Category Archives: birds

To be a bird, oh to keep on singing, in a noisy urbanizing world

Wcsp-fenceAmong the many ways we are transforming the planet and its habitats for other species, one that is only now receiving some attention is that os sensory pollution. This is when we pollute the environment in such ways as to interfere with the sensory perception and communication systems of animals – i.e., dull their senses in potentially important ways. While much attention has been paid—and justly so, ever since Rachel Carson’s clarion call—to the wide variety of chemical pollutants we’ve  introduced into habitats all over the world, we haven’t really paid much attention to the sensory effluvia that come in the wake of modern civilization. Two common ways we mess up the sensory systems of animals are by interfering with the visual and auditory channels of communication: e.g., increasing turbidity in water makes it difficult for fish to see and communicate with each other using visual signals (color patterns, changes to and movements thereof); increasing noise from our cacophonous machinery on land and in water makes it difficult for animals to talk to each other. We are a flashy, noisy, brash, uncouth, species indeed! No consideration for the sensibilities of our planet-mates.

Hofi-blogBut that may be changing. Sensory pollution is getting increasing attention from biologists in recent years, as exemplified by a symposium on the topic at Behavior 2011, the joint meeting of the Animal Behavior Society and the International Ethological Conference, being held at Indiana University this week. I wish I had been able to attend, especially for this symposium, because I’ve been thinking about and trying to study the effects of urban noise on bird song and behavior for some years now. Although I couldn’t travel to the meeting, I’m happy that my lab was well represented – see below!

After co-authoring the first comprehensive review of urban bioacoustics (i.e., the study of how animals use sound; in cities), then moving to Fresno with this job, actually measuring the effects in wild birds, and testing some of the theoretical ideas outlined in our review was one of my first priorities. Easier said than done, though – especially for a naive faculty member coming to grips with the nature of teaching and the student body at an institution like CSU-Fresno! Between my increasingly heavy and chaotic teaching load, and several unreliable graduate students, it became rather a stop-start project – more stop than start for several years. That all changed a year ago, however, when two eager new graduate students entered my lab, already interested in birdsong and very keen to tackle the subject of urban noise. Over the past year, Jenny Phillips and Pedro Garcia have been studying the effects of noise on the songs of two species (seen above) that occur in urban and rural areas around here: the White-crowned Sparrow, winter visitor to the valley from northern breeding grounds, and the House Finch, year round resident in these parts. An interesting opportunity to compare what noise pollution does to the songs and singing behavior of two rather different species: one migratory, the other sedentary, one singing to claim territory and warn competitors, the other warbling in the spring to attract mates!
Today, Jenny and Pedro presented the first results from their research as a poster at Behavior 2011. Having helped them analyze their data and design the poster over the past few days, I’ve been something of an anxious parent this week, wondering how they are doing out there on their own, even as I followed the #behav11 hashtag on twitter to see what I was missing! A short while ago, a tweet (of course) informed me that “…they did a gr8 job!!” Phew! Not that I expected anything less…

If you, like me, missed the whole meeting, allow me to share their poster here, starting with this abstract:


Jenny Phillips, Pedro Garcia, Lauryn Moles & Madhusudan Katti 
California State University, Fresno, United States

Many animal species are dependent upon vocal communication to mate and defend territories. Selection will favor individuals that produce vocalizations that transmit best in their environments. The sensory drive concept suggests that environmental conditions, such as ambient sound, will influence the evolution of vocal behavior. Thus, background noise levels may have a profound effect on communication. We study how urban noise affects the cultural evolution of birdsong in two species: the migratory white-crowned sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys gambelii) and the sedentary house finch (Carpodacus mexicanus). These two species are ideal study organisms because they each have one song type, are territorial, and are easy to identify. We recorded songs and ambient noise concurrently across the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area (FCMA) and in outlying rural areas for comparative analysis of acoustic properties, in particular the frequency and temporal structure of songs. Because song influences fitness via phenotypic and genotypic mate quality, understanding how song changes in an urban environment may allow us to predict species adaptability in a changing world.

