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Flying on Fumes: How Birds Meet Their Oxygen Demands at High Altitude

Thu, 02/23/2017 - 15:54

Mountain climbers know the feeling of trying to perform at elevation. Lungs ache for air and the heart races. Legs feel like lead and the brain gets cloudy. So just imagine how birds feel at high elevation as they go about their high-energy, high-exertion lifestyles.

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Most living creatures are adapted to breathe easily under the column of air pressing down on us at sea level. But at higher elevations there’s less air around, so a lungful just doesn’t provide the same amount of oxygen to fuel their muscles.

On top of Mt. Everest, at 29,000 feet, a lungful of air provides less than one-third as much oxygen as at sea level. To understand how birds cope with that lack of oxygen, or hypoxia, Cornell Ph.D. student Sahas Barve turned to the steep Himalayan valleys of his native India.

Over five years, he studied the evolutionary solutions these avian mountaineers had come up with. He and his colleagues published their findings in December 2016 in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B. Though he was working in the world’s tallest mountain range, Barve’s study focused on moderate elevations (up to 10,500 feet), meaning his findings are applicable to mountain species around the world—especially as it warms.

The study took place in Uttarakhand province in the Himalayan mountains of northern India. See the full Google Map.


“One of the most common predictions of climate change is that species are going to shift upslope to get out of warmer temperatures,” Barve explains. But while moving upward may sound like a straightforward way to avoid warming, it ignores the problem of thin air. “If hypoxia is a major hurdle and birds cannot make their oxygen transport any better than they already have,” Barve says, “then it might severely limit their ability to adapt and shift their ranges higher.”

First, Barve and his hardy field assistants had to figure how the birds managed to compensate for thinner air. The researchers used mist nets to catch 15 species of birds at elevations ranging from 3,280–10,500 feet (1,000–3,200 meters). At these elevations, air has between 89 percent and 69 percent as much oxygen as at sea level.

They collected a drop of blood from each bird, allowing them to study the birds’ hemoglobin—the molecule in red blood cells that carries oxygen from the lungs to the muscles. The blood sample gave them two key measurements: the volume of the blood made up of red blood cells (hematocrit) and the hemoglobin concentration in the blood, measured using a handheld monitor.

The researchers tested resident species—ones that live at the same elevations year-round, such as the Green-backed Tit and Gray-winged Blackbird—and migrants, which breed at high elevations and spend winters lower down, including the Variegated Laughingthrush and the Blue-fronted Redstart. As it turned out, the two types of species solved the hypoxia problem in different ways.

Slideshow: Meet the 15 Species The scientists studied 9 migrant species, including this Blue Whistling-Thrush, and 6 resident species. Photo by Aravind V via Birdshare.Himalayan Bluetails winter as low as 4,500 feet but move upslope to breed as high as 11,500 feet. Photo by Craig Brelsford/Macaulay Library.The study found that migrants cope with the lower oxygen at altitude by making extra red-blood cells. Blue-fronted Redstarts winter as low as 5,000 feet but their breeding grounds can be above 11,000 feet. Photo by Savlo Sanches via Birdshare.The migrants' approach works as a temporary fix for the breeding season, and allows them to reverse the change when they migrate back downslope. This Chestnut-crowned Laughingtrush breeds as high as 10,500 feet and then returns to sites as low as 4,000 feet for winter. Photo by Ritvik Singh/Macaulay Library. This Ultramarine Flycatcher breeds as high as 10,500 feet and then leaves the Himalayan region for winter. Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman via Birdshare.There's a catch to the migrants' approach. By making more blood cells, they run the risk of more sluggish bloodflow and possible clots. This Variegated Laughingthrush winters as low as 5,000 feet and moves as high as 11,500 feet to breed. Photo by Yeray Seminario/Macaulay Library.This White-throated Laughingthrush winters as low as 4,500 feet and breeds as high as 9,200 feet. Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman via Birdshare.Blyth's Leaf Warblers spend winters in distant regions and then migrate to the Himalaya, where they nest as high as 10,500 feet. Photo by Francesco Veronesl via Creative Commons.The Rufous-gorgeted Flycatcher also nests outside of the Himalaya, then arrives to breed at elevations up to 10,500 feet. Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman via Birdshare.The scientists also studied 6 resident species, which live year-round in the mountains. This is a Himalayan Black-lored Tit, which lives between 1,500 and 6,600 feet. Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman via Birdshare.The resident species have evolved a way to cope with low oxygen without creating extra red blood cells. This Green-backed Tit lives between about 5,000 and 10,500 feet. Photo by Aravind V via Birdshare.Instead, the residents seem to put more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin molecules into their red blood cells. This Cinereous Tit lives at 1,500 to 5,000 feet. Photo by Aravind V via Birdshare.The residents' approach doesn't carry the risk of blood clots, giving them an advantage over the migrants in the long term. Grey-hooded Warblers live at 1,500 to about 8,300 feet. Photo by Ganesh Jayaraman via Birdshare.The Black-throated Bushtit breeds and winters between about 2,500 feet and 10,000 feet. Photo by Hardik Pala via Birdshare.The Grey-winged Blackbird lives between about 3,300 and 8,300 feet year-round. Photo by Ram via Birdshare.PreviousNext

“We found the migrant species respond to hypoxia just as most humans do when moving from sea level to higher elevations,” Barve says. “They do it by increasing their oxygen transport with a greater number of red blood cells.”

It sounds like a good idea, since creating more red blood cells means more hemoglobin, which can carry more oxygen. But the strategy has a downside: thicker blood and a higher risk of clots and blocked blood vessels. And it only works for a limited time.

“The amount of oxygen being delivered to the organs actually decreases because the blood is moving more slowly,” Barve says, “It’s like pumping tomato ketchup instead of blood. It’s actually a maladaptive trait to have”—in humans it’s a classic cause of an ailment known as chronic mountain sickness. “But it’s a response that the body has a lot of control over so that’s why it’s seen in a lot of organisms.”

Like a flatlander going on a ski vacation, the migrant species have apparently found a short-term solution that allows them to survive at high elevation for long enough to complete the nesting season. This quick fix also has the benefit of being reversible, allowing their blood composition to revert to normal when they return to lower elevations.

Meanwhile, Barve found the six resident species had all independently evolved a different technique to increase their oxygen uptake, one that doesn’t come with a time limit.

“The resident birds do not increase the number of red blood cells,” Barve explains. “Instead, they increase the amount of hemoglobin inside each cell.” In essence they make more oxygen-carrying hemoglobin without having to also build all the other parts of a red blood cell. “So they avoid all the bad things that can happen because of thicker blood.”

Researcher Sahas Barve discusses his fieldwork in the Himalaya mountains and describes how his childhood in Bombay led him to a career in science.

In other parts of the world, a few other ways to cope with thin air have evolved. Hummingbirds in the Andes can increase the oxygen-carrying ability of individual hemoglobin molecules. Due to the remoteness of his study sites, Barve wasn’t able to test for this in Himalayan birds. People native to the Tibetan plateau use yet another approach, taking more breaths per minute and loading their blood with nitric oxide, a substance that keeps their blood vessels dilated and increases bloodflow. And in the Ethiopian highlands, native people somehow breathe easily above 11,000 feet, but researchers still aren’t sure how they do it.

As for the future, Barve says his research shows that for species that live on mountainsides, coping with climate change might not be as easy as just moving upslope.

“I don’t think we give hypoxia the attention it deserves,” says Barve. “A lot of species around the world live at high elevations and we don’t know how it affects species distribution in the present, let alone in the future.”


Barve, S., A.A. Dhondt, V.B. Mathur, F. Ishtiaq, and Z.A. Cheviron. 2016. Life history characteristics influence physiological strategies to cope with hypoxia in Himalayan birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society B. November 2016.

