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Updated: 18 hours 21 min ago

Thinking Outside the (Nest) Box

Fri, 10/05/2018 - 23:44

Thinking Outside of the (Nest) Box is an educational resource created by NestWatch, a citizen-science program at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. This curriculum will introduce grades 5–8 to the world of nesting birds and engage youth in STEM learning and citizen science through the construction, installation, and monitoring of nest boxes.
The activities in Thinking Outside of the (Nest) Box will introduce youth to the life cycle of nesting birds and provide instructions for building and installing nest boxes, which in turn will enable youth to become citizen scientists and report their observations of nesting birds to the NestWatch program. Five activities are included which cover:

building and installing nest boxes,
life cycles,
proper monitoring and observation of nesting birds, and
data collection and analysis.

Make one birdhouse as a class, or one per student—it’s your choice. You’ll get students outdoors to peek into a wild bird’s nest, collect data, make predictions from information presented in graphs, and ask questions based on your unique habitat. The lessons align with Next Generation Science Standards and Common Core Standards for grades 5–8.

If you cannot print these resources or simply prefer a full-color printed copy, please email for a free copy (shipped within the US and Canada, while supplies last).

Additional resources:
Activity 1 Resources:
NestWatch slideshow
Activity 2 Resources:
Video 1 – How to assemble a nest box

Video 2 – How to install your nest box
Nest Check Data Sheet

NestWatch Mobile App for iOS or Android

Activity 3 Resources:
NestWatch slideshow: download from Activity 1.

Bingo Playing Cards

Activity 4 Resources:
NestWatch slideshow: download from Activity 1.

Video 3 – How to check a nest

Activity 5 Resources:
NestWatch slideshow: download from Activity 1.

Teacher’s Guide: Eavesdropping on Elephants

Wed, 10/03/2018 - 23:26

Eavesdropping on Elephants: How Listening Helps Conservation by Patricia Newman

Purchase this book on Amazon

The Eavesdropping on Elephants – Teacher’s Guide features 10 activities that target national science, English, mathematics, and art education standards for grades 4-6. This website provides summary background information, along with digital content that complements the printable guide.

Supplementary Materials for the Activities in the Guide:
Activity 3: A Language of Your Own
Watch the video of two elephants greeting each other below, then discuss the questions found in the teacher’s guide.

Activity 8: Identifying the Science Process
Use the BirdSleuth K-12 Science Process Discovery Poster to familiarize students with the science method and aid the activity.

Activity 9: Decoding Spectrograms
Watch the four elephant behavior videos below (also available on the Elephant Listening Project website) and answer the observational questions found in the teacher’s guide. You may also wish to visit the Macaulay Library for sound recordings and sample spectrograms of various other species.

Activity 10: Spectrogram Creators
The following sites are great examples of programs researchers use to create spectrograms from audio recordings:

Raven – Interactive Sound Analysis Software
If you’re looking to explore spectrogram creation software with your class, we recommend trying out Raven Lite (a free software program for beginners, students, and educators) as well as this helpful spectrogram view explanation page provided by Audacity.

eBird Essentials for Educators

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 23:08

Citizen science projects like eBird can help educators make concrete connections between classroom learning and life skills, preparing your students with the tools they need to thrive in the world. Being an eBird citizen scientist involves bird identification and confident data entry. The eBird Essentials for Educators guide gives educator-tested tips, tools, and activities for scaffolding students in identifying birds and submitting data as a class. It was designed to complement the eBird Essentials course. We highly recommend that educators take this course to become familiar with eBird before using this guide with students.

Download Guide Button

Related Links and Resources
Citizen Science and Outdoor Learning
NGSS & Citizen Science: Learn More about how citizen science helps educators meet the and the Next Generation Science Standards.
Citizen Science in Your Outdoor Classroom: Teach science by engaging with local wildlife in real-world studies.
Outdoor Teaching Tips: What’s keeping you inside? Try these eight tips for leading groups outdoors.
Bird Identification
Inside Birding Videos: This series of four videos guides you through the four basic keys to bird identification with clear instruction and examples. The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s online field guide with images, range maps, sounds, and fun facts.
Teaching Bird ID: Planning to go birding with your students? Check out these tips for identifying what you see!
Which Field Guide?: Too many field guid choice? Don’t worry. Just follow these guidelines to find the right guide for you and the youth you work with.
Binoculars for Birding: Learn how to obtain, use, and store a fundamental tool of bird watching: binoculars.
eBird Modeling
eBird Science: eBird transforms your bird observations into critical data for research, conservation, and education.
eBird Modeling Homepage: Discover these dynamic models that showcase the full annual cycle of birds.
Wood Thrush Model
Barn Swallow Model

