances and, in some cases, critical processes, as certain plant species rely solely on fire for their reproduction. So, why does it seem fires are becoming more frequent and intense and how can we work to reduce this threat while retaining a healthy ecosystem?

Wildfires have always been, and will always be, a part of our natural landscape. Before human influence on natural environments, wildfires were common, frequent, and started with some regularity by lightning strikes. The frequency of these fires meant that fuel loads (available dry materials to burn) were low, which, for the most part, produced lower intensity fires. Humans have been suppressing wildfires for over a century, and as a result, many of our forest and grassland ecosystems are overgrown and full of fuel.

80 percent of U.S. wildfires are caused by people

Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
An example of fire suppression effects on fuel load can be seen in the photo above. This is a picture of a forest in the panhandle of Florida (national capital of lightning strikes). To the left of the path, this section of forest hadn’t burned in 13 years. To the right of the path, this section of forest was burned within the last 3 years. Without fire, the fuels were able to grow denser and taller, providing more fuel, and creating potentially dangerous fire conditions.

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Wild oats (Avena spp) established alongside a residential community in Orange County, CA

In addition to suppression, humans have also introduced and expedited the spread of invasive species. This poses two problems when it comes to wildfires. First, invasive plants species like wild oatsopen_in_new (Avena spp.), red brome (Bromus rubens), and foxtailopen_in_new have played a role in the spread, intensity, and possibly the ignition of devastating wildfires including the Thomas and Creek fires in Southern California in 2017-18. These invasive species have a different life cycle from their native neighbors. By late spring these plants seed and die, providing dry and highly flammable fuels during the summer and fall fire season.

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Many native plants in California produce seeds that aren’t able to germinate before the fire season, meaning only the seeds from the invasive species can survive to propagate and spread. A similar situation is occurring in sagebrush ecosystems.open_in_new Cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum) is an invasive grass that provides dense fuels and ignites easily, creating three to five year burn cycles that outcompete the slower native species which take 10 years to establish.

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European Gypsy Moth (Lymantria dispar L.) deliberately brought to the U.S. for silk production, gypsy moths are one of the most destructive exotic forest pest in North America.

The second issue with invasive species is the spread of invasive insects (pictured: European Gypsy Moth Lymantria dispar L.) and disease. Many tree species have suffered over the past three decades from new pests and diseases which are estimated to have killed over 150 million trees.open_in_new Many of these pests and diseases are spread through the movement of firewood, hiking boots, wooden pallets, and nursery plants.

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 10.00.37 AM
One example is Sudden Oak Death (caused by Phytophthora ramorum),open_in_new which first came into focus in the mid-1990’s when nursery plants transported the disease into the U.S. most likely from multiple unknown locations. The list of oak (Quercus) and non oak species this disease affects is long; but, what is even more detrimental about this disease is that it not only kills oak species–which are important mast-producing resources in many ecoregions–it also changes the fire dynamic.open_in_new

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First, the new dead wood from an infestation adds to the fuel loads in forests –increasing the chance of ignition, spread, and intensity of fires. Second, they take wildfires to new heights.open_in_new In the tanoak-redwood forests, tanoaks are highly susceptible to sudden oak death, and when fires come through, these dead trees act as a ladders, helping the flames reach the more vulnerable crowns of the redwoods. Burning dead tanoaks increase redwood mortality (an endangered species) four fold.

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In 1944 the U.S. Forest Service and the Ad Council created a fictional bear to represent a national effort in fire prevention. Six years later Smokey Bear came to life.open_in_new In the human-caused Capitan Gap Fire, located in Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico, 17,000 acres of forest burned. In the aftermath of the fire, firefighters found a young bear hanging on to a charred tree with burns on its paws and legs. They named the bear Smokey and his story spread nationwide. Smokey found himself a home at the National Zoo where he received honey and letters from his fans until his passing in 1976. Smokey Bear was returned to the Capitan Mountains and is buried in Smokey Bear Historical Park.

Aerial view of some of the aftermath in Pike National Forest from the Hayman wildfire, 2002, Colorado’s largest wildfire ever recorded.

The timing of wildfire season changes based on your location, temperature, and rainfall accumulation. Areas that are drier and experience longer periods between rain events have a higher risk of wildfire ignition. Between 1970 and 2017, wildfire seasons have grown, on average, 78 days longer.open_in_new This is, in part, due to climate change.open_in_new Areas that are experiencing earlier snowmelt are also experiencing longer, hotter, and drier conditions during their summer months, extending the fire season. Global fire models produced by University of California, Berkeley predict a 62% increase in fire probabilities in mid-high latitudes within the next 80-100 years.open_in_new Warmer climates are also known to aid in some invasive species spread, which only adds more fuel to the fire.open_in_new

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 10.02.54 AM
Fire running from open chaparral field into green timber. This forest burning originated by the Native Americans has been kept in action by the carelessness of white settlers. Image circa 1825

Fire has been a tool of humans for a long time. There is evidence of the use of intentional burns in North America dating to well before European colonization where Native Americans were known to have used fire as a tool for cultivation and modification of the landscape.open_in_new Today, humans are known to fight fire, with fire.

Module Leader Jeff Crandall on Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Dallas, Oregon. In October 2016, The Nature Conservancy’s Southern Rockies Wildland Fire Module traveled to the Willamette Valley in Oregon for three weeks to help the Oregon chaper
September 2015. Module Leader Jeff Crandall on Baskett Slough National Wildlife Refuge in Dallas, Oregon

Prescribed fires/burns (a.k.a control burns) are a land management technique to reduce the amount of fuel in an area.open_in_new By setting fire in a planned–down to every detail–and strategically-timed (weather) manner, humans can reduce fuel load and minimize out-of-control wildfire risk with the highest level of safety for the public and the fire staff in mind. Each prescribed fire must have both a fire management plan and a prescribed burn plan approved by the relevant governing entities (i.e. National Park Service). These plans take into consideration many factors including the fuel type, humidity, winds, temperature, time of year, fire breaks, smoke mixing heights/patterns, equipment-required, and staff–to mention a few. And, while controversial, prescribed burns do offer options for controlling fire risk in a changing environment.

Yurok forest managers create a “fire shade” to lessen the chance of wildfires. The Conservancy helped create a financial incentive mechanism for sustainable forestry and transformed and contributed to California’s climate change regulatory program.
Managers create a “fire shade” to lessen the chance of wildfires.

The White Mountain Stewardship Project is a perfect example of a town using fire to fight fire.open_in_new The Arizona Wallow Wildfire (2011) is one of the largest fires recorded in the state, burning 522,642 acres (2,115 km2). Ignited by campers in the White Mountains, this fire threatened the town of Alpine. Strategically, however, in 2004 the White Mountain Stewardship project initiated a 10 year plan to thin and burn a break (150,000 acres) between the forest and Alpine to protect against wildfires. As a result, the Wallow Fire surrounded the town of Alpine and would have consumed it without the efforts of the White Mountain Stewardship project, which are credited with protecting homes and businesses within the community.

A prescribed burn in the Ossipee Pine Barrens

Prescribed fires are not only effective at reducing fuel loads, they are also used to bring natural processes back to our ecosystems. Without fire, habitats like oak savannas and pine barrens are lost to encroaching forests. Species like the Karner blue butterfly (Lycaeides melissa samuelis)open_in_new are lost when their host plant species, wild blue lupine (Lupinus perennis), are eliminated by habitat conversion that occurs in the absence of fires. Simply by introducing prescribed fires into these savanna and barren habitats- which were once maintained by wildfire and grazing/browsing wild animals- native process and species composition can begin to be restored.open_in_new

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 10.04.31 AM
Prescribed fires aren’t the only tool available to fight wildfires. Communities and private landowners can play a large role in wildfire preparedness. Programs like the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network and Firewise are important resources to engage communities in fire resilience. These programs provide educational classes and workshops on wildfire safety and risk reduction actions geared toward homeowners.

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Demonstrations at Firewise Expo. One of these structures is well-prepared to reduce fire danger, the other not so much.

For the individual homeowner, it is important to keep your home and the surrounding area as fire resistant as possible. According to the Firewise program, there are seven easy steps to reduce the risk of losing your home to wildfires.








All GIFs are shared from Giphy
Embers (burning pieces of wood or vegetation) are the main cause of residential loss during wildfires. The good news is there are ways to protect your home from embers and surface fires during a wildfire event. Home ignition zones, or HIZ, are three spatial zones to consider when protecting your home.

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Immediate Zone: (0-5 feet from the residence) This is the most important zone to take action. This zone should include non-combustible housing materials and vegetation, like sod and annuals.

Intermediate Zone: (5-30 feet) In this zone, use landscaping to create breaks around your home and decrease the potential of fire transmission. For example, place trees so the canopy is no closer than 10 ft from the building and cluster vegetation with wide breaks in between.

Extended Zone: (30-100 feet) in this zone, tree spacing and species composition are important to consider along with clearing debris and removing ladder fuels. The goal here is to keep fire activity low to the ground and patchy.

For more information on HIZ visit Firewise USA

Screen Shot 2018-01-23 at 10.06.06 AM
It is a delightful challenge to both protect my home from wildfire and find ways to creatively, and safely, create habitat through careful planting of natives, selective pruning, and the art of strategic tidying-up.

Please note that some recommendations for minimizing fire risk run contrary to recommendations we make for encouraging habitat at home. It can be challenging to have competing goals for a property, especially when recommendations for meeting those goals might seem at odds with one another. As Project Leader, Rhiannon Crain, and wildfire-prone California resident, notes, It is a delightful challenge to both protect my home from wildfire and find ways to creatively, and safely, create habitat through careful planting of natives, selective pruning, and the art of strategic tidying-up.

Post wildfire Niobrara Valley Preserve, Nebraska. (ALL RIGHTS, ALL USES) PHOTO CREDIT: © Chris Helzer/TNC
Wildfires can seem like big contradictions: though they are natural and important, they also are an ever-increasing threat in our landscapes. How we manage our public and private lands is important for wildlife and wildfire preparedness. Everyone has a role to play and together we can make sure communities and ecosystems are more wildfire-resilient, putting us on a path to creating safer and healthier conditions for people and nature.

Apply by March 15 for the Cornell Lab’s Young Birders Event

Tue, 01/16/2018 - 11:17

The Cornell Lab Young Birders Event 2018

16 January 2018

Prairie Warbler by Ryan Schain/Macaulay Library
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is excited to host The Cornell Lab Young Birders Event, which will be held July 12-15, 2018 in Ithaca, New York. The Young Birders Event aims to bring together teenagers with a passion for birds and interested in pursing a career in the field. You’ll meet people who have successful careers that involve birds in a variety of ways from ornithological researchers to tour leaders, to audio specialists and computer scientists. High school-aged young birders (students entering grades 9-12 in the fall) are invited to fill out our application form and return it for review by March 15th 2018. Sixteen young birders will be selected and notified in early April. Preference is given to students entering 12th grade and students who have previously applied. Check out an amazing report from one of 2017’s participants, Max Hellicar.

The Young Birder’s Event will feature:

two days of field trips
presentations by Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff including professors, researchers, and students who will share various ways to incorporate birds into a career
eBird and sound recording workshop
tour of Cornell Lab including the Macaulay Library and Museum of Vertebrates
dinner with Cornell Lab staff
Application Deadline: March 15th 2018

Tuition: $600 Travel expenses to and from Ithaca are not covered in the tuition.

Meet Chris Wood and Jessie Barry, the primary leaders for the event:

Chris Wood is the Assistant Director of Information Science, helping lead eBird, Birds of North America, and other projects. He’s a Colorado native who’s been birding since he figured out he couldn’t find dinosaur fossils in his sandbox. Chris has traveled the world in search of birds and is thrilled to be able to share stories and birding skills with young birders.

Jessie Barry is Program Manager for the Macaulay Library and helps lead Merlin, a bird ID app. Jessie grew up in Rochester, NY where she began birding at age ten. She and Chris are grateful for the opportunities they had as young birders and are working to create opportunities for the next generation of leaders in ornithology.

For additional information please contact


Here’s a video summary from Max Hellicar from 2017’s event:

/ 1:15

K. Selvaganesh, December 2017 eBirder of the Month

Thu, 01/11/2018 - 13:59

K. Selvaganesh, December eBirder of the Month
11 January 2018

Please join us in congratulating K. Selvaganesh of Saravanampatti, Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, India, winner of the December 2017 eBird Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics. Our December winner was drawn from eBirders who submitted at least 15 eligible checklists in December with tracks from eBird Mobile. Selvaganesh’s name was drawn randomly from the 1,443 eligible eBirders who achieved the December challenge threshold. Selvaganesh will receive new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binoculars for his eBirding efforts. Read more to see Selvaganesh’s full story!

I am an English teacher working in Cinchona Government High School, Valparai. During a trek in college I saw Great Hornbill and Green Bee-eater. That was the first time I saw birds through binoculars and since then I’ve been watching birds. Later when I went to work in Cinchona Govt. High School, students watching me birding asked me what I was doing. I showed them the birds around our small campus, and since then they’re also into it.