Not just birds [caption id="attachment_28207" align="alignleft" width="240"] Black-throated Bushtit in the Himalaya. Photo by Ram via Birdshare.[/caption] Three human populations live continuously at high elevations in Ethiopia, Tibet, and the Andes. Each copes with hypoxia differently. People in the Andes produce more red blood cells; Tibetans have larger lungs and nitrous oxide in their blood--a substance that keeps their blood vessels open as much as they can be; Ethiopians do not increase the number of red blood cells but their exact coping mechanism is not fully understood. [/sidebar] -->

Learn How Plant Hardiness Zones and Ecoregions Can Be Planting “Tools” For Your Yard

Tue, 02/21/2017 - 11:19

Understand Your Planting “Tools”: Plant Hardiness Zones vs. Ecoregions
Becca Rodomsky-Bish February 21, 2017
Knowing what plants to put in the ground that–barring predation or other unforeseen setbacks–will grow and thrive, can be tricky business. The goal is deceptively straightforward; but, as we are sure you’ve discovered, challenges often emerge when trying to figure out what plants will actually be successful in your region.

Plant hardiness zones and ecoregions are both tools that gardeners and farmers find useful in answering this–What can I plant that will thrive?–question. Each parses out landscape, but in the service of different objectives. At Habitat Network we believe both plant hardiness zones and ecoregions have their merits and should be used in tandem when adding plants to your gardens. If these tools are confusing to you, hopefully this article will help clarify how to maximize their usefulness.

The Plant Hardiness Zone Map was developed in a joint effort between Harvard’s Arnold Arboretum and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) back in the 1960s. Thirty years of temperature data were examined and analyzed to create approximate temperature bands across the United States. Since the original map, several more versions have been updated to reflect more accurate ranges, the most recent map (depicted above) was created in 2012.

The current Plant Hardiness Zone Map shows the average annual minimum temperature in a region in the last 30 years. This does not reflect the highest or lowest temperatures in an area, but rather an average of all temperatures over a year. According to the USDA, the most recent version of the map does take into consideration temperature variation based on elevation, topography, and coastal effects.open_in_new

There are 13 hardiness zones, separated by a 10 degree difference and within each zone is an a and b separated by a five degree difference–for example, zone 3a(-40F to -35F) and zone 3b (-35F to -30F). The lower the zone number the colder the region, so zone 1a (-60F to -55F) is the coldest region and zone 13b (65F to 70F) is the warmest.

Screen Shot 2017-02-16 at 2.44.06 PM
Plants are often temperature sensitive. Knowing whether a plant can tolerate different annual average temperatures is helpful when planning your gardens. For example, if you live in New York State there are seven different planting zones (ranging from 2b in the highest parts of the Adirondack Mountains in pink, to 7b on Long Island in green-yellow). Thus, if you wanted to plants “native” to New York, simply knowing whether they are native to the state, or not, does not ensure survival of the plant. A native plant that can thrive in New York City may not survive in the Adirondack Mountains, and vice versa.

Plants, like this recently snow-buried manzanita (Arctostaphylos manzanita), depend on more variables for survival than just temperature. Complex ecological interactions, both biotic and abiotic, also influence the success rate of plants. Here’s where a different way of parsing the landscape, one that takes into account both temperature and other climatic and biotic factors, becomes very helpful.

In addition to plant hardiness zones, there are something called ecoregions that breakup the map of the U.S. (and other places) a little differently. Originally proposed in 1976, ecoregion maps are produced by the USDA Forest Service. Ecoregions are areas of land and water grouped together by similar temperature, precipitation, soil composition, geography, ecosystem relationships, and biodiversity characteristics. In the contiguous United States there are 34 different ecoregion provinces. Hawaii and Puerto Rico make 36 and adding 13 for Alaska gives us a grand total of 49 ecoregions (each of these is broken into even smaller regions, but for our purposes, we present them at the “province” gradation). Each province has a descriptive name, like Great Plains-Palouse Dry Steppe Province, or Outer Coastal Plain Mixed Forest Province, hinting at the dominant landscape features found there.

bee on flower
Each of these ecoregions supports certain plant and animal communities with their own, sometimes unique, ecological relationships. Some species of plants and animals can be found across several ecoregions while others are found only in very specific small areas. These relationships are crucial to consider when trying to create thriving gardens. Plants are the foundation of most food chains, providing food, shelter, and areas for reproduction. Ecoregions, then, offer clues about what we should plant in order to provide biodiverse, native habitat to support the specific, important ecological relationships of our region.

Florida to California
Here’s an example of how you might use these tools together. Maybe you live in coastal California in planting zone 10a and notice that parts of Florida are also in planting zone 10a. Could you plant things native to Florida in your California yard? Yes, you could, and they may even survive, but not necessarily thrive, since they certainly won’t be recognized by the native insects, microbes, and animals that also call coastal California home.

Looking at the ecoregion map reveals southern Florida and coastal California to be in very different ecoregions (Everglades Province and California Coastal Chaparral Forest and Shrub Province, respectively) even though they share a planting zone. Using an ecoregion guide you may learn there is a particular pollinator that lives in Florida but does not live in California that this plant needs for successful pollination. So, looking at planting zones alone, you might be led to believe that the Florida plant would do just fine in Coastal California, but the reality for that plant may be that it lives but is unable to reproduce.

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Pollinator Partnership has made this work relatively easy for us. Using the ecoregion maps they have created detailed guides of plants and their respective pollinators for each specific ecoregion. These guides can be found in our Local Resources Tool where you enter your zip code and receive information back on your ecoregion, planting zone, and other valuable resources to inform your planting decisions.

Pollinators on Swamp Millkweed
With mounting environmental and habitat pressures on pollinators, birds, and other wildlife, focusing on what we should plant to restore or preserve native habitat needs to be a priority (pictured above are pollinators feeding on Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata). This doesn’t mean you can’t have that native Florida plant in your California garden, it just means along with that plant, adding native plants to your planting palette ensures your garden is contributing to the ecological underpinnings of your specific plant-animal community.

The map on the left shows the change in Plant Hardiness Zones calculated from those based on the 1971-2000 climate to those based on the 1981-2010 climate. Even greater changes are projected over the next 30 years (right). (Figure source: NOAA
When we factor in climate change, it becomes more clear how planting zones and ecoregions should be used together. There is strong evidenceopen_in_new in the scientific community that temperature and habitat availability BOTH influence where animals can live. Planting zones, only taking into account temperature, are likely to shift more quickly than ecoregions. Ecoregions, for the most part, formed over thousands of years of evolution and geological change. They can and will shift in response to a changing climate, but not as quickly as planting zones.

We hope you use these tools to plant for the future. If you live in Wisconsin on the edge of zone four and five, you may want to take into account projected changes in climate in your planting decisions. If zone five and six move further north, zone three and four tolerant plants may not thrive as well in ten years.

As gardeners we know all too well the only thing we can count on is change. Use the plant hardiness zones and ecoregion tools, together, to anticipate, plan, and plant for the landscapes we have now and may have in ten or more years from now.

Where Do Painted Buntings Spend the Winter?

Mon, 02/20/2017 - 11:38

Where Do Painted Buntings Spend the Winter?
February 20, 2017

A stunning male Painted Bunting, documented by Bob Howdeshell in Maryville, TN, February 2014.
Splashed with red, blue, green, and yellow, the male Painted Bunting is one of the most colorful songbirds in North America. The female Painted Bunting’s colors are more subtle, with a yellowish-green back and a creamy yellow belly, but is no less stunning. The Cornell Lab and the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have joined forces to gather much-needed wintering information on this amazing species. Loss of habitat from development, along with climate change, sea level rise, and the illegal bird trade have combined to caused the eastern population of Painted Buntings to plummet.

Those colors need to be washed! Male Painted Bunting taking a dip in a bath tray at the home of Jill Verdier at Murrells Inlet, SC, November 2013.
“Recent results from the North American Breeding Bird Survey have shown that populations of eastern Painted Buntings that breed farther south have declined much faster than northern populations,” says Cornell Lab researcher Viviana Ruiz who is co-leading the effort to collect information about the species. “Knowing where Painted Buntings spend the winter is critical if we are to develop effective strategies to help conserve this iconic species year round.”