And here is the full poster – leave a comment if you have any thoughts on this ongoing study:

Phillips_et_al-ABS2011-Poster.pdf Download this file

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

The above was the original title of an essay I wrote some 15 years ago, a bit of a rant really, in response to constant needling by some people wondering why I was studying tiny nondescript little warblers for my Ph.D. research instead of something more important… you know… like tigers. After all I was doing field work in a Tiger Reserve anyway, and there aren’t any warbler reserves, so why was I wasting my time? Hence, eventually, my response, outlining the greater importance of warblers.

That essay somehow landed on the desk of Joanna Van Gruisen, who happened to be editing a coffee-table book on wildlife conservation in India for the Ranthambore Foudation. She liked my contrarian essay well enough to want to include it in the book “In Danger” where most of the other contributions were about much more charismatic megafauna, including tigers! She did tone down the title, turning it into a question – see below. In the years since, I keep hearing from various people in India that they have read that article, which was also reprinted in a magazine, and more recently in another edited book on ornithological writings from India. Sometimes I get the sense that more people have read this article than have ready any (or all) of my academic papers. It is this kind of unexpected (honestly) response which encouraged me to try more science writing for nonscientists, eventually leading to this blog and other writing I am doing currently.

This warblers vs. tigers polemic, though, keeps coming back. Recently, a newfound friend on the internets, Arati Rao, wrote to me about going back to re-read it, wishing she could own a copy, but that the original book is now out-of-print. At her behest, therefore, I am reproducing the article below, and hope it finds new readers. I think I will scan the original print version also and post it online soon. Meanwhile, here it is:

Are Warblers Less Important Than Tigers?

Are Warblers less important than Tigers?

Now what kind of a stupid question is that?! Everyone knows that tigers are more important, being large predators, as apex species, at the top of the food chain, flagship species for conservation… etc. … etc. … etc.!!

These are arguments I have to face often enough when I tell people I am studying warblers—in Kalakad-Mundanthurai Tiger Reserve! For some reason, studying these tiny, nondescript, common birds is thought to be an entirely trivial, indeed arcane, academic pursuit of little practical or conservation value.

“What can studying little birds tell me about the habitat of large mammals, which are my primary concern?”—asks the reserve manager. On the other hand, if we focus on the larger mammals—the apex species philosophy of Project Tiger—and do our best to improve their habitat, other species will also naturally benefit. Given limited funds and manpower for conservation (research and action), is it not better to focus on the mega-fauna and let the mini- and micro-fauna take care of itself? The only small creatures one should worry about then are those that may form part of the food chain leading up to the larger focal species.

Before you accuse me of a biased perspective (which is undoubtedly true, for I make my living watching little warblers!), let me state that, in defending these little creatures, I am also arguing in favor of a broader ecological perspective in conservation—one that goes beyond the charismatic mega-fauna, and starts looking at species more in terms of their ecological role in the system, rather than their appearance/charisma, or tourism potential!

Tigers Are Less Important Than Warblers

So what is the ecological role of my favoured little leaf-warblers?

Leaf warblers (Genus Phylloscopus) must surely rank among the least glamorous vertebrates, so utterly lacking in charisma that even many die-hard bird watchers dismiss them lightly, scarcely bothering to try and even identify them to species level. Part of the problem is, of course, the fact that they are all small, dull-green coloured, and highly active in the forest canopy, making identification in the field difficult. It is only rarely—either when one is truly nuts about birds or when the fate of one’s Ph.D. thesis hangs on such identification—that one develops the eye for the subtle morphological, auditory and behavioural differences between species. These difficulties in identifying species, however, need not bother our busy manager too much, since they (the leaf-warblers) are all pretty similar ecologically as well—the role they play in the forest is largely independent of their taxonomic status, except insofar as structural aspects of their foraging microhabitat within the forest canopy are concerned.

