ITHACA, N.Y. -- Those who yearn to spy on their neighbors finally have an excuse -- as well as an opportunity to help science -- by studying cavity-nesting birds.
Bird-watchers across North America are teaming up with scientists at Cornell University's Laboratory of Ornithology to learn more about kestrels, swallows, bluebirds, chickadees, wood ducks and other birds that nest in tree cavities and nest boxes, through the Cornell Nest Box Network (CNBN).
"We're looking for people from all walks of life to join the ranks of citizen-scientists across the continent, monitoring nest boxes and contributing valuable information to the study of birds from their own backyards, local nature centers or the farm down the road," says David W. Winkler, associate professor of ecology and systematics at Cornell and a principal investigator in the National Science Foundation-funded project.
The citizen-scientists' data are analyzed by Cornell scientists, and the results are shared with the scientific community and conservation groups, as well as with the participants. Winkler adds, "Learning as much as we can about these fascinating birds will help us make responsible decisions regarding habitat management and bird conservation."
Volunteer bird-watchers can participate in several ways:
-- By opening doors to nest boxes and quickly peering inside, they can count eggs or nestlings.
-- Before closing the box, they might also estimate the number of feathers lining the nest.
-- They may even see the mother fly in to rejoin her offspring.
-- Pausing in the distance record notes in a field notebook, a participant might observe the bird eating chicken eggshells, a good source of calcium -- all in a day's work for a CNBN birder.
One nest box is all it takes to get started. With the breeding season just around the corner, Cornell scientists say now is the perfect time to learn about birds and science and have fun.
One of the first to join CNBN, Carol Cash of Franklinville, N.Y., says, "It's been a pleasure. My husband built the nest boxes over the years, and we always enjoyed watching the activity from a distance. But now, by participating in CNBN, we've learned so much about nesting activity. It has been a wonderful experience for both of us. My husband is disabled, and he was just as eager to become involved as I was."
After testing its wings in a successful first year, the network is migrating continentwide, as volunteers in Mexico, the U.S. and Canada provide feathers for swallows to line their nests, count eggs for a clutch-size study or document the use of calcium by birds. "It is a remarkable experience to see life unfold by following the events of the nesting process -- from nest-building and egg-laying to nestlings and fledglings," says Pixie Senesac, CNBN research coordinator.
"Monitoring nest boxes is also a great project for children," Senesac notes. "Scouts, 4-H clubs, schools and other youth groups can learn about science and nature in an exciting, hands-on atmosphere while observing the lives of birds up close."
The volunteer observers stand a good chance of witnessing the all-important "fledging" process, says Rick Bonney, the Cornell laboratory's director of education and co-principal investigator on the project. In 1997, for example, 72 percent of the Eastern bluebird and tree swallow nests under observation produced young birds that matured and left the nest.
"Early results also revealed a pattern in clutch size for tree swallows, where the birds nesting in northern latitudes laid more eggs per clutch than the birds nesting in southern latitudes," Bonney says. "It takes people collecting data for us to get results like these."
CNBN birders receive the following:
-- A 100-page research kit with easy-to-follow instructions for building and placing nest boxes and conducting research, the details of four studies now under way and data forms or software. Participants also receive annual updates and additions to the research kit.
-- A subscription to Birdscope, the quarterly newsletter from the Laboratory of Ornithology, with up-to-date coverage of CNBN results and articles about birds and other citizen-science projects.
-- Access to an e-mail mailing list discussion group, where participants can interact with each other, as well as Cornell ornithologists.
The CNBN is funded by participant fees, which cover the cost of materials and project expenses, and by a grant from the National Science Foundation. Annual fees are $20 for the first year and $15 for renewal years.
Checks can be made payable to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and sent to Cornell Nest Box Network/MSER, Cornell Lab of Ornithology, P.O. Box 11, Ithaca, NY 14851-0011. Credit card users (in the United States only) may call (800) 843-BIRD. Volunteers may join CNBN by visiting the web site of the Laboratory of Ornithology http://www.ornith.cornell.edu.
Materials provided by Cornell University. Note: Content may be edited for style and length.
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