Painted Buntings enjoying some millet at the feeders of Beryl Iven in Manteo, NC, December 2014.
FeederWatchers in states such as Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina can help this research just by participating in Project FeederWatch as usual. Every count submitted will tell researchers where Painted Buntings occur, and also where they do not occur. “Using observations of Painted Buntings that FeederWatch participants have submitted, we have been able to get a sense of where southeastern populations are likely to winter in the United States,” says FeederWatch leader Emma Greig. “We don’t know the relative importance of these sites because of large gaps in information. FeederWatch participants can contribute significantly to the conservation of this beautiful bird by helping us map their winter distribution.” Not yet a member of FeederWatch? Join here

All Roads Lead to FeederWatch—A Participant’s Story

Fri, 02/17/2017 - 08:55

All Roads Lead to FeederWatch
February 17, 2017

To celebrate Project FeederWatch’s 30th anniversary, the Cornell Lab and our sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited are rewarding registered FeederWatchers with BirdSpotter prizes. After entering bird counts (a.k.a. data) into the FeederWatch website, participants had the opportunity to share a story, memory, or tip. We received over 265 submissions to the final round of the Data Entry contest, which asked participants to share what inspired them to start feeding birds and join FeederWatch. The prompt read:

Feeding birds can be a practice passed down from generation to generation, and for others it is a newly discovered interest. Share your FeederWatch “origin” story.

Congratulations to Maria D’Agostino of Anchorage, Alaska! Maria recently discovered FeederWatch in a serendipitous manner, while on a cross-country road trip.


I joined FeederWatch because of a chance visit to Travelers Restaurant in Union, Connecticut. My boyfriend and I were on a multi-state contra dance road trip. We were hungry and randomly pulled off the road and found the Travelers Restaurant, a diner that features food and books! We are both BIG bibliophiles and wandered around the store looking for the perfect (FREE!) books to take home.

When we finally settled down at our table, Project FeederWatch’s Common Feeder Birds poster was on display under the table’s glass. The tables were set up along picture windows with views of bird feeders, which were installed and maintained by The Bird Store and More in Sturbridge, Massachusetts. I was so delighted to recognize juncos and chickadees from my home state of Alaska, and even more excited to learn that I could sign up and get my own poster and start chronicling my observations! I just made my first entries today, and can’t wait for my next count!


Thanks to all those who shared their stories and tips over the course of the Data Entry Contest. We received 1,425 stories and were delighted to learn how you deter squirrels, create bird-friendly habitat, discover how you got started feeding birds, and share in your “eye-witness: did-that-really-just-happen?” FeederWatch moments. Thanks for joining the celebration of FeederWatch’s 30th anniversary. A big thanks to our sponsor, Wild Birds Unlimited, for providing prizes. As always, good birding!/a>

The post All Roads Lead to FeederWatch appeared first on FeederWatch.

How Do You Count Birds at a Feeder?

Thu, 02/16/2017 - 16:10

Counting 102—birds at feeders

14 February 2016
Northern Cardinal
A couple years ago we published the Counting 101 and Counting 201 articles, tutorials for how to more effectively and accurately count birds that you’re seeing. Counting 101 focuses on the basics—how to keep track of birds throughout a birding outing, and how to count a flock in parts to estimate the total. Counting 201 takes this a step further, dealing with large numbers and flocks of birds in motion. Counting 102 is intended to take these counting best practices and apply them to feeder birding—a slightly different counting problem, but an important one to address. For anyone who has wondered how best to count and eBird the birds visiting you feeder—this article is for you.

You wake up in the morning, and—first things first—time to check the feeder. Whether your feeder is nectar-filled and aswarm with frantically feeding hummingbirds, a thistle tube liberally coated with finches, or a tropical fruit feeder dripping with gaudy tanagers—there is always the same question. How many birds are there? This question becomes especially difficult when you’re watching feeders for an extended period of time, and the feeder attendees are in constant flux. While you are eating breakfast, paying close attention to the feeders, how many birds are coming and going? Without marking each bird with an individual identifier (e.g., color banding) we’ll never know for sure, but we can always make our best estimate.

How to count birds at your feeder for entry in eBird

Report the highest number of individuals seen at one time during the observation period, as well as any clearly different individuals.

The highest number of individuals at one time is an easy concept, although it can be difficult in reality. If you’re unsure how to get started with counting all the birds present, Counting 101 should be able to help. However, the highest number of individuals also ties into the more difficult aspect of counting feeder birds: clearly different individuals. Obviously if you see 6 female Northern Cardinals and 3 males, and later see 6 males together, then you have at least 12 different cardinals at your feeder. Your report to eBird should reflect this.

Different individual birds can be recognized in several different ways, often due to an obvious difference in age or sex of the bird. These can be as striking as a male versus female Northern Cardinal—red vs. brown. They can also be more subtle, such as different ages of Downy Woodpeckers (red on the crown vs. back of head in fall; or potentially more detailed aging via molt limits in wing coverts) or determining American Goldfinch age or sex in fall and winter. It can also be natural variation within the species that isn’t tied to age or sex, like White-throated Sparrow head stripe color. Some White-throated Sparrow head stripes are are white-on-black with bold yellow supercilia, some are tan-on-brown with almost no yellow. These individual differences can often stand out, and help with making sure you’re counting all birds present.

Sometimes birds can lose all the feathers on their head at once—certainly a unique individual!
Sometimes birds can lose all the feathers on their head at once—certainly a unique individual!

There can also be uniquely identifiable birds due to plumage or other physical characters. Perhaps a Gray Catbird that has an overgrown bill tip, giving it a cross-billed appearance, or a House Finch that has a few leucistic (i.e., white) feathers, a splash of white on their brownish countenance. Birds that are missing or replacing feathers can often be distinctive as well, whether there are some tail feathers missing, overall patchiness of the plumage (e.g., a blotchily brown and red Northern Cardinal in the fall), or sometimes even completely bald heads!

If you really want to get the best idea of how many birds are at your feeder, this is a great way to learn more about the species that visit your yard. The more you understand about how old an individual is, or whether it is male or female, the better understanding you’ll have of your own personal feeder community. Using the Age/Sex grid in eBird can be a great way to keep track of what is visiting, and allow you to record the age and sex of your feeder visitors throughout a single day or across days.

Add age and sex information for any birds in eBird
Add age and sex information for any birds in eBird!

All of this talk about individual birds and identifying age and sex is not required for eBirding, but is certainly a fun way to learn even more while watching your feeders. Paying attention to the age and sex of birds in the field deepens your understanding of their movements, breeding success, and presents new, fun challenges beyond species identification.

What is most important is to report the highest number of individuals seen at one time during the observation period, as well as any clearly different individuals. This is an admittedly conservative counting method, since many more birds may be visiting than you can confirm by this method, but we always encourage conservative counting in eBird.

Of course, one of the most important parts of eBird and counting is to have fun while doing it! Hopefully this article will give you a good primer for how to more thoroughly understand the community of birds visiting your feeders.

eBird data Shed New Light on Allen’s Hummingbird Populations

Tue, 02/14/2017 - 11:29

eBird data shed new light on Allen’s Hummingbird populations

14 February 2017

Adult male Allen’s Hummingbird of the migratory subspecies, Big Sur, CA, March. Photo by Brian Sullivan.
Allen’s Hummingbird has been placed on several conservation watchlists, as breeding bird surveys indicating population declines have spurred concerns that climate change may push it out of Southern California. However, local birdwatchers have reported at the same time that the non-migratory subspecies of Allen’s Hummingbird, once restricted to the Channel Islands, is now a common sight at feeders in Riverside and Los Angeles. Why the discrepancy? A new commentary published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications may provide answers.

The University of California–Riverside’s Chris Clark used data from eBird to reexamine Allen’s Hummingbird population trends in urban Southern California since 1990. He found a steep increase in the species’ prevalence in eBird checklists from the region, with Allen’s Hummingbirds reported in 20% of all checklists submitted from Southern California today. Because the pattern is consistent year-round, it cannot be driven by the migratory subspecies, which is only in the area for part of the year.

While it appears that urban landscaping has created new habitat and food supplies that are exploited year round by non-migratory Allen’s Hummingbirds, ecological differences between the two subspecies could also be helping to drive their different trajectories. “The non-migratory Allen’s Hummingbird seems to do better in parks and backyards than does the migratory subspecies,” says Clark. “It also produces more offspring during the breeding season. Either of these reasons might be why the non-migratory subspecies seems to be doing so well within urban areas of the greater L.A. area.”
Adult male Allen’s Hummingbird of the resident subspecies, San Clemente Island, CA. Photo by Brian Sullivan.