Bay-backed Shrike by K. Selvaganesh/Macaulay Library

I learned about eBird in 2015. Later, with my school students, I started a group account for our school and made our school campus a hotspot. We have been birding and listing from this location continuously since then. Together with my students (age group 11-16) I have now recorded 124 species from our school campus. Submitting lists regularly from my school campus helps me know the number of resident and migrant species (and arrival and departure dates) in this region. This learning helps not only to improve my knowledge about birds but is also useful while answering the questions asked by my curious students.

I have regularly contributed for GBBC, Endemic Bird Day (Global Big Day), Pongal Bird Count and Kerala Bird Atlas project. I enjoy taking up the monthly eBirding challenges announced by Bird Count India. I learned a lot about birds through participating these bird surveys as well as by interacting with fellow birders. Attending various sessions on bird identification at the Tamil Birders Meet was also helpful.

Our school is situated at an altitude of about 1000m in southern Western Ghats, Anamalai Hills. There I get to see several rainforest birds, and when I go home (in Coimbatore) during the weekend I regularly go to Chinna Vedampatti Lake where I can see lot of waterbirds. Whenever possible I also conduct workshops on birding and on eBird for the school teachers and take students on birding trips.

Selvaganesh with his students

December 2017 was fantastic. I started the month birding with my students from my school and ended with trips to Perambalur and Namakkal Districts which are less birded districts in Tamil Nadu. In Namakkal District I visited the Kolli hills (part of the Eastern Ghats) and was excited to see the Nilgiri Flowerpecker Dicaeum concolor which is an endemic to Western Ghats. End of December I took my friend around to show him various rainforest species as well as the Isabelline Wheatear Oenanthe isabellina which is a rare migrant to south India. I had a resolution of submitting 1000 complete checklists for 2017 and I managed reach the target in the last week of December so felt quite happy about it.

Gallery: The Alala

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:12

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

More From Living Bird

The Hawaiian crow, or Alala, is getting a fresh start with reintroduction into the wild. As an artist on the big island of Hawaii, I take great pride in our native birds. For this piece, I was able to observe the Alala in captivity and paint this solitary Hawaiian Crow looking into the distance, with koa leaves dangling above its head. I used a purple color palette, straight surfaces, and right angles in this painting, because those are elements that don’t appear in nature very often, and I enjoy juxtaposing wild birds with surprising colors, shapes, and patterns. I hope my paintings convey a message of hope—that endangered animals like the Alala can return to nature and coexist with humanity, if only we’ll give them a chance.

Bad News and Good News about Hawaiian Birds

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:11
Iiwi feasting on an ohia tree. Photo by hawk person via Birdshare.

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

More From Living Bird

Nearly every native forest bird of Hawaii is listed as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Until very recently, one of the happy ex­ceptions to this grim rule was the Iiwi.

Historically, this cherry-red bird was among the most abundant birds on the islands. As recently as the late 1980s there were estimates of 300,000 individuals on the big island of Hawaii alone. But like so many other Hawaiian forest birds, the Iiwi’s numbers have fallen sharply in recent decades.

The Iiwi is under siege on several fronts. Avian malaria, transmitted by mosquitoes, is killing the birds outright. Warmer temperatures have allowed mosquitoes to move to higher elevations on forested slopes, into areas where the birds once found refuge from the blood-sucking insects. Additionally, a fungus is killing the ohia trees in Hawaiian forests. The ohia is a primary nesting tree for the Iiwi, as well as a source of food—the bird’s long, curved bill is perfectly suited to sipping nectar from ohia flowers.

As a result of the drastic population decline, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice listed the Iiwi as threatened under the ESA in October. Unfortunately, the designation doesn’t come with a promise of new funding for conservation efforts.

“Although the Endangered Species Act works when sufficiently funded, the Hawaiian birds are chronically under­funded,” says Chris Farmer, Hawaii pro­gram director for the American Bird Conservancy. Farmer points out that Ha­waiian birds make up a quarter of all U.S. endangered bird species, but Hawaii re­ceives less than 7 percent of ESA funds. “Additional funding is probably one of the most important actions we need,” he says.

Good News for the Alala Alala by Jack Jeffrey Photography.

Another endangered Hawaiian bird is getting a fresh start, as scientists with the Alala Project have reintroduced 11 endemic crows back into the wild.

The Hawaiian Crow, or Alala, was once common in the dry forests of Ha­waii, but it has been extirpated since 2002. The last Alala were taken into captivity with help from the San Diego Zoo Insti­tute for Conservation Research.

In September and October, scientists with the Alala Project—a partnership between the State of Hawaii Division of Forestry and Wildlife, the USFWS, and the San Diego Zoo—conducted two releases of Hawaiian Crows into the Puu Makaala Natural Area Reserve on the island of Hawaii. A similar effort in 2016 failed, as some of the newly in­troduced Alala were quickly killed by Hawaiian Hawks, or Io. This time, the recovery team chose a release site with fewer predators, and the released birds received predator avoidance training before being set loose in the wild.

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“The birds are presented with a live Io, and recorded alarm calls of other Alalas,” says Allison Greggor, a postdoc­toral student from the San Diego Zoo who works on the project. “All the birds in the cohort released this fall displayed fear behavior in the presence of these stimuli, a very encouraging sign!”

The newly reintroduced Alalas are fitted with transmitters that allow re­searchers to monitor their locations. As of November, all 11 of the crows were alive and well. Jacqueline Gaudioso-Levita, Alala Project coordinator, says her team is measuring progress one day at a time, with the knowledge that success is a long-term goal.

“The Nene (Hawaiian Goose) recov­ery effort took six decades before it was considered a success,” she says.

Follow the Alala project on Facebook for periodic updates on how the reintroduction is going.

The People Behind The Birds Named For People: Alexander Wilson

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:09


Illustrations by Ian Lewington from the forthcoming Princeton Guide to the Birds of North America from Princeton University Press, except Wilson’s Warbler by Jillian Ditner, Bartels Science Illustrator.

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

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More than two centuries ago in the swamps of North Carolina, ornithologist and author Alexander Wilson squatted to sketch a yellow-green bird with a neat black cap flitting about above him, catching insects. Wilson had always favored descriptive names for birds, so he called this one the “Green Black-capt Flycatcher.” Later ornithologists changed that to “Wilson’s Warbler,” one of five North American species named for the Scottish immigrant who is widely regarded as the father of American ornithology.

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That’s not just a fanciful title—Wilson actually wrote and illustrated American Ornithology, a nine-volume work published in 1814 that illustrated 268 bird species and kindled America’s insatiable appetite for bird knowledge, 30 years before Audubon’s Birds of America. Today, he has five North American birds named in his honor.

Wilson was born in Scotland in 1766. As a child, when he wasn’t gallivanting in the woods, he was burying his nose in a book or idly writing poetry. But his working-class background forced him out of school at age 13 to apprentice as a weaver. In his mid-twenties he wrote some of the industrial revolution’s first protest literature about the decrepit mill conditions he worked in. After the local government put him in jail, slapped him with court fees, and forced him to burn his work in the town square, emigration to America seemed like his best remaining option.

Wilson slept on the ship’s open deck for the four-month journey from Scotland to Delaware. Penniless and sea-beaten, he travelled to Philadelphia on borrowed money and worked odd jobs before he settled in Gray’s Ferry as a schoolteacher.

Alexander Wilson lived from 1766 to 1813. Though he was born in Scotland, he is widely regarded as the father of American ornithology. Painting circa 1810 by Thomas Sully, via Wikimedia Commons. Related Stories

He remained restless, taking long walks through forests that twittered with birds he’d never found in Scotland. Wilson’s peregrinations took him to Niagara Falls and back, on foot, and eventually led him to William Bartram, a famous botanist who became a close mentor and friend. Bartram jogged Wilson’s interest away from poetry and into sketching, where his incredible observational skills made him a quick study—first tracing roses, then sketching simple landscapes, and eventually freehanding Bald Eagles. As an incredible artistic talent blossomed, so did an ambitious plan.

Cataloguing the birds of America had been brewing in Wilson’s mind since he settled in Gray’s Ferry. In 1806, when he left schoolteaching to start work at a prominent publishing company, Wilson approached his new boss about taking on American Ornithology. The publisher agreed, under one condition: Wilson had to procure 200 subscribers.

So, in 1808 Wilson set off on foot, “in search of birds, and subscribers.” That expedition reads like an ornithological Indiana Jones adventure. Traveling over 12,000 miles in seven years, from New England to Florida to western Tennessee, Wilson illustrated more than 230 bird species, highlighting important field marks with crisp colors, in a two-dimensional style mirrored in field guides today.

Wilson described diet, behavior, and range with poetic skill, as with the common snipe of wet fields, which he noted “have the same soaring irregular flight in the air in gloomy weather as the Snipe of Europe… [but have] sixteen feathers in the tail instead of fourteen….” (In 2003 American ornithologists agreed and split out the American form as a separate species, which they called Wilson’s Snipe.)

Off the coast of New Jersey, he spotted a swallow-sized seabird skimming the oily surface behind his boat. It’s now known as Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. All along the way, academics, officials, and bird enthusiasts jostled to see Wilson’s detailed sketches.

He sat beside a carcass for an afternoon and came away with a new bird species, writing, “Linnaeus and others have confounded this [Black] Vulture with the Turkey Buzzard.” He caught an Ivory-billed Woodpecker in North Carolina, but even after it nearly pecked through the wall of his hotel room, his biggest lamentation was that the locals thought it was a Pileated. He investigated the mysterious death of Meriwether Lewis, of Lewis and Clark. He even crossed paths with John James Audubon in Kentucky—calling him “Mr. A” in his notebook. Even though Audubon declined to subscribe, Wilson amassed 250 orders for his work by the end of his journey. He knocked on the White House door to hand-deliver his first volume to possibly his most famous customer, President Thomas Jefferson.

Many of the western birds in his book he never saw alive; he sketched the Wilson’s Phalarope from a specimen collected by Lewis and Clark. A press worker strike left Wilson to color many of the engravings himself, halfway through collecting shorebirds for his final two volumes. His work ethic and his years in the field took a toll: Wilson died of dysentery in 1813, not yet 50 years old. Wilson’s friend George Ord completed the nine-volume series, in the process naming one more species for the groundbreaking Scottish-born naturalist—a plover Wilson had found on the beaches of Cape May, New Jersey.

Alison Haigh is an Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology major at Cornell University (Class of 2019). Her work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.


View from Sapsucker Woods: 2018 Is the Year of the Bird

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:07
Red-tailed Hawk by David Speiser.

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

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In 2016 many bird enthusiasts and organizations, including the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, cel­ebrated the centennial of the signing of a Migratory Bird Treaty between the Unit­ed States and Great Britain (the latter an agent for the Commonwealth of Cana­da). This agreement to end the hunting of nongame birds in the U.S. and Canada would become a global cornerstone for bird conservation, but there was a catch: The U.S. Constitution requires that inter­national treaties be ratified by the Pres­ident only after approval by two-thirds of the Senate. Ratification was complet­ed with passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, making 2018 the true centennial year for this profoundly influ­ential international prohibition to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill, or sell most spe­cies of North American native birds. In 1936 the U.S. passed a similar act with Mexico. Today these agreements ensure that wild birds warrant full protection under the law across North America.

To honor this treaty’s centennial, the Cornell Lab is joining with National Geographic, National Audubon Society, BirdLife International, and more than 50 other partners to celebrate 2018 as the “Year of the Bird.” Our goal is to engage and inspire people around the world to commit to protecting birds today and for the next 100 years. Through social media, publica­tions, and a Year of the Bird website, our messages will include stories about scien­tific discoveries, conservation successes, bird species in peril, and specific conser­vation actions—both personal and collec­tive—that can make a difference in revers­ing declines among bird populations. Each month of 2018 we will highlight actions that individuals can take to help wild birds.

The 2018 Great Backyard Bird Count, Feb 16–19

Can the 21st annual Great Backyard Bird Count possibly top last year’s count, in which people from more than 100 countries reported well over half the bird species in the world? There’s only one way to find out!

This year’s highlights for North America may include widespread sightings of the magnificent Snowy Owl, as well as finches such as White-winged Crossbills, Pine Siskins, and especially Red Crossbills feasting on this year’s huge cone crops.

Find out how to participate in this global event.

The Cornell Lab will play heightened roles during three months in the Year of the Bird that will constitute the world’s largest collaborative effort to document bird across the planet. Partners will join us in encouraging and supporting hun­dreds of organizations all over the world in rallying their local public to get outside, enjoy their birds, and enter their counts, observations, and images into eBird. We’ll kick off the effort with the Great Backyard Bird Count during February 16 to 19. Every tally will contribute to a global snapshot at the fas­cinating moment when birds wintering in the Southern Hemisphere are stirring and heading back northward, and as res­ident birds such as chickadees and cardi­nals are beginning to sing. Next up will be the Global Big Day on May 5, and for the first time ever, a second Global Big Day on October 6. As birding reaches a fever pitch during these times of peak migra­tion, we invite everyone to join the global quest to find as many species as possible in a single day, generating unprecedented volumes of data for international use in science and conservation.