Evening Grosbeak Call Types of North America

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 13:27

Evening Grosbeak Call Types of North America
By Matt Young, Tim Spahr, and Andrew Spencer October 1, 2018
Evening Grosbeak
Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus
© Christoph Moning
Macaulay Library
The Evening Grosbeak is a fascinating finch: completely absent from most birders’ visibility some years, and at every feeder in its range in others. Even more noteworthy is that, like Red Crossbills, Evening Grosbeak populations have different flight calls. We know from studies of Red Crossbills and the recent elevation of Type 9 Red Crossbill to Cassia Crossbill that these calls are important for flock cohesion and likely play an important role in speciation, but more research is needed to better understand Evening Grosbeak call types. We review what is known about the distribution of Evening Grosbeaks as well as provide descriptions of the known call types. Your eBird observations and audio recordings help us better understand the distribution of call types and their taxonomic significance.
Historical changes in Evening Grosbeak distribution
The Evening Grosbeak has one of the more interesting past and present stories of any species in North America. Beginning in the late 1800s to the 1950s people began noticing large, periodic winter flights of Evening Grosbeak in the northeastern United States. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, Evening Grosbeak irruptions occurred almost annually, with flights involving massive numbers of individuals. These irruptions corresponded with significant spruce budworm outbreaks in 1945–1955 and 1968–1988 across the boreal forest in eastern Canada (Bolgiano 2004).

Not only did Evening Grosbeaks numbers fluctuate in the Northeast in response to spruce budworms, but Bent (1968) noted their eastward expansion as well:

“…Facilitating their eastward extension has been the widespread planting in the east during the past few decades of the box elder (Acer negundo) as a shade tree (Allen, 1919). The seeds of the box elder, which hang on the trees all winter, are preferred by the evening grosbeak to anything else, when available, and Taverner (1921) calls the situation a “baited highway” along which the grosbeaks have been able to travel.”

Some individuals that followed the eastward “baited highway” of box elder plantings also encountered spruce budworm outbreaks that provided them with ample resources and eventually they stayed in the area to breed. By the 1940s Evening Grosbeaks were breeding in New York, Vermont, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, with a few nesting records in Pennsylvania and Connecticut (Young 2008). The species’ expansion was also supported by the proliferation of pin cherry (Prunus pensylvanica) and a fondness for sunflower seeds at a growing numbers of bird feeders across the East (Bonter and Harvey 2008). In fact, for a few decades Evening Grosbeaks were one of the most common species seen at bird feeders across much of North America in the winter. In areas as far south as the Carolinas and even farther south to the mountains of Georgia, Evening Grosbeaks occurred in large numbers biennially. Now, however, Evenings Grosbeaks appear to have experienced a significant population decline and are now listed as species of special concern in Canada. Population declines are due, in part, to habitat loss of mature diverse forests and forest management practices aimed at reducing spruce budworm numbers (Bonter and Harvey 2008).

Evening Grosbeak diet
Evening Grosbeaks tend to eat seeds of maples, ashes, apples, box elder, cherries, Russian olive, and occasionally pines (Gillihan and Byers 2001). They also eat sunflower seeds at bird feeders, but due to their beak and body size they only take sunflower seeds from hopper and platform feeders.

Potential differences in food preference according to call type are poorly known. Mexican birds (Call Type 5) tend to frequent coniferous forests, suggesting that they may feed on pines more frequently than other call types farther north, but more study is needed.

Evening Grosbeak call types
Evening Grosbeaks have several call types in their repertoire; in this article we focus on the variation in flight calls. Their other common call, the “trill call,” is not identifiable to type with current knowledge. The function of the other quiet, plastic calls of Evening Grosbeaks is unknown.