“This commentary is an object lesson in the importance of considering all sources of data and all aspects of a species’ natural history when its range and trends are modeled. As Clark emphasizes, the accuracy of such models matters when they are the basis for setting conservation priorities,” according to Philip Unitt of the San Diego Natural History Museum. “The paper calls attention to the continuing dramatic increase in the range and numbers of Allen’s Hummingbird, bringing into contact two subspecies differing in multiple aspects of their biology, an opportunity for study of evolution in process.”

eBird records show substantial growth of the Allen’s Hummingbird (Selasphorus sasin sedentarius) population in urban Southern California will be available February 8, 2017, at (issue URL Researcher contact: Chris Clark,, 951-827-3646.
Map of Allen’s Hummingbird eBird observations from Nov-Dec in the Los Angeles Basin.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Happy Valentine’s Day: A Birdshare Gallery

Mon, 02/13/2017 - 15:19
This courting pair of Red-necked Grebes makes a heart shape against the water. Photo by Dan Behm via Birdshare.A handsome pair of Baltimore Orioles perches in a flowering tree. Photo by Mike via Birdshare.Two Common Loon chicks take a ride on a parent—a common mode of transportation for young loons. Photo by Jim Cumming via Birdshare.The adult Clark's Grebes are so eye-catching that you almost miss the chicks that are along for the ride. Photo by Maureen Sullivan via Birdshare.Mourning Doves often preen each other and give gentle nibbles around the neck as part of a pair-bonding ritual. Photo by Lou Orr via Birdshare.We think Valentine's Day can be as much about a couple as it is about parents and children (or chicks), like this Mute Swan sheltering its cygnets. Photo by SarahC928 via Birdshare.After spending most of the year on their own above the waves, this pair of Black-footed Albatrosses reconnect with a little quiet time on land. Photo by weedmandan via Birdshare.Two Northern Pygmy-Owls share a perch in British Columbia. Photo by Gregory Lis via Birdshare.A Black Tern brings its mate a fish as a courtship gift. Courtship feeding is a common bonding ritual in many species. Photo by Gary Fairhead via Birdshare.A pair of Least Terns strike a noble pose on a New Jersey beach. It's hard to believe these birds weigh just an ounce and a half each. Photo by B.N. Singh via Birdshare.A Common Tern chick has one message for its parent: Is it dinnertime yet? Photo by B.N. Singh via Birdshare.Tiny Piping Plover chicks stretch their wings. Photo by B.N Singh via Birdshare.These are the two Red-tailed Hawks whose nests we have live-streamed since 2012. Here, in one of the cam's best-known moments, the male, Ezra, shelters his mate, Big Red, as their eggs hatch on a cold rainy day.For several years a pair of Great Blue Herons nested outside the Cornell Lab's offices. Here's a shot of the pair displaying to each other from the nest site on a dead tree high above the pond.Like many other waterfowl, Ring-necked Ducks give clear displays when they're courting, including dipping their bills in the water or stretching their necks. Photo by Mike Dec via Birdshare.Not all birds are aptly named, but Blue-footed Boobies certainly are. They show off their brilliant blue feet as part of courtship. Photo by Lois Manowitz via Birdshare.A female and male Mallard rub heads. Not all duck courtship is so peaceful—males often must stay on guard to keep other males away from their mate. Photo by Jay KoolPix via Birdshare.A Wood Duck couple bond in Oregon. Photo by Wandering Sagebrush via Birdshare.A handsome Gambel's Quail pair in New Mexico. Most Gambel's Quail pairs raise young together, but every once in a while the female lays a clutch of eggs, then finds another mate and leaves her original mate to raise the first clutch on his own. Photo by Elroy Limmer/GBBC.Males and females of some species look similar, but subtle clues such as relative sizes and differences in behavior can help. In Razorbills, females are around 5% smaller than males, with slightly thinner bills. Photo by Joshua Clark via Birdshare.Female Red-headed Woodpeckers have colors just as eye-poppingly brilliant as their male counterparts. Photo by Earl Reinink via Birdshare.A pebbly colored Western Gull chick peeks out from a snug spot in the crook of its parent's wing. Photo by Byron Chin via Birdshare.It's a long way down for a parent Sandhill Crane to nuzzle its chick, but they manage. Photo by Jay Paredes via Birdshare.You might call it nuzzling; a behavioral scientist would call it "allopreening." Here, one King Penguin helps another preen a hard-to-reach spot. Photo by Harold Moses via Birdshare.A pair of Tufted Titmice check out a possible nest site together. Photo by Fernando Corrada via Birdshare.PreviousNext hbspt.cta.load(95627, '394b2cc2-4447-4677-b18b-d2f2de5b57cd', {});

Birds inspire a lot of emotions—awe at their numbers, wonder at their brilliant colors, envy of their flight, delight in their song, concern for their future, and love, for the way many of them form long-lasting pair bonds and care for their young. Science is still undecided on the existence of complex emotions in birds—nevertheless, for Valentine’s Day, we offer a slideshow of birds showing a little of what we perceive as tenderness. Thanks to the many Birdshare photographers whose work is represented here.

Of Islands and Undergrads: A decade of bird study in the Isles of Shoals [video]

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 14:38
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The Isles of Shoals are an ideal place to immerse students in learning and research focused on birds. For the past decade, Dr. David Bonter has taught Field Ornithology on this craggy archipelago in the Gulf of Maine, mentoring Cornell undergraduate students studying the eiders, swallows, gulls and warblers that invade the islands during the breeding season. In this Monday Night Seminar, Dr. Bonter virtually transports us to Appledore Island and recounts some of the students’ discoveries, and the trials and tribulations of ornithological field work.

The talk took place on February 6, 2017. It is part of the Cornell Lab’s long-running Monday Night Seminar series, a tradition established decades ago by Lab founder Dr. Arthur Allen. If you enjoyed this seminar, check this page for our list of future speakers—we’ll note which upcoming talks will be livestreamed—or come visit us in person!

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

Winter Berries for Winter Birds

Thu, 02/09/2017 - 13:09

Winter Berries for Winter Birds
Rhiannon Crain February 9, 2017
Birds Food Native Plants Berries Fruit Palette Winter
In the spring and summer, when bugs are buzzing and plants are blooming, a bird’s diet will most likely consist of a variety of abundant, protein-rich insects. In northern regions where warm seasons change to cold, those insects become fewer and harder to find, convincing many avian species to migrate to tropical locations where insects are found year-round, or to change-up their primary food source–relying not on insects, but on winter berries. Read on to learn about putting this valuable habitat feature to work.

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Migratory neotropical songbirds are usually insectivorous and are among many who make the long journey between North and South America to feed almost exclusively on insects and other invertebrates, like worms. Many warblers, like the Common Yellow-throat shown above, will migrate to North America during breeding season to take advantage of the abundant insect foods that appear in the spring and summer and return south as those food sources dwindle. They almost never eat food from plants, which is one reason you won’t see them at your feeders.

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On the other hand, many songbirds are year-round residents and will stay in northern latitudes even during the coldest winter months. They are able to eat a larger diversity of foods as the seasons change, including berries, seeds, and nuts, that are available from native shrubs and trees. The image above, taken in November, shows an American Robin in Ontario, Canada investigating some Mountain-Ash berries, still lingering from when they ripened in early autumn. Year-round residents rely on persistent berries, like these, to sustain them through the winter season.

In the spring and summer, this same robin will be found gorging on insects, like caterpillars in the image above, as soon as this food source becomes available. Research has even suggested that these seasonal shifts in food abundance help cue physiological changes that prepare birds for breeding seasonopen_in_new. A landscape with berry-producing native trees and shrubs provides the resources that support these seasonal cues by producing high-fat berries in the fall and attracting insect food in the spring.

Homegrown Bird Food
Berries are not eaten by winter residents alone, they are also an important food source for fall migrants. The journey between breeding and wintering grounds is very energy-intensive for songbirds, who have built up immense fat stores in anticipation only to completely exhaust them along the wayopen_in_new. Small migrants are particularly vulnerable during migration because they cannot store enough fat to sustain their entire journey, and must rely on stopover sites to rest and replenish their body fat.

Habitats that support abundant fruit resources are likely to represent high-quality stopover sites for refueling birds during their migrationopen_in_new. The Yellow-rumped Warbler above is feasting on poison ivy berries during its southward migration. Though many gardeners consider this native shrubby vine a nuisance plant, poison ivy (Toxicodendron radicans) produces just the kind of fat-rich berries that are essential for sustaining migrating birds during fall and year-round residents in the winter.