Three things are paramount in celebrating 2018 as the Year of the Bird. First is recognizing the power of birds—as global indicators of biodiversity, as heartbeats of the earth’s annual cycle, and as the most captivating window we have into nature. Second is the essential power of partnerships—among con­servation organizations of every scale and every country, and among indi­viduals, families, schools, and commu­nity groups, all uniting for a common purpose across the globe. Third is that 100 years after passage of the Migra­tory Bird Treaty Act, birds all over the world are facing unprecedented threats to their existence. They need our atten­tion and help now more than ever. So, throughout 2018 as we fully enjoy and celebrate birds, let us also commit to increasing our personal and collective investments in their future. Please join us by visiting the 2018 Year of the Bird website.

In a Crowded India, Farmers and Sarus Cranes Coexist

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:05
A pair of duetting Sarus Cranes is considered good luck for a season’s harvest. Photo by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

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

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It is hard to imagine a place less hospitable for cranes than the state of Uttar Pradesh in north­east India. Dominated by crowded ur­ban centers and intense agriculture, Uttar Pradesh is geographically about the size of Michigan, and home to more than 200 million people—about the population of the United States east of the Mississippi River.

Typically, that’s not a good recipe for large wetland birds. Yet, in Uttar Pradesh, cranes are flourishing. To the surprise of crane scientists who conducted surveys here, the Sa­rus Crane—tallest of the world’s flying birds, listed as vulnerable on the Inter­national Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List—is feeding, nest­ing, and successfully raising young in rice paddies and wheat fields through­out this tightly packed agricultural landscape.

Sarus Cranes feed, nest, and raise young in Uttar Pradesh's tightly packed landscape of rice paddies and wheat fields. Photo (with Cattle and Little Egrets) by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

Worldwide, 11 of the 15 crane species are listed as either vulnerable or endan­gered on the IUCN Red List, so the pros­perity of Sarus Cranes in Uttar Pradesh is a happy anomaly. In this northern Indian state that’s famous for the Taj Mahal, hu­mans have managed to make room for cranes, even as people have developed nearly all of their natural habitat.

“Uttar Pradesh is 70 percent agricul­ture, 20 percent urban, and 10 percent scrubland, which is not usually a good landscape for wetland birds,” says Gopi Sundar, crane biologist with the Nature Conservation Foundation. Sundar initi­ated the first detailed crane survey in the area a decade ago and discovered a population 13,000 strong, and growing. With only around 25,000 Sa­rus Cranes in the entire world, the birds in Uttar Pradesh make up more than half the global population.

“What we found is astounding. A lot more cranes than we ever imagined, and they have been there for thousands of years,” Sundar says. Indeed, there are references to the relationship be­tween Sarus Crane and people in Ut­tar Pradesh in the Ramayana, an epic poem from the 5th century B.C.

“Villagers and farmers not only tolerate them, but welcome them,” Sundar says. “People have evolved with the cranes.”

Sundar, who is also the director of Program Saruscape for the Internation­al Crane Foundation, credits cultural factors for the bird’s extraordinary suc­cess in the region. Villagers here believe the giant bird with the bright red head brings good fortune. In Etawah, a city perched on the banks of the Chambal River, it is believed that hearing a Sarus trumpet in the night means it is a pro­pitious time to take action on a big life event, such as proposing marriage or making an investment.

In Uttar Pradesh, farmers welcome the cranes to their fields. Photo by K.S. Gopi Sundar.

Kailash Jaiswal, a 21-year-old local Hindu villager, remembers his father and grandfather telling him never to bother the three pairs of cranes that nested on their family’s 2.5 acre farm.

“Even if there was a small bit of dam­age in the field, we would just ignore it,” he recalls. “There was a belief that if a Sarus nests and breeds in your field, the output that year will be much higher.”

But Sarus Cranes are not so beloved everywhere. They construct large plat­form nests that can be the size of a kitch­en table, and they often tear up entire rice stalks for building material, which can lead to farmer complaints and con­flicts. Across the Sarus range—India, Southeast Asia, and Australia—there are few thriving populations. In Cam­bodia and Vietnam, Sarus have declined to only about 1,000 cranes in the wild.

The seasonal rhythm of planting wheat for the dry season and rice for the monsoon season provides year-round habitat for cranes. Photo by K. S. Gopi Sundar.

But in Uttar Pradesh, the cranes are welcomed, and the seasonal rhythm of smallholder farming is a good fit for the crane’s life cycle. Most farmers employ rotational cropping systems of rice in the monsoon season (good crane nest­ing habitat) and wheat in the dry season (providing a year-round food source for cranes). Studies have shown that Sarus do better in rice and wheat fields than soy or sugar cane.

“The Sarus in India are similar to our Sandhill Crane in the United States in being largely adapted to living on agri­cultural lands,” says Richard Beilfuss, the CEO of the International Crane Foundation. Beilfuss points out that Sandhill Crane populations are recovering because they have adapted to eating grain in farmers’ fields—and because humans in the late 20th century were friendlier to­ward cranes, easing up on hunting and protecting breeding habitat through wetland conservation.

Likewise, on the other side of the world, Sarus Cranes are further proof that people and cranes can peacefully coexist.

“Sarus Cranes are a flagship for sus­taining this diverse agricultural land­scape,” says the ICF’s Beilfuss. “In India the species is living in harmony with people in one of the most densely pop­ulated areas of the world.”

Lauren Chambliss is a senior lecturer with Cornell University’s Department of Commu­nication. A former economics correspon­dent for the London Evening Standard, she now teaches communication and writes about the environment and sustainability.

Are Snow Buntings North America’s Hardiest Songbird?

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 10:02

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

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There’s little about a Snow Bunting that isn’t perfectly suited to life in the deep freeze. These winter wanderers are outfitted like little polar explorers, with a natural down parka of dense white feathers that cover even the birds’ ankles and base of the bill—and keeps their exposure to cold at a minimum.

The adaptations are more than skin deep. A Snow Bunting’s body temperature can dip 30 to 40 percent lower than other songbirds their size before hypothermia sets in. As weather conditions deteriorate, Snow Buntings can adjust their metabolism to quickly turn food into insulating body fat. And when the cold air arrives, they bury themselves in snowdrifts for warmth.

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All these feats add up to a species that breeds farther north than any other songbird, returning to its Arctic nesting territories in March and singing its heart out when temperatures can still drop well below zero. Snow Buntings are so hardy, in fact, that the only time most people get to see them is during winter, when flocks magically appear and disappear over snow-blown northern fields, seemingly undeterred by what we call winter.

For bird watchers, the little bird with a toasted marshmallow pattern is a bright spot in a gray winter. In eastern Canada, Snow Buntings have even inspired a citizen-science project. Started in 2006, the Canadian Snow Bunting Network has been collecting data on their occurrence during winter across almost all of the Canadian provinces. Now scientist Oliver Love is using the network’s extensive data set, along with his own findings from tracking individual birds, to open up a window on where these mysterious birds live their lives, and where they go when the weather gets bad.

In 2007 Love, of the University of Windsor, Ontario, and research associate Rick Ludkin came across a report of Christmas Bird Count data that suggested Snow Bunting populations had declined an alarming 64 percent in the last 40 years. The decline was attributed largely to a warming climate. “I was convinced it couldn’t be as simple as climate change,” explains Love, “and I was curious as to how the 64 percent was derived.” He decided to investigate.

Sadly, it’s not uncommon for songbirds to suffer such severe declines. Nearly four dozen other species have declined by more than 50 percent since 1970, according to the bird conservation group Partners in Flight. But Love knew that Snow Buntings were a special case. For one thing, they move around a lot, and it’s hard to measure populations of a species that show up in great numbers one year and are nearly absent the next. Furthermore, if climate is altering where Snow Buntings spend the winter, warming temperatures are liable to push them north, away from places where birders are most likely to find them. In both scenarios, the birds might not be declining, they just might not be getting counted.

To take a second look at the situation, Love turned to the Canadian Snow Bunting Network.

David Lamble, a member of the Canadian Snow Bunting Network, retrieves a Snow Bunting from a live trap in Ontario. The bunting will be banded, released, and added to the network’s eight years of citizen-science data. Photo by Emily McKinnon.

For decades, bird banders have trapped Snow Buntings in live traps made of wire mesh and baited with cracked corn. The birds typically walk right in and get caught, making them an easy species to work with. Until 2009, the Canadian Snow Bunting Network was an informal operation, sort of a ragtag community of bird banders primarily in Ontario, with each bander more or less keeping their own records. Some were scientists who kept meticulous notes about the birds’ ages, sexes, and body conditions, while others were in it for the fun of operating an outdoor wildlife project for schoolchildren. All were people who just loved these hardy little birds and wanted to work with them.

Love formalized the process by connecting this disparate network of enthusiasts and recruiting experienced banders into the project. Soon there was a formal protocol for banders to follow and an annual newsletter, The Snow Bunting Report, that summarized each year’s progress, distributed tips for identifying a bird’s age or sex, and shared new research that the network was helping to inform. Each of the dozen or so banding groups in the network was recording detailed measurements, along with age and sex information. Some were even pulling feathers for isotope analysis, a lab technique that can reveal where individual birds have come from. It wasn’t long before patterns began to emerge.

One of the first things Love and his research partners noticed was a correlation between local conditions and gender: the colder a given location, the more likely the flocks would be made up of males.

Male Snow Bunting in breeding plumage. Photo by Christoph Moning/Macaulay Library.Female Snow Bunting in breeding plumage. Photo by Christoph Moning/Macaulay Library.Male and female Snow Buntings in nonbreeding plumage can be hard to tell apart. Photo by Shimmeringenergy via Birdshare.PreviousNext

“In Winnipeg we hardly ever get females,” says Emily McKinnon, a postdoctoral researcher working with Love. “If you go to Windsor, right across from Detroit, you get mostly females.”

Winnipeg is about 600 miles north of Windsor. That same gender split held with other comparisons of northern and southern sites. McKinnon and Love eventually concluded that because male Snow Buntings are slightly bigger and slightly better able to tolerate cold, they can ride out winter weather farther north than females.

But the crux of their research focused on the Snow Bunting’s wide-ranging winter lifestyle. Recoveries from the banding network provide a trickle of information, but in recent years Love and his team have introduced sophisticated tracking tools—such as tiny geolocators, and nanotags that ping a bird’s location whenever it flies by a tower in the MOTUS monitoring network (see The New Migration Science, Spring 2017). The tracking data show that Snow Buntings wander a lot farther than scientists previously thought.

“I think the impression was that they roam around within a couple kilometers,” explains McKinnon. “I’m picking up birds at towers 200 kilometers [about 125 miles] across the province, and then 100 kilometers [about 60 miles] in the opposite direction the next day. It’s hard to imagine how they know where they’re going.”

But the evidence suggests that they do. Even though Snow Bunting flocks wander incredible distances, they consistently come back together at the same places, even if only for a day or two before lighting out again on another 100-kilometer jaunt. Flocks of Snow Buntings seem to be setting off on foraging expeditions all over the landscape, McKinnon says, during ephemeral windows when conditions—weather, snow cover, and food availability—are ideal. But they consistently appear to return to areas with abundant, reliable food resources, say a cornfield with a ready supply of leftover grain and a clear view of approaching predators.

These were the travels of Snow Bunting #2431-82761 in 2012–2013. Map based on unpublished data by McKinnon, Love, et al. Base map: Google, DigitalGlobe; Snow Bunting photo by Edward Boyd/Macaulay Library.

The Snow Bunting’s biggest forays are its migrations between tundra breeding grounds and wintering areas among the farm fields of Canada and the northern U.S., when it flies across the largest expanse of forest on the continent. The boreal forest is home sweet home for billions of forest birds, but it may as well be an ocean for open-country species such as Snow Buntings. In fact, Love and his team have found through geolocator tracking that migrating Snow Buntings actually treat the boreal forest like an ocean, much like Ruby-throated Hummingbirds treat the Gulf of Mexico—as an enormous barrier to cross over. The buntings bypass the entire forest in nonstop flights of hundreds of miles.

Many North American Bird Species Are Declining

The 2016 State of North America’s Birds report examined all 1,154 native bird species that occur in Canada, the continental United States, and Mexico. The assessment was compiled by a team of experts from all three countries. Out of 1,154 species, 432 qualified for the Watch List, indicating species of highest conservation concern based on high vulnerability scores across multiple factors. Despite its declining population trend, the Snow Bunting was not placed on the Watch List.