Flight calls in social finches are the main contact call used for flock cohesion and several finches have different flight calls. In the Red Crossbill complex for example, 10 different flight calls have been identified in North America, one of which (Type 9) is now a new species—the Cassia Crossbill (Loxia sinesciuris).

Sewall, Kelsey, and Hahn first described Evening Grosbeak call types in 2004 (Sewall et al. 2004). They described 5 call types and found that like Red Crossbills, grosbeak call types are geographically restricted. During eruptions, however, grosbeaks with different call types may occur in the same area. Different call types may also associate with different tree species as in Red Crossbills, but more study is needed.

Fig. 1. Spectrogram of Evening Grosbeak calls from left to right Type 1, Type 2, Type 3, Type 4, and Type 5 for comparison.

In 2009, Aaron Haiman, a student of Tom Hahn, studied the Evening Grosbeak complex in greater detail and found that bill morphology differs among call types, especially among females. These differences he suggests could affect mate selection and speciation. Haiman also examined call type distribution across North America and created a generalized distribution map of the 5 call types. Below, we’ve laid out full descriptions of each of the call types.

Evening Grosbeak (Type 1) Coccothraustes vespertinus brooksi (Grinnell, 1917)

Evening Grosbeak (Presumed Type 1) by Ryan P. O’Donnell/Macaulay Library

Known range: Commonly breeds across the Pacific-Northwest, its core range. Type 1 is the most widespread type in the west, from the northern Rockies and the Cascades to at least British Columbia and south to Oregon, northern Wyoming, and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Wanders to the northern Sierra Nevada and to San Bernardino California, and to Colorado, Arizona and New Mexico. Recordings by Aaron Bowman recently confirmed Type 1 in north coastal Alaska. Known to occasionally overlap in range with Types 2, 3, and 4, including during the breeding season. Might also overlap in range with Type 5 in Arizona. Type 1 likely occurs across more of the west, but more recordings are needed to accurately reflect its actual range. eBird map

Flight call: Descending chee-er; said to have a more pure-tone that begins at a high frequency, rises slightly, and then descends rapidly (Sewall et al. 2004). Its call is more thin and whistled. The other call types described as tee-er, keeer, peeer, p-teeee, p-teer and clee-ip, among other variations.

On a spectrogram, Type 1’s flight call is clear and descending with an initial quick rise in pitch. Spectrographically it is quite similar to Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s Thrush flight calls. Type 1 starts with a narrow uptick from 2 to 5+ kHz, followed by a sharp drop, a slight leveling off, and another sharp drop. No harmonic banding is evident in spectrogram. The peak is up above 5 kHz and higher than other Evening Grosbeak flight calls, but much of the energy is in the lower frequency part of spectrum making Type 1 sound slightly lower-pitched than Types 2 and 4. Separating Types 1 and 2 where they overlap in primarily California and Oregon can be quite challenging.

Fig. 2. Spectrogram of Type 1 flight calls. Note the sharp drop in pitch and greater force in the lower frequencies.

Additional Notes/Irruptions: Bill thick, but slightly less slender than birds in Central Rockies and Mexico (Grinnell 1916). Most irruptive and widespread type in the West, and quite likely the most abundant too, often irrupting to foothills areas throughout much of the West. If a western type were to show in the east with Type 3, it would likely be Type 1. Modest numbers of Type 1 moved during the fall and winter 2017, but so far in 2018 there has been no discernable sign of a significant movement. However, movements could still occur in October–December.

Evening Grosbeak (Type 2) Coccothraustes vespertinus californicus (Grinnell, 1917)

Evening Grosbeak (Presumed Type 2) by Jay McGowan/Macaulay Library.

Known range: Core breeding range is largely restricted to the Sierra Nevada of California where it commonly breeds; occasional to Oregon in s. Cascades and rarely to Washington and amazingly a record in North Dakota. eBird map

Flight call: tee-er; thinner in quality and tends to sound higher pitched (Sewall et al. 2004). Begins with a pronounced rise followed by a gradual and steady drop in frequency. Type 2 is similar to Type 1, but is a bit more explosive, whistled, and piercing.

