Saturday, October 29, 2011

Bird Research - Point // Counterpoint

Kimberly Writes: I've received a tremendous amount of feedback on my last post about bird research.  I wanted to share a particular comment, because I think the points are so valuable.   The following comment was made by by "Jude," and I thought it was important enough to share openly on our blog in order to generate some good, healthy dialogue about this subject. 

The comment from Jude:

"I don't know the birder who sparked your response, but I'd be very surprised if their call to re-examine banding came from a place of not understanding the critical importance of the data being gathered. As a novice birder, I've already seen distressing examples of geese with overly tight neck bands, smaller birds with too tight leg bands, and birds with too many bands altogether. I imagine you have to have seen way more than I. Understanding the value of data gathering in conservation efforts and advocacy can and should be accompanied by compassion and a very high standard of performance for the practices that allow the data-gathering to happen. There is nothing wrong and everything right about not remaining complacent about the data-gathering practices currently in place. Wanting to lessen the impact of banding/collaring/etc. on individual animals increases the quality of the data returned and has nothing to do with not understanding that there are always trade-offs and imperfect decisions to be made in approaches."

Truth is, Jude, that if I had been responding to just one comment put in the context that you describe, my thoughts would have been different.  I wholeheartedly agree that all methods of research on / with animals should be constantly, carefully, critically, monitored and reevaluated to ensure the safety of both the animals and the volunteers these projects frequently rely on.

In my blog post, I was responding specifically to those who make sweeping statements about how banding (and other methods of tracking / tagging birds) is bad, based solely on emotion, without any thought to the value of the data these studies provide. If there were any scientific evidence to back up the idea that these methods do more harm than good, I assure you that it would be considered very seriously.

Check out the rictal bristles around the bill on this Chuck-Will's-Widow.
Can you believe those are actually feathers?!

---and its specially adapted rear toe for cleaning the rictal bristles. 
Rather than just let this balance on my opinion (even though my thoughts are based on years of actually conducting these kinds of studies, and also, I might add, being a soft-hearted animal lover, too), I thought it would be good to provide some additional insight. 

In a recent issue of The Wildlife Professional, the journal of The Wildlife Society, they offered the opportunity to discuss the value of continuing to band birds in the [Point // Counterpoint] column. Marlene Condon, a natural-history writer and photographer, took up one position, commenting that. "At a time when nearly a third of the 800 bird species in the United States are threatened or in decline (The state of the Birds 2009), scientists should ask themselves: Is banding worth the stress it places on birds?" 

Taking up the alternate view was Bruce G. Peterjohn, Chief of the Bird Banding Labaratory at the USGS Patuxtent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland. Bruce stated, "Despite the obvious benefits of bird banding, the practice has its critics. Recent studies show that most annual mortality in bird populations occurs during migration (Sillett and Holmes 2002). Some critics fear that migratory birds may be imperiled by carring a band, which typically weighs less than 1 percent of the total body weight. Yet that claim has never been substantiated." 

Read the [Point // Counterpoint] in its entirety, HERE.

Any bird bander who's used mist nets was eager to learn the findings of a recent study on the threats of mist netting to birds. When the findings were released, bird banders were sincerely thankful to have this burning question answered with sound scientific answers. 

The research, led by Erica Spotswood from the University of California at Berkeley, used data from organizations across the United States and Canada to assess the risk factors which could increase rates of injury or mortality including bird size, age, frequency of capture and the role of predators.

The results revealed that birds are rarely injured or killed by mist nets. Of 620,997 captures the percentage of incidents of injury amounting to 0.59% while only 0.23% of captures resulted in mortality. The authors then began to analyse risk factors which could lead to increased incidents. Read more about the study, HERE.

Watching birds: studying them through optics, or simply using the bird watching tools built conveniently into our own heads, will never go out of style or be replaced by mist nets, bands, neck collars, radio telemetry, or color-marking.

There will always be incredible value to the power of bird observation. If for nothing more than the way it enriches our lives- which leads to a deeper level of understanding - and ultimately, to a deeper level of caring and commitment to support bird conservation. There is room on the bird boat for everyone who wants the habitat that birds depend on to be here for generations to come.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Banding Together for the Good of the Birds

From Homebase in Oak Harbor, Ohio, Kimberly Writes:  Recently a well-known birder, admired by many (including yours truly), spoke out publicly about her belief that banding and color-marking is bad for birds. Of course this is not the first time these research methods have been criticized. Humans have active minds and diverse interests and beliefs; we are always going to disagree on some things, and that’s okay. But this particular situation felt like a blow because it drew such an emotional reaction from people who, I believe, actually know better.

Whether the topic at hand involves birds or some other issue, when emotion overrules facts it is cause for concern. This is a delicate issue, and to be honest, I’m not sure I’m the right person to take this on. Truth is, I would rather just ignore it and focus on things like the upcoming Ohio Young Birders Conference and all the other positive things BSBO has going on. But part of what creates this problem is the fact that we need more and better communication. If I simply walk away from this issue, I become part of the problem. So I’m going to share some thoughts and hope they will help people come to terms with the ongoing necessity for bird research.