A decade after that report sounded alarm bells about a 64 percent Snow Bunting decline, Partners in Flight issued a new report in 2016 that pegged the decline at 38 percent since 1970—not as bad, but still pretty steep. Love still isn’t sure about the accuracy of these estimates, but whatever the exact number may be, he notes that Snow Bunting populations may be showing a lag from widespread forest clearing that happened a century ago. He says Snow Buntings might just now be coming down off a midcentury population boom as those clearings return to forest. Looking ahead, he says intensification of corn agriculture— creating even more vast fields of winter stubble—may actually benefit wintering Snow Buntings, even if it’s harmful to many forest and grassland birds.

Love says that today Snow Bunting populations appear to be declining in some Canadian provinces, but in others they may be flat or increasing. From a continent-wide perspective, the birds might just be flying between different provinces from year to year. It’s hard to tell for sure based only on wintertime counts, without the benefit of breeding bird surveys.

Still, Love says his research “has actually revealed more complexity than … one trend line for North America as a whole [can show].”

And this winter the Canadian Snow Bunting Network will continue to band more buntings and add more data, helping Love as he continues to try to assemble the big picture for a species that’s prone to scattering across remote snowy countrysides.

Nate Swick is social media manager for the American Birding Association and hosts the ABA’s American Birding podcast. He lives in Greensboro, North Carolina.

When 136 Bird Species Show Up at a Feeder, Which One Wins?

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 09:55
In the study, 136 bird species were each given ability scores (given below each name) based on FeederWatch data about their dominance relative to other species. The higher a bird’s score, the more swagger it has at the feeder. Graphic by Jillian Ditner, Bartels Science Illustrator.

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

There’s something tranquil about watching birds coexist at your backyard feeder, pecking away in their quirky abandon. That is, until the local Blue Jay arrives, flushing all your daintier songbirds out in a raucous flurry. It might seem like just plain bullying, but there’s more going on than meets the eye in the fast-moving (and frankly addicting) world of bird-feeder drama. Setting out a limited food resource (like a feeder full of seeds) in a time of scarcity (like winter) naturally brings birds into conflict. Just beyond your kitchen windowpane, your backyard feeder is creating the perfect stage to glimpse the inner workings of birds’ social lives—what behavioral ecologists call “dominance hierarchies.”

Birds at feeders are like members of a not-so-secret fight club, and the rulebook is in the dominance hierarchy. For a chance to eat in the safety of a flock, they must constantly appease, avoid, or consequently get walloped by more dominant birds. Scientists have spent decades working out the dominance hierarchies among just two or three species. But now, with the help of thousands of citizen scientists, a team of researchers has pieced together a hierarchy that ranks the feeder-fight-club performance of 136 North American bird species.

Cornell Lab of Ornithology postdoctoral associate Eliot Miller spearheaded the analysis and now holds the results. Miller found his volunteers through Project FeederWatch, a joint Cornell Lab and Bird Studies Canada project that recruits more than 20,000 backyard bird watchers from coast to coast. Miller asked feeder watchers who were already counting birds to record any “interspecific interactions” (or interactions among species) that could define the hierarchy. For example, if a White-breasted Nuthatch flared its wings at a Black-capped Chickadee, and the chickadee flew off from the feeder in response, that classified as a “successful displacement.” Feeder watchers recorded 7,653 such observations between November 2016 and April 2017.

Using a computer program, Miller collapsed that data set into “ability scores” for each species: a single number that describes each species’ ability to compete with others. It ranged from an alpha bird (the Wild Turkey at 66.93) to the meekest of the bunch (Eurasian Tree Sparrow at –24.46). In the same way college basketball teams can be ranked even though they don’t all play each other, this metric allowed scientists to generate scores for comparing birds that don’t normally interact. From there, constructing the dominance hierarchy was easy: “We just ranked species based on their scores,” said Miller.

The full 136-species data set is too big to fit in a single graph, but explore this diagram to see how North America’s top 13 feeder species fared:

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When comparing where a bird fell on the dominance hierarchy to where it fell on a weight scale, a general rule emerged: the bigger the bird, the badder. If you were the size of a White-throated Sparrow (score: –1.86), you’d shy away from a Common Raven (38.19), too.

But as with most general rules in the natural world, there are exceptions. Doves were more subordinate and had lower scores than their burly stature would imply, thus living up to their peaceful reputation. Woodpeckers, warblers, and hummingbirds all performed better than expected, placing them surprisingly high on the dominance hierarchy. In other words, they punched above their weight.

“Warblers are just pugnacious little things,” Miller said, referring to the Yellow-rumped, Pine, Palm, Townsend’s, and Orange-crowned Warblers in his feeder study. “They’re hopped up on testosterone a lot of times and are used to defending winter territories, while most other feeder birds aren’t.”

He also noted that “hummingbirds defend floral resources against other hummingbirds constantly, and very aggressively. It makes them good fighters.”

Heavy bills and strong claws make woodpeckers the plucky under-birds of their weight class. Eastern Bluebirds (score: –0.84) are outranked by the smaller Downy Woodpecker (score: –0.64), which perhaps isn’t surprising given that woodpeckers are built for smashing their heads into tree trunks.

Some of the feeder-bird patterns in Miller’s research aren’t one-to-one (bird A dominates bird B). For example, House and Purple Finches and Dark-eyed Juncos form a rock-paper-scissors triangle. House Finch by Stuart Edwards, Purple Finch by Jamie Lenh, Dark-eyed Junco by Deborah Bifulco, via Birdshare.

Not every dominance pattern is linear, though. A separate analysis uncovered some dominance triangles in which three birds had one-to-one relationships independent of each other, like a game of birdy rock-paper-scissors. For example, the House Finch dominates the Purple Finch, and the Purple Finch dominates the Dark-eyed Junco, but the junco dominates House Finch.

Red-headed Woodpeckers, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and European Starlings, which all compete for nesting cavities, are locked in a similar dominance triangle. In that case, Miller notes that starlings are an invasive species that “might be disrupting a nicely constructed hierarchy.”

Miller says he has only scratched the surface of studying dominance hierarchies. These hierarchies could vary seasonally, or between habitats or regions. For example, Lesser Goldfinches are dominant to Pine Siskins in Texas, but the opposite is true in Oregon.


Miller, E.T., D.N. Bonter, C. Eldermire, B.G. Freeman, E.I. Greig, L.J. Harmon, C. Lisle, and W.M. Hochachka. 2017. Fighting over food unites the birds of North America in a continental dominance hierarchy. Behavioral Ecology. doi:10.1093/beheco/arx108.

Miller also thinks dominance may play a role in defining a bird’s range.

“Interactions with competitors might shape [species] distributions,” he explains. For example, he wonders if Red-breasted Nuthatches are capable of breeding farther south in higher numbers, but they just can’t compete with the White-breasted Nuthatches that already live there. The Red-breasted Nuthatch’s ability score of –3.50 is nearly a full point less than the White-breasted Nuthatch’s, at –2.51.

“We really know very little about how potential competitors interact where their ranges overlap,” says Miller. In fact, he admits that his original research question was supposed to be about the effect of dominance on where birds establish territories, but studying dominance itself pulled him in. “I’ve been a bit sidetracked now, in a good way, exploring the dominance hierarchy itself.”

He has a right to be. As the first to talk about an interspecific hierarchy with this many members, Miller is breaking the rules a bit. After all, the first rule of bird-feeder fight club is, don’t squawk about it.

Alison Haigh is an Environmental Biology and Applied Ecology major at Cornell University (class of 2019). Her work on this story was made possible by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Science Communication Fund, with support from Jay Branegan (Cornell ’72) and Stefania Pittaluga.

Photo Essay: South Polar Skua, the Antarctic Survivor

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 09:50
From the Winter 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.

The South Polar Skua is famous for only two things: stealing penguin eggs and eating penguin chicks. What’s a bird to do with such a bad reputation? A closer look at the largest skua colony in the world—1,300 pairs breeding among 300,000 Adelie Penguin pairs at Cape Crozier, Ross Island, Antarctica—shows there’s much to admire in this inveterate survivor.

More From Living Bird “The drama of Antarctic bird life is not without its villain.”

—Paul Siple and Alton Lindsey, scientists on the second Byrd expedition to Antarctica, 1933–35

Skuas are like gulls but with more attitude and fewer social graces. As Siple and Lindsey went on to say: “Theft and pillage, murder, cannibalism and infanticide, these crimes are all in the repertory of the South Polar Skua.” Regrettably, these big, burly birds are guilty as charged. They rob penguin nests. They pirate food from other seabirds. They even ambush Antarctic scientists to steal their sandwiches.

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This view of skuas as penguin enemy #1 dominated scientific thought for the next half-century after Siple and Lindsey. But penguins are a limited-time food resource. As veteran Antarctic researcher David Ainley points out, “the penguin [breeding] colony is only there for a little over two months, and the rest of the year they still have to feed.”

Ainley’s studies in the 1960s were among the first to reevaluate the skua’s role as predator. Even in summer, he found, skuas mainly scavenged infertile eggs and the young chicks of inexperienced penguin pairs. For most of the year, skuas either catch fish themselves or—more often—steal fish from other birds. Their anatomy is tuned for aerial thieving: short wings for quicker wingbeats, coupled with long primary feathers for forward thrust. It all adds up to a bird that can accelerate like a Porsche to attack a petrel or albatross, pestering it into giving up its catch.

Oddly enough, these same adaptations make them clumsy when attacking penguins on the ground. Nevertheless, these intelligent birds are skilled raiders. Some even work in pairs, with one bird pulling at a penguin’s tail while the other stands by to grab at an unprotected egg or chick.

This Adelie Penguin egg was cracked and eaten by a South Polar Skua at Cape Crozier, Antarctica.At Cape Crozier, a South Polar Skua cruises over the penguin nests in its territory.Skuas are deft fliers that can swoop in on an uncovered egg and snatch it away in a moment. They tend to steal the eggs of younger, less experienced penguin parents.Skuas can also carry away Adelie Penguin chicks up to about 3 weeks old.Captured chicks can set off acrobatic chases in which skuas try to steal the prey from each other.All this rapacious activity leads to the skua's somewhat bloody reputation, but research shows the birds more often act as scavengers than as predators.PreviousNext Defenders of Their Realm

Step onto a South Polar Skua’s breeding territory and you’ll first hear an alarm call. But if you stay much longer, you’re likely to get buzzed by a very large seabird at very close range.

“My first year at Crozier I could not believe how calm David [Ainley] was when he walked through the colony,” recalls Grant Ballard of Point Blue Conservation Science, who has made 19 trips to Cape Crozier in the last 22 years. “These birds fly all around your head all the time. They will pound on you. They will hit you right in the face.”

More About Skuas Media Player Error
Update your browser or Flash plugin Listen as scientist Grant Ballard discusses South Polar Skuas with photographer Chris Linder. Recorded in 2009 in the field hut at Cape Crozier, Ross Island, Antarctica.

The birds are most aggressive after chicks hatch, Ballard says, when they smack intruders at full force with their clawed feet. On a British expedition in 1911, photographer Herbert Ponting recounted being almost blinded by a skua attack.

But the poignant truth is that South Polar Skuas spend long, lonely lives watching their nests fail. One banded skua at Crozier is about 50 years old. Since the 1970s, that bird might have fledged just five chicks—roughly one per decade, according to Ainley’s statistics. Most of the time, Antarctica’s short summer and formidable weather doom nest after nest, regardless of how many penguin chicks are around.

Cape Crozier is home to the southernmost open water in the world. Fierce winds keep the slopes scoured free of snow, creating nest sites for hundreds of thousands of Adelie Penguins.Skuas are infamously protective of their territory and won't hesitate to strike researchers with their clawed feet.But skuas have a hard life ahead of them, typically fledging only one chick per decade, according to Ainley.They are among the longest-lived of all wild birds. One banded skua at Cape Crozier recently turned 50 years old.PreviousNext A Harsh Childhood for Young Skuas

Skuas mate more or less for life. In the short summers, it pays to be able to skip the lengthy courtship rituals every year. Around age seven, skuas pair up and start trying to nest—making a scrape in the volcanic gravel near a sheltering rock and decorating it with pieces of bone. The female lays two eggs, but that’s almost always wishful thinking. The older chick usually kills the younger chick within the first week of hatching.

The adults bring food—sometimes fish, sometimes penguin—to the little gray-white chick, feeding it tiny morsels. The chicks are stout-bodied and able to walk around the territory soon after they hatch, though they have to beware of skuas and penguins alike.

Here's a rare view of the more tender side of skuas: a parent shields its young chick from the elements while warming it against a patch of bare skin under its wing.The gray-white chicks are sturdy and can walk soon after hatching, but they must be careful of penguins and other skuas alike.Both skua parents work full time to raise their chicks, tearing up morsels of fish, krill, penguin, seal, and anything else they can find. PreviousNext A Terrible Wind

When skua chicks die at Cape Crozier, it’s not from a lack of food; it’s too much wind.