Type 2 flight calls are high and clear-sounding. Spectrographically Type 2 is similar to Type 1 with a distinctive inverted “V” shape. However, Type 2 flight calls spend more time and deposits more energy near the apex of the inverted “V” around 5 kHz, thus producing a higher sound on average than Type 1. These flight calls are similar in appearance to Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s Thrush calls, but without modulation or banding evident in spectrogram.

Figure 3. Spectrogram of Evening Grosbeak Type 2 call note.

Additional Notes/Irruptions: Bill intermediate in thickness between boreal/eastern birds and Mexican birds (Grinnell (1916). Wanders, at least, rarely north to southern Washington where it overlaps with Call Type 1. In 2017 it moved in very small numbers to southern California, but this type generally is not known to move much outside of the Sierra Nevada. Type 2 is quite possibly one of the least common (Hahn pers. comm.).

Evening Grosbeak (Type 3) Coccothraustes vespertinus vespertinus (Cooper, W, 1825)

Evening Grosbeak (Presumed Type 3) by Amanda Guercio/Macaulay Library.

Known range: Core breeding range is boreal forests of Canada east of the Rockies to Newfoundland and in the northeastern United States; wanders southward to the southern Appalachians and historically rarely to the Gulf Coast, but such events have become much less common the last 25 years. eBird map

Flight call: clee-ip; begins with a harsh trill and then only slightly descends. Burry and resembles call of House Sparrow.

Type 3 flight calls look most like Type 5, but overall are quite distinctive spectrographically. The rough and burry-sound is plainly evident in spectrograms. Type 3 flight calls show an initial “down-up-down” component around 3–3.5 kHz followed by several bands between 2 and 4 kHz. The strength of this banding feature appears unique to Type 3.

Fig. 4. Spectrogram of Evening Grosbeak Type 3 call.

Additional Notes/Irruptions: Bill is the shortest and thickest of all the types (Grinnell 1916). Most irruptive of all the types as well. Wanders south in the mountains in the East, but irruptions have been much smaller and infrequent south of Pennsylvania in the last 15+ years. Prior to the 1980s wandered as far south as Georgia with some regularity, but in recent decades it is very rare south of the Northeastern states. From 1967-1991, Evening Grosbeaks showed up every year during the Ithaca, NY Christmas Bird Count. A small movement out of the Maritime Provinces into the New England states took place in 2017. A small to perhaps even modest movement could take place in the Great Lakes and Northeastern States this fall-winter 2018. See Ron Pittaway’s winter finch forecast.

Evening Grosbeak (Type 4) Coccothraustes vespertinus warreni (Grinnell, 1917)

Evening Grosbeak (Presumed Type 4) by Mark Linardi/Macaulay Library

Known range: Breeds in a core area from central to southern Rockies of Utah, Colorado and New Mexico; occasionally wanders and likely breeds north to the vicinity of Jackson Hole, Wyoming and rarely to central Montana. eBird map.

Flight call: “p-teer;” a very rapid frequency drop followed by an abrupt rise. Similar to Type 2, but huskier or burrier sounding.

Type 4 flight calls sound intermediate between Type 2 and 3 in the field, and are separable spectrographically based on the “down-up-down” feature at the beginning of the call, as well as the slight banding evident in the longer portion of the call near 4 kHz. This banding is also what gives Type 4 the slightly burry sound that helps separate it from Type 2 in the field; though not as burry sounding as Type 3 though.

Fig. 5. Spectrogram of Evening Grosbeak Type 4 call.

Additional Notes/Irruptions: Bill intermediate in thickness but slenderer than birds found in the boreal and east (Grinnel 1916). Not thought to be very irruptive, but does occasionally irrupt to foothills areas of the Rockies. Small numbers were seen in the lowlands of the Rockies in 2017, and numbers could move again this year October–December. Bryant Olsen reports that Type 4 seems to prefer to feed on Russian Olive (Elaeagnus angustifolia) in Utah in winter.

Type 5 Evening Grosbeak Coccothraustes vespertinus montanus (Ridgway, 1874)

Evening Grosbeak (Presumed Type 5) by Alan Monroy Ojeda /Macaulay Library

Known range: Core range appears to be the Sierra Madre of Mexico, north to southeastern Arizona and the bootstrap of sw. New Mexico. All knowledge of this Call Type is based on two recordings by R. Hoyer from the Huachuca Mountains. eBird map.

