Birding Without Lists

Nighthawks just being interesting.

I’m an ornithologist who often finds herself apologizing for not being a birder, at least not in the way most people expect. I’m often more interested in watching a single bird, no matter how mundane its species is, doing something interesting. Now this writer has articulated this point of view so clearly. Huzzah!


Creative Fundraising


Matthew and Will Gladstone of the Blue Feet Foundation. Photo: Courtesy of Will Gladstone via Audubon

Previously, I detailed the creative ways I have funded my research. These two gentlemen, as detailed in an Audubon post, have found yet another way to fund conservation and research of the Blue-footed Boobies of the Galapagos.

The Importance of Bird Banding


1-month-old Common Nighthawk Chick from Brookman Hall, USD

One day in the lab, there was a knock at the door.  A child held out a nighthawk chick to me.  He said his family had found it in the parking lot.  I checked for a band, and it turned out to be a 1-month old chick I had banded 2 weeks prior on a university rooftop.  It had since fledged and was, presumably, trying to use the gravel parking lot for camouflage and a staging place to be fed by its parents. I fed it some sugar water, and gave it some quiet time in a darkened room to recover from its rescue.  Later that day, I was able to return it to the roof. When I checked on it again the next day, it flew away from me very successfully.  Without a band I would not have known where the bird was from.

There are so many reasons researchers band birds.  Mark-recapture studies can tell us the rate at which bird survive from season to season.  The MAPS program has a system of bird banding stations that collects migrating and resident bird data at regular intervals.  Nest success studies can determine whether birds are returning to the same nest site every year or whether they nest at the same location where they were hatched.

The Value of Ecosystem Services


The crowd at Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park

Biologists can sometimes put an actual dollar value on biodiversity, whether it’s the assistance aerial insectivores, like bats, nighthawks, swallows and swifts, can provide in pest control or whether it’s the vultures that cleanse our ecosystems of pathogens or whether it’s in tourism dollars.  Here’s one example the Washington Post published on the value of tourism at these biodiversity hotspots. Last year, the National Park Service proposed a hike in entry fees at a some of its more popular parks to help defray the maintenance costs of increased numbers of visitors.

The Value of Vultures


The Turkey Vultures of Devils Tower National Monument

I have written in the past on the decline of vultures in Asia, Europe and Africa and the efforts to reintroduce the California Condor. Now there’s this bit of good news: Vultures have made a resurgence in Nepal due to the invention of vulture restaurants( in this story published by NPR).

I have had a soft spot for vultures since I met the resident outreach Turkey Vulture at the Oregon Zoo. The keeper at the zoo would walk around the zoo with the bird on his arm and tell this story while the bird patiently spread its wings and sunned itself.  The vulture had been one of their residents for more than 20 years until one day when he became ill. They had the zoo veterinary staff examine him.  They found an impacted unfertilized egg and after decades of caring for the bird, they discovered their Turkey Vulture was a female.

I thought about studying vultures. I was told by another researcher that there is no glamour in this work.  Vultures use vomit and feces as a defense mechanism.  That shouldn’t stop us. Cathartidae, new world vultures, like Caprimulgidae, the nightjars, are another understudied family of birds.  When I attended the 2016 North American Ornithological Conference , there were only a handful of nightjar researchers (and we all went out for a drink), but there was only one vulture researcher in a sea of 2,000 ornithologists. I met her on the last day in the airport.  Had I known, I would have invited her out with us nightjar nerds.