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My Work with “Celebrate Urban Birds”

2012 May 27
by Seth Inman

For the past year, I have been working at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for the project Celebrate Urban Birds. Unlike other citizen science projects the Lab of O. is involved with, such as eBird or FeederWatch, Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBs) stays true to its name and hones in on the celebratory aspect of studying birds: artwork, festivals, education, and other activities promoting community. Of course, there is still data involved. Thousands of forms have been filed—both electronically and physically—containing information on sightings of the sixteen focal species within 10-minute observation periods. These observations, along with notes about sighting location, are the source of data for the project. Participants include the address from which they are looking for birds in the ten minutes, describe the general amount of greenery and pavement in the area (as well as the size of the area itself), and list whether they saw, did not see, or were not sure about each of the sixteen species. This information constitutes a checklist that can be compiled into a larger repository of sightings in various types of green spaces around the country; the CUBs website contains species maps according to the number of observations in the last 90 days, marking where, say, a Brown-headed Cowbird has and has not been seen.

If observations are submitted frequently enough in enough areas, the CUBs program can act as a sort of informal survey of a neighborhood’s avifauna, limited of course to the sixteen focal species. Although strict census numbers cannot be obtained from the data submitted by participants, a general analysis of trends is possible. For example, researchers might use CUBs data to determine what species are most commonly seen by casual observers, what species might be very rarely seen in a suburban neighborhood, and other such tendencies (the true estimates for population size and distribution can be found with other projects). On the CUBs website, a data page similar to the aforementioned maps lists the frequency of sightings per species—House Sparrows take the lead at 3183 sightings, and Bullock’s Oriole tails behind at 78—and this frequency table is next to a similar one listing the top ten numbers of observations submitted per state (New York 626, Pennsylvania 204). However, what leading members of the CUBs project are most interested in are the relationships communities have with their bird populations, especially taking into account the amount of green space in specific areas. The directors of the program have already established that less affluent neighborhoods tend to have lower bird biodiversity, and believe this to be correlated with the amount of greenery in these areas, which are primarily urban. Given the focal species list (American Crow, American Robin, Baltimore Oriole, Barn Swallow, Black-crowned Night Heron, Brown-headed Cowbird, Bullock’s Oriole, Cedar Waxwing, European Starling, House Finch, House Sparrow, Killdeer, Mallard, Mourning Dove, Peregrine Falcon, and Rock Pigeon), there are few species within the list itself to be easily confused even by beginners—the finch and sparrow, and the two orioles if one lives in the right part of the country, become quickly discernible after a bit of practice with simple guides, which the CUBs website frequently provides. This ease with which participants can mark whether or not they saw a species means that, for instance, an expert birder in an affluent neighborhood carrying out observations should not have a significant difference in facility for identification over a beginner in a less affluent one.

The interest that CUBs directors have in community education has led Celebrate Urban Birds to also include a concerted effort to “green” neighborhoods and create better habitat for birds. A packet of sunflower seeds is included in every kit mailed out to participants, and many gardening ideas are also provided on the website. This explicitly environmental aspect of the program, along with promotion of the arts through birds, can teach community-members about citizen science as a tool for conservation and research while deepening an appreciation of their surroundings. In my next post, I will describe how I plan to take my work for CUBs during the school year at Cornell and extend it to summer work in the Galápagos Islands, on Santa Cruz.

Connecting Communities Across the Continent Through Birds — Mexico

2012 May 1
by Marta del Campo and Seth Inman

Did you know that some of the organizations we collaborate with are in Latin America and the Caribbean?. They are wonderful and an inspiration to us all!

Children enjoying Celebrate Urban Birds activities organized by the Museum of Mexican Birds at Saltillo, Mexico

With such diverse cultures in Latin America and the Caribbean, there is a lot we can learn from them, and vice versa, to better understand birds and their habitats, both here and there. If birds don’t discriminate by country, then shouldn’t we follow their example? It is true that many of our focal species for Celebrate Urban Birds aren’t found in other countries, but with a little creativity and persistence, organizations across Latin America and the Caribbean Islands adapt our materials and resources to fit their local needs, resources, and birds. It is inspiring to see how these groups benefit their communities with activities and materials derived from our own project to help others appreciate local birds, celebrate in their communities, and aid bird conservation n urban green spaces and surrounding areas.

Another wonderful group of kids enjoying activities organized by the Museum of Mexican Birds at Saltillo, Mexico

In Mexico, for example, the Museo de las Aves de Mexico (Museum of Mexican Birds) in Saltillo is accomplishing great work in its community of nearly one million residents. Saltillo is in the northeast of Mexico, near Monterrey, and is a very arid zone, though not a terribly hot one since it is more than 5000 feet (~1600m) above sea level. The museum designs many different activities to educate the population about birds, nature, and  conservation. They have created several successful activities for children and other participants in the zone, using materials and resources from Celebrate Urban Birds. In only two months,more than 600 kids participated in workshops about urban and suburban birds. When it came to thinking about how to reach the children and adults outside the city, the folks at the museum had to get extra creative—they came up with the idea of a “traveling” bird museum that could better reach people in other towns.

