Bird Lovers Wanted

Photograph by IStock

Bird Lovers Wanted

Avian conservation groups are seeking citizen scientists.

By Purbita Saha
Published: 04/22/2014

Just because you love to hug trees, doesn't mean you have to chain yourself to one. There are many avenues for environmental activism. Audubon's Hummingbirds at Home and Cornell's YardMap network, prove that conservation can start right in the backyard. Here are a handful of citizen science projects that will feed your fascination with birds and rouse the environmental warrior in you.

Rusty Blackbird Spring Migration Blitz 
Expertise Level: intermediate
Time Frame: now until May (depending on your location)

Can you tell the difference between a rusty blackbird and a grackle? If the answer is yes, then this project could be for you.

The International Rusty Blackbird Group is looking for birders to gather data along rusty blackbird migration routes. The species has been in decline since the '60s, and no one knows why. It's currently classified as "vulnerable" on the IUCN Red List. According to Judith Scarl, conservation biologist and international coordinator for the blitz, the group is looking for birders who can not only precisely identify rusty blackbirds, but also use their skills of deduction to provide insight on the bird's decline. A long-term goal of the project is to determine what migratory areas need protecting. Another, Scarl says, is to raise awareness in the birding community on an often overlooked species. To do so, the International Rusty Blackbird Group has brought in conservation powerhouses, such as U.S. Fish and Wildlife and the Vermont Center for EcoStudies, to coproduce the blitz.

To participate, check the target blitz date for your state. Data sheets and identification guides are available on the International Rusty Blackbird Group's Facebook page; you can submit your field observations on eBird.

Condor Watch 
Expertise Level: beginner
Time Frame: no end date yet

Just like rusty blackbirds, California condors have been in steep decline for the past few decades. By the 1980s there were only 22 birds left. The tireless work of captive breeding programs has helped buoy the population, but the results are steadily being reversed by lead poisoning.

California has passed legislation to diminish the use of lead bullets, but enforcement is still years away. For an urgent situation, an equally urgent reaction is crucial. That is why Myra Finkelstein, an adjunct professor at University of California Santa Cruz, is turning to the larger conservation community. "We need to figure out which condors are hanging out with each other. They are highly social birds; they can influence each other into expressing risky behavior," she says.

Scientists set up cameras in scavenging areas to catch condors feeding. Now they need help sifting through thousands of photos to gather information about the birds' personalities and tendencies.

The process of dissecting a photo is simple. You start off by identifying the species and estimating its distance from the carcass. If it's a condor you have to note the tag number and color -- all wild condors have one. You can also try to determine if the bird is a juvenile or an adult. The two morphs are easily discernable since adults have a fleshy pink head. Zooniverse, which manages multiple online science projects, will then take the data and hand it over to researchers so that they can find ways to shield condors from further devastation.

Participants aren't required to be condor experts, but Finkelstein thinks that they will learn a great deal about the birds. "You will get to know individual birds across time and space, and that's a powerful thing."

Seabird Colony Monitoring and Marbled Murrelet Survey 
Expertise Level: beginner
Time Frame: April to August

To be a member of the citizen science teams that protect the birds of Oregon you have to be on location. Over the next few months, Audubon Portland is training volunteers to study nesting seabirds along the Cape Perpetua marine reserve. Participants will record predator activity and calculate the reproductive success of mating pairs. Pelagic cormorants are the target species for the study, but in the future it may include common murres, pigeon guillemots, harlequin ducks, and other seabirds common to Oregon's coasts..

If you expect to be in Portland later this summer, the marbled murrelet survey might be more timely. The survey, which takes place over two days in July, will take you from the old-growth forests to the Pacific shoreline. Again, training is provided.

If you're interested in monitoring seabird colonies, contact Joe Liebezeit at Audubon Portland. To survey marbled murrelets, you can reach out to Paul Engelmeyer of the Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary. Engelmeyer's efforts to establish the Cape Perpetua marine reserve were highlighted in Audubon's forthcoming May-June issue.

This weekend many Audubon chapters will be hosting activities for Earth Day. To discover more stewardship opportunities, give your local center a visit.

 

 

 

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Purbita Saha

Purbita Saha is a reporter for Audubon Magazine whose conservation interests lie in bird and insect behavior. Her Twitter handle is @hahabita

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine