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2012 March 22
by Marta del Campo and Karen Purcell

Painting by David Beale, NY

Many of us living in northern climates are rejoicing as birds we had not seen or heard in months are beginning to return. We are finally starting to hear their songs and calls from our open windows after a long winter absence.  The return of migrating birds is one of the first signs that spring is settling in around us. How wonderful!  Go outside, welcome back the birds, and feel nature around you. Find inspiration in spring and participate in our latest challenge “Signs of Spring.”  Share your stories, photos, and art with us!

Have you thought about why the vast majority of North American birds are migratory? More than 75% of birds nesting in North America migrate south and spend the winter months in warmer lands like the Caribbean and Central or South America. There are so many migratory birds!

Theresa Evans from Canada, sent a beautiful photo of this Common Grackle at her backyard for the Signs of Spring Challenge. These impressive birds are just returning!

If these birds were only migrating to escape from the harsh cold winters of the north why wouldn’t they just stay in the south year round?  This is a question many scientists are still trying to answer. Other fascinating questions about migratory birds that intrigue bird enthusiasts are:  How do migratory birds know where to go? How do they orient themselves to make it all the way to their target destinations? Where do they get the energy and water to fuel their flight day after day sometimes without stopping?

Don’t you want to know more? Visit us next week if you’d like to learn more about spring migration!

To participate in the “Signs of Spring” Challenge please click here:

Until next time!

Spring Is Coming!

2012 March 12
by Marta del Campo and Seth Inman

Photo by Lauren Simkin, NY

Our latest challenge started last week. Take a few minutes to participate by going outside to take photos, shoot some video, or perhaps do something artistic to illustrate spring’s arrival. I invite you to learn more about springtime birds and participate in the challenge while you’re at it!

Have you ever noticed the changes that occur in your neighborhood when spring approaches? For those who live in areas with long, harsh winters, the changes that accompany spring can be extreme: The snow melts, the breeze carries a distinct scent, the days are longer, and the stars somehow look different. But have you also heard more birds singing? Or have you seen new birds that haven’t been around in months? Have you noticed the birds that were present all winter are suddenly shining brighter and whistling more sweetly? Well, these changes are part of the nature that surrounds you!

Photo by Theodore Bering, OH

The majority of birds change their behavior almost like clockwork in spring. You may ask yourself how, or why, they do this. Simply put, with springtime normally comes abundance, diversity, and better weather. These are all crucial factors when deciding whether to travel to more abundant areas or to stay until conditions improve. It is easiest to start a family when resources are plentiful.

In colder areas, longer days are one of the first indicators that winter is on its last legs. Many birds that breed in the spring and summer start to molt toward the end of winter.  With longer days, many birds begin to feather themselves in livelier colors, fly longer trips, or practice impressive songs—both to attract potential mates and to fend off rivals. Today we will talk about the changes in many birds’ plumages around this time of the year. In these coming weeks before spring completely pushes winter out of the way, I will tell you more about these developments.

Photo by Vidya Ramprakash, CA

How many springs have you stood in front of your closet and told yourself, I need to get new clothes! New shoes! Spring is here! Then again, many of us (both birds and humans) don’t only wait for spring. Feathers start deteriorating over time, and most birds molt their feathers completely at the end of summer or beginning of fall. Many species also molt to especially colorful or flashy plumages at the end of winter or beginning of spring, so they can be “well dressed” for courtship and the mating season. But if their feathers aren’t especially worn, how do birds know, or decide, when to molt? We’re pretty certain that they have receptors inside their heads that are so sensitive to light they can detect the almost imperceptible changes in the amount of sunlight per day. When these receptors are engaged long enough for a bird’s brain to ascertain that days are growing longer, hormones flood the bird’s body, and depending on the species cause the bird to molt, reproduce, and/or migrate.

photo by Margaret Barry, FL

Just as getting a new wardrobe is expensive for us, molting is costly for birds. And they don’t have the convenience of paying with check or credit card; they can’t order new feathers online. Instead, they have to spend a huge amount of energy, proteins, and minerals to grow each feather from scratch. The best-fed and healthiest individuals tend to have the most beautiful plumages, full of bright and exciting colors—important qualities for males trying to impress females with their appearance and courtship displays.