“The adults do okay [in winds] up to 80 or 90 mph,” Ballard says. “But after that they’re at risk for their own life, and most skuas bail at that point.” At Cape Crozier, category 5 hurricane winds are not uncommon, Ballard says, and in most Antarctic summers a three-day “blow” of 100 mph or more happens a few times.

Adult skuas can fly up and out of the turbulent ground layer and wait out the storm from above. But the chicks are flightless. They may hide behind a rock for a while, but eventually the wind catches them, and they’re blown away like tumbleweeds.

The wind is a curse and a blessing. It clears Crozier’s snow to expose rocky nest sites and pushes the sea ice offshore, allowing sunlight and nutrients to create a bonanza of krill and fish for the taking.

Food is never the problem at Crozier, for penguins or skuas. It’s the wind.

Away from the coast, Antarctica is a desolate, cold, and windy place. Skuas make their living on the fringes of penguin colonies and at sea.A chick's worst enemy is the tremendous winds that sweep across Cape Crozier and out to sea. Adult skuas can fly above the storm, but flightless chicks aren't so lucky.Hurricane force winds can blow for days at a time. Here, Grant Ballard of Point Blue Conservation Science works on a windy day at Cape Crozier.PreviousNext Beware of the Penguin

Skuas get a bad rap as ruthless predators, but they have to be careful around Adelie Penguins.

“Skuas look big, but they’re mostly just feathers,” Ainley says.

Skuas are so much smaller than Adelies (weighing 3 pounds to an Adelie’s 10 or 12) that once a healthy penguin chick is more than about three weeks old, skuas are rarely a threat. The skuas just aren’t big enough to carry them off.

And despite the Adelie’s toddler appeal, they are fierce animals with heavy, rigid flippers that can break a skua’s delicate wing bones.

“Skuas are deathly afraid of penguins,” Ainley says. “If a penguin gets ahold of a skua wing or foot, then it’s pretty much all over for the skua.”

Penguins are sturdy and fierce; skuas have the gift of flight. The two neighbors are locked into a perennially uneasy coexistence. Adelie Penguins can easily be triple the weight of a South Polar Skua.Skuas use their one key advantage, nimbly taking to the air to stay out of range of a protective penguin parent's flipper or beak.Colonies include many nonbreeding penguins. Without a nest to protect, they can wander freely and are often aggressive toward skuas.PreviousNext Survivors of the South Pole

It may be time to rehabilitate the skewed image of the skua. Perhaps its name should evoke resourcefulness and determination in one of the world’s most forbidding climates. It’s the most southerly wanderer of all animals—even showing up at the South Pole itself.

Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen saw two skuas on his way back from discovering the pole in 1911, when his expedition was still 300 miles from open ocean. He wrote: “To our unspeakable astonishment two great birds—skua gulls—suddenly came flying straight towards us. They brought us a message from the living world into this realm of death. … They did not allow themselves a long rest … then rose aloft and flew on to the south. Mysterious creatures!”

It takes a special bird to live on the Antarctic continent: only Snow Petrels, Adelie Penguins, and South Polar Skuas regularly manage it.Skuas are resourceful creatures that manage to survive in some of the most inhospitable weather on earth.But far from clinging to survival, they're also curious creatures that range widely across the frigid interior of Antarctica.Skuas have been seen at the South Pole itself, and they visited the sled teams of both the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and the doomed British explorer Robert Falcon Scott while they were still hundreds of miles from the open sea.PreviousNext

Chris Linder’s photographic expeditions to Cape Crozier were supported in part by the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic Artists and Writers Program. 

Canada’s Gray Jay Debate

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 09:49
Should the Gray Jay become the national bird of Canada? Illustration by Jillian Ditner, Bartels Science Illustrator.

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

More From Living Bird

Unlike the United States with its Bald Eagle, and Mexico with its Golden Eagle, Canada doesn’t have a national bird.

North America’s northern dominion has a national emblem (the beaver, not the maple leaf), a national horse (the Canadian horse, of course), even national winter and summer sports (hockey and lacrosse, respectively). But no national bird.

In 2016, The Royal Canadian Geographic Society sought to fix that with a public contest to name an avian icon. The Common Loon won the popular vote, and the Snowy Owl took second. But ornithologists intervened and persuaded the society to choose the third-place finisher, the Gray Jay, partly on the reasoning that the loon is already the official bird of Ontario and Snowy Owl a symbol of Quebec. The Gray Jay was unaffiliated, and it occurs in every province, a bird that all Canadians can claim.

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To the aptly named David Bird, an ornithologist at Montreal’s McGill University, this bird’s biology makes it a perfect symbol for his nation. He notes that Gray Jays are monogamous, refuse to migrate when the weather turns cold, are smart enough to store up food to last the winter, and are known to seek out people for provisions. “That’s loyal, tough, intelligent, and friendly,” Bird says. “That, to me, epitomizes Canadians, if I can brag a bit.”

“It’s a wonderful poster child for boreal forests. The only downside is that the public doesn’t know it that well,” Bird says. “Well, my answer to that is, ‘Get off your duffs, get out to our national and provincial parks, and meet this bird.’ And I guarantee you, the Canada Jay will meet you with great friendliness.”

Bird refers to the “Canada Jay” on purpose, which was the common name for Perisoreus canadensis back in the early 20th century. But in 1957 the former American Ornithologists’ Union (now the American Ornithological Society) declared the species’ common name to be “Gray Jay.” The AOU was actually in the process of lumping several Perisoreus species under a single common name, and a nonregional moniker may have avoided confusing constructions of subspecies names (such as the “Oregon Canada Jay”). Nonetheless, the AOU used an American spelling (“gray” instead of “grey”), which has now raised a bit of ire in the north.

More About Canada's Gray Jays

“It is entirely inappropriate for the Canadian national bird to have a name imposed by a self-appointed foreign body,” said Dan Strickland, the retired chief naturalist at Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park, to The New York Times.

In 2017 the Society of Canadian Ornithologists passed a resolution to rechristen the bird as the Canada Jay. And there were high hopes among Canadian birders that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would officially declare a new national bird in honor of Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“But we ran into a bit of a brick wall with the Heritage Ministry,” says Bird. The sesquicentennial came and went with no government action.

So now Canadian birders turn their hopes to Vancouver, where thousands of the world’s top bird scientists will gather for the International Ornithological Congress in August 2018. It’s like the Olympics of ornithology, “really the perfect global stage for proudly announcing the Canada Jay as our national bird,” says Bird.

The federal Department of Canadian Heritage does not seem interested, however. In a September 2017 email, a media relations representative with the heritage ministry wrote: “At this time, the Government of Canada is not actively considering proposals to adopt a bird as a national symbol.”

Spoiler Alert: Can Gray Jays Survive Warmer Weather?

Mon, 01/08/2018 - 09:44

From the Winter 2018 issue of Living Bird magazine. Subscribe now.
More From Living Bird

“Where’d they go?”

Scientist Ryan Norris was puzzled. Just moments ago, two doting Gray Jays were bouncing about the nearby spruce trees like Labrador retrievers happy to see their owner. When he wrapped a couple of cotton balls around one of the spruce tips, his rotund chums had quickly seized upon the offering. Cotton comes in handy for birds when they’re in need of insulation material for nest construction.

But Norris was playing a trick. He was using the cotton balls as a lure, and a tracking mechanism. By watching where the Gray Jays go together after they grab the cotton, he can follow them back to their nest secreted away in the black spruce backwoods. He’s been doing this for the past seven years while studying Gray Jays here in Canada’s Algonquin Provincial Park, 200 miles north of Toronto. And here he had the perfect setup: a mated male and female both eager to grab the cotton and get back to nest building.

Dr. Ryan Norris and graduate students Alex Sutton and Koley Freeman research the decline of Gray Jays in Algonquin Provincial Park in Ontario, Canada. Video by Chris Foito.

Except that the trick was on the scientist. Each jay obligingly grabbed a cotton ball, but then they flew off in opposite directions … and disappeared.

“They’re not going to make this easy,” Norris sighed. He wore a look of not-this-again disdain, remembering past times when these jays have toyed with him on all-day games of hide-and-seek across rugged terrain and deep snow.

Gray Jays have a reputation for mischievous ways. Cree First Nations people call this bird wisakedjak, the trickster spirit of the forest. And indeed, Gray Jays are complex characters, full of paradox and irony.

They’re the people-friendly bird that loves a free handout, yet they make their homes in remote, mostly people-less forests.

They’re the bird that nests in the frozen dead of winter, and hoards food in summer when natural sustenance abounds.

They’re the warm-blooded creature that goes to great lengths to survive boreal cold blasts of minus 40 degrees, yet their future in Algonquin Park is threatened because the weather is getting mellow.

“…warmer temperatures equals spoiled food equals Gray Jay nests failing en masse.”

It’s that last irony—the climate change connection—that Norris, an ecology professor at Ontario’s University of Guelph, is studying. He’s the third generation of principal investigators on a research project that stretches back over a half-century in Algonquin Park. For the past 40 years, the project has documented a stark downward trend: a 50 percent decline in the study’s Gray Jay population since 1977.

White, fluffy cotton is handy for Gray Jays as nesting material—and for scientists tracking where the jays go. Photo by Brett Forsyth.

The study has documented a lot of unseasonable weather in Algonquin since 1977, and this day is no exception. As Norris stood befuddled about where the Gray Jays had gone with his cotton balls, there was sweat running down his brow. It was February 23, and with blue skies and bright sun, the temperature was making a run above 10°C (50°F). Norris had already shed his winter jacket, ditched his hat and gloves, while snowshoeing out into this black spruce bog. Now he tied his hair back into a ponytail and uncomfortably tugged at his wool sweater for ventilation.

“There are not many cases of climate-change hypotheses with a direct mechanism,” he said, noting that climate-change impacts are often subtle. Insects hatch a few days earlier, the first frost comes a week or two later, and the intricate springs and gears of an ecosystem are knocked out of synchrony. But smoking guns are hard to come by. Case in point: This past autumn, scientists were reluctant to connect climate change directly to the epic hurricane season in the Atlantic, instead pointing to higher ocean temperatures and more atmospheric moisture that may have influenced storm severity in a complicated chain reaction.

In this case, however, Norris says the mechanism that’s emerging from the science appears to be as simple as warmer temperatures equals spoiled food equals Gray Jay nests failing en masse.

Gray Jays in the Algonquin Park study are given informal field names based on their leg bands. For example, YOSL-OOYR is yellow-over-silver-left, orange-over-yellow-right. Photo by Brett Forsyth. People-friendly tricksters that love a handout

In his 1947 species account for the Smithsonian’s Life Histories of North American Jays, Crows, and Titmice, legendary ornithologist Arthur Cleveland Bent listed more than 10 Gray Jay sobriquets, including “whiskey jack” (an Anglicized version of the Cree word) and “meat bird.” He provided the etymology for another popular nickname:

The ‘Camp Robber’ will eat anything from soap to plug tobacco. … It comes to the camper’s table at mealtime and will grab what food it can with the utmost boldness, even seizing morsels from the plates or the frying pan.

That boldness, Bent noted, has created a unique relationship between Gray Jays and humans:

It greets the camper, when he first pitches camp, with demonstrations of welcome, and shares his meals with him; it follows the trapper on his long trails through the dark and lonesome woods, where any companionship must be welcome; it may be a thief, and at times a nuisance, but its jovial company is worth more than the price of its board.

University of Guelph principal investigator Ryan Norris brings his study subjects right into the hand for Gray Jay research. Photo by Brett Forsyth.Ryan Norris and his team of students search for Gray Jays in Algonquin. Snowshoes are required to negotiate the snowy woods. Photo by Chris Foito.University of Guelph scientists Nikole Freeman and Alex Sutton call for a jay to land on their hands. Photo by Brett Forsyth.Nikole Freeman on the search for a Gray Jay pair. Photo by Chris Foito.Alex locates a Jay. Photo by Chris Foito.PreviousNext

Because Gray Jays are so companionable, known to alight right on any outstretched hand to take a cracker or a piece of bread, they’re a favorite among park tourists from Algonquin to the Boundary Waters to Yellowstone to Banff to Denali. Even serious-minded scientists have a special fondness for whiskey jacks. As Alex Sutton and Nikole Freeman—two of Norris’s graduate-student researchers on the Algonquin project—snowshoed along a frozen alder creek to look for another Gray Jay nest, they sounded like they were looking for a lost pet.

Sutton stopped at regular intervals to throw his head back and let loose a long, sustained whistle. Freeman cupped her hands and called out: “Graay-aaaay. GRAAAAAY-JAAAAAAY!”

“It’s not that we’ve got them well trained. It’s just that they associate people with handouts,” said Sutton. “But it is nice to have a study subject that comes when it’s called.”

Sure enough, it wasn’t long before two charcoal-colored fluffs floated onto the scene from somewhere above the evergreen treetops. If a snowflake somehow magically transformed into a bird, it would become a Gray Jay—wafting silently, insouciantly, side to side in descent and then settling down on a spruce sprig without so much as the slightest bend of the thin branch.

Researchers offer cotton and feathers that the jays collect for their nests. Here, one grabs a feather and flies off to (literally) feather its nest. Researchers keep a close eye on where the bird lands in order to locate the nest. Photo by Chris Foito.

Freeman set out the cotton balls, and the gentle jays immediately dropped down to grab them. Sutton watched through his binoculars

“OK, I can tell that this one is Loyal-Ooser,” Sutton said, calling out the name of the first bird to take the cotton.

These birds, like the other 60 Gray Jays being tracked in this project, have colored leg bands that allow them to be quickly identified by scientists. In the field, the researchers’ shorthand for leg-band color combinations become bird names. Loyal-Ooser is a pronunciation of LOYL-OOSR, lime over yellow left, orange over silver right.

Many of the names sound like characters straight out of a Harry Potter book, such as Rosel-Goler (ROSL-GOLR, red over silver left and green over lime right). Sometimes they sound downright derogatory, such as the teal-banded Total-Loser. (TOTL-LOSR sadly lived down to his name, never finding a mate or establishing a breeding territory in the study area.)

In this case, the female LOYL-OOSR was paired with male LOKL-LOSR, and they carried their cottony treasure in tandem up through the same opening in the spruce tops. After a bit of snowshoe bushwhacking into the forest, Freeman spied the jays threading the showy, white strands into the sticks and lichens of a nest cup 10 feet up in a spruce bough. “We have a nest!” she exclaimed.

Gray Jays are by far the earliest nesting birds in Algonquin Park, with records of incubating parents as early as February 22. Photo by Brett Forsyth.

It was one of 25 Gray Jay nests the project monitored last year. The fieldwork starts with identifying nest locations during this building phase, which begins incredibly early for a boreal bird. A female Gray Jay can begin incubating eggs as early as February in Algonquin Provincial Park, when she might be tucked in by a blanket of snow while sitting on the nest.

The project scientists return at regular intervals through March and April to check on nesting progress. Then, just before fledging, the scientists band the nestlings with colored leg bands. By April or early May, the new year’s generation of Gray Jay juveniles are out of the nest and flying through the forest—a good two weeks before most warblers have even returned from migration, much less started nesting.

“We’ll be back,” Freeman said cheerfully as she strapped on her snowshoes for the tromp back to the road.

Ontario’s Algonquin Provincial Park has historically been a winter wonderland, with subzero temperatures, Christmas tree evergreen forests, and plenty of snow. Photo by Chris Foito. Half a Century of Gray Jay Research

The Gray Jays of Algonquin have been studied since the 1960s, starting with research by Ontario naturalist Russ Rutter. Algonquin chief park naturalist Dan Strickland inherited the study from Rutter in 1976. By banding, tracking, and observing the park’s jays year-round, Strickland went on to become a Perisoreus canadensis pioneer—discovering much of what is known today about the species’ unique breeding biology.

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Strickland was the first to document the nasty sibling-on-sibling fights that erupt when young Gray Jays are about two months old, when brothers and sisters within a brood do battle until only one dominant offspring is left. That winner gets to stay with father and mother on their natal territory throughout the winter and into the next spring, whereas the subordinate siblings are exiled into the wild.

In 2009 Ryan Norris and his program—the Norris Lab at Guelph’s Department of Integrative Biology—joined Strickland on the study. Now retired, the 75-year-old Strickland still works with Norris during the winter field research season in Algonquin. When the two scientists—the emeritus and the current principal investigator—drive into the park from its western gate, the old-timer points out all the spots where Gray Jays used to be.

“It’s like a driving history lesson,” Norris says. “He [Strickland] will say, ‘Back in the 1980s, there were jays here, and here, and here. But geez, nowadays there haven’t been Gray Jays there for years.’”

It was Strickland who taught Norris the cotton-ball trick for locating Gray Jay nests. But Norris wasn’t having much luck with it on this winter day. At another breeding territory, two jays showed up to take bits of bread from his sandwich, but they ignored the cotton.

“I don’t know if it’s the warm weather or what, but they’re not interested in nesting right now,” he said. “They just want to eat.”

One of the jays flew off across the road with a bread scrap, and Norris followed on snowshoes, curious to see where it was headed. The snow was more than 2 feet deep, typical for an Algonquin winter, but it was beginning to rot out from underneath. On one step, Norris’s oversized metal feet punched through and he sunk up to his thigh. The air had a dewy feel—damp and clingy. Dark gray clouds huddled up in the sky.

Norris caught a glimpse of the Gray Jay in a scrawny black spruce on the edge of a bog. When he drew closer, the bird flew off, but Norris spied a little brownish-yellow nugget wedged into the flaky bark of the spruce. Upon closer observation, the nugget turned out to be an old peanut with a bit of white goo on it. Norris had discovered a Gray Jay cache.

A Gray Jay caches a piece of food. Photo by Chris Foito.

Gray Jays hide little caches of food throughout their territories in late summer and autumn, so they’ll have a ready larder for winter. Whereas chickadees scrap and scuffle for any tidbit of protein they can glean when the snow is deep and the temps subzero, Gray Jays take it easy, making leisurely trips to a stocked pantry of mushrooms, nuts, berries, and venison they have stashed all over the woods. Evolution even gave Gray Jays extra-large mandibular glands that produce a specialized sticky saliva for rolling bits of food into gooey packages, called boli, that can be crammed into the nooks and crannies of tree bark, kind of like kids sticking gum under a desk. It’s the perfect survival strategy for a cruel boreal winter.

To pull off this feat, Gray Jays possess incredible cognitive recall abilities (it’s a corvid family trait, shared by Pinyon Jays and Clark’s Nutcrackers). For Gray Jays, accessing their clandestine food depository is like playing the world’s biggest game of memory. They can hide up to 1,000 little food packages per day, upwards of 100,000 in a season. And they must remember where all those caches are stashed across a nesting territory of 140 hectares, or more than 250 football fields of dense forest.

Black spruce trees provide an excellent medium for the food caches of Gray Jays. The flaky bark is ideal for hiding a tidbit such as a peanut, and the spruce’s sap may even act as a food preservative. Photo by Chris Foito.

It’s this immense stashed food supply that allows Gray Jays to begin the energy-extravagant act of nesting in the middle of a lean northern winter, when kinglets are huddled up inside a tree cavity trying to stay warm. Caching may also explain why Gray Jays nest so early, according to Strickland. He posits that the early start makes it possible for young to be off the nest in May, so they have a longer summer to develop cognitive skills and learn how to construct an extensive hidden food network. In other words, early nesting allows for a kind of Gray Jay head-start program.

It’s an ingenious strategy, stocking away food in freezer storage so that it lasts all winter. But it may have one fatal flaw: As Norris puts it, “What if somebody leaves the freezer door open?”

Unlike other caching birds such as nuthatches, which store away nuts and seeds as supplementary food sources in a pinch, Gray Jays rely on caches of perishable foods—berries, mushrooms, meat—for a successful breeding season. In 2006, Strickland published a paper that correlated unseasonably warm autumn weather in Algonquin with lower Gray Jay reproductive success the following spring. Strickland suggested that the warm weather was causing the Gray Jays’ food to spoil. He called his hypothesis “hoard rot.”

February 23, 2017: A thunderstorm rolled into Algonquin Provincial Park, and local hockey rinks were closed due to the unseasonably warm weather. Photo by Gustave Axelson.

When the leaden clouds above started to spit drops of rain, Norris sighed with exasperation and followed his snowshoe footprints back to the road. He looked over his shoulder to see that same Gray Jay return and dislodge the peanut from its hiding place, then fly over to another spruce tree. There are plenty of thieves in the woods, and if a Gray Jay’s cache location is compromise—whether by Blue Jay or human—the cache will be restashed immediately.

Back in his car, Norris called it a day and drove home, passing a little local hockey rink that was morphing into a reflecting pool. A sign attached to the goalie net read: “ICE RINK CLOSED DUE TO MILD WEATHER.”

Overhead, lightning flashed and the sky rumbled. A thunderstorm was rolling into Algonquin Provincial Park. In February.

A Gray Jay in its nest. Photo by Chris Foito. Abandoned Nests: Climate Impacts Food Availability

By midafternoon in Algonquin, Gray Jay nestlings are getting restless, ready to fledge. It was time for more nest checks.

On a bright early-spring day, Nikole Freeman set off from a dirt back road to visit the first nest on her route. Grassy stubble was emerging by the road’s edge, but the snow was hip deep back in the woods. She donned snowshoes and trudged farther, only to encounter knee-deep meltwater ponds that had submerged the bases of the spruce trees, creating a kind of boreal bayou. Such is spring in Algonquin.

Freeman carried on and finally reached a black spruce tree festooned with orange plastic flagging at the back edge of this Gray Jay pair’s territory. This was the nest tree, but as Freeman glassed upwards about 20 feet, the nest was empty.

“Maybe the female’s out foraging,” Freeman reasoned. Then the male, ROSL-GOPR, arrived and started picking at the ends of branches near the top of the tree. He snapped off a twig by seizing the branch tip with his bill and flapping his wings to lift off. This was not a good sign.

“That behavior means he’s collecting twigs to build a nest, a new nest,” Freeman explained. “That means this nest has failed.”

Gray Jay breeding pairs are rarely seen apart on their territory. In Algonquin Provincial Park, scientist Dan Strickland has seen Gray Jay mates team up to fend off a raid of their food caches by trespassing Blue Jays. After the scuffle, the two Gray Jays sought each other out and were seen touching and nibbling each other’s bills. Photos by Brett Forsyth.

ROSL-GOPR and his mate had already lost their first nest back in early March. Now this, and yet they appeared to be making a third attempt very late in the season, when the chances of nest failure for Gray Jays are highest.

Failed nests are becoming more and more common in this study. Often the cause is abandonment. During the prior spring, Norris and his graduate-student crew found several nests occupied by dead nestlings. The Gray Jay parents were still present on the territory, though, even meeting the scientists at the nest.

“It’s like they just stopped feeding their young,” Norris says. “That points to a problem with food availability.”

Norris has found a strong correlation between high rates of nest success—or failure—and the weather. The winter of 2014–15 was bitterly cold in Algonquin Park, and that spring the Gray Jays enjoyed their highest reproductive output ever in the study’s 50-plus years. A record number of pairs produced clutches of four offspring (Gray Jay clutches are typically two or three), and nestling survival was 100 percent across the study, which included more than 20 nests. Sixty-nine young jays were added to the local population, a recruitment rate up 50 percent over the long-term average.

The next winter of 2015–16 stalled out. Due to a “crazy warm autumn,” according to Sutton, the ice-in date in Algonquin (the day that lakes freeze over) wasn’t until January, the latest ever in the park’s recorded weather history. Throughout that winter snow cover was sparse and patchy, with several weirdly warm days when snow would melt during the day and refreeze at night.

That following spring was when Norris found several nestlings starved to death. At the end of the breeding season, the nest failure rate was nearly 50 percent—the highest failure rate in the history of the Algonquin Gray Jay study.

Snowshoeing becomes bog-shoeing in Algonquin in spring, when the forest becomes a mosaic of meltwater ponds and pockets of snowdrifts that resist melting until summer. Photo by Chris Foito.

Several recent years have been full of similar correlations. In 2015 researcher Talia Sechley, working with the Norris Lab, published a scientific paper in the Canadian Journal of Zoology that posited fall and winter temperatures in Algonquin were no longer getting low enough to properly freeze the food caches of Gray Jays and stave off decomposition (or in Strickland’s parlance, hoard rot).

To zero in on causation—the exact climate mechanism at work here—Sechley and research partners explored just how hoard rot might work by planting simulated Gray Jay caches (little plastic boxes filled with mealworms and raisins) in Algonquin Park and at a site 300 miles farther north near Cochrane, Ontario. Caches were planted in September and retrieved in March. At Cochrane, temperatures rarely went above freezing beyond October, whereas Algonquin temperatures dipped above and below the freeze point.

Anyone who’s tried to cook up a steak that’s been defrosted and refrozen knows what happened to the Algonquin caches: freezer burn. At the end of the experiment, the caches in Algonquin had 50 percent less nutritional value than the Cochrane caches.

Through further analysis of the region’s weather history, the Norris Lab found that the climate in Cochrane today closely resembles the climate that used to be in Algonquin in the early 1990s. But temperatures in the park have been trending above the long-term average over the last two-and-a-half decades—the same time period of a hard dive in the local Gray Jay population.

Sutton sums all this research up in four words: “Climate impacts cached food.”

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Even the Beyoncé of Gray Jays Struggles With Hoard Rot

Freeman yearned for better news at the next nest check. At a hiking trailhead, she rejoined Norris, who was fresh back from scouting out a potential Gray Jay research project in Alaska. He had been to Minnesota the month before. As the evidence of decline in Algonquin piles up, scientists elsewhere are eager to look into what’s happening with Gray Jays.