Different berries have different nutritional content profiles. The amount of sugar, fat (lipids) and fiber contained in a berry vary by plant species. Some berry-producing shrubs fruit earlier in the season, some later, while still others persist deeper into the winter months when food is especially scarce (like the Ilex verticillata in the image to the right). There is a lot of natural variation in fruit availability and the birds that have evolved with this seasonal fruit diversity depend on it for energy resources all year round.

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One way to handle this complexity is to embrace it and plant a broad diversity of berry-producing shrubs and vines that provide a variety of fruits at different times. You’ll want something with fruits in the late summer, fall, and early winter. Many year-round residents, like the Black-capped Chickadee to the left, will readily switch to a plant-based diet as the months turn colder and the insect populations dwindle. Shrubs and trees native to the area will have their seeds and berries ready when the birds are looking for new food sources (because they have evolved to do so in a delicately timed ecological dance). Exotic plants are not as likely to be seasonally in-sync with the resources that birds need and native plants can provide.

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Landscape designers often use something called a planting palette (see the one above) to ensure a variety of colors and bloom times throughout the seasons in the gardens they are planning. Our friends in the Department of Landscape Architecture at Cornell repurposed this concept to create planting palettes that also take into account fruiting times. You can see one above designed for a suburban yard in the Northeast.

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This plant palette example shows the resources that are available from each native plant at various times of the year during key life events for birds. Often the same shrubs or trees that can provide shelter for nesting birds can later provide fruit in the winter and attract insects in the spring. This palette is based on observed bird activity and native plants that are available for home gardens. It matches the seasonal timing of specific bird’s habitat requirements and includes quantities and abundances for average monthly bird sightings.

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Download and print this Planting Palette here
You can construct your own planting palette using your local native plants database, which we link to in our local resources tool. The tool takes your zip code and connects you directly to your state’s native plant resources. Once there you can access a wealth of local native plant, pollinator, and birding information. You will be provided with a map showing your local plant hardiness zone as well as your local ecoregion. Also provided is a planting guide to direct you towards native plant selections that support birds, pollinators, and other wildlife.

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Under the map is a collection of gardening and habitat improvement resources including a list of local native plant nurseries near your home. To help you select the ideal plants for the spaces you have to fill, choose the item labeled Your State’s Native Plants. This will take you to the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center website and will automatically load a selection of native vegetation for your area. You can filter the list to find that perfect berry-producing plant for the perfect time of year. Use the filter choices in the left sidebar to choose soil and light requirements or height and color preferences to find the ideal plants for your palette.

Click through our winter-persistent-berries slideshow and learn about native plants to consider adding to your garden.

American Holly (Ilex opaca) an evergreen shrub with bright clusters of red berries, well-loved by many species of birds, wide native range. Bird pictured: American Robin

Chance to Win Be a Better Birder: Duck and Waterfowl Identification

Tue, 02/07/2017 - 15:00

Bird Academy giveaway: Waterfowl ID

7 February 2017

Ring-necked Duck by Dorian Anderson/Macaulay Library.
Do you enjoy watching waterfowl, but sometimes have trouble telling scaup or teal apart? We’ve all been there, and we can help! We’re excited to partner with the Cornell Lab’s Bird Academy to offer a suite of exciting educational resources in thanks for your eBirding: in February, every eligible checklist that you submit gives you a chance to get free access to Be a Better Birder: Duck and Waterfowl Identification.

Ten lucky eBirders will get this course for free from their February eBirding—just in time for March, one of the peak months for waterfowl migration worldwide! Take this course and start a new chapter of wild goose chases. If you like taking part in the eBirder of the Month Challenges, here are even more excuses to motivate yourself to get out birding. Each month of 2017 will feature a different Bird Academy course offering—tune in at the start of March to see what’s on tap for next month.

Flap to the Future: The Flight Adaptations Game

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 16:30

Flight Adaptations Game
Bird AcademyFeaturedFlap to the Future: The Flight Adaptations Game
Preview the game:

Master the skies one adaptation at a time
Tawa: Feel the power of ground speed

Players start the game as Tawa, a small dinosaur that lived 200 million years ago in the floodplains of what is now the American Southwest. There is little debate among scientists that birds evolved from dinosaurs from the theropod group, like Tawa. One of the big clues connecting birds to this group of dinosaurs comes from the many impressions of simple feathers found on fossils discovered over the past few decades in China. Based on this evidence, scientists now believe that so called “dino fuzz” feathers covered the bodies of most theropods. These feathers probably helped them stay warm. The feathers also had patterns and colors, so perhaps also helped dinosaurs either stay camouflaged or show off. In the Late Triassic, although bird ancestors had feathers, they were still earthbound.

Microraptor: Feel the thrill of catching air

Players first catch some air as Microraptor. With specialized flight feathers on all four limbs, this extinct dinosaur from 120 million years ago appears to have been a gliding specialist and a tree climber. Though the flight feathers gave this creature lift and helped the animal stay aloft, Microraptor did not have the flight muscles to sustain flapping flight for long distances. Some scientists have suggested that it may have been able to take off from the ground and flap for short distances. Microraptor is not a bird or even a direct ancestor of modern birds, but rather an extinct offshoot of the larger group of theropod dinosaurs. Until paleontologists discover fossils of the very earliest birds, we can look to Microraptor to help us understand at least one of the evolutionary paths to flight. By the time of Microraptor, flight feathers had emerged as one of the key adaptations that helped some dinosaurs, and the earliest birds, become airborne.

American Robin: Feel the freedom of flapping flight

Players first feel the freedom of flapping flight as the American Robin, a modern passerine bird, or songbird. Flapping flight is one of the hallmarks of modern birds—the only living descendants of dinosaurs—and analyses of the bird family tree suggest that even flightless species like penguins descended from a flying ancestor. The ability to fly even short distances relies on the thrust generated from flapping and the lift developed from long, stiff flight feathers. Large, well-developed breast muscles power the wing flaps, and in robins these flight muscles make up about 10% of their total body weight. Thanks to the evolution of flapping flight, robins and many modern birds have the ability to migrate thousands of miles to take advantage of food and breeding resources in far flung places throughout the year.

Future Bird: The only constant is change

In the final level of Flap to the Future players explore life as a bird from the deep future. It is hard to envision what birds will be like 100 million years from now. But because evolution builds on the features that each generation inherits from its genetic relatives, we can predict that if flapping flight continues to benefit birds, it will stick around—and if not, it won’t. In this level of the game, players control the strength of each of the adaptations introduced in the previous levels. This encourages players to investigate the benefits and costs of each adaptation—a process that mirrors what happens over evolutionary time.
Launch the immersive Flap to the Future: The Flight Adaptations Game Interactive Feature.

Launch Flap to the Future: The Flight Adaptations Game

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Joshua Cutler Wins 30-year FeederWatch Lifetime Award

Mon, 02/06/2017 - 08:10

30-year FeederWatch Lifetime Award: Joshua Cutler
February 6, 2017
To celebrate Project FeederWatch’s 30-year anniversary, we are featuring a handful of long-time participants. FeederWatchers from every decade will be selected randomly to win BirdSpotter prizes, including goodies from the Cornell Lab and a gift card from our sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

Congratulations to Joshua Cutler of Washington, New Jersey, for winning our 30-year Lifetime Award! In the Cutler family, birding is a practice passed down from generation to generation. Joshua wrote, “I was born to a father who was an avid bird watcher, as was his mother. I imagine that my interest started before I learned how to talk, because my father was always pointing out birds and their songs.” When Joshua’s father heard about a new citizen-science project starting at the Cornell Lab, he signed up himself and his son to join Project FeederWatch.
A flock of Red-winged Blackbirds descend on the feeders. Photo by Joshua Cutler.

Joshua and his wife Diana live and work at the Tibetan Buddhist Dharma Center (TBLC) located on 32 forested acres in eastern New Jersey. “I work where I live so I keep a constant eye on my feeder birds. Because I am used to seeing who is regularly there, I love how quickly I can spot an unusual visitor,” notes Joshua.