Flight call: The long-sounding “cheeeerr” Type 5 flight calls are quite ringing, burry, and piercing, with a strong descending sound evident in the field.

Type 5 spectrograms are fairly complex with the main component around 4kHz and slowly descending. A secondary component is visible around 9kHz. Type 5 flight calls also show a short initial downward component around 4–5kHz. Close inspection of spectrogram reveals fine rapid modulation, similar to what is seen in Gray-cheeked and Bicknell’s Thrush flight calls. There is a somewhat buzzy, ringing quality similar to Type 3, but these two types don’t appear to overlap in range.

Fig. 6. Spectrogram of Evening Grosbeak Type 5 calls.

Additional Notes/Irruptions: Appears to be among the least common of the call types, even in its core range. Rarely encountered even in apparently ideal habitat, though the area around Cofre de Perote, Veracruz does seem to offer the best chance of finding it. Seemingly rare and highly erratic in the United States. Bill much slenderer in Mexican birds (Type 5) than any of the other forms (Grinnell 1916).

The Macaulay Library has 359 recordings of Evening Grosbeak, a slight majority of which can be assigned to call type, but more recordings are needed to better understand the distribution of call types. Even for the types with the most recordings, a larger sample size covering a wider geographic area can help clarify the wider occurrence and distribution picture of the species.

Of the 359 recordings in the collection, Type 1 is the most well represented with 89 recordings, followed by 49 of Type 3, 28 of Type 2, but only 13 of Type 4 and 2 of Type 5. The remaining recordings are either recordings still in need of identification or are trill calls, possible songs, or various quiet vocalizations that with current knowledge are not identifiable to call type.

Astute readers will note that while eBird allows reporting to Evening Grosbeak call types, eBird does not match those to a scientific name as we do above. The main reason for this is that the eBird/Clements Checklist (2017 eBird/Clements taxonomy (v2017) has had a subspecies taxonomy in place for many years that includes three subspecies of Evening Grosbeak. Although there are 5 subspecies names that appear to match well with the distributions and appearance of Evening Grosbeak call types, a publication confirming this relationship has yet to be published. Our use of the subspecies names with the call types above should be considered a scientific hypothesis, yet to be established in peer-reviewed literature.

If you record an Evening Grosbeak, please enter it as “Evening Grosbeak” in eBird, upload the recording to your checklist, and send the link to the checklist to the authors (contact information below) for assistance with identification to specific call type. If identification to Type can be confirmed via the recording, you can easily use the new Change Species feature in eBird to search for the correct grosbeak type and revise the identification. If you try to identify the type yourself, do not worry if you misidentify the proper call type; one of the authors will contact you after listening to your recording. Keep in mind that many grosbeaks can be typed from poor recordings, so we encourage you to make a recording, even with your smartphone (Learn about smartphone recording). However, as with Red Crossbill, please be conservative, especially with observations that are not supported by a recording. Please do not assume call types based on range.

Understanding how these flight call differences relate to traditional taxonomy is fraught with complexity and requires more recordings of flight call types across a large geographic area, especially in the western mountains. Recordings paired with bird measurements may be even more telling as Haiman (2011) also found a significant difference in bill morphology that produce different flight calls.

You can make significant contributions to the research Tom Hahn and former students have conducting over the last 15 years by sharing your recordings of Evening Grosbeaks with eBird and the Macaulay Library.

Please be sure to record any Evening Grosbeak you hear, even if all you have is a smartphone, just be sure to record using .wav format (Apps that record in .wav)—each grosbeak recording adds an important piece to the puzzle, especially when accompanied by notes on behavior. If you think you hear two different call types, please be sure to make a recording as information on call types overlap, is greatly needed. The conservation of grosbeak call types will depend in large measure on our understanding of their complex distributions and ecological associations. Birders can make critical contributions to their conservation by recording grosbeak calls and by reporting their findings.

Learning to identify Evening Grosbeak call types is about as easy as learning your Red Crossbill types, which is to say, not that easy! All 5 types are represented in the Macaulay Library collection, but Types 4 and 5 are quite under-represented. Listen to more cuts here.

