Birds of a Feather Flock Together

Even when a birder has the assistance of a guide, birding remains a catch-as-catch-can pursuit. On the other hand, Sapsucker Woods does provide the birding enthusiast with great opportunities to expand a personal "life list."

Dr. David Bonter, assistant director of Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is an even-keeled, steady-as-you-go kind of guy, until the subject turns to lawns. Then, he comes out with guns blazing.

In a discussion about ongoing programs at the Ithaca-based lab, Bonter mentioned one of the newer projects called YardMap, in which participants draw maps of their property and calculate the amount of grass and impervious surface they have. “The idea is to monitor how people are using their own properties, because that’s a huge proportion of the land out there these days,” Bonter said.

The YardMap website points out that more than 40 million acres of the U.S. is covered in non-native lawns—an acreage equivalent in size to the state of Wisconsin. “It’s startling how much lawn is out there,” Bonter noted. “They’re biological deserts. They take tons of fertilizer and pesticide, and they’re basically good for nothing. We’re expected to maintain these super-tidy lawns, and heaven forbid there’s a dandelion out there. In some of these communities, people are actually fined if their lawn is not kept at a certain height. If they try to have a little wildflower patch, the community organization will come in and mow it and then give you a bill. It’s insanity.”

In an outline of its mission, YardMap states: “We connect you with your landscape details and provide tools for you to make better decisions about how to manage landscapes sustainably. YardMap is also the world’s first interactive citizen scientist social network. When you join you are instantly connected to the world of other like-minded individuals in your neighborhood and across the country. Together you can become a conservation community focused on sharing strategies, maps and successes to build more bird habitat.” The YardMap webpage reports 9,379 sign-ups.

Feeding the Birds
Among other major lab projects, ornithologist Bonter describes the annual FeederWatch program as “a winter-long study that looks at the abundance and distribution of birds that come to supplemental feeding stations across the U.S. and Canada. It involves around 20,000 people, and has been going on for 28 or 29 years now. Twenty-five or 30 scientific publications have come from FeederWatch along with tons of public material.”

“What these large-scale projects are really good for is identifying trends and patterns where we can say, ‘Yes, evening grosbeak populations are definitely declining and the range is declining,’ but to get at the mechanisms that are driving those changes you really need more targeted research, so these programs are really good at getting at the big picture identifying the questions that need to be answered next, and that’s really important.”

Among the longest-involved participants in FeederWatch are William and Shirley McAneny of Trumansburg, who first signed onto the project a year after it began. At the time, the McAnenys lived in Huntington, Long Island, where William served as president of the local Audubon Society and led birding field trips. In 2000 the couple moved to Trumansburg and became active in the Cayuga Bird Club. Shirley volunteered at FeederWatch.

William McAneny reported no unusual bird sightings during the last season’s FeederWatch effort, but said, “There was a steady flow of house finches, goldfinches and woodpeckers. We didn’t have big snows but what we had never melted. The birds that were ground feeders couldn’t get to the ground and had to be provided for.”

McAneny said he and Shirley have been seeing increasing numbers of woodpeckers at their feeders. “They come as family groups,” he said.

“Now they’re teaching the young how to feed on suet,” Shirley added. “They certainly consume the suet at a great rate.” She said the downy woodpeckers are the most frequent visitors, “but we also see the Hairys and Red-bellies.”

Seeing Sapsuckers

Last fall, Michael Fanuzzi and Jennifer Rauch, a couple from Staten Island, drove up to Ithaca to take part in one of the lab’s Saturday morning guided tours of Sapsucker Woods and to visit other birding spots, including Montezuma National Wildlife Refuge. The couple was joined by about a dozen other birders for a Sapsucker tour led by Caroline Manring, a volunteer who lives in Ithaca and teaches at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva.

“The woods and the trail were gorgeous and the tour guide was great,” Fanuzzi, a web developer, said. “Her excitement was definitely contagious and she was a great leader. It was a lot of fun. It’s called Sapsucker Woods and we saw a Sapsucker, so they live up to their name.”

An Increase in Hungry Birds
The couple was impressed enough by the lab to sign up for this past season’s FeederWatch project. Rauch, who teaches journalism at Long Island University, said they put up two tube feeders with safflower seed, “one of which was supposed to be a finch feeder that house sparrows supposedly don’t eat out of, but of course they did anyway. The ones in Staten Island will eat just about anything you put out.”

“It was fun,” Rauch related. “We had a bunch of house finches, which were really beautiful and we’d never seen them before in Staten Island. At one point we were up to about 30 house finches daily. We also had a sprinkling of goldfinches and a pair of downy woodpeckers that came a couple times a day to a suet feeder.”

Rauch said they went through the seed so fast that they began buying it in 50-pound bags. “Michael would refill the feeders every morning even before he made me coffee,” she added with a laugh. “He used eBird a lot to track comings and goings and find hotspots. We have a lot of great birding going on here.”

In an early summary of FeederWatch statistics for the past season provided by program leader Dr. Emma Greig, it was reported that “in the Northeast the trend of increasing Carolina wren sightings continued, with a record proportion of feeders visited, 50 percent. They are almost always seen in small numbers, usually one or two individuals at most, and commonly will eat suet from feeders.”

“We are excited to keep watching this species to see how far they will increase their winter range, so keep your eyes open for these cold-weather wrens next season.”

“Some delightful sparrows visited feeders in the northeast this winter as well, with a few Rare Bird Reports of Field sparrows in Cambridge, Nova Scotia and Sturgis, Michigan. These sparrows are usually in the southeast during the winter and make only the occasional appearance further north.”

Programs are Bringing in Participants
David Bonter went on to list several other programs of the lab that involve birder participation, including NestWatch, which is focused on gathering data on nesting birds and the number of chicks fledged, the Great Backyard Bird Count, “a mad dash for four days in February each year where we’re trying to get a global snapshot of the distribution and abundance of birds,” and Celebrate Urban Birds or “CUBS,” which is focused on urban communities and a suite of sixteen species most likely to be found in developed areas.

“We generally say that between 200,000 and 250,000 people participate in our projects each year,” Bonter noted. “With more than 40,000 members we have some amazingly generous folks who love birds and love what we do, and it’s nice to see them appreciate our work.”

And then there’s eBird.

“EBird is huge right now,” Dr. John W. Fitzpatrick, the lab’s executive director, commented this past May during an interview in his office overlooking Sapsucker Woods. “Right now I’ve just learned that we’ve had 7 million records in the month of May already.

“We invented eBird or its predecessors in the late 90s with the idea that someday we could get this down enough to be really usable by a lot of people, and beginning in about 2002 we started to get some momentum and it’s been growing at about 40 per cent annually ever since,” Fitzpatrick said. “We’re getting massive amounts of data so eBird has become an extremely important backbone to our program and to the future direction we’re taking.”

Fitzpatrick said he thinks, “it’s extremely important to be able to marry hobby bird watching to professional ornithology and conservation, so that whole process is underway right now. We realized that to make eBird successful we needed to do the things that you, the birdwatcher, wanted.

“What people want is an easy way to keep their daily lists,” Fitzpatrick noted. “They want to keep a life list; they want to keep their yard list; they want to see how other people are doing, they want to compare themselves and play some games and they want quick access to the maps. EBird does all these things comprehensively, and you have the added satisfaction that your data are becoming part of a worldwide permanent collection.”

“So eBird is now serving the individual birder at the same time that the birder is serving the database,” Fitzpatrick said. “The citizen science project has been successful because we actually started thinking about the citizen instead of trying to have the citizen keep thinking about the science.”

The director added that because of the volume of data the lab is now receiving, “we can go in and begin to analyze and model what they’re telling us in enormously fine-grained detail. We never used to be able to do that – in fact nobody’s been able to do that before. It’s a globally-unique new level of accomplishment for understanding species distribution patterns. It has become a major focus for our work going forward.”

And in going forward, Fitzpatrick stressed, the lab will “need to convert all the genius of eBird and its utilities and so on into apps that people can put on their phone and go portable with. Moreover, if you live in Africa or South America you don’t have quick access to Wi-Fi but you can get cell coverage, so if we can begin to have all the eBird apps cell-enabled, we’ve got access to a vastly bigger surface area of the globe than we would have had by just keeping eBird on the web.”

Fitzpatrick brought up another lab innovation for which he has great expectation: Merlin.

“Merlin was our first stand-alone build-it-from-scratch app for bird identification,” the director related. “It’s still in its Phase 1.0 but it’s going great. For some number of weeks it was third or fourth on Apple’s free download list behind Google and the Bible. I love it,” he laughed.

“We have a strategic plan that we’ve been operating under for the last two years, and one of the lines in that plan is to put the lab in everybody’s back pocket. That’s what we’re in the process of doing,” Fitzpatrick said. “We want to be the place the world recognizes as the hub for information about birds and biodiversity, and we’re getting there. It’s pretty exciting—the trajectory is good.”

With a staff of 250 and a budget of $23 million supported by 70,000 people, “we’re relatively small,” the director commented. “Well, there are 70 million birders so there’s some market share out there that we haven’t penetrated yet. We think there’s a lot of growth potential for the lab, and we continue to be on track for exponential growth for eBird.”

Making it Happen
At this time, the lab is in the midst of a Centennial fundraising campaign with a goal of raising $125 million by 2015. Fitzpatrick pointed out that the lab has “a number of donors especially interested in the training aspect of what we’re doing. They get to enjoy the fact that they’ve helped fund some incredible stuff: a handful of kids going to Borneo; three Cornell graduates going down to Peru and discovering a new species of bird; graduate students who spend five years on treks to the arctic doing studies of long-distance migratory shorebirds; students spending a year on the slopes of New Guinea studying the effects of climate change, and students right here looking at the genomes of birds. All these things are done using money given in part at least by donors who say: ‘This stuff is great – I want to support this.’”

Dr. David W. Winkler is one of the Cornell scientists who work closely with students both in Ithaca and abroad. For the past 25 years, he and a succession of student assistants have been conducting research on tree swallows locally. Lately, he has also been accompanying students to the island of Borneo to study tropical birds.

Why study tree swallows? 
Well, for one thing, tree swallows are pretty laid-back birds, according to Winkler. “Tree swallows let us go grab them in the nest multiple times, take blood samples, do all kinds of stuff that would make most birds just say, ‘Forget it – I’m going somewhere else.’”

“Tree swallows are tough and we think they’re tough because they need something else to create a nest cavity for them: they can’t make a hollow in a tree, they can’t make a nest box, so if they find one and they can keep making progress in their breeding attempt, they’re going to do it,” Winkler said. “The thing that almost always stops them is the weather, and they can’t do anything about the fact that when it’s cold the insects don’t fly and they can’t find them.”

With Winkler and his crew of students providing nest boxes, a population of tree swallows has been built on Cornell land in the Ithaca area that is providing DNA that opens the window to “everything about the swallow’s life that can be known,” according to the researcher.

Winkler said he began his career studying gulls in big colonies, but gulls have the unfortunate habit of eating each others’ young when the colony is disturbed. “Swallows don’t eat each other,” Winkler noted.


by Bill Wingell