At the TBLC, bird watching is an interest and hobby shared with visitors far and wide. Joshua wrote, “We have hosted His Holiness the Dalai Lama here 8 times. He admired my feeder line because he feeds birds at his home in India!”

The feeder setup is designed to deter bears and squirrels. Joshua strung a long wire line between two trees. The line is roughly 10 feet high and contains a number of tube and suet feeders. Joshua keeps his feathered friends happy with black-oil sunflower seeds and suet. He also sprinkles the ground with cracked corn and millet. A birdbath on the deck and a kitchen window feeder allow Joshua and Diana to enjoy birds from a variety of viewpoints.
Downy Woodpecker by Helena Garcia.
The feeders and birdbath attract a diversity of birds including Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, House Finches, White-throated Sparrows, Dark-eyed Juncos, Blue Jays, and American Goldfinches. Red-bellied, Downy, and Hairy woodpeckers also frequent the count site along with the occasional Sharp-shinned, Cooper’s, and Red-tailed hawks. In the last 10 years, Joshua and Diana also have had the privilege of seeing Evening Grosbeaks.


In addition to being a member of FeederWatch, Joshua participates in two different Christmas Bird Counts, a century old annual count run by Audubon. He also participates in the World Series of Birding conducted by New Jersey Audubon every May. “Otherwise,” Joshua wrote, “I am always birding. I just love birds and seeing them wherever I go.”

Join the 2017 Great Backyard Bird Count: February 17-20

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 09:44
Great Backyard Bird Count

Bird watchers around the world take part, February 17-20 
News Release
Join the 20th Great Backyard Bird Count

Bird watchers around the world take part, February 17-20

For release:  February 2, 2017
Florida Scrub-Jay on man’s head by Ann Foster.

Bird watchers from around the world enjoy counting their birds and entering the GBBC photo contest. Photo by Ann Foster, Florida, 2016 GBBC. Download larger image.

New York, NY, Ithaca, NY, and Port Rowan, ON—A lot has changed since the first Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC) was held in 1998. Each year brings unwavering enthusiasm from the growing number of participants in this now-global event. The 20th annual GBBC is taking place February 17-20 in backyards, parks, nature centers, on hiking trails, school grounds, balconies, and beaches—anywhere you find birds.

Bird watchers count the birds they see for at least 15 minutes on one or more days of the count, then enter their checklists at All the data contribute to a snapshot of bird distribution and help scientists see changes over the past 20 years.

“The very first GBBC was an experiment,” says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Marshall Iliff, a leader of the eBird program. “We wanted to see if people would use the Internet to send us their bird sightings. Clearly the experiment was a success!” eBird collects bird observations globally every day of the year and is the online platform used by the GBBC.

That first year, bird watchers submitted about 13,500 checklists from the United States and Canada. Fast-forward to the most recent event in 2016. Over the four days of the count, an estimated 163,763 bird watchers from more than 100 countries submitted 162,052 bird checklists reporting 5,689 species–more than half the known bird species in the world.

“The Great Backyard Bird Count is a great way to introduce people to participation in citizen science,” says Audubon vice president and chief scientist Gary Langham. “No other program allows volunteers to take an instantaneous snapshot of global bird populations that can contribute to our understanding of how a changing climate is affecting birds.”

Varying weather conditions so far this winter are producing a few trends that GBBC participants can watch for during the count. eBird reports show many more waterfowl and kingfishers remaining further north than usual because they are finding open water. If that changes, these birds could move southward.

Bohemian Waxwing by A. Blomquist, 2016 GBBC. Download larger image.

Also noted are higher than usual numbers of Bohemian Waxwings in the Pacific Northwest and northern Rocky Mountains. And while some winter finches have been spotted in the East, such as Red Crossbills, Common Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks, and a few Pine Grosbeaks, there seem to be no big irruptions so far. A few eye-catching Snowy Owls have been reported in the northern half of the United States.

Jon McCracken, Bird Studies Canada’s National Program Director, reminds participants in Canada and the U.S. to keep watch for snowies. He says, “The GBBC has done a terrific job of tracking irruptions of Snowy Owls southward over the past several years. We can’t predict what winter 2017 will bring, because Snowy Owl populations are so closely tied to unpredictable ‘cycles’ of lemmings in the Arctic. These cycles occur at intervals between two and six years.  Nevertheless, there are already reports of Snowy Owls as far south as Virginia.”

In addition to counting birds, the GBBC photo contest has also been a hit with participants since it was introduced in 2006. Since then, tens of thousands of stunning images have been submitted. For the 20th anniversary of the GBBC, the public is invited to vote for their favorite top photo from each of the past 11 years in a special album they will find on the GBBC website home page. Voting takes place during the four days of the GBBC.

Learn more about how to take part in the Great Backyard Bird Count at where downloadable instructions and an explanatory PowerPoint are available. The GBBC is a joint project of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the National Audubon Society with partner Bird Studies Canada and is made possible in part by sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.
# # #

Editors: See the winners of the 2016 GBBC Photo Contest. If you find a winner from your coverage area, please let us know if you would like a copy of the image for web or print (if high resolution is available).

Other media images available here.


Agatha Szczepaniak, Audubon, (212) 979-3197,
Pat Leonard, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, (607) 254-2137,
Kerrie Wilcox, Bird Studies Canada, (519) 586-3531 ext. 134,

DJ Normark Wins 30-year FeederWatch Lifetime Award

Fri, 02/03/2017 - 08:47

30-year FeederWatch Lifetime Award: DJ Normark
February 3, 2017
To celebrate Project FeederWatch’s 30-year anniversary, we are featuring a handful of long-time participants. FeederWatchers from every decade will be selected randomly to win BirdSpotter prizes, including goodies from the Cornell Lab and a gift card from our sponsor Wild Birds Unlimited.

Congratulations to DJ (Dorothy) Normark of Sunnyvale, California, for winning our 30-year Lifetime Award! Birding has always played a central role in DJ’s life. Growing up, her mother was a bird watcher and kept their backyard feeders stocked with seed. As soon as DJ owned her own home, she wrote, “Of course, I had to have feeders, too!”

It was a natural fit for DJ to join Project FeederWatch. When DJ heard about a new citizen-science project starting at the Cornell Lab, she jumped at the opportunity. “I was watching birds at my feeders anyway, why not count them for science. Even when it isn’t Project FeederWatch season, I find myself counting birds.”
Anna’s Hummingbird by Peter Kennedy.

DJ’s suburban home is bustling with birds and other wildlife. Her feathered visitors enjoy sunflower, safflower, and Nyjer seeds. Every morning DJ sprinkles the patio with sunflower seeds, “…partly to keep the squirrels away from the feeders on the other side of the house and partly to entertain my strictly indoor cats.” Along with nectar feeders, a grape vine and a persimmon tree attract birds that enjoy the sweeter side of life. “No one seems to care for the orange tree, but lots of the birds like the ripening persimmons, unfortunate for me, since I also like them,” DJ wrote.

DJ’s feeder visitors include House Finches, chickadees, Lesser Goldfinches, titmice, towhees, juncos, Mourning Doves, White-crowned and Golden-crowned sparrows, Anna’s Hummingbirds, and an opportunistic Cooper’s Hawk. DJ was fortunate to have a pair of Anna’s Hummingbirds nest in her atrium and was able to observe the mother and her chicks up close. DJ even witnessed the mother showing the young how to eat from the nectar feeder.

Three birdbaths round out DJ’s count site. With California’s drought, providing fresh water is crucial. DJ wrote, “All kinds of wildlife come to my yard for the water. I’ve had raccoons, opossums, lots of squirrels, and an occasional roof rat, as well as lots and lots of birds (even though I’m on a small lot in the middle of Silicon Valley!).”

DJ volunteering at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley. Photo by Jean Higham-Sergeant.
In her retirement, DJ volunteers at the Wildlife Center of Silicon Valley, a non-profit facility that rehabilitates and releases native wildlife. “I’ve been able to hold, feed, medicate, and care for many types of birds, from common feeders birds, to vultures and Red-tailed Hawks,” DJ wrote. “Cooper’s Hawks and Red-shouldered Hawks are the most difficult to handle, but it’s a wonderful opportunity to see all of these birds up close. I’ve learned that baby juncos have their tell-tale (tell-tail?) white feathers almost before they have any other feathers!”