Participants with Celebrate Urban Birds materials at activities of the Museum of Mexican Birds at Saltillo, Mexico

As the saying goes:, “If the mountain won’t come…” then the museum will go to the people all around the zone. Imagine a caravan of sorts, full of many colorful birds coming to  your town or city; it sets up displays and information tables in a public space so all may learn about and appreciate the birds and their habitat. And that’s just one town! The museum truly does move from place to place.People of all ages participate, and it is great to see the looks of curiosity and amazement on kids’ and adults’ faces as they participate in this unique experience.. Moving from place to place, the museum is truly able to spread its core message of “Knowledge for Conservation.” In the next blog, I will tell you about the activities about some of our partners in Cuba.

To learn more about our partnership with the  Museum of Mexican Birds (Museo de las Aves de México), visit:

To learn more about the Museum and its programs, please visit:

To learn about other organizations collaborating with us, please visit:

Until next time!

More About Migration!

2012 April 4
by Marta del Campo and Seth Inman

The Northern Cardinal is a non-migratory bird. In the north we are so lucky to have them all winter long. Photo by Millie Farmer, KY

A couple days ago, while walking to work, I was fortunate enough to cross paths with a pair of Northern Cardinals. I felt so lucky to have been so close to them that a smile was on my face until I went to bed that night. Has anything similar happened to you recently? Have you seen birds that easily light up your day with their flitting movements and cheery songs?

As I thought about Northern Cardinals that night, which stay in Ithaca the whole winter (Northern Cardinals are non-migratory), I wondered when our migratory birds would return from their wintering grounds. Not only does the arrival of migratory birds increase the diversity of birds in our area, but their songs also give a very unique life to our springtime. Migrants allow us to connect to nature with a special sort of happiness and vitality. Have you ever asked yourself how these birds prepare for such long migratory flights when it can take some of us days just to prepare one suitcase for a weekend trip?


Before departure, migratory birds become gluttons. They overeat and store body fat. Photo by Phyllis Basinger, TN

Well, first of all, they become gluttons. Yes, they eat almost without restraint. Even if you don’t believe it (or perhaps you’re starting to like the sound of the idea yourself), a bird that is about to migrate alters its diet so drastically that it eats about 30% more than normal in calories, with a special appetite for fatty foods. This change in diet makes the bird’s digestion and metabolism more efficient, increasing the bird’s fat stores by almost half its body weight. The human equivalent would be a 150lb person gaining 75lbs by the end of a month. Can you imagine such a transformation? It is almost too incredible! Still harder to believe is the fact that in the time it takes the bird to migrate, which is one or two weeks, the bird will lose almost all the fat they gained. Talk about a yo-yo diet!

But why is so much fat important to a bird about to migrate? One might think that such an increase in weight might negatively impact a bird’s flight ability, like an airplane that has taken on too much luggage. The difference is that the birds have overloaded themselves with what is practically pure energy and water—resources that are imperative for the thousands of miles of flight between winter homes and breeding grounds that some species undertake. Although it may not look it by the time they get here, our migratory birds will have become little balls of fat and water before they leave their wintering sites. Can you imagine how hot they must get on the way over here? Don’t forget that they’re covered in feathers (we all know how warm a down comforter can be)!


Yellow-rumped Warbler, a migratory bird, showing off its beautiful feathers. Photo by Poonam Murgai, WY

Since the exertion of flying produces so much heat, birds can become dehydrated on long flights, the way your levels of thirst will differ between running around your neighborhood block and completing a half-marathon. Normally birds do their migratory flying at night, because one of the simplest ways to control dehydration is by flying in currents of cold air, which are easily found at great heights, or when the sun is down. Another reason for flying at night is to use the stars as guides and avoid predators. I find that the former motive provides a more beautiful image: birds still follow the stars the way our greatest navigators circled the globe centuries ago—think Marco Polo or Ferdinand Magellan. But these explorers also used compasses to get around, didn’t they? Well, it is likely that some birds have something similar to an internal compass that allows them to detect surrounding magnetic fields and use them as pointers on migratory flights.


Flock of Snow Geese taking off for migration. Photo by Richard Drosse, WA

Of course, it seems like it’d still be easier to fly by day. If you’ve ever had to drive through the night to visit your relatives for Thanksgiving, you know how horrible nighttime orienteering can get (and I’m sure Magellan and Polo enjoyed having the information the sun can provide, too). So yes, some migratory birds prefer to fly by day. These birds tend to use the position of the sun (many birds might be able to see polarized light, making this easier even on cloudy days), cues from surrounding terrain, the magnetic fields, and, though you may be skeptical again, smells and sounds. There is reason to believe that homing pigeons can hear infrasound, allowing them to detect extremely low frequency sounds the way elephants do, and some scientists think birds can differentiate large-scale odor changes over long distances (say, thousands of miles). I should point out that this latter claim is a bit controversial—although some scientists have a little evidence supporting the hypothesis, many have yet to concur. So as you can see, there are still many questions about bird migration. I’ve only told you a bit about what is known, or at least thought, regarding how migratory birds fly every year between breeding grounds and winter sites; there is still much to learn.


Baltimore Oriole enjoying spring flowers. Photo by Cormier, Canada

So go out for a walk in the park near your house. Look out the window. Step onto your porch or balcony and plant some flowers or beautiful bushes in your backyard, and enjoy the birds that will visit you. Maybe upon seeing them your day will improve as quickly as mine did when I came across the Northern Cardinals, and you will think of another reason for birds migrating, or how they do so. And if something does occur to you, or any artwork is inspired by your encounters, share! Remember that we are still accepting your spring creations and photographs—find the Signs of Spring challenge here:

Until next time!