AMHERST, Mass. - A citizen science project to study nesting populations of common backyard songbirds started recently as researchers from the University of Massachusetts Amherst began visiting the yards of 60 volunteer families across western Massachusetts for the "Neighborhood Nestwatch" project.
It is a collaboration among the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Research Station and UMass Amherst, led by Susannah Lerman, a postdoctoral research associate. She and colleagues count and band adult birds and teach families how to locate nests and count the number of young robins, catbirds, chickadees and five other species. It is modeled after a songbird nesting project that has run successfully in the Washington, D.C. area for 13 years.
Lerman and two field technicians will spend the next three months visiting participating families for about four hours per site to look for song sparrows, Carolina wrens, northern cardinals, house wrens, gray catbirds, American robins, northern mockingbirds and black-capped chickadees.
"We are studying a mix of resident and migrant birds, open cup and cavity nesters, and birds that use a variety of habitats," says Lerman. "One goal is to see whether urban, suburban and rural birds are alike or different from wildland or forest populations on several variables." At each yard, she and colleagues will do a "point count" to census the birds in the area, to get an idea of the bird composition.
The visiting bird experts will also put up mist nets to catch adult birds and apply unique color bands so citizen scientists can identify and track individual birds. They will also measure their body fat and estimate their age. Children and adults in the neighborhood will be invited to observe closely and photograph birds before they are released. Lerman and colleagues will teach families proper techniques of nest searching, re-sighting banded birds and other details. They will leave data sheets for families to fill out and enter on the Smithsonian’s online database at season’s end.
"We’re basically teaching the homeowner how to be an ornithologist for their particular yard and to be our scientific eyes and ears during the breeding season," says Lerman. "In the coming years, families can hope to re-sight birds banded in their neighborhood nesting area to document year-to-year survival. Many bird species have a high degree of site fidelity. It will be interesting to see whether this holds true for these urban birds."
Neighborhood Nestwatch organizers say that urban sprawl is destroying wildlife habitat at an unprecedented rate, which not only has a negative effect on birds but also increases people’s isolation from nature. "Birds tend to be bioindicators because they have such a strong connection with their local habitat and environment," Lerman adds. "Since the majority of Americans live in urban and suburban areas it becomes essential that we engage urban residents in scientific research to help advance urban habitat management."
"We intend this program to be a nice way for people to reconnect with their local nature, and provide a personal mentored experience with a scientist who will visit your home and teach you and your family and friends about the birds nesting in the area, including what they eat and ways to help improve habitat conditions to ensure their continued survival in our cities."