With a pair of small binoculars in her pocket, DJ is ready to bird at all times. Whether she is vacationing, running an errand, or at the kitchen sink, watching birds for fun, and for FeederWatch, is central to her life.

February 2017 eBirder of the Month Challenge

Tue, 01/31/2017 - 09:00

February eBirder of the Month Challenge

31 January 2017

Birders sharing an eBird checklist in southern Texas
Sharing is caring. This month’s eBirder of the Month Challenge, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, is all about birding with others. This could be a day in the field with a long-time birding friend that you’ve been checking the local lake with for 30 years, or someone who is just starting. They could be an eBirder already, or somebody who like birds but hasn’t started eBirding yet. The eBirder of the Month will be chosen from all eligible shared checklists submitted during February. Each shared checklist that you’re a part of gives you one chance to win. These lists could be shared with you from another person, or shared from you to someone else—the only requirement is that all people on the shared checklist were a part of the birding event. These checklists must be entered, shared, and accepted by the last day of the month in order to qualify for the drawing. Winners will be notified by the 10th of the following month.

We hope that you can use this checklist sharing challenge as motivation to get out in the field with fellow birders. Introduce someone to eBird. Bring someone out for a morning during the GBBC. Take a walk at the local park with your kids, or post on your local birding email list or Facebook group to see if someone wants to go see whats around at a nearby hotspot. Reconnect with an old birding buddy. Go out and have a good time!

The next generation of birders sharing a checklist at Hammond Hill during the Young Birders Event.

There are millions of people around the world united by our shared interest in birds. Chances are that if you’re reading this, you’ve fallen victim to those with feathers just as we have here at eBird Central. Although eBird is a fundamentally a database of bird sightings, we believe that it is much more. It is a way to have our personal passion for birds used not only for our own satisfaction, but also to give back to the birds by providing knowledge for science and conservation efforts. There are over 330,000 people who have used eBird to log their sightings so far, reporting birds from every country in the world.

Some people see eBird as a way of life, and submit multiple checklists every day. Others may submit an occasional checklist from their yard, and that is wonderful too. All sightings matter—any bird, anywhere, anytime. We feel that one of the great things about eBird is the variety of people to which it appeals. We hope you enjoy it as well, and use this month to share your appreciation with others.

Some of the eBird/Cornell Lab team enjoying watching a Gyrfalcon together near Ithaca!

Each month we will feature a new eBird challenge and set of selection criteria. The monthly winners will each receive a new ZEISS Conquest HD 8×42 binocular.

Carl Zeiss Sports Optics is a proven leader in sports optics and is the official optics sponsor for eBird. “Carl Zeiss feels strongly that by partnering with the Cornell Lab we can provide meaningful support for their ability to carry out their research, conservation, and education work around the world,” says Mike Jensen, President of Carl Zeiss Sports Optics, North America. “The Cornell Lab is making a difference for birds, and from the highest levels of our company we’re committed to promoting birding and the Lab’s work, so there’s a great collaboration. eBird is a truly unique and synergistic portal between the Lab and birders, and we welcome the opportunity to support them both.”

Find out more:

Traffic Noise Reduces Birds’ Response to Alarm Calls

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 15:32
A Tufted Titmouse calling. Photo by Ryan Morrisey via Birdshare.

Editor’s note: The following research summary describes a new article in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, a journal of The American Ornithologists’ Union, and was provided by the Central Ornithology Publication Office.

Pollution can take many forms—including noise. Excess noise in the environment from sources such as traffic can have negative effects on animals that rely on sound to communicate and get information about their surroundings. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that traffic noise makes birds less responsive to alarm calls that would otherwise alert them to dangers such as predators.

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Megan Gall and Jacob Damsky of New York’s Vassar College tested how traffic noise affected the reactions of Black-capped Chickadees and Tufted Titmice to titmouse alarm calls, which warn birds that a predator is nearby. Using speakers set up near feeding platforms baited with bird seed, they recorded the birds’ responses to three different recordings—alarm calls alone, traffic noise alone, and a combination of the two. The traffic noise didn’t deter the birds from feeding, but five times as many birds approached speakers when the researchers played alarm calls on their own compared with when traffic sounds were added.

“There has been lots of work on how anthropogenic noise affects vocal production, but much less on the response of animals to signals in the presence of noise,” says Gall. “Additionally, a lot of this work focuses on song, but we were interested in how noise might affect responses to an anti-predator vocalization.  These vocalizations are evoked by the presence of a predator and so are closely linked in time with a particular stimulus.”

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The study’s results suggest that traffic noise can reduce birds’ ability to hear an alarm call, potentially increasing their vulnerability to predators. “Gall and Damsky’s experiment helps us understand how human-caused noise can interfere with the transfer of information among animals in social groups,” according Florida Atlantic University’s Rindy Anderson, an expert in vocal communication in birds who was not involved with the study. “It’s interesting that the birds’ foraging behavior was not affected under any of the playback conditions, which suggests that the behavioral effects were due to the call playbacks being masked by noise, rather than the noise being simply aversive.”

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.


Damsky, J. and Gall, M.D. (2017) Anthropogenic noise reduces approach of Black-capped Chickadee (Poecile atricapillus) and Tufted Titmouse (Baeolophus bicolor) to Tufted Titmouse mobbing calls. The Condor 119(1): 26-33.

Preserving Isolated Sage-Grouse Populations Depends on Habitat Connectivity

Mon, 01/30/2017 - 15:31
A Greater Sage-Grouse in Jackson, Colorado, warms up in the morning sun. Photo by Bryan Smith via Birdshare.

Editor’s note: The following research summary describes a new article in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, a journal of The American Ornithologists’ Union, and was provided by the Central Ornithology Publication Office. For more on Greater Sage-Grouse conservation, see Last Grouse Standing: Can Birds and Industry Coexist in the Western Sage Lands? from the Spring 2015 issue of Living Bird magazine.

Greater Sage-Grouse depend on large, intact tracts of the sagebrush habitat. Current sage-grouse conservation plans focus on protecting selected “priority areas,” but these areas vary in size and proximity to each other—will they be able to sustain thriving, interconnected populations over time? A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications evaluates this approach.

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Small, isolated populations of sage-grouse are especially vulnerable to threats like wildfires and West Nile virus, and genetic diversity declines if birds don’t have the ability to occasionally interbreed with other groups. This study provides land managers with a new way to rank priority areas based on their contributions to connectivity.

Using a statistical technique known as graph theory, Michele Crist, Steven Knick, and Steven Hanser of the U.S. Geological Survey examined how the spatial arrangement of priority areas might affect their ability to function as an interconnected network of reserves. They found that of the three networks of sage-grouse priority areas—the Washington network, the Bi-State Network comprising California and Nevada, and the Central network, which is the largest and includes parts of ten states—only the priority areas of the Central network had a high degree of connectivity, and even there connectivity was dominated by a small number of large, centrally located sites.

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“Graph theory is a way to describe a network based on sets of nodes and their connections with others. The network’s characteristics reveal a lot of information about how that network functions,” says Knick. “For example, importance within the network can be inferred from being large and having many connections or by connecting different groups within the network. The analysis is commonly applied to understand social networks.”

“Managing the differing ecologies of a landscape-scale species presents many challenges even in a perfect world of unlimited resources and complete agreement amongst all associated stakeholders. As that is almost never the case, having studies such as the one presented here is essential to inform sound, science-based decisions,” according to Pat Deibert, National Sage-Grouse Conservation Coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “This exploration of connectivity and inferences for the long-term viability of prioritizing landscapes for conservation of the Greater Sage-Grouse is extremely valuable for assessing the efficacy of the current management strategy and informing decisions and appropriate adjustments in the future.”

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.


Crist, M.R., et al. 2017. Range-wide connectivity of priority areas for Greater Sage-Grouse: Implications for long-term conservation from graph theory. The Condor 119 (1): 44-57.

Help Merlin expand to Costa Rica

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 13:07

Help Merlin expand to Costa Rica

27 January 2017

Orange-collared Manakin by Tom Murray/Macaulay Library
Do you wish that you could use Merlin Bird ID wherever you traveled in the world? With dreams of birding in the Neotropics, Team Merlin is working on expanding coverage to Costa Rica, including images, sounds, range maps, ID text and Photo ID. So whether you’re currently stuck in a snowbound part of the world, or a fortuante resident tropical birder, we need your help finding high-quality photos of Costa Rican avifauna! Below is our list of especially high-priority species for which we could use photos for in Costa Rica, and adding photos of any species always makes a difference.