A couple of our favorite recordings where multiple types have been known to co-occur include:
1) Lance Benner’s cut of both Type 1 and 2 occurring together in southern California.
2) Mike Hearell recording of both Type 1 and 4 in Weber, Utah.
3) Type 1 and 3 can be heard well in this William W. H. Gunn Alberta, Canada cut at the 4-minute mark.

Lastly, there’s also evidence that suggests some or all Evening Grosbeak types sing a simple song mostly given around dawn. Notice the repetitive nature of the how the calls are given in the song in the examples below.

For more on this subject and Evening Grosbeak call types in general, read Nathan’s Pieplow’s informative articles on the subject.

Download all the grosbeak calls from this story

We would like to thank the Macaulay Library at The Cornell Lab of Ornithology for recordings, and Tom Hahn and his former students Kendra Sewall, Rodd Kelsey, and Aaron Haiman for getting us started down the grosbeak road— without their research, many of us wouldn’t even know this call type phenomena even occurs in this complex. Lastly, we’d also like to thank Lab staff Marshall Iliff, Kathi Borgmann, and Ian Davies for advice, editing, and contributions to this piece.

Literature Cited
Bonter, D. N., and M. G. Harvey (2008). Winter survey data reveal range-wide decline in Evening Grosbeak populations. Condor 110:376–381.

Bent, A. C., and O. L. Austin, Jr. (1968). Life histories of North American cardinals, grosbeaks, buntings, towhees, finches, sparrows, and allies. 3 Parts. Bulletin of the United States National Museum: 237. 1889pp.

Bolgiano, N. C. (2004). Cause and effect: changes in boreal bird irruptions in eastern North America relative to the 1970s spruce budworm infestation. American Birds 58:26-33.

Gillihan, S. W., and B. E. Byers (2001). Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus), version 2.0. In The Birds of North America (P. G. Rodewald, editor). Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York, USA.

Grinnell, J. (1917). The subspecies of Hesperiphona vespertina. Condor 19:17-22.

Haiman, A. N. K. (2011). Levels of variation in evening grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus) calls and morphology (Order No. 1502353). Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (909054837). Retrieved from

Sewall, K., R. Kelsey, and T. P. Hahn (2004). Discrete Variants of Evening Grosbeak Flight Calls. Condor 106: 161-65.

Young, M. A. (2008). Evening Grosbeak (Coccothraustes vespertinus). Pages 620-621 In The second atlas of breeding birds in New York state (K. J. McGowan and K. Corwin, Eds.). Cornell University Press, Ithaca, NY.

Please address comments or questions on this article to the authors at,, or

*Matthew A. Young, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850.

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Seasonal Wildlife Habitat Calendar

Mon, 10/01/2018 - 12:00

Seasonal Wildlife Calendar
Jacob Johnston October 1, 2018
Bees Birds Native Plants Other Wildlife Pollinators calendar
Seasonal changes and national holidays offer key moments throughout the year for wildlife. As the seasons progress, plant life grows through its various cycles and the blossoms, fruits, and seeds produced, play an important role in the life cycle requirements of local birds, pollinators and other wildlife. Let our wildlife calendar help guide your annual gardening activities.

October PDF

September PDF
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August PDF

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July PDF

June PDF

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April PDF

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March PDF

February PDF

January PDF

Nesting birds, for example, need building materials and protein from insects which are attracted to new leaves and blossoms in the spring, while migrating and overwintering birds need the sugars and fats from late-season berries and seeds to store energy reserves.

Likewise, calendar events recognizing the importance of wildlife can improve the support and success of conservation efforts, furthering their impact. Habitat Network recognizes this and has put together this calendar with a collection of holidays based on birds, butterflies, bees, and all sorts of wonderful wildlife that need our support and attention. Each month we will offer a new wildlife calendar to print or use as a desktop wallpaper, complete with information to help you maximize your seasonal efforts.

2018 Annual Report

Fri, 09/28/2018 - 13:15

“You are helping the Cornell Lab of Ornithology lead the way on the most important conservation issues around the world.”—Cornell Lab director John W. Fitzpatrick

Coastal Solutions for a Global Challenge
Shorebirds exemplify the connectedness and complexity of nature. It’s up to us to protect and restore the many coastal habitats that they connect like dots on their epic migrations.