All 18 species leaf warblers occurring in the Indian subcontinent are migratory, breeding in the temperate summers from Himalaya north to the Arctic circle, and taking over the peninsular (including Himalayan foothills, and much of Northeast India) forests from September through May. While each individual may weigh only 7-11 grams (range includes all species; give or take a gram), one may still emphasize the term take-over, when describing their relationship to their forest habitats: they number in the billions and form probably the most abundant avian guild in the subcontinental forests during our tropical winter. My study at Mundanthurai (in the southern western ghats) records a density of 6-8 leaf warblers (of two species) per hectare of forest—usually any given patch of forest may have 2-3 species, depending on the type of forest; and I doubt there is any forest habitat in India that does not host at least one species some time of year. Picking a random hectare from my 20 ha study plot at Mundanthurai, I find 6 leaf warblers (of 2 species) making it their home for 7-8 months— for these are territorial individuals that remain on site for much of the winter. And what do they do during this period? Well, eat insects, mostly! Humdrum as their lives may sound, they spend over 75% of their waking hours foraging for insects (and other arthropods—but insects predominate) in the foliage. Since they are not concerned about finding mates or raising young during this season, and want merely to survive in good shape for the next summer, their other activities—preening and maintaining territories through vocal and visual dialogue with neighbors—does not take much time. Hmm… a bunch of small, dull birds spending most of their day peering at leaves in search of insects—do I seem to be only weakening the defense? Not really…

Consider the fact that each leaf-warbler, on average, eats 3 insects every waking minute (this is averaging over all their activities throughout the day). Since they forage by picking prey off a substrate—mostly leaf, sometimes also twigs and flowers—the prey largely consists of herbivorous insects. In the case of my one hectare on Mundanthurai, it is mostly caterpillars eating leaves. A single leaf-warbler thus eats an average of 180 insects every hour, or about 1980 per day (assuming an average 11 hour working-day from dawn to dusk). The six individuals on our plot thus rid the plants of almost 12,000 insect pests—every day!! Multiply that with the number of days (200-250) that they are in residence on that one ha plot and you may begin to appreciate the service they render to all the plants. Now I ask you to consider removing these warblers from the study plot, since they seem to take away so much research and conservation energy from your more favoured mammals, and picture the forest as it may appear in a few weeks’ time…! The scenario could become even more dramatic if you (in your large-mammal chauvinism) remove all the other insectivorous birds from the plot as well: I estimate each hectare of Mundanthurai’s forest has at least 40 insectivorous birds, including other warblers and flycatchers (both resident and migrant), minivets, shrikes, drongos, babblers etc. The average number of prey may come down to just over 2 per bird per minute—which gives a total of about 5000 insects per hour, or 55,000 per day in every hectare of forest! Remove those insectivores: …and don’t be surprised if in a few weeks your plants start to appear ragged with their foliage tattered… and your endangered langurs become unhappy because so many leaves are now packed with toxic anti-herbivore compounds produced in response to caterpillar nibblings… and the plants make fewer flowers and fruits as they are forced to spend too much energy in self defense… in turn making the nectarivores and frugivores unhappy… and regeneration of the forest slows down as fewer seeds get produced and dispersed… and the ground starts to dry faster because the canopy is thinner and more sunlight gets in… I leave you to work out the rest of the ecological cascade effects on your own!! For now, I’d be happy if you simply pause to appreciate the job done by the nondescript little green jobs—the leaf warblers—and their insectivore colleagues that travel thousands of kilometers every year to eat all those insects.

Before you start protesting that you will never contemplate removing all those birds, and that I am just another doomsayer, consider the fact that 80% of the warblers (esp. the Green leaf warbler, which is the most common one here) as well as the next most abundant migrant (Blyth’s reed warbler) spending each winter at Mundanthurai come from the forests of the hill regions around the Caspian Sea, from Turkey east through Kashmir, including bits of southern Russia and Afghanistan. Now imagine that these hills—breeding grounds for so many migrant insectivores—are deforested on a large scale, either directly by us or through effects of global climate change, cutting down the bird population by 90%. Such declines is not very unrealistic, as those studying migrant forest birds in the Americas will tell you—though they worry more about forests in the wintering areas being cut down rather than in the breeding grounds. In fact, over the past two decades, Americans and Europeans are increasingly facing the prospect of another Silent Spring.  Not, this time, due to the factors mentioned in Rachel Carson’s clarion call in the 1960s—over-use of chemicals in agriculture at the height of the green revolutions—but to a suite of other human activities that have hit the habitat of avian migrants in both their northern breeding grounds and southern wintering grounds. Many species of migrant songbirds, which enliven the northern spring after the dreary and silent winters, have been pushed to the brink of extinction—some like the Kirtland’s warbler down to a few scores of breeding pairs—over the past two decades, even as my ornithologist comrades in the west are racing against time to figure out the causes of these declines, so we may try and reverse the process! The culprits are, of course, us humans: deforesting the tropical wintering grounds; fragmenting the temperate forests into suburban woodlots more accessible to human subsidized nest-predators such as domestic cats and other small carnivores (wild or feral) thriving on our garbage; and directly subsidizing populations of non-migratory nest-parasites like the north-American cowbird through back-yard bird feeders, enabling them to survive the harsh winter, and fool over 200 gullible species of songbirds into raising their offspring! We seem to be particularly adept at causing damage to the ecological fabric of this planet, even when we mean good—feed them poor little birdies in the winter, or the cute raccoons at night!!