Click any of the species names to see the images that we currently have:

Black-eared Wood-Quail
Tawny-faced Quail
Red-fronted Parrotlet
Costa Rican Swift
Spot-fronted Swift
Long-tailed Woodcreeper (Central American form)
Streak-crowned Antvireo (especially females)
Dull-mantled Antbird (female)
Silvery-fronted Tapaculo
White-ruffed Manakin (Female)
Orange-collared Manakin (female)
Gray-headed Piprites
Black-throated Wren
Ochraceous Wren
Tawny-faced Gnatwren
Black-and-yellow Tanager (female)

If you don’t have any of these species, don’t worry—any images are still useful! You can also check out Merlin’s Most Wanted for North American birds.

Identifying Black Birds

Fri, 01/27/2017 - 06:48


Whether you’ve watched one ominously portrayed in a horror movie, perched on a telephone line outside your house, or pictured on a Baltimore football jersey, you’ve probably seen a black bird. But can you tell what kind of black bird it is – crow, raven, grackle, starling, cowbird? With simple online research and focused observation techniques, you can quickly become familiar with these black birds and develop the bird identification skills necessary to distinguish individual species. While there are many different species of black birds, we will focus on the most common of these birds – the American Crow, Common Raven, European Starling, Common Grackle, and Brown-headed Cowbird.
When trying to identify birds, there are four main concepts to keep in mind: size and shape, behavior, color pattern, and habitat. Watch the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s video series ‘Inside Birding‘ for further information on these concepts.
Size and Shape
Here’s a little cheat sheet of the relative sizes of these blackbirds.
Here’s a little cheat sheet of the relative sizes of these black birds.
Your first impulse may be to identify birds based on unique plumage details. However, it’s best to first observe the bird’s size and shape. Rule out certain species by comparing the size of the bird in question to the size of birds you’re already familiar with. For example, if you’re trying to identify a Common Grackle, observe that it’s larger than a Northern Cardinal and about the same size as (or maybe slightly smaller than) a Blue Jay. Consequently, we know that this bird cannot be a crow or a raven since they are both much larger than a Blue Jay. We also know that this bird is probably not a Brown-headed Cowbird or a European Starling since both of those birds are generally smaller than Northern Cardinals.
European Starlings can appear completely black under strong sunlight. Photo by JanetandPhil.
European Starlings have fan-like tails and can appear completely black under strong sunlight. Photo by JanetandPhil.
The tail length of a Brown-headed Cowbird is nearly half its body length. Photo by JanetandPhil.
The tail length of a Brown-headed Cowbird is nearly half its body length.
Photo by JanetandPhil.
It’s also helpful to observe the size and length of the tail or beak. Compared to the Brown-headed Cowbird or the Common Grackle, the tail of the European Starling is significantly shorter and fan-like.
Observing how the bird acts, what it’s eating, or what it sounds like can provide crucial identification information. This skill is demonstrated with the behavioral differences between American Crows and Common Ravens. Crows are very social birds – if you see a massive flock of large black birds, you’re probably looking at a murder of crows. Ravens tend to be solitary or in pairs. Crows and ravens also have different calls and sounds. Generally, American Crows have the standard ‘caw-caw-caw-caw’ call, which is simple and scratchy. The Common Raven’s call is a deep, gurgling croak. Remember that birds have a variety of calls with different meanings, so not all crow calls will resemble that simple ‘caw-caw-caw’ sound. Learn more about bird communication with our free download Bird Communication.
Color Pattern
It’s important to remember that the sex and/or season can affect a bird’s plumage (think of an American Goldfinch in the summer breeding season compared to one in the winter). Luckily for these five species, sexual or seasonal color pattern differences only exist for Brown-headed Cowbirds and European Starlings.
Female brown-headed cowbirds have different color patterns than males.
Female Brown-headed Cowbirds have different color patterns than males. Photo by JanetandPhil.
Male Brown-headed Cowbirds have a brown head and black body, whereas female Brown-headed Cowbirds are completely brown. Additionally, European Starlings may appear black with a green-purple tint during summer months. But in the winter, they have brownish feathers and their small white spots are more apparent.
Keeping these intraspecific (occurring in the same species) differences in mind, we can still make generalizations about the differences in plumage patterns. For instance, American Crows and Common Ravens are black from head to toe, whereas the other three species are not. From a distance, Common Grackles look completely black, but actually have glossy blue-purple heads, bronze bodies, and unmistakable yellow eyes. The contrast between the brown and black plumage on male Brown-headed Cowbirds is a telling detail. And the European Starlings have distinctive white spots and yellow beaks upon closer inspection.
You can also observe color differences other than plumage patterns. For instance, Common Grackles have bright yellow eyes and European Starlings have yellow or tan beaks.
A range map of the brown-headed cowbird from
A range map of the Brown-headed Cowbird from
When thinking about habitat, consider both your geographic location as well as your immediate surroundings. Not all of these birds can be found year-round across the US. For example, Common Grackles are not usually seen in the Western United States, and Common Ravens are not generally in the East.
Some birds are more likely to be spotted in suburban or developed areas, some on forest edges or in forested areas, some in fields and open spaces. Some black birds can even be found in all of those habitats. As a broad generalization, Common Grackles, European Starlings, and American Crows are more likely to be spotted near urban or suburban settlements compared to Common Ravens or Brown-headed Cowbirds. To find information about habitats and ranges, go to
Also, be aware of your locational bias when you go birding out-of-town. Just because you’re used to seeing crows in your state or by your house doesn’t mean that the black bird you spot is a crow.
Hopefully you’ve learned some of the more obvious and subtle differences between these black birds. But in case you forget some of them, remember that the most important thing is to make a variety of observations when identifying birds, rather than focus on one particular trait.
Ideas for class activities:
Intro activity to lesson – label each corner of the room as size and shape, behavior, color pattern, and habitat. Have the students go to the corner that they consider the most important ID observation. Call on a couple of students from each corner to explain their choice. Elaborate on their responses to explain the strengths and weaknesses of that particular type of observation and emphasize the importance of using all types of observations.
Mini research projects – Divide your class into five groups, one for each type of black bird. Have each group explore to find information about their assigned bird. Make charts to organize the information and have students present their research to the rest of the class.
Have students write a paragraph about the bird they researched (or one they didn’t research), in which they creatively describe the bird’s appearance, habitat, and behaviors without using its name. Read the paragraphs and have the class discuss and identify the mystery bird.
Do some birding! Put these identification skills to work by going on a nature walk and observing local birds. Have students find a partner or get into small groups to discuss and share their observations. If students have difficulty identifying the birds, have them take notes on the bird’s appearance, behaviors, and habitat. Then identify the bird through class brainstorming and online investigation. Or download the free Merlin Bird ID smart phone app to help students identify birds while outside.

FeederWatch Brings Inspiration to a Classroom

Thu, 01/26/2017 - 13:06

Inspiring story of FeederWatch in a classroom
January 26, 2017

At a time when technology inundates our lives, it can be difficult to connect with the natural world. Jennifer Ford, a teacher at Farnsworth Middle School in Guilderland, New York, has put FeederWatch to use in her classroom to do just that: connect students with nature and science in a very tangible way.

Jennifer wrote to us and said, “I have been doing Project FeederWatch with my 8th grade students for 3 years now. This year, so many students were showing up during study hall, lunch, and after school that I had to start a sign up sheet to make sure everyone was able to have space at a window to watch the feeders. Here is a picture of a group of my students watching our feeders. Thank you for this program—it is such a wonderful way to get students involved in science!”
Students in Jennifer Ford’s classroom (Farnsworth Middle School, Guilderland, New York) count birds for FeederWatch. They are so engaged, she had to create a sign-up sheet to ensure everyone gets a window seat! Photo by Jennifer Ford.
Find more stories from teachers using FeederWatch in the classroom on our website. If you are a teacher and have a good story to share about Project FeederWatch in your classroom, we would love to hear about it. Add your story or tips to the comments below or email them to us.
Happy FeederWatching!


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