For love of birds: Backyard sleuths boost scientists’ work

Jun 11, 2021, 6:04 AM | Updated: 11:01 am
Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams holds a robin to examine its...

Avian ecologist and Georgetown University Ph.D. student Emily Williams holds a robin to examine its wings, Wednesday, April 28, 2021, in Cheverly, Md. “Realizing that this tiny animal that can fit in the palm of your hand can travel thousands and thousands of miles one way in spring, and then does it again later in the year, was just amazing to me,” she said. “I have always been dazzled by migration.” (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Georgetown University ecologist Emily Williams first became fascinated with birds not because of their beauty, or their sweet songs. She was riveted by their extraordinary travels.

“Realizing that this tiny animal that can fit in the palm of your hand can travel thousands and thousands of miles one way in spring, and then does it again later in the year, was just amazing to me,” she said. “I have always been dazzled by migration.”

This spring and summer, her research project tracking the annual migration of American robins has gotten a boost from the enthusiasm of homeowners in the greater Washington area, who’ve let her and a research assistant set up makeshift research stations in their backyards before dawn — and sometimes contributed their own notes and observations.

Several homeowners have eagerly shown her where they’ve discovered robins’ nests in their azalea bushes, or shared diaries they’ve made on the movements of birds passing through their yards — not only robins, but also cardinals, blue jays, house wrens, tufted titmice, white-throated sparrows, even red-shouldered hawks.

Williams often begins her fieldwork at 4:30 a.m., but she can only be in one backyard at a time. And so her research, like that of many biologists, benefits from the cooperation and excitement of a growing number of citizen scientists — some of whom record their daily observations on Cornell University’s popular bird-watching smartphone app, eBird.

“People who love birds and report their sightings — that’s really helping scientists learn in much greater detail about birds’ behavior and distribution,” said Adriaan Dokter, an ecologist at Cornell.

Arjun Amar, a conservation biologist at the University of Cape Town, has even used photos uploaded by citizen scientists on Cornell’s platform as the foundation of new research projects — such as examining global variations in the stripes on peregrine falcons’ faces, which reduce solar glare and allow them to dive at breakneck speeds. “This wouldn’t have been so possible before,” he said.

The pandemic that put much of normal life on pause — stopping travel and shutting people in their homes — also afforded more time for many families to study the wildlife in their own backyards.

Cornell’s records show a boom in amateur bird-watching. The number of people submitting eBird checklists — recording their bird sightings — was up 37% in 2020 compared with the previous year. The annual “big day” event, when people are encouraged to submit sightings during spring migration (this year, on May 8), also set participation records.

Those numbers don’t surprise Williams, who says many of her non-scientist friends have taken up bird-watching during the past year.

“Maybe you’d have to travel to Alaska or Canada to see a grizzly bear, or go to Africa to see a zebra — but birds are literally right outside your door, anywhere you are in the world,” she said. “People have really started to pay more attention to their backyards because they had to stay home so much. I think it’s a huge boon for us as scientists, that more people appreciate birds.”

___

“One Good Thing” is a series that highlights individuals whose actions provide glimmers of joy in hard times — stories of people who find a way to make a difference, no matter how small. Read the collection of stories at https://apnews.com/hub/one-good-thing

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

AP

A Ukrainian serviceman changes his position at the frontline near Kharkiv, Ukraine, on Saturday, Ju...
Associated Press

Governor: Russians gaining foothold in pivotal Ukraine city

KYIV, Ukraine (AP) — Russian forces are strengthening their positions in a grueling fight to capture the last stronghold of resistance in eastern Ukraine’s Luhansk province, the region’s governor said Sunday. Ukrainian fighters have spent weeks trying to defend the city of Lysychansk, and to keep it from falling to Russia, as neighboring Sievierodonetsk did […]
1 hour ago
Associated Press

North Texas shooter kills 2, wounds 3 cops, takes own life

HALTOM CITY, Texas (AP) — A gunman killed two people and wounded four others, including three police officers, before taking his own life Saturday evening in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, police said. Haltom City Police Det. Matt Spillane said early Sunday that all of those wounded in the shooting in a residential neighborhood had non-life […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this Saturday, Oct. 1, 2011 file photo, Associated Press Special Regional Correspondent f...
Associated Press

Hope and despair: Kathy Gannon on 35 years in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan policeman opened fire on us with his AK-47, emptying 26 bullets into the back of the car. Seven slammed into me, and at least as many into my colleague, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus. She died at my side. Anja weighed heavy against my shoulder. I tried to look […]
1 day ago
FILE - In this Monday, Nov. 18, 2019 file photo, the logo of Google is displayed on a carpet at the...
Associated Press

Google to erase more location info as abortion bans expand

Google will automatically purge information about users who visit abortion clinics or other places that could trigger legal problems now that the U.S. Supreme Court has opened the door for states to ban the termination of pregnancies.
1 day ago
FILE - President Joe Biden, center, meets with South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, and Jap...
Associated Press

North Korea slams US-South Korea-Japan military cooperation

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea on Sunday slammed the United States, South Korea and Japan for pushing to boost their trilateral military cooperation targeting the North, warning that the move is prompting urgent calls for the country to reinforce its military capability. North Korea has long cited what it calls hostility by the […]
1 day ago
FILE - Uvalde School Police Chief Pete Arredondo, second from left, stands during a news conference...
Associated Press

Uvalde schools’ police chief resigns from City Council

The Uvalde school district’s police chief has stepped down from his position in the City Council just weeks after being sworn in following allegations that he erred in his response to the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School that left 19 students and two teachers dead. Chief Pete Arredondo said in a letter dated Friday […]
1 day ago

Sponsored Articles

...
Day & Night Air Conditioning, Heating and Plumbing

Most plumbing problems can be fixed with regular maintenance

Instead of waiting for a problem to happen, experts suggest getting a head start on your plumbing maintenance.
...
Christina O’Haver

BE FAST to spot a stroke

Every 40 seconds—that’s how often someone has a stroke in the United States. It’s the fifth leading cause of death among Americans, with someone dying of a stroke every 3.5 minutes.
...
Carla Berg, MHS, Deputy Director, Public Health Services, Arizona Department of Health Services

ADHS mobile program brings COVID-19 vaccines and boosters to Arizonans

The Arizona Department of Health Services and partner agencies are providing even more widespread availability by making COVID-19 vaccines available in neighborhoods through trusted community partners.
For love of birds: Backyard sleuths boost scientists’ work