Shedding New Light on Dark Skies
Thanks to the BirdCast project, anyone can access, interpret, and use radar data to look for, learn about, and help birds.

The Bird Classroom of Tomorrow, Today
Discovering the wonder of birds can be the first step in a lifetime of conservation. We’re always seeking new ways to help learners of all backgrounds deepen their connections.

Our feature story on the global decline of shorebirds, written by acclaimed author Scott Weidensaul, cast a spotlight on one of the Cornell Lab’s highest conservation priorities. Read Losing Ground in the Autumn 2018 issue of our member magazine, Living Bird.

FY18 Revenues (through June 30, 2018)
Revenue Piechart for fiscal year 2018 through June 30
Total Revenue = $30,219,081
FY18 Expenditures
Expenditure Piechart for fiscal year 2018 through June 30
Total Expenditures = $29,748,524
Annual Operating Revenue and Expense, 2009–2018

Thanks to friends like you, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a healthy and effective organization. Nested within the fabric of Cornell University, the Lab’s strength lies in its unique institutional model that weaves together research and academics with outreach and conservation programs, and in the support of thousands of members and donors. As you can see from the pie charts, membership revenues and gifts are the single largest source of support for our programs and projects. Our members and friends provided 56.9% of our annual revenue, a total of $17.2 million that fuels innovation, growth, and scientific excellence. The bar chart depicts healthy growth over the past 10 years with revenues exceeding expenditures, allowing the Lab to continually expand and strengthen our vital research, education, and conservation efforts.

We are deeply grateful to our more than 100,000 members and donors at every level, all of whom make it possible for the Cornell Lab to advance the understanding of nature and engage people of all ages in learning about birds and protecting the planet. We’re pleased to include a downloadable list of our leadership supporters here.

Photography credits
From top to bottom: Verdin by Gordon Karre/Macaulay Library, Bar-tailed Godwits by Gerrit Vyn; Earth image by NASA/NOAA/GSFC/Suomi NPP/VIIRS/Norman Kuring.

Download a printable version of the annual report

October Big Day—6 October 2018

Fri, 09/21/2018 - 13:42

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

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

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

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

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

Gallery: A Downy Woodpecker’s Swiss Army Beak

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:18

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Wed, 09/19/2018 - 11:09

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

More From Living Bird

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

45 Million Bird Watchers:

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

$1.8 Billion Spent on Equipment:

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

$4 Billion Spent on Bird Food:

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

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

Calling Photographers: Share Your Favorite Shots, For Science

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

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

More From Living Bird

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

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

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

It’s simple to share photos with our archive:

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

More resources:


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

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

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

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

More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

George Archibald Wins Arthur A. Allen Award

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

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

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

More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

View From Sapsucker Woods: Achieving Impact for the Planet

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

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

More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:49

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

More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    • Oilbird by Luke Seitz/Macaulay Library. Oilbird

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

    • Limpkin by Chris Payne via Birdshare. Limpkin

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

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

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

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

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

    • Elf Owl by Dan Behm via Birdshare. Elf Owl

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

    • Osprey by David Brown/Macaulay Library. Osprey

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

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

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

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

    Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:47

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

    More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    More About Migration Science

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Fantastic Journeys: Shorebirds Are Next-Level Athletes

    Wed, 09/19/2018 - 10:42

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

    More From Living Bird

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

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

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

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

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

    How Do They Manage Such Extreme Endurance?

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

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

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

    They Build Up Fat Stores

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

    They can Fly While They Fast

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

    They’re Incredible Body-Builders

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    4 Billion Birds Will Fly Through American Airspace This Fall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Read More

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

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


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

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

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

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

    How do hurricanes affect migrating birds?

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The Clements Checklist of Birds of the World

    Thu, 09/06/2018 - 15:05

    NEW 2018 Updates & Corrections and downloadable spreadsheet.

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

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

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


    John Fitzpatrick, Louis Agassiz Fuertes Director
    Cornell Lab of Ornithology


    Welcome to the American Ornithological Society (AOS)
    Advancing Scientific Knowledge and Conservation of Birds

    © 2018 American Ornithological Society