You know, now that I think about it, maybe I am the right person to tackle this issue. This is as much about people and emotion as it is about science. I may not be a Ph.D. ornithologist or biologist. But, I have been a volunteer bird bander for more than 12 years and have assisted with many kinds of bird research, banding, color-marking, radio telemetry, and others. But I am also a passionate birder, and I’m not afraid to say that I love birds and that I get pretty emotional about it sometimes. I’m not going to talk to you like a scientist, throwing around terms like spatial movements, site fidelity, or functional connectivity of habitats. Instead, I’m going to share my thoughts about the merits of research in my own plain language.

I have been blessed as a woman and as a birder. I am married to the love of my life and together we have traveled the world to study birds. I have been moved in ways I could never have imagined by our experiences with birds of every size, shape, and color. Birds inspire our emotions. There is a strong visceral response to birds that can be powerful enough to change the course of peoples’ lives. I know. It happened to me.

On a trip to the Antarctic, I knelt on the damp, spongy soil of South Georgia Island and wept as a yearling King Penguin waddled up within a few feet to investigate this strange creature that had suddenly arrived in his land. I felt a surge of overwhelming joy at my first glimpse of parrots in the wild – a flock of Maroon-fronted Parrots - gliding against the backdrop of a lush green mountainside in Mexico.

And I have been driven to my knees in astonishment at the sight of a Sword-billed Hummingbird in Ecuador. But some of the most amazing moments I have experienced with birds have had nothing to do with observations. They had to do with discoveries about the lives of birds, and these discoveries came through research.

Research is about learning. About gaining a greater understanding of what birds do, how and why they do it, and monitoring population trends. The more we know, the more insight we gain, the better our chances of helping birds. When something goes amiss on the wintering grounds or the breeding grounds, banding stations will be among the first to sound the alarm call. And let’s face it: some of this information is more inspiring, more fascinating, more moving, than any mere sighting could be. For example…

Think Northern Cardinals don't migrate? Think again.

On June 1st, 2009, BSBO banded a female Northern Cardinal at the Navarre Marsh Banding Station near Oak Harbor, Ohio. Ten months later, on April 28th, 2010, BSBO volunteer bander Julie West recaptured the same bird at her banding station at Shaker Lakes Nature Center, in Shaker Lakes, Ohio, 94 miles away!

At 60 years old, Wisdom, a Laysan Albatross, is the oldest wild bird known in the U.S.
Photo courtesy of USGS
First recorded in 1956 as she incubated an egg, Wisdom was wandering the Pacific when the first human was launched into space, when the Berlin Wall came down, and when the Black Swamp Bird Observatory was founded.  Her most recent, and perhaps most impressive accomplishment, was surviving the tsunami that hit Midway Island after the massive 2011 earthquake struck Japan. How do we know that Wisdom is 60 years old? Because Wisdom is wearing a band.

Blackpoll Warblers make a mind-boggling journey each fall in route to their wintering grounds. These tiny birds, weighing less than an ounce when they’re all fattened up and ready to go, will make an 80 hour, nonstop flight across the Atlantic Ocean to reach their wintering grounds in South America.  This fall, BSBO is smack-daddy in the middle of Blackpoll Warbler migration. We have banded a record number so far, and the season isn’t over. More importantly, we have recaptured seven Blackpolls banded in years past, including one that was banded as an adult in 2006. This tells us that for at least six years this tiny bird has been making a journey that we can scarcely even imagine. Also remarkable is the fact that the bird was recaptured within a few hundred feet of where it was originally netted in 2006. There are no magic optics that could tell us something as extraordinary as that. No expert observer could have recognized this bird as an individual and documented just how critical this habitat has been to this bird and millions of others just like it. Now, thanks to a tiny, virtually weightless band of aluminum, we know this to be fact.

There are still so many questions about birds and many ways to gather this data. Yes, we can (and do) stand on the edge of a flooded field observing shorebirds every day, for the same length of time, from the same location, and count the number of birds we see, documenting their presence / absence. But when that flock of 500 Dunlin takes flight and whirls out of sight, where do they go? Why do they move from one habitat to another? How long do they stay? What is their energetic condition (in other words, how much fat do they have) when they get there?  How much fat do they need before they leave our area to continue their migration? How long does it take them to build up these reserves? These are questions no binocular on the market can answer. We’ve got to have the bird in hand to get at these details, and we need these details to garner support for habitat conservation, and to assist with managing these habitats.

With the battle for funding hitting everyone hard, we cannot simply say that there are “a lot” of birds in this area; that we need to draw down more of these diked impoundments because there are “a lot” of shorebirds depending on these mudflats during migration. Anecdotal observations will not cut it. We need documentation of these needs. We need science.

