Early Birds & Springtime

  by  |  March 19th, 2009  |  Published in All, Animals & Life Science, Environment, Featured

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The sounds of birds chirping and fluttering outside your bedroom window are a welcome sign of spring, but scientists have evidence that suggests birds are nesting earlier due to global warming. And the harmful consequences aren’t just for the birds, as this ScienCentral video explains.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewees: Caren Cooper and Rick Bonney, Cornell Lab of Ornithology Produced by Joyce Gramza– Edited by Christopher
Bergendorff Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc with additional footage courtesy the Cornell Lab of Ornithology

Bad News Birds

By Heather Mayer

Grampa always said the early bird gets the worm, but early springs can mean baby birds miss out on the spiders, grubs and grasshoppers they need in order to thrive.

“A lot of people see spring happening sooner, and they think that could be a good thing or see birds nesting earlier, and they think, ‘Oh that means birds can adjust,’ you know, to whatever changes happen. But there are studies that show that that’s really not always the case,” says Caren Cooper, a researcher at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Cooper and other CLO researchers are able to study long term nesting patterns of some 600 bird species via the lab’s "Nestwatch" project, in which regular folks all over the country send in their observations. The records now stretch back nearly 50 years.

Rick Bonney, who started the lab’s "Citizen Science" efforts, explains that they generate more information over longer time periods than scientists could EVER collect on their own.

“When we put all that information together, we can see that many different species of birds, many different types of birds, are laying their eggs much earlier than they ever used to,” Bonney says.

Also on ScienCentral

One example is that tree swallows in the last 40 years have moved up laying their eggs by as much as nine days, meaning their babies might hatch before their food source is available.

The researchers say that no matter how many adult birds you might see at your bird feeder, it’s insects that they depend on to feed their young.

“Almost all birds feed insects to their young, and if the time of hatching of the young is not matched to the big burst of insects in the spring, then that will have really bad consequences for the parents being able to feed their young,” Bonney explains.

Another threat is weather. "Coming back early can be a problem because if they get started nesting and a huge spring storm starts… they can get wiped out and their nest and their young can get wiped out by an early storm," says Bonney.

He points out that birds have evolved over hundreds of thousands of years to optimize their life cycle, while climate change is occurring over mere decades.

“The pace of global climate change is happening so quickly that it’s unlikely the birds will be able to keep up and make those changes,” Bonney explains.

Science and Ordinary Citizen

How Can You Participate?

A good first step for any science-related endeavor is to contact your local science center and see if they have a program. For instance, the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, PA, and the Sciencenter in Ithaca, NY, are both participating in citizen science bird projects with people in their communities.

If you want to find your own way by going online, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a good place to start. A special page on their website can explain citizen science, and help connect you to project that’s right for you.

Thanks to the internet, Citizen science can take advantage of social networking to benefit science, and Nestwatch is just one of many such projects run by CLO and other institutions.

“We call it citizen science because these are people who may not have ever been trained to be scientists that are gathering very accurate information about birds and other organisms and send them to large databases,” Bonney says.

Nestwatch participants can go online to learn how to find nests or put up nestboxes or even Nestcams, then send in their obnservations of where nests are, whether birds are laying eggs, how many eggs they’re laying and how many young are actually hatching.

In the lab’s "E-Bird" project, people can count birds all year long to contribute to maps of bird populations.

In "Project feederwatch," folks count the birds that visit their feeders in the winter.

The Lab even has a project called "pigeonwatch" especially for city folks.

All of these projects only take a few minutes a day per person, but they add up to a huge boon for researchers.

Cooper points out that linking bird nesting patterns to climate change requires data not only from Nestwatch, but also from global climate observers.

"Much of what we know about global warming and climate change comes from citizen science data, " she says. "That includes the patterns that we’re seeing in terms of global warming. Over 10,000 weather stations that are used to track temperatures and climate are actually operated by volunteers, have been on family farms for decades."

While the data collected by citizen scientists help identify problems — in this case early bird nesting — Bonney says that doesn’t necessarily give researchers a solution.

“But if people really understand the scope of the problem (by doing their own observation), they may be more vested in trying to help find a solution,” he explains.

Bonney hopes citizen scientists will learn from their own evidence that global warming and climate change is, in fact, happening and that its effects are occurring right in their own backyards.

PUBLICATIONS: Bonney, Rick, 2007: "Citizen Science at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology," Chapter 16 in Yager, Robert E. and John H. Falk, eds., Exemplary Science in Informal Education Settings: Standards-Based Success Stories, NSTA Press; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, October 15, 2002.
RESEARCH FUNDED BY: National Science Foundation and countless volunteers.

Elsewhere on the Web:

"Citizen Scientists Watch for Signs of Climate Change" – Christian Science Monitor

"February 2009 9th warmest for globe"– NOAA

"Citizen Science: Tracking Climate Change"–Science, Friday, March 6, 2009

State of the Birds 2009 Report released

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  1. Warming Walden | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    April 16th, 2009 at 8:48 am (#)

    [...] Early Birds and Springtime 3.19.09 [...]

  2. Teens, Frogs & Climate Change | ScienCentral | Science Videos | Science News says:

    May 21st, 2009 at 4:25 am (#)

    [...] part of a “citizen science” project run by the St. Louis Science Center, which in turn is part of a national effort by [...]

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