Getting back to our continent, where we have no information on population trends of forest birds at all—whether resident or migratory, in tropical south and south-east Asia or temperate Russia, Mongolia and Siberia—declines paralleling those on the other continents are very much on the cards, if, indeed, they haven’t occurred already! Given the contempt that these migrants have for human geopolitical boundaries, their populations are subject to forces beyond the control of any one national conservation agency, let alone the manager of a single Tiger Reserve. And if their populations are found to be declining as drastically as many New World migrants’ have over the past several decades, mammal chauvinists may be reduced to haplessly watching the habitats of their favourite creatures getting degraded.

Do you think even the tigers might get worried about such a scenario??

Is it worth studying these warblers, trying to figure out what makes their populations tick, and how to save them—and ensure they continue to keep all those insects down?

Are warblers less important than tigers?? Isn’t the question itself meaningless?

Winter is a time for murmurations….


… of starlings, all over the temperate world, in places where the starlings are from, and where they are invasive commensals who have followed on humanities tailwinds into new continents. Around here in the Central Valley, native blackbirds put on such shows as well, although perhaps not quite in such large numbers as seen here in the European starlings. At least not any flocks I’ve seen locally.

Posted via email from a leaf warbler’s gleanings

What links collapsing honeybee colonies and disappearing house sparrows? Neonicotinoids!

A new class of insecticides based on nicotinoids seem to be the key factor underlying the widely reported declines in house sparrows and other birds as well as the alarming colony collapse disorder in honeybees, according to a new book “The systemic insecticides: a disaster in the making” by Dutch cancer biologist Henk Tennekes. Is this our generation’s “Silent Spring“? Perhaps – we’ll have to read the book to dig into the specific details. I have to say though, that the wide use of apparently broad-spectrum insecticides seems like a far more plausible cause of such widespread declines in bees and insect-dependent birds than cellphone towers or a litany of other local factors that have been suggested, unconvincingly. What strengthen’s the case is that neonicotinoids apparently make bee colonies more susceptible to the combination fungal/viral infections that have recently been implicated in colony collapse! Here’s an excerpt from today’s article in the Independent raising the alarm on this:

Scanning the sky with his binoculars, he searches carefully for any sign of movement: the steady beat of a blackbird’s wings, the fluttering of a flock of starlings. It has been a week now since he saw the starlings: just four of them flitting from tree to tree, feasting on the autumn berries.

Birds are a real rarity these days. In his boyhood, he recalls, he would watch the acrobatics of entire flocks as they ducked and dived after insects. But now the skies are silent, barring the hum of the odd airplane. Turning back to his fruit and vegetable patch, he continues the laborious task of pollinating the raspberry plants by hand, gently brushing pollen onto the slender stigmas inside the flowers. In the past, bees, wasps, butterflies and flies would have done this job for him; nowadays such insects are likewise a rarity. Farmers instead resort to robot bees to pollinate their crops: tiny motors, encased in fuzzy fabric, which hover from flower to flower.

Will this bleak outlook be a reality for future generations? It is nearly 50 years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring, the book that warned of environmental damage the pesticide DDT was causing. Today, DDT use is banned except in exceptional circumstances, yet we still don’t seem to have taken on board Carson’s fundamental message.

According to Henk Tennekes, a researcher at the Experimental Toxicology Services in Zutphen, the Netherlands, the threat of DDT has been superseded by a relatively new class of insecticide, known as the neonicotinoids. In his book The Systemic Insecticides: A Disaster in the Making, published this month, Tennekes draws all the evidence together, to make the case that neonicotinoids are causing a catastrophe in the insect world, which is having a knock-on effect for many of our birds.