These new feathers don’t grow in a day, of course. It can take weeks, or even months, for a bird to completely replace its plumage. The birds also don’t regrow all their feathers at once. The renewal is gradual, and often occurs section by section along the body. There’s a reason you’ve never seen naked birds flying about. In addition to the fact that feathers keep birds in the air, feathers are the best defense a bird has against its environment, not only for mobility but also to stay warm during colder weather, camouflage, and perhaps a dozen other reasons. Nevertheless, it isn’t unusual to see birds that look a bit rough around the edges, or disheveled, or with colorations that you rarely see in guidebooks—they’re just in the middle of their molt (or down on their luck, in which case you should stop staring)!

American Goldfinch molting in spring.Photo by Kevin J. McGowan, NY

When the late winter or early spring molt finishes, the birds that have molted will be wearing their very best. Some birds migrate before or after molting (to do so during a molt would be too tiring); others stay in one place year round, every year. For those birds that do molt in the spring, their next steps are to celebrate the end of winter and find a mate, and then start a new family!

So birds aren’t all that different from us. Go enjoy the outdoors with your loved ones, and see if you can find those differences in your neighborhood birds that tell you spring is coming!

Photo is courtesy of Ithaca Children's Garden, NY

Next week, I’ll tell you about bird migrations in the spring. And if you want to learn more about that challenge I mentioned earlier, visit us at

Until next time!

What is Celebrate Urban Birds all about?

2012 February 20
by Marta del Campo and Seth Inman

Are you curious? Do you think it’s about dancing, singing, painting, and having fun with family and friends? Actually, you’re pretty close! The “Celebrate” part is clear—it involves sharing joy and art with people you enjoy being with.


Photo By Zac Patherson, NY

What about the “Birds”? Well, Celebrate Urban Birds’ main purpose is to get people—generally those who don’t have much free time, or haven’t been exposed to the wonders of nature—involved and connected with the living environment around them. But all are welcome! Experiencing a connection with nature is actually pretty easy. You can start by just watching birds in your neighborhood, local park, or school.  You only need to watch for 10 minutes, and share your observations with us. You can repeat these simple steps as many times as you like, and if you get bored of the same place, you can always go watch somewhere else! Over time, you begin to notice the trees, flowers, and animals that surround you and which you may have not noticed before. With this new awareness, you realize that you don’t have to go that far to enjoy nature. Day by day, you begin to appreciate your environment more, thanks in part to the birds that live close to you.


Photo by E. W. Galloway, FL

We still have to talk about the “Urban” part.  This isn’t about birds in high heels and suits, though it would be funny material for a cartoon! What we mean is that the 16 bird species we chose to study live in urban and suburban areas, not only in the countryside. There aren’t many of these species because they have to adapt to the way we build our houses and cities. Let’s be honest: Buildings, street posts, traffic lights and paved roads aren’t the best places to nest or search for food. We selected species of urban birds that you can find almost all across the country. Even if you don’t know much about birds, you can always start with one or two species, and little by little increase the number until you reach the 16th. The most important part is that you never feel bored or frustrated. We want you to enjoy yourself outside, and breathe the fresh air while observing the wonderful nature around you. The nature you may have not noticed but was just a couple of steps from your door.


Photo by Will Randall, FL

You may be wondering why we choose to focus on birds over other animals—aren’t cockroaches also “nature” in urban areas? Our program is part of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which by design is dedicated to the research and conservation of birds. So you can understand if we have an intrinsic bias. Our program in particular is dedicated to teaching anyone interested in learning about birds. However, we are aware that birds wouldn’t survive without plenty of other organisms; the same applies to humans and all other life forms (though we still aren’t too sure about those cockroaches). For this reason, and many others, it’s important that we all connect to nature. If we do so, we could understand it better, take care of it, and have a wonderful planet to inhabit together with other species, and of course, with the beatiful birds to make our mornings more joyous. Watching birds in your neighborhood is your first step toward helping to live in a better world tomorrow, where we all could celebrate with our loved ones. Let’s go!