In a similar vein, if I walk into our congresswoman’s office and tell her that there are “a lot of birds” in this region, or that “a lot of birders” are visiting the area and spending “a lot of money,” how far do you think I’ll get in convincing her that conserving bird habitat is important? But when I present more than 500,000 banding records—more than 10,000 from last spring alone—it is irrefutable evidence.
When I can show her the results of our 2011 Biggest Week In American Birding post-event economic impact study, indicating that birders spent approximately 29 million dollars in her district, then I have more than just her attention. Now I have her district’s best interests on the table.

Learning is something that I love, and I especially love learning about birds. When we stop the learning process at the point where we can pin a name on a bird, then we do a great disservice to ourselves and to the birds. If we approached our interactions with humans in the same manner, we wouldn’t be much of a society, would we? We fall in love as we get to know something, and at BSBO we are as much about helping people fall in love with birds as we are about answering research questions. In fact, we use those detailed answers learned through scientific studies to help build that initial curiosity about birds into a passion. And it works. I’ve seen it happen, over...

and over...

and over.

It’s undeniable.

Bird banding is an invaluable tool for learning and for inspiring people to care more deeply about birds. As a teacher, as a bander, as a dedicated bird conservationist, I hope no one—especially those with big voices in the birding community—ever tries to take this powerful learning and teaching tool away from us.

We live in an age where with the click of a mouse, we can find a staggering amount of information on just about everything. The one answer that isn’t out there is the solution to these human dilemmas. Perhaps the best answer lies within us. Is it impossible to think that we could learn to respect one another, in spite of our differences, and do our best to achieve the highest level of understanding that we possibly can - before we send our opinions out into the ether? With bird conservation as our common ground, surely we can arrive at some level of compromise. When thousands of intelligent people who love birds enough to dedicate their lives to bird conservation all agree that research is necessary and that banding is safe, perhaps it is not out of the question to ask for a measure of faith and trust. Perhaps we can all work together for the good of the birds and all that they add to our quality of life.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

The Big Year: and hopefully beyond

From homebase in Oak Harbor, Kimberly writes: Last night, Black Swamp Bird Observatory loaded a bunch of birders into our awesome Bird Bus and went to see the movie The Big Year.  I was excited to go to the movies with Kenn and a bunch of friends no matter how good or bad the movie turned out to be. To be honest, I was more than a little concerned that Hollywood would simply adopt the model perpetuated by the media for decades and cast us in the same stereonerdical role.

I was wrong.

Steve Martin's character, "Stu Preissler," is a powerful, wealthy, executive who is obsessed with birding. His colleagues all bow to his executive prowess and on more than one occasion, they actually beg him to rescue them in challenging business negotiations. He's a hero. But here's the beauty. He's also a really nice guy.  He loves his family, and while on occasion (with some gentle admonishment from his loving and supportive wife) he skips a few family moments to see great birds (sounds familiar, doesn't it?), he's still a great guy.

To me, it was a spot on portrayal of the "friendly umbrella" that birders around the world always seem to be under. With a few exceptions, birders are just a nice bunch of people, and I thought the movie did a wonderful job of portraying that. Sure, the "Kenny Bostic" character played by Owen Wilson made some rather edgy choices. But even he had moments of sincerity.

And the Greg Miller character portrayed by Jack Black? Well, of course he was my favorite. I'm an intelligent woman, but I do love some crazy, slapstick humor, and Black happens to be one of my faves. I suppose the fact that we know and adore Greg Miller introduces at least some bias. But, Greg'll do that to ya. He's a pretty great guy. Black's character in the movie was that of the lovable underdog, and he even looks a bit like Greg, which is fun! 
Jack Black and Greg Miller
Brothers separated at birth?
I'm going to be careful not to spoil it for you, so if you haven't seen it, GO! See the film, represent birders, drive the box office ratings up, and help send a message to the world that we are a mass consumer market and that what we want really matters. Maybe then, they'll start to hear our cries for conservation-minded products like certified bird friendly coffee.

Moving forward...
A question I've been hearing about The Big Year is, "Sure, birders will enjoy it. But will the general public, the non birders, get it?  I don't think they have to totally "get" the whole idea of birding from the film. I think seeing three popular Hollywood actors obsessed with birding (and not looking like total dorks doing it) will be enough to pique the interest of some people. I think the real question is - how will we know? Will they become members of the American Birding Association? Will they buy Swarovski Optiks? Will they subscribe to WildBird magazine? All of which made appearances in the film.

At some point it would be good for "the powers that be" in the birding community to put their heads together and work on a collective marketing campaign. Make an effort to carry the movie's momentum beyond the initial surge of its release. National Audubon reportedly invested six figures in marketing the film. But what now?  I believe there's an opportunity here, but we have to be proactive about it. I hope we will.