Already, in many areas, the skies are much quieter than they used to be. All over Europe, many species of bird have suffered a population crash. Spotting a house sparrow, common swift or a flock of starlings used to be unremarkable, but today they are a more of an unusual sight. Since 1977, Britain’s house-sparrow population has shrunk by 68 per cent.

The common swift has suffered a 41 per cent fall in numbers since 1994, and the starling 26 per cent. The story is similar for woodland birds (such as the spotted flycatcher, willow tit and wood warbler), and farmland birds (including the northern lapwing, snipe, curlew, redshank and song thrush).

Ornithologists have been trying desperately to work out what is behind these rapid declines. Urban development, hermetically sealed houses and barns, designer gardens and changing farming> practices have all been blamed, but exactly why these birds have fallen from the skies is still largely unexplained.

However, Tennekes thinks there may be a simple reason. “The evidence shows that the bird species suffering massive decline since the 1990s rely on insects for their diet,” he says. He believes that the insect world is no longer thriving, and that birds that feed on insects are short on food.

So what has happened to all the insects? In the Nineties, a new class of insecticide – the neonicotinoids – was introduced. Beekeepers were the first people to notice a problem, as their bees began to desert their hives and die, a phenomenon known as Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD).

Read the rest of the article at

[via Common Dreams]

Where in the world is the Yellow-billed Magpie? Help us find out this weekend!

What a handsome corvid, the Yellow-billed Magpie. How curiously restricted, its global
This lovely bird is another one I consider myself fortunate to have seen up close (e.g., when I took the above pictures in Pinnacles National Monument recently), given that it is one of those rare endemic species found only in a particular small corner of the world. This one, as you can see in the above map (from the Birds of North America account for the species), happens to be restricted to parts of Central California, west of the Sierra Nevada mountains, along the San Joaquin Valley all the way west to the Pacific coast. You can find a more dynamic, birder-generated current map of sightings via eBird.

The distribution range has shrunk historically with humans taking over much of its habitat for farms and suburbia, but numbers may have been relatively stable until the turn of this millennium. It has remained a species of concern given its limited range, and how much we humans covet its habitat. Nevertheless, the bird appears resourceful enough to have adapted to living amid human enterprise in some of the world’s richest farmland in the valley and the sprawl of the San Francisco Bay Areas! Must be those clever corvid genes that have made the bird flexible enough to deal with some of the insults from us.

Our insults have run quite the gamut, including direct loss of habitat, concerted poisoning and bounty hunting campaigns because the bird is thought to be an agricultural pest (especially for the fruit/nut crops common around here, I think), and most recently, the arrival of West Nile Virus (WNV) in California. That last has landed the Magpie on Audubon’s watchlist, for it has turned out to be perhaps the most susceptible to the virus. The population may be declining in recent years – but we don’t really know what its status is with any certainty! Remarkable that, given how many excellent biologists live and work in and around the species’ range at some of the world’s top universities!

And I include myself among the ornithologists in the region who would like to keep a closer eye on this species. When I arrived in Fresno, West Nile Virus had just hit the state, and I grew curious about the range of the Yellow-billed Magpie because it wasn’t to be found in or around Fresno! The distribution map intrigued me when I first found it because the bird is reasonably abundant in suburban / rural / farmland habitats north of Fresno county all the way up to Sacramento; and along the coast range to the west its range extends farther to the south as well. Yet, for some reason, it wasn’t to be found in Fresno, even in habitat that I would be hard pressed to tell apart from areas 50-100 km north of us where the species is common! I haven’t found a satisfactory explanation for this gap in its distribution, for I’m sure it used to be here, but not any more. Some oldtime bird/wildlife watchers in Fresno have hinted that the species was actively exterminated from the county because of a bounty on its pretty head several decades ago when it was considered a pest! That might explain its disappearance, but its not clear why it hasn’t come back. Is it still being hunted/poisoned by farmers? Or has the habitat been altered enough to deter recolonization, presuming northern populations are productive enough (which they may not be). I suspect there is enough in those questions for a potential masters thesis, but haven’t managed to find a student sufficiently motivated to go chase them. Know any?

Meanwhile, recent studies at UC Davis have focused on modeling habitat needs, on the effects of WNV on the birds, and on loss of genetic diversity through inbreeding. Those studies (follow the link for more info) have drawn upon help from citizen scientists who can report sightings of live and dead birds, the latter being collected for WNV screening. Visit for more on participation and results.

