Bird Watching as a Tool for Scientific Inquiry
Bird Watching as a tool for scientific inquiry
Birds form an important component of most ecosystems.1 Forests, grasslands, mountains, deserts, lakes, ponds, marshes, rivers, coastlines, tundra, remote oceanic islands – birds are present in all these habitats. Because they are common, relatively large and easy to see, frequently colorful, often downright beautiful or charmingly cute, and have many interesting behaviors, they have piqued the interest of humans for millennia. Consequently, birds have been intensively studied, so quite a lot is known about them. Fortunately, avian status as “charismatic megafauna” has ensured that, because interest in birds extends far beyond scientific circles, much has been written with the average person in mind. No fancy jargon to wade through! This makes birds ideal subjects for classroom exploration.
Also, there are four key points that will quite likely go a long way towards ensuring receptivity to bird-related activities among your students.
Key point #1
Birds are little feathered dinosaurs.2 Yes, ’tis true. Birds are feathered theropod dinosaurs and constitute the only living dinosaur lineage . . . . so that asteroid strike 65 million years ago didn’t – quite – wipe out the dinosaurs . . . . . Modern birds (a group known as the Neornithes) are believed to have evolved in the middle to late Cretaceous; the group diversified dramatically at the end of the Cretaceous and beginning of the Paleogene (right around the time of that big extinction event).3
Key point #2
Birds are the live-action equivalent of Pokemon, and “gotta catch ’em all” is the birder’s mantra . . . . which leads to . . . . .
Key point #3
Because bird watching (or “birding” as it is known) is such an intensely popular activity, there are many, many resources available to help with bird identification. Anyone can go birding and identify the majority of birds they see using just a cell phone app. Special equipment is not necessary! Binoculars, a camera with a telephoto lens, other fancy gear – these things are nice additions – and very helpful, to be sure – but they are not necessary.
Key point #4
Birding can be done anywhere, and it can be done by groups or by a single individual.
This makes birding an ideal activity for students to pursue – particularly now in the current remote learning environment with social distancing guidelines in place.
So how can you incorporate bird watching into your science curriculum? Here are a few ideas.
If familiarizing your students with the general concept of biodiversity is your goal, birds are a means to accomplish this end. Birds are a diverse group, with approximately 10,000 living species.4 About 2000 species are found in North America.
So have your students venture outside to watch birds and do species counts! They’ll get a sense of the numerical abundance (how many birds) and species richness (how many different kinds of birds) of the group. As a joint benefit, they’ll also get a therapeutic dose of nature!
Biodiversity comparisons across habitat types
If you want to make this activity a little more complex, have your students compare the numbers and kinds of birds they see in different types of habitats. The locations where studernts watch birds are going to differ: some will be more urban, others more rural; some will have old, tall trees, others will have more grass, flowers, shrubs, and young trees, and some may have no vegetation; some may have a water source (bird bath, pond, stream); some will have bird feeders, others will not; some students may have access to parks where they could focus on watching in a less human-impacted type of environment (prairie, forest, or pond/stream environments). Each student is providing data that the whole group will use, so this becomes a class project – which is how a LOT of science is done: team effort with a lot of people involved.
There are many ways to categorize the areas where the bird watching takes place. The important point is to categorize the areas in some fashion so that comparisons can be made across these different categories.
Questions that can be addressed include (but are not limited to):
- Do the different habitats support different numbers of species?
- Does species composition differ among habitats?
- How many species seem to be habitat generalists (they show up in most/all of the different areas examined) and how many are habitat specialists (they show up in only in a restricted subset of the areas examined – for instance, only in places with many large, old trees – or only near ponds – or only where there is tall grass)?
- Does the number of species correlate with habitat complexity?
You can look at habitat complexity as: A) the number of plant species in the habitat (this is where birding becomes the “gateway drug” leading to other types of biodiversity assessments), B) the number of structural classes of plants present (leaf litter, low grasses/herbs, tall grasses/herbs, shrubs, saplings/young trees, small trees, medium trees, tall/canopy trees), or C) the numbers and kinds of plants in each of the different structural classes. A typical 2-story house is 25 ft tall, so one simple way to assess the structural complexity of trees is to categorize them as being shorter than the house, about the same height as the house, or taller (or much taller) than the house.
Graphing. Data analysis. Math.
Bird watching can be a goal in and of itself, or it can be a means to an end – and that end is the generation of data. Your students’ bird counts are going to generate data – lots of data – that can be subjected to various forms of analysis, both numerical and graphical. The graphs will be beautiful. Your students may be more interested in the analysis and graphing since they have a “personal stake” in the data and (hopefully) enjoyed the acquisition of said data.
Use birds as a focal point to address extinctions and their causes
Worldwide declines in biodiversity are an issue. A number of recent articles have focused on the decline in bird populations in particular (29% decline in number of individuals in North America over the past 50 years – this equates to nearly 3 billion fewer birds present in 2019 than there were in 1970). There is also a great deal of information available concerning human contributions to species declines.