Should the Gray Jay become the national bird of Canada?

There are still about 26 million Gray Jays from coast to coast across the boreal and alpine biomes of northern North America, in every Canadian province and 14 U.S. states. So the species is far from endangered. But Breeding Bird Survey data portray regional declines, especially along the southern periphery of the Gray Jay range from the Maritime Provinces to the Rocky Mountains. BBS data depict an overall 19 percent decline in the continental Gray Jay population since 1970. That decline is even more pronounced in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Project FeederWatch, in which the proportion of backyard bird feeder sites reporting even just one Gray Jay has dropped by 50 percent since 1999.

But the team—Norris, Freeman, and Sutton—had reason to be upbeat at the next nest, because they were entering the realm of YOSL-BOBR, dubbed the “Beyoncé of Gray Jays” by researchers on the project.

“It’s hard to describe the aura of Yossel-Bobber,” explains Sutton. She’s always the first to arrive when humans are in her neck of the woods. She’s not afraid to get right up in a person’s face. And she’s alpha-dominant, which has made YOSL-BOBR an avian model of female empowerment among women researchers in the study. Even though Gray Jays are known to choose mates for life, YOSL-BOBR is on her third mate—having decided the previous two males weren’t up to snuff.

True to form, YOSL-BOBR charged out of her nest tree at the sight of Freeman and dropped right to the scientist’s wrist to take a piece of Wonder Bread. When her mate OOBL-KOSR came to get some, YOSL-BOBR bumped him out of the way and grabbed a second bite.

“The differences in personalities among Gray Jays are striking, and personality permeates everything they do,” said Norris. He admits that all birds have personalities, but, he says, “with Gray Jays it’s very evident because they come right to your hand. A warbler won’t do that.”

Norris says that within the variation among Gray Jays, there are some personalities that may relate to successful survival and reproduction. One of his lab’s studies showed that the most outgoing, people-friendly Gray Jays benefited during the breeding season. Graduate student Rachel Derbyshire analyzed the long-term project data and found that Gray Jay pairs that regularly visited park tourists for food tended to lay their eggs earlier and have larger clutches and broods than birds that didn’t seek out people for handouts.

For Gray Jay nest checks in Algonquin, scientists climb ladders braced against skinny spruce trees just a few inches in diameter. Photos by Chris Foito.A nest of Gray Jay chicks (top). Chicks are examined to check for health.

Optimistically, this research could be a sign that Gray Jays possess what scientists call behavioral plasticity, or flexibility—the capacity to roll with the punches, innovate new solutions, and take advantage when opportunities arise. And this may be true for some individual Gray Jays. But the research didn’t show that feeding Gray Jays is the way to save them as a population.

“Obviously, food supplementation is not enough of a benefit to offset the overall trend along Highway 60,” says Norris. Even along Algonquin’s prime tourist corridor, Gray Jays are still in long-term decline due to a lack of recruitment, or adding new birds to the population.

With YOSL-BOBR occupied by grabbing food from Freeman’s hand, Sutton set up a painter’s ladder against a skinny black spruce nest tree, climbed 15 feet high, and peeked into YOSL-BOBR’s nest.

“Only one,” he called down.

Norris quickly tallied up the results of his team’s nest checks on this day—one failure, two nests with one nestling, and one with two nestlings. With two adults for each nest, that’s a total of eight adults and four nestlings.

“Not even a rate of replacement,” Norris said.

Norris weighs Gray Jay chicks as part of assessing their health. Photos by Chris Foito.Chicks are looked over and their health is assessed by the team. Before they are placed back in the nest, bands are attached to their legs.

Sutton and Freeman worked quickly on YOSL-BOBR’s single young, a plump little one almost fully feathered in slaty-gray juvenal plumage. Freeman kept it warm inside her woolen winter hat while Sutton measured it with calipers and a mini-spring scale. Within five minutes Sutton was back atop the ladder, depositing the newly dubbed GOSL-WOGR—with fresh green, silver, and white leg bands—back in the nest.

Ten days later, GOSL-WOGR would fledge and fly off with YOSL-BOBR and the father to begin a year’s apprenticeship in the family trade of caching food.

But across the Algonquin Gray Jay population, many nests had disappointing outcomes. The 2016–17 breeding season saw another 50 percent nest failure rate, the second in a row. Whereas the prior lackluster season had an unseasonably warm autumn, this breeding season had been broken up by a strange mid-February thaw punctuated by a thunderstorm.

“It’s further evidence of hoard rot, that unseasonable warm temperatures disrupt the breeding strategy of Gray Jays,” says Sutton. “Each year’s research is like adding another puzzle piece, and the picture becomes clearer.”

Gray Jay by Scott Leslie/Minden Pictures. Radio Tags Lead to Stands of Black Spruce

By late August, Gray Jays become different birds.

“What can be the friendliest bird in the world to you in winter, doesn’t care a lick about you in summer,” Sutton said. He was holding a metal-pronged radio antenna, the device he now had to use to find Gray Jays. During this summer lull after the breeding season, but before a new caching season, the jays don’t find much use for people and their handouts. “If you happen to cross paths with a Gray Jay, they might take your food,” Sutton said. “Might.”

Koley holds a radio transmitter before it is attached to a young bird. Photo by Chris Foito.

So for year-round tracking, some of the jay fledglings are outfitted with radio tags as well as leg bands. Sutton was following the intermittent sounds—tick, tick … tick—of a radio tag attached to a juvenile Gray Jay male named WOPL-OOSR, and the sounds were leading him straight into black spruce.

Black spruce is the tree that is inextricably linked to wherever Gray Jays still exist in Algonquin. The flaky bark provides an excellent medium for hiding caches. Norris’s research on simulated Gray Jay caches also showed less spoilage in black spruce, perhaps because the tree’s resin possesses microbial preservative qualities. Other studies have shown that an entire stand of black spruce can provide a cooler microclimate for boreal wildlife such as moose.

Whatever the reasons, Algonquin’s Gray Jay population has entirely receded out of deciduous maple tree cover (the now-empty places of Strickland’s remembrances). Every jay breeding territory today contains a significant black spruce component. If there is good news, it’s that black spruce is still common on the landscape, and Norris says the long-term Gray Jay decline seems to have leveled out recently, with the population stabilizing at a lower level.

A stand of black spruce in Algonquin. Norris and his team have discovered that Algonquin Gray Jays are now closely linked to these trees, which may help keep cached food from spoiling. Photo by Chris Foito.

Still, the scientists are worried about the past two consecutive years of breeding failures. A downward turn among the Gray Jays in black spruce territories could signal the species’ final chapter in Algonquin Park.

Sutton was worried about what WOPL-OOSR’s radio tag was telling him. The ticking appeared to be emanating from the ground. Sutton had the metal antenna pointed at a mossy hummock on the forest floor, and the ticks followed in rapid succession.

“Hmmm,” puzzled Sutton. Internally, he was having a gruesome flashback. Twice before he had picked through the sphagnum moss to retrieve a radio tag. Once he found a headless Gray Jay, the other time he found a head but no body—pine marten victims, he guessed.

This time, as he dug through the moss, a soft whistle sounded overhead. Sutton looked up to see WOPL-OOSR, balancing on the single tine of a spruce treetop, smartly dressed in his adult plumage with a gray-feathered jacket and a partial dark cap like a black bowler tilted back on his head.

The bird had been so close to Sutton, its radio tag signals bounced off the ground and reflected back to his antenna.

The scientist just smiled. Trickster of the forest, the Gray Jay is full of surprises.

Bird Academy January Giveaway: Ornithology—Comprehensive Bird Biology Course

Mon, 01/01/2018 - 08:00

Win a free Cornell Lab Ornithology Course
21 December 2017

Vogelkop Superb Bird-of-Paradise by Tim Laman/Macaulay Library
We’re excited to partner with the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy to offer a suite of exciting educational resources in thanks for your eBirding: in January, every eligible checklist that you submit gives you a chance to win free access to our Ornithology: Comprehensive Bird Biology Course. This is a ~$350 value with the included e-book, and we’ll have 5 copies to give away.

Five lucky eBirders will get this course for free from their January eBirding! If you like taking part in the eBirder of the Month Challenges, here are even more excuses to motivate yourself to get out birding. Each month of 2018 will feature a different Bird Academy course offering—tune in at the start of February to see what’s on tap for next month.

Make eBird a 2018 New Year’s Resolution

Sat, 12/23/2017 - 07:30

New Year’s Resolution 2018: eBird
23 December 2017

Bohemian Waxwing by Evan Lipton/Macaulay Library
Let 2018 be the year to step up your eBirding. If you have enjoyed tapping into eBird reports from others, contribute your own sightings in 2018. Submit a sighting online or via eBird Mobile to see just how easy it is to join the world’s largest birding community. If you have been eBirding for a long time, add a few more checklists from your home or submit a few more photos and audio recordings. Have you been meaning to old records that you’d like to have in eBird? Every sighting matters. New Year’s Resolutions are a way to set fun challenges and personal goals. Read on for some ideas for eBird Resolutions and how to make birding and eBird even more fun in 2018.

Some active birders have yet to ‘take the plunge’ to participate in eBird. Do you have a slight pang of guilt each time you receive an eBird Alert, knowing that you should be submitting your sightings too? It’s okay, many of us have been there. Let 2018 be a chance to share your sightings with other birders just as their sightings have helped you. Once you do, eBird will be even more powerful for you as well.

Do you want to eBird, but feel that something is stopping you? Here are some common misconceptions for those hesitant to use eBird, along with solutions!

I have been birding for many years and it would take too long to catch up!
Being an eBirder doesn’t require having all your lists up to date or that you enter all your past data. The idea is to just get started, and let the historical data entry happen as you have time. The more historical data you enter the more informative eBird becomes for you, but the key is starting by entering your current observations today. If you lack the information required to load your past data in more meaningfully, try this option.

I don’t have the time
Do you already track your bird records somewhere else? Then there is really no added time by being an eBirder—it’ll probably actually save time since we update your lists for you when splits and lumps happen! eBird provides free proofreading of your lists too! Our worldwide team of experts is constantly inspecting the data to help prevent typos or taxonomic errors. Going forward, eBird Mobile will really speed up your data entry since you record your new sightings right there in the field–no transcribing!

I keep my lists in another program
When your lists are up to date in eBird, a whole new suite of cool, powerful tools become available: customized Needs Alerts, lists of Target Species with maps of where to find them, and much more. All of this is only possible when your sightings are in eBird. Fretting about moving over from another program to eBird? Don’t worry—we also have easy ways to import from most other programs.

eBird doesn’t want my data
We couldn’t disagree more! eBird is for everyone, and all data are valuable. No matter where you live, we welcome your contributions from anywhere, anytime. Get started today.

What is this a map of? It looks just like noise, there is so much information! This is Washington D.C., with all of the sightings of European Starling. Even common birds make a difference, and we want to hear about it!
What does this map show? There are so many bird sightings it is hard to tell…! This is actually Washington D.C., with all of the eBird sightings of European Starling. Even common birds make a difference, and we want to hear about them!

Whether you are a new eBirder or a longtime eBirder, you may be thinking about what new challenge to take on in 2018. Setting personal goals and competing against yourself is one of the best ways to improve your birding skills and to stay engaged with eBird and birding. Here are a few of our favorite challenge ideas for 2018:

Find 10 bird species that are new for you
One area where eBird really excels is showing you how to find birds. Whether you want a map of sightings for any species of bird, or to know where to go birding near you, it’s all there. In 2018, use the eBird Explore Data tools to help you find ten new bird species—whether they’re new for your yard, your county, your state, or your entire life.

Year listing
Keeping a year list is one of the great pleasures of birding. They are a New Year’s Resolution commitment to keep up your eBirding coverage and try to learn how to find new species, maybe those that have eluded you thus far. You could try a year list for your state or province, but you might find that keeping a year list for your yard or patch is an even more fun and more personal challenge.The smaller the area, the more exploration and self-discovery you’ll have in your year list. As the year progresses, year lists become a personal challenge to strategize how to find more species than last year and predict where you can intersect with tricky migrants. Invariably, they are full of fun surprises and unexpected successes.

Your year list for a country, state, county, patch, or your yard can be easily tracked in My eBird, the Yard/Patch tools, or eBird Mobile.

Progress bars are unique to eBird Mobile. Just check out the “My eBird” section and select your location using the options at the top right of the screen. The results will give statistics not only on your end-of-year totals, but whether your current progress is ahead of last year’s total on the same date. Below, the fact that the 20 December total is 6 species behind 2015’s total can only mean one thing. Time to go birding!

