Citizen Science

Watch Baby Birds for Science

April 8, 2014

Follow Lisa
Tree Swallows at a nest box. Photo by Flickr user Richard Griffin through a Creative Commons license

What is NestWatch?

Spring is in the air and birds across the country are nesting or getting ready to build their nests.

You probably pass these nests from time to time – maybe you even pass the same nest every day.

Do you ever wonder how many eggs there are, how many of them hatch, and how many of those birds leave the nest? How robins or chickadees are doing this year? How nesting patterns have changed over time?

NestWatch is answering these questions about birds throughout the United States.

You can be a part of reporting data on the reproductive biology of birds, helping scientists understand how successful birds are.

As Robyn Baily, Project Lead of NestWatch says, “People report not just where birds are but how they’re doing. Citizen scientists have an opportunity to tell about the health of birds.”

Why is it important?

It’s no secret that many bird species are facing a lot of challenges. Recently a lot of news reports have focused on birds killed by windmills, but there are many more hazards.

As Bailey’s says, “Climate change, habitat degradation, loss of habitat, urban expansion, and invasive species are all big challenges. NestWatch has an opportunity to help with understanding those trends.”

For instance, in the case of invasive or non-native species, NestWatch has been tracking the success of the Eurasian Collared Dove, a bird that first made its way to the Floridas in the 1980s and has now spread as far as Alaska.

By comparing the data on nesting success of Eurasian Collared Doves and Mourning Doves, they can find out whether these birds are competing for resources.

Many of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s projects including the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project FeederWatch, and eBird also track information on these and a variety of other birds. By combining data from all of these projects, researchers can understand the big picture of bird life.

As for understanding the effects of climate change on nesting birds, NestWatch has data that goes back to 1965, so they can compare data to see changes over time.

As an example, Bailey noted that “Tree Swallows have started nesting earlier – probably due to a shift in prey abundance.”

In addition, the many observations from citizen scientists have led to other discoveries about the reproductive biology of birds.

For instance, did you know that birds could have twins? Not just two or more eggs in the same nest (that is the norm), but two embryos in the same egg?

“Since I have been working with NestWatch, the coolest thing I have seen is is that birds can have twins,” says Bailey. “One citizen scientist reported that a bluebird nest had 4 eggs and one of them seemed larger than the others.”

She continues: “Five chicks hatched.  He was taking pictures and reporting the entire time so it was well documented. I started researching & found it was rare for a double-yolked egg to hatch in the wild – astonishingly rare.“

Bailey and the citizen scientist who reported the incident, Gerald Clark, wrote a paper together about the finding and it was published in a scientific journal.

Twinning in birds is so rare that it is unlikely that this would have been observed in bluebirds without the help of citizen scientists monitoring large numbers of nests each year.

Chickadee at nest hole with a caterpillar. Photo by Flickr user Dave Bonta via a Creative Commons License.

Data from NestWatch is freely available to the public – so it has the potential to be used in a variety of ways.

Bailey notes that there are currently several projects using the data, but that she sees potential for further uses. “I would like to see NestWatch data integrated more often into large-scale plans that policy makers and conservationists are using to decide where and how to protect birds,” she says.

How do you get involved?

NestWatch makes it easy to get started. There are four steps: become a certified NestWatch monitor (using online resources), find an active nest or nests to monitor, visit the nests and record what you see, then report your data online.

Think you don’t have time? “It only takes about half an hour to enter your data. The real thing that takes time is going out to monitor nests. And as someone who does it, it’s one of the most rewarding experiences,” Bailey says.

Don’t want to NestWatch alone? There might just be a NestWatch chapter near you!

NestWatch has a many resources for people interested in nesting birds, including information about nest boxes, facts and myths about nesting birds, and publications that have been produced using NestWatch data.

“Consider it, look at the website, and if you have a couple of hours to dedicate to NestWatch give it a try,” says Bailey. “I’ve never heard anyone say they regret spending their time watching baby birds.”

Who knows, you might even end up as an author on a scientific paper!

Lisa Feldkamp

Lisa loves all things citizen science and enjoys learning about everything that goes on four legs, two wings or fins - she even finds six and eight-legged critters fascinating at a safe distance. She has a PhD in Classical Literature and Languages from the University of Wisconsin - Madison and enjoys reading Greek and Roman literature or talking about mythology in her spare time. More from Lisa

Follow Lisa

Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

1 comment