Go beyond science: economic analyses with a birding focus
Governments must often make choices that affect a variety of stakeholders. Birding is a big business and contributes significantly to tourism dollars, so any decision that affects land use or resources in a way that impacts bird populations has the potential to affect “birding” revenue. Students can investigate and calculate how birding interests compare financially with other competing interests. The US Fish and Wildlife Service issues reports that include information relating to the economic impacts of various wildlife associated recreational activities that are helpful in this regard.
Example scenario. New Jersey instituted a moratorium on harvesting horseshoe crabs in 2008. The spring migration of many species of shorebirds coincides with the spawning of horseshoe crabs – the shorebirds, which overwinter in South America, stopover in the Delaware Bay area for 2-3 weeks to gorge on horseshoe crab eggs and fatten up before continuing their migration to their Arctic breeding grounds. People from all over the world flock to Cape May, New Jersey, to view the spring shorebird migration. A decline in shorebird numbers was linked to a decline in horseshoe crabs (due to overharvesting of the crabs). Horseshoe crabs are harvested as bait (they are used to catch eels and whelks) and for the medical industry (a component of their blood, lysate, is used to test injectable material for bacterial contamination). In a scenario in which it is the students will advise the governor of New Jersey concerning the continuation of the harvesting moratorium, the students investigate and calculate the amount of money each of the three stakeholders (birding tourism, eel and whelk fishery, and medical lysate testing) contribute to the state to determine (from a purely financial perspective) which stakeholder makes the greatest contribution via employment and tax revenue.
For more information about the roles that birds play in ecosystems, check out Why Birds Matter.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the premiere center for studying birds in the United States, and the Cornell lab web site is full of information (both general and specific) and contains resources for birders of all skill levels. The All About Birds guide allows you to search by name or shape to find information about any North American Bird species. The search by shape feature is particularly nice because it groups similar kinds of birds together in a way that is easy to understand (for example, you could search under “ducks” or “woodpeckers” or “warblers”) and doesn’t require knowledge of the scientific names of the various bird groups. Each bird species has a dedicated page that provides photographs and song recordings, as well as information about the bird’s range, habitat and food preferences, tips for spotting the bird, assorted cool facts, and more.
There is also a page of the 100 most common birds likely to show up at your bird feeder. This serves as a useful introductory guide to help students become familiar with the birds they are most likely to see. A note of warning though! The list can be modified by region – which you should definitely do! Without making the regional adjustment, the list includes birds from across the United States – so it includes birds that are common in California or Texas, but are rarely (if ever) seen in Indiana!
Cornell Lab relies heavily on the contributions of citizen scientists for the massive amounts of data needed to track and assess changes in bird populations. Consequently, they promote a variety of citizen science projects, such as the Great Backyard Bird Count, Project Feeder Watch, and others. Your students can take part in these citizen science projects (some are open to all at no cost, others have a small fee), or they can just generally contribute to the Cornell Lab database through eBird; eBird is the engine through which all data collection for Cornell lab transpires, and its use requires setting up an account.
Cornell Lab also maintains live bird cams so you and your students can watch nesting birds in real time.
Useful cell phone apps
Merlin. Merlin is the Cornell Lab’s app for bird identification in the field. By answering a few key questions about the bird (approximate size, three main colors, where did you see it – on the ground, in a tree, in the water, etc.) the app generates a list of possible birds, complete with photographs, for you to match with the bird you saw.
Seek. Seek is an outgrowth of iNaturalist, a project of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society. Using your cell phone’s camera, you can scan the environment and the app will identify any organism you are looking at. You are not likely to be able to scan an actual bird using Seek (birds generally won’t hold still long enough), but you can use the app to scan photos (for example, one you have downloaded to your computer), or you can let the app access your phone’s camera role.
Lambert J. 2019. We’ve lost 3 billion birds since 1970 in North America. Science News. 12 Oct. 2019.
Rosenberg KV, et al. 2019. Decline of the North American avifauna. Science 366:120-124. doi: 10.1126/science.aaw1313
Axelson G. 2019. Vanishing: in just the past 50 years, more than 1 in 4 birds has disappeared across North America. Living Bird 38 (4): 44-57.
Footnote 1. There are two limitations on where birds occur: food supply and nesting area. Although birds may pass through inhospitable areas when migrating, they are technically absent from these regions (i.e. they do not feed or breed there). Consequently, birds are absent from places such the continental interior of Antarctica (though coastal Antarctica is noted for its penguins), high mountains above the snowline, and the deep ocean (though some species, such as frigate birds, hunt the surface of the open ocean, far from land).
Footnote 2. With that statement, you’ve cast the line. General love of all things “dinosaur” among young persons ensures that (most) students will bite.
Footnote 3. This is typical of major extinction events. So many species are wiped out that many ecological roles within ecosystems are left empty. Surviving species diversify and fill those empty niches.
Footnote 4. The actual number of species varies, depending on whom you ask. When it comes to deciding what is or is not a species, “lumping” (grouping different species together as one species) and “splitting” (identifying variations of a single species as different species) can be a problem. Systematists and Taxonomists – the scientists who name and describe species and try to figure out the evolutionary relationships among species, argue about this all the time.)