Adopt a patch
Anyone can adopt a “patch“—think of it as any park, walking loop, or birdy area that you like to visit regularly. Start tracking your all-time species total there and see if you can visit strategically to add new species. Use eBird Mobile to compare your 2018 totals to previous years. Select your patch in eBird to quickly access your stats. Best of all, check out the bar chart for your patch. Does your existing patch have gaps in the bar chart? Fill in those blanks!

eBird “bar chart” for a hotspot, showing occurrence of a species for each week of the year. Targets for 2018: find Spotted Sandpiper in the first week of July and a Rock Pigeon in the third week of June!

Help create an Illustrated Checklist
One of eBird’s most exciting new developments in 2017 was the release of our new Illustrated Checklists feature, with photos of each species taken at the actual region displayed by the checklist. Check out the Illustrated Checklist for your county, state, province, or favorite local hotspot. Can you fill in any missing photos? Can you improve upon existing ones? Audio recordings tend to be underrepresented in many places, so a good audio cut–even with your phone–can help fill a gap.

With a single click you can check for gaps and plan some goals for 2018. For example, Calgary County, Alberta, has the highest species list in the province (349 species!). But if you click the two rightmost numbers at the top of the page you can see that 65 species need photos and 323 need audio. By spreading out our photo and audio coverage, the Macaulay Library will become ever more powerful to assess how bird plumages, songs, molt, etc. vary across the planet.

Take the “Checklist a Day” challenge
Try stepping up to the ultimate challenge for an eBirder! This year’s “Checklist a Day” challenge will draw a winner from among those who submit at least one checklist (can be complete or “not complete”, although the former is always preferred) from every calendar day of 2018. The new eBird website will help track your “Checklist Streak”, so just make sure you don’t miss a day! Try to get in the habit of doing at least one short count in your yard every day–even a five-minute count of your feeders and the skies overhead helps keep a pulse on the birds coming and going throughout the year from a location that only you can survey.

Those of us at Team eBird have our own New Year’s Resolutions for 2018. In addition to our personal eBirding goals, we’ll remain committed to adding new features to eBird to make your observations, photos, audio recordings, and data even more valuable. The eBird website will be transformed in 2018 to increase its power, usability, and appeal. We’ll add new features to improve your ability to find birds, understand their occurrence patterns, and to better track your own data. We’ll continue sharing the connection between your sightings, exciting new science, and important and critical bird conservation: look for many new animated eBird Abundance models in the coming year. New features in eBird Mobile will help bring the full power of eBird to your pocket. And we’ll continue to revel in the amazing diversity of birds around us and try to highlight the best and most fun aspects of birding to more communities around the world.

Working together, our birding becomes much more: a chance to share your sightings with others–even across language barriers, a way to bolster a global appreciation for birds, and the raw data that leads to new science and informs important conservation. We could not do it without your participation. Thank you for all that you do.

Please excuse us now as we get started on our own resolutions…checklist-a-day, here we come!

Birdsleuth Investigator National Challenge: What Are Birds Doing at Your Feeders?

Fri, 12/22/2017 - 03:40

It’s easy to see why bird feeding is so popular – birds are beautiful, energetic, and fun! They also display really cool behaviors at the bird feeder. This year, join us in discovering something new about bird feeding behaviors by taking part in our National Challenge. We’ve teamed up with 3-D® Pet Products, Wild Delight® Outdoor Pet Products, and Project FeederWatch to inspire young people to ask questions about the behaviors of their feeder birds and conduct investigations to find the answers.

The Challenge
What are birds doing at your feeders?
Watch what’s going on at your feeder and allow your curiosity to take flight. Individual students, small groups, and entire classrooms are invited to take part in this national challenge.

Getting Started
Eligibility & Prizes
How to Participate:
Educators or parents, complete our online interest form and use the provided link to download Investigating Evidence. You’ll also get a coupon for free bird seed to use during this national challenge.
Start brainstorming your feeder behavior study. Check out the sample studies below or past BirdSleuth Investigator editions for inspiration.
Complete your study, write it up, and submit to us through our BirdSleuth Investigator online submission process no later than May 1, 2018. (Be sure to check out our BirdSleuth Submission Rubric to help you share your best work with us!)


All participants will receive a coupon for free bird seed after you download Investigating Evidence.
Published finalists will receive Project FeederWatch’s Common Feeder Birds poster, a $50 certificate good for future seed from 3-D® Pet Products/Wild Delight® Outdoor Pet Products, and assorted gifts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
The Grand Prize-winning report will be featured in BirdSleuth Investigator. The winning student, group, or class will also receive a year’s supply of bird seed from 3-D® Pet Products/Wild Delight® Outdoor Pet Products, a free membership to Project FeederWatch, and other great gifts from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.
Please note, while all K-12 students are eligible to participate, we can only ship prizes to US addresses.
3D logo

Wild Delight Logo

join the national challenge

Sample National Challenge Studies:
Early Elementary (K-3)
Elementary standards include studying what living things need to survive. Encourage kids to watch birds and think of questions to explore. Keep in mind, kids don’t need to know every bird’s name. Consider having students measure variables like cups of seed eaten or total number of birds visiting. Or just focus on one bird species.

Examples – Do chickadees feed directly from the feeder or the ground? What time of the day do we see the most birds at the feeder?

Sample Study
Question: Will a fake cat scare away birds?

Methods: The study will take two weeks. For one week students measure the cups of seed eaten from the bird feeder without the fake cat present. In the second week the feeder is refilled and the fake cat is placed next to it. Like the first week, students measure the cups of seed eaten from the bird feeder.

Report: Students calculate the total amount of seed eaten for both weeks and create a graph comparing them. Then they analyze the results and decide whether the fake cat reduced the cups of seed eaten. Go further by developing a study to determine whether birds learn that the fake cat isn’t a real threat.

Upper Elementary & Middle (4-8)
Upper elementary and middle school standards emphasize the role of animal groups and habitat on survival and behavior.

Examples – How do feeder birds react to predator calls? How long does a Black-capped Chickadee stay at the feeder compared to a Mourning Dove? Which species visit the feeder most often?

Sample Study
Question: Will birds eat more from a feeder that has cover nearby or a feeder that is out on the open?

Methods: Find two different places to hang your bird feeders that are easily observable. One location should be near a tree or shrub and another should be out in the open, away from any cover. Have students record the number of bird visits to each feeder over several weeks or measure the amount of seed eaten from both.

Report: Create a graph to represent the total visits to the two feeders and determine if the hypothesis is supported or not. Challenge students to go further by seeing if there were any differences between species observed at the two feeders.

Secondary (9-12)
High school standards emphasize interactions within and between ecosystems. Students may want to investigate inter- and intra-species interactions or differences between group and individual behavior.

Examples – Do larger birds exhibit more aggressive behavior at a feeder? How do feeder birds behave when other animals are present (squirrels, cats, etc.)? How do species differ in their behaviors at feeders?

Sample Study
Question: Which species are most successful at displacing others at the feeder and which species are most frequently displaced?

Methods: First, define what constitutes a successful displacement. (Does the bird just have to arrive and another leaves? Or does it need to display an act of aggression or dominance towards the displaced? This definition will affect your results.) Create a record sheet for the species and whether it was the aggressor or the bird displaced. Make sure each student has opportunities to observe the feeder and collect data. Ensure observations are occurring at the same time everyday. Have students organize, graph, and analyze data using Excel or some other program.

Report: Analyze total counts for each species’ role in displacement events, creating a ranking of those most likely to displace or be displaced. Use data to create graphs showing observations over time to visually represent species interactions. Create flowcharts identifying relationships between species.

eBird 2017: Year in Review

Thu, 12/21/2017 - 08:03

eBird 2017–Year in review
21 December 2017

This Kentish Plover by Ayuwat Jearwattanakanok/Macaulay Library is the highest rated image of the 2.5 million added to the Macaulay Library in 2017.
This month closes out eBird’s 15th year. In just a decade-and-a-half, your contributions have made eBird one of the largest community-driven biodiversity projects in the world. More than 360,000 eBirders have submitted 472 million bird sightings, representing 10,364 species across every country in the world. This year alone, you helped gather a total of more than 100 million observations. We are constantly inspired by the power and passion of this world of interconnected birders, and we are excited as we look to the future of what we can achieve. Don’t forget: these are all your achievements. It is your information that powers the eBird engine. Every time you go out and keep a list of birds, you’re making a real contribution to our understanding of the world’s ever-changing avian biodiversity. Thank you.

2017 was a big year for eBird, delivering novel scientific and conservation applications, innovative new birding tools, and much more. Of course, as always, this was provided 100% free of charge to any who wish to use it. We appreciate and thank our eBird Partners who help support eBird by making a monthly contribution. Here’s what made our list of what we will remember from 2017.

Science and Conservation

eBird Abundance Models covering the entire hemisphere are now available for a selection of species. This new generation of predictive models provides an unparalleled look at the full annual cycle of a species, and is based on your eBird data! Explore eBird Abundance Models, and stay tuned for broader species coverage in the coming months.
60 peer-reviewed publications were published this year incorporating eBird data, including research on increasing asynchrony between spring greening of foliage and migrant bird arrival, the importance of Latin American wintering grounds to North American migrants, and how eBird data can be used to dynamically conserve habitat for migratory birds. This brings the total number of peer-reviewed publications using eBird data over 150. See all eBird publications here.
Exciting new work incorporating birdwatcher expertise into eBird models shows that even if you’re just getting started birding, you can report your sightings with the knowledge that every bird counts! Learn more.
Sensitive Species protections now allow eBirders to safely report accurate locations for species whose future prospects are threatened by targeted human exploitation. Read more about eBird’s Sensitive Species approach.
eBird data are a free resource to anyone accessible via the Data Download page. More than 80,000 people have downloaded raw eBird data for analysis, and more than 2,600,000 people visited the eBird website in 2017.
New Birding Tools

eBird Illustrated Checklists revolutionize the exploration of eBird data. See the best photos and sounds plus time-of-year information for any hotspot or region in the world. Whether planning a trip, working on identification, or just trying to learn more about birds, Illustrated Checklists have what you need. Add your photos and audio and be featured on your local Illustrated Checklist! Search any region here and click on the Illustrated Checklist tab.
With more than 5 million photos now in the Macaulay Library from your eBird checklists, how can you find the images that you want? Our Community Rating system lets every eBirder help curate the Macaulay collection, helping make it easier for you to find the information that you want, when you want it, and helping bring the best media forward for everyone to see.
Have you ever dragged a photo into the wrong species by accident? Or realized a couple years after the fact that the small brown bird from your weekend birding trip was actually a different species than you had entered originally? Instead of having to delete and re-enter all the information, Change Species lets you effortlessly swap data around within a checklist.

eBird Mobile got some serious upgrades in 2017. My eBird integration now puts your lists in your pocket wherever you are, and automated tracking lets you let the phone do the work to calculate distance and duration—all you have to do is watch birds! More than 60% of eBird data are now entered on eBird Mobile.
Merlin Bird ID has expanded to cover more than 1,500 species, including all regularly occurring species from Canada south to Costa Rica, as well as Western and Northern Europe. Bird ID help including AI-powered Photo ID is now available for all species in these regions. Merlin now also offers an incredibly powerful Explore Birds feature, allowing anyone to see eBird-powered lists of likely species for any location in the world.
eBird Team and Partner Expansion
Thanks to the generosity of Zeiss, we were able to award 13 eBirders free binoculars in 2017. We are excited to continue our eBirder of the Month awards in 2018 to thank our eBird community for their commitment to submit observations in the best possible way. In 2018, will you win free Zeiss binoculars?
Two new people joined the core Team eBird here at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology: Steve Morrow joins the Database Administrator team in ensuring that your data are always safe and delivered as efficiently as possible; and Alison Johnston joins the analysis team to generate novel ways of evaluating eBird data, including pioneering work on measuring observer expertise and incorporating this information into improved species distribution models.
The Maine Breeding Bird Atlas II will be joining the eBird Atlas team in 2018, making it the third official atlas portal with Wisconsin (entering fourth year of atlasing in 2018) and Virginia (entering third year). We’re excited to work with more states on atlases in the future—please email us if you have interest in starting an atlas project or know of a group who does.
2017 eBird Growth

472 million bird sightings have been entered into eBird. This includes more than 100 million in 2017 alone; with 13,601,090 coming from just the month of May 2017. The one-month total this May is more observations than were collected in eBird’s first 66 months combined! eBird’s contributions make up more than one-third of the biodiversity data in the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF). See the eBird GBIF dataset here.
The third Global Big Day set a new bar for birding’s biggest day. On 13 May 2017, 20,500 birders collectively noted 6,634 species of bird, reporting 54,000 checklists from 160 countries. Mark your calendar for next year’s Global Big Day: 5 May 2018.
More than 2.5 million photos and 60,000 sounds were uploaded to the Macaulay Library through your eBird checklists in 2017 alone. Explore all photos and sounds here.
New translations now support 11 languages throughout (27 on eBird mobile) as well as more than 50 languages and regional versions of bird common names. See a full list of our eBird Common Names here.
It has been a whirlwind year with some huge steps forward, and we can’t wait to see what we can continue to create together with you in 2018.


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