Right now, we all get a chance to help more broadly as well, by participating in a survey this weekend, organized by California Audubon and eBird. Here’s the invitation:

Yellow-billed Magpie survey set for June 4-7, 2010

If we want to help the Yellow-billed Magpie survive, we need to know where it is living and in what numbers. And that’s where you can help. Audubon California is sponsoring a four-day statewide survey of Yellow-billed Magpies enlisted the help of volunteer birders.

Taking part is simple: All you need to do is log into eBird and record your observations.

Shortly after the survey, we’ll tally up the results and every participant will receive a report of the findings. Audubon California will use these findings to guide our conservation efforts for this bird.

Click on the links to the left to learn more and to take part in this important volunteer project.

I hope you can participate in the survey on what promises to be a nice weekend for birdwatching in the valley. At least, if you are out and about anywhere in this species range this weekend, I hope you will keep en eye out for this not inconspicuous bird and report any sightings.
Happy Magpie tracking!


Reynolds, M. (1995). Yellow-billed Magpie (Pica nuttalli) The Birds of North America Online DOI: 10.2173/bna.180

Map your yard’s ecology, socially, the citizen science way!

Coming Fall 2010: an interactive citizen science project that allows you to map your yards and other greenspaces, like parks and community gardens, and share valuable habitat data with Lab of Ornithology scientists.

I just learnt about this upcoming project via @Team_eBird‘s twitter feed earlier today, where they were soliciting feedback on features in preparation for the upcoming beta release of the new YardMap project from Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, which has become the hub for so many good citizen science projects run on a national scale throughout the US. As you may know, from having read my research or visiting this blog before, I am passionate about citizen science because I see it as a win-win for the citizenry and science. Citizens can really help expand the scope and amount of data available to science, especially ecological science, immensely through well designed citizen science projects. This is particularly valuable for scientists like me at non-research-dominant (R01) institutions where we lack the resources and/or time to gather much data ourselves even though there are many important questions we need to and can address on local/regional/global problems. Case in point, the Fresno Bird Count is now at the core of my lab’s urban ecology research program, and has already produced one Masters thesis (with at least two more on their way), numerous scientific/public presentations, and, hopefully soon, a peer-reviewed paper or two. Meanwhile, the other win can come from engaging ordinary citizens in conducting hands-on science in their own daily lives in ways that might help alleviate some of the anxieties about and suspicions towards science in this age of unreason that seems to be pervading us, especially here in America. Care to join me, and others like my colleagues at the Lab of O, in this effort?

So how does YardMap fit into the growing landscape of citizen science projects? Well, it looks like a pretty exciting project combining interactive online maps and social networking in a neat looking package that might tap into (one can only hope) whatever latent biophilia underlies the immense popularity of games like Farmville on Facebook. Here’s a preview:

If that intrigues you, and especially if you are a birder and/or gardener, consider giving your input to the Lab of O as they finalize the design for YardMap. Start with this online survey, which should take no more than 15 minutes of your time, and also gives you the opportunity to join the beta-test of the site in a few months.

I look forward to sharing my YardMap with you and hope you will let me peek over the hedge into yours…

How the wealth of your neighborhood and the water in your yard affect bird diversity

I wrote the following essay summarizing some early conclusions from the Fresno Bird Count for the April issue of the Yellowbill, the newsletter of Fresno Audubon. My student Brad Schleder presented some of these results as part of his masters thesis exit seminar earlier this week, and we also had a poster at the College of Science & Mathematics research poster symposium earlier today. So I thought I should also share this essay with you here:

The American West faces a water crisis. Drought, urban growth, climate change and the continued demands of agriculture have combined to heighten the competition among water users. In California’s San Joaquin Valley, court-ordered water diversions under the Endangered Species Act have radically decreased water deliveries to many Valley farmers. A recent settlement providing for the restoration of the San Joaquin River and ongoing drought (in a region subject to repeated cycles of drought) have only exacerbated public debate about water and spurred the search for ways to conserve it. Valley farmers are experimenting with dry land farming methods, while valley cities are seeking ways to reduce urban water use. In the Fresno-Clovis Metropolitan Area, the City of Clovis already meters water use (but has relatively low water rates) and the City of Fresno will start metering water in 2013. How does our use of water (amount and method of use) affect other species such as birds that also occupy our urban landscapes? What can we do to improve the environment for ourselves and for sustaining biodiversity in the long run?

