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Science Day in Ithaca

2014 March 6
by Seth Inman and Marta del Campo

DSC01705 copy 2It’s so great when different organizations with missions to support their community work with each other to create a collaborative event of activities for everyone! This weekend was especially wonderful because not only did the sun come out and raise temperatures enough to melt much of the Ithaca snow away, but also on Saturday (Feb. 22) an entertaining and informative event took place at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center (GIAC) downtown.

Organized by the Cornell Chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, the exposition was geared especially toward the local Latino community but open to all. They invited Celebrate Urban Birds to set up a space to promote citizen science and birds among all the young students and engineers from various programs at Cornell University. DSC01705 copyTogether, all the different projects—from DNA analysis to bridge-building to astrophysics—showed local visitors the wonders of science and, for the younger members of the audience, the fantastic possibilities for future avenues of study and careers.

The student organizers of the event were full of positive energy and willingness to share their vision of the accessibility of science. Their small demonstrations, often hands-on for participants, helped make the complex theory behind certain engineering principles easier for everyone to understand and experience for themselves. For our own part, we tried to give people an idea of the birds that live around us in urban areas and how we can appreciate and help them!

DSC01710We were able to open a window into the often unseen lives of birds in the spring by bringing actual bird nests to GIAC, along with photos of the species that made them. The goal was to get people excited about heading out into the fresh air and looking for these crafted signs of spring in the upcoming months, even in urban Ithaca, NY. Kids and adults alike were awed by the extraordinary construction skills displayed by birds, asking questions like, “What materials do they use?” “How can the Baltimore Oriole weave without hands?” “Where do American Robins nest?” and “Do Blue Jays mix up all the different types of nesting material together on purpose?”

These types of questions showed us how fascinating people found the feats of engineering embodied in the careful and dedicated work of bird nests. It’s not every day that you get to see the majestically woven basket nest of a Baltimore Oriole—much less gently touch it! By seeing these wonders up close, we hope both the adults and kids who visited our station will be keeping an eye out for the nests that are invariably built around them in a green city like Ithaca: nature is just around the corner!

DSC01701With support from the Museum of Vertebrates at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, we were also able to take a small sample of the hundreds of specimens of birds in the collection to show visitors, and it was a great success. People who stopped by our table were stunned by the elegant beauty of the Rose-breasted Grosbeak and the lustrous black feathers of the American Crow, as well as the other half-dozen species we brought out. In addition to these real-life bird examples, we brought our CUBs materials on bird-friendly gardening and focal species posters, including Lemon Queen Sunflower seeds for people to take home and plant on their balconies or in their backyard. Hopefully they’ll grow into urban beautifiers that will also help local bird life!

DSC01708 copy 2It was really wonderful to see how interested and curious the families who visited each table at the Science Day exposition were, as well as how engaging the student volunteers from Cornell could be on an early Saturday morning. Most of the stations had interactive presentations to reach people of all ages and regardless of scientific background knowledge. For example, the textile research group had some microscopes hooked up to a digital screen so that people could look at the minuscule details of fibers and fabrics, as well as other interesting things like grasshoppers, twigs, and of course the Baltimore Oriole nest we brought! DSC01707The astronomers had a table dedicated to wonders of the universe such as supernovas, suns, and planets, making the day a series of marvels from the microscopic to the macrocosmic, all brought within reach of everyone visiting GIAC.

Thanks to the Cornell Chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, students were able to share nature’s fascinating forms, and the ways in which we study them, with local Ithaca residents who otherwise might not always be able to learn about Cornell’s research programs. Hopefully this will become a yearly event to stimulate curiosity, generate interest in technological innovation and scientific research, and celebrate community. Thank you to all the volunteers who invited us to participate and made this day of science-sharing happen!

Spring Sightings

2014 February 28
by Seth Inman
Blue Jay collecting nesting material by Dave Russell

Blue Jay collecting nesting material by Dave Russell

Have you heard of our latest challenge here at Celebrate Urban Birds?

It has to do with many of the clues that we notice as the days get longer, snows turn to rains, plants put out new buds, and insects start buzzing and crawling around. Around this time, as food sources and places of shelter become newly available, tons of birds begin to come back from their warmer winter abodes to join the brave species that stayed in North America during the past several frigid months!

Look for birds that haven’t been at your feeder for a while, or birds that have been regulars but are in the process of changing their wardrobes for the breeding season! How bold are the red patches on your neighborhood male House Finches? Have you spotted an astonishingly scarlet Northern Cardinal yet? If you’re in the northeast of the continent, you may have yet to see an Eastern Bluebird sitting on a local nest box, but keep your eyes open! A sharp lookout for birds like the American Robin pecking at the thawed soil for worms is bound to yield a sign of spring.

Common Grackle by Theresa Evans

Common Grackle by Theresa Evans

Our Signs of Spring Challenge encourages you to get outdoors and look for birds getting back to their non-wintry selves: courting for mates, collecting nesting material, pecking at fresh food, and in the case of early bloomers, raising chicks! From now until March 31st you have a chance at winning a birdfeeder, poster, bird sounds CD, pair of Opticron binoculars, or another great prize for your photo, video, artwork, story, or poem that somehow depicts a relationship between spring and avian life. Follow the link above to visit the Challenge page!

Fascinating Feathers

2014 February 7
by Seth Inman

Starting in late November, 2013 and ending in mid-January, 2014, our Fascinating Feathers Challenge received six hundred submissions, and we selected around fifty of those entries as award-winners in their distinct categories.

Best Dressed was the most popular category for participants, leading us to believe that people find birds beautiful! And rightly so. Out of the stunning array of well-dressed bird photos and pieces of art that are shared in the category, we saw both common and less-known birds, with colorful and monochromatic plumage patterns, but all with a great sense of style and a pleasure to look at!

Much harder to see were the entries in our Best Camouflaged category — these inconspicuous fellows were often feathered to perfection when it came to blending in with their surroundings and fooling us into thinking they were just another rock, or a pile of leaves, or a stump on a tree! Just as the Best Dressed birds are emblematic of the sexual selection that takes place throughout much of the animal kingdom, the Best Camouflaged appropriately illustrate the importance of adapting to the environment over the course of evolution and becoming better predators or luckier prey as a species.

“The Seduction” by Caroline Sun

Western Meadowlark by Susan Vanderveen

Sometimes environmental factors can lead to wacky changes, like this spoonbill’s pink feathers, connected to its main diet of aquatic creatures that it probes for in marshy habitat. Birds can also have mutations, like this leucistic swallow that is lacking most of the pigments in its feathers (leucism is similar to albinism). And plenty of birds just do things that look plain weird to us, if we don’t know what’s up!

What is clear is how much the feathers make the bird. Consider a hummingbird without the perfect wings to flutter up against a flower; imagine what would happen to this duck if it tried to enter its nestbox without flaring its tail and wing feathers to brake against the air; think about the down in your jacket and how birds stay warm in a place like South Dakota. Feathers are quite functional, indeed!

Not every entry contained images, however. We got plenty of poems and a couple stories, which we encourage you to check out as well.

We’d like to thank every participant for joining us in our first Fascinating Feathers challenge and creating such a magnificent repository for artwork, photographs, videos, and literature surrounding birds and the captivating stuff that makes a bird a bird!