The Fresno Bird Count (FBC, was established by my laboratory at Fresno State in spring 2008 to begin long-term monitoring of bird species in the Fresno-Clovis metro area in part to address such questions about human actions and their effects on biodiversity. The FBC was modeled after the Tucson Bird Count which is now in its 10th year, as a citizen science project where volunteer birders from the community collaborate to gather data on bird distribution and abundance using statistically rigorous sampling and standardized census methodologies. As in Tucson, our volunteers count all the birds they can detect while standing at pre-determined fixed locations for 5 minutes each (i.e., a 5-min point count; see the FBC website for details of the protocol). Each point is a randomly selected location within a 1 km X 1 km square cell that is part of a 460 square kilometer (approx. 178 square miles) grid covering most of Fresno-Clovis and some outlying areas. In the first two years of the FBC, we have managed to survey about 180-200 of these points, and are seeking more volunteers to expand our coverage, because the more finely we can cover the highly variable urban landscape, the better our understanding of just what constitutes habitat for birds in the city and how various bird species use the spaces and resources we leave for them.

The FBC started with two broad goals: to keep track of how many birds of which species occur in the area and how their numbers change under ongoing urban growth; and, to provide basic bird data for more detailed studies focused on the connections between what we do in the urban environment and how birds respond to resulting changes in habitats. The first of such studies has just been completed by my graduate student and FBC coordinator Brad Schleder in the form of a Masters thesis. Brad focused on how we water our lawns and yards, and how the resulting residential landscapes attract different kinds of birds. After spending much of last summer driving around the city to various bird count locations to measure aspects of the habitat such as the number of trees, canopy cover, amount and height of grass, and degree of watering, Brad found some interesting patterns that may give pause even to some long-term birdwatchers living in the area. Of course, it may not surprise you to learn that we find more species of birds towards the north and north-west, in a slight trend of increasing diversity as we approach the river. On the other hand, would you have guessed that bird diversity is a good indicator of the wealth of a neighborhood? That indeed seems to be the case: more species of birds are found in wealthier neighborhoods than in poorer ones, and this is a pattern I’ve also found in Phoenix, Arizona! The reason here may have something to do with how people water their household landscapes. Brad found that poorer neighborhoods don’t water their yards quite as much as wealthier ones. This surprised us because, without metering, the cost of water is not a constraint for residents in Fresno – yet we already see a pattern predicted to occur as a result of metering! Perhaps the direct cost of water is not the only thing affecting the habitat in poorer neighborhoods; rather, landscaping one’s yard and maintaining it regularly is a costly enterprise regardless of how much water costs. If anything, the metering of water (if coupled with a rate structure designed to encourage water conservation) will only add to the burden and exacerbate the contrast in landscapes between rich and poor parts of the city! And the birds will likely notice the changes in the urban landscape and respond by changing their residential address too.

These first results from the FBC support a conclusion that is emerging from similar studies in other cities throughout the US: that biodiversity in cities is unevenly distributed, and tends to favor the rich. In other words, in addition to economic hardship, the poor also face an environmental injustice because birds (and other wildlife) will also flock preferentially to the richer neighborhoods where they may find more diverse landscaped yards with plenty of water and food. That may not be good news for Fresno and other valley cities facing tough economic challenges right now, with high levels of unemployment and rising poverty. Yet, there is also an opportunity here for city planners and developers to rethink the pattern of urban growth and plan for amenities such as more public parks and roadside landscaping that will support more biodiversity and provide greater access to nature for those who may need it the most in these troubled times.
Published in the April issue of the Yellowbill.

Hummingbirds: Magic in the Air – this Sunday on Nature (PBS)

Now this looks like something worth setting up your DVR to record this sunday: PBS Nature’s upcoming episode (premiering Sunday, Jan 10, 2010) on Hummingbirds. Here are a few excerpts of stunning footage that’ll wow you:

Hummingbird babies:

Incredible agility – featuring biologist Doug Altshuler (whom we tried to hire in our department at Fresno State a few years ago… when we were still able to hire anyone at all!):

Expert hunters:

Posted via web from a leaf warbler’s gleanings