PITTSBURGH – In addition to providing vital information on bird populations in Pittsburgh, the National Aviary’s Neighborhood Nestwatch program has also sparked an interest in birds among children and adults.
Several families in the West Jefferson Hills area are among the 160 households that participated in the program this year. That’s up from 35 homes when the program began in Pittsburgh in 2013. The families work with Bob Mulvihill, an ornithologist at the National Aviary, to help capture, measure, tag and release birds between May and August. Families also monitor bird nests during the nesting season and throughout the year track birds tagged during the program.
The Neighborhood Nestwatch program is a citizen science effort that began at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington D.C. The concept of citizen science has become increasingly popular in recent years as experts look for ways to collect lots of data quickly and accurately without spending large amounts of money, Mulvihill says.
“Even without scientific training, human beings are excellent observers with all of their sensory apparatus,” he says. “Citizen science makes it possible to collect large quantities of data that can address questions that are virtually impossible to address otherwise.”
For example, very little is known about bird ecology in urban areas, Mulvihill says. The Neighborhood Nestwatch program tries to provide answers to that question by collecting data on the population of eight bird species within a 50-mile radius of Point State Park. Mulvihill and his assistants visit the homes of families that have volunteered to participate in the program. The ornithologists spend several hours at each home and setup a large net made from fine nylon threads. Mulvihill uses an amplifier to broadcast a call for each specific species of bird. If any are in the area, the birds fly towards sound in order to investigate and get caught in the large net. Mulvihill and his assistants take the birds out of the net and then examine them. He records each bird’s weight, age, sex, wing length and tail length. Last year Mulvihill collected data on 1,200 birds and estimates that number will increase to 1,500 this year.
Collecting this information is an excellent way to get children involved, he says, allowing them to help take measurements and record the data. Then, Mulvihill shows the family how to hold the bird without injuring it and lets them release it.
“It’s an exercise in connecting people with birds,” Mulvihill says. “They absorb the experience and become more engaged in their own backyards. I know it has a multiplicative effect and that people talk about it with their neighbors, but it’s hard to keep track of the ripple effect this project has.”
One of the most memorable experiences Mulvihill had was when he captured a hummingbird and let the host family listen to the bird’s heart beat 1,000 times per minute. The children and adults were all shocked.
“You could hear it in their voices and see it in their eyes,” Mulvihill recalls. “There are not too many ways you can get that kind of reaction from people. People who participate become advocates. It inspires them to take a stand and make personal changes in their lives.”
Since he often revisits the same homes every year, Mulvihill sees how children’s interest in birds and the environment develop over time. Often, young children will show Mulvihill different projects or presentations they completed at school since the last time he visited. The Neighborhood Nestwatch has encouraged children to study math and science and participate in other environmental events. One of Mulvihill’s assistants has also gone on to study wildlife ecology at the University of Delaware.
After each birds’ measurements are recorded, Mulvihill and his assistants attach colored plastic bands to its legs to identify it. Each household keeps a record each time they spot the bird in their yard. The volunteers are also asked to monitor any bird nests they find in their yards and Mulvihill provides instructions on how to do so without disturbing the nest. This will provide information on bird population survival and nesting rates, which can serve as an early warning indicator for environmental problems.
“Birds make excellent bioindicators because they have a high metabolic rate, a unique respiratory system, and they are found all over the world,” Mulvihill says. “Birds are more sensitive and will show signs of environmental contamination or degradation that we might not feel as humans. Birds are sentinels for the quality of the environment.”
This year, Mulvihill is also asking volunteers to record the number of times birds collide with glass windows in their home. These collisions can kill or injure birds and Mulvihill wants to find ways to reduce this threat. He’ll ask families to install special tape on any windows with which birds collide frequently. The tape reflects ultraviolet light, which birds can see, and will hopefully discourage them from trying to fly through the window. The tape doesn’t block the view from the window or obstruct the light. Mulvihill also suggests that families keep pet cats inside since they are natural predators. Replacing non-native plants or trees with native species will also create a better environment for birds, he says. That’s because native plants attract more insects and birds will have more food.
“The program shows people how even their own personal backyard can impact birds and nature either positively or negatively,” Mulvihill says.
About 160 households participated in the Neighborhood Nestwatch program this year, and Mulvihill says there is a waiting list for new volunteers. He would like to add more homes to the program but has to secure more funding before he can do that.
“I’d love to say yes to everybody who wants to participate but we have to be strategic,” Mulvihill says.
Mulvihill is completing an analysis of the data he recorded in this year’s survey and says the results since 2013 show that the bird population in Pittsburgh is generally pretty healthy.
“I think Pittsburgh qualifies as a pretty bird friendly city on several standpoints,” he says. “We’ve got a nice infrastructure of green spaces and parks. We have a population of people that seem to have a high degree of interest in birds.”
Mulvihill thinks Pittsburgh could even become a destination for bird lovers. In fact, Pittsburgh recently received federal grant money to fund several bird conservation projects.
“I think Pittsburgh is emerging as a very bird-aware city,” Mulvihill says. “I think we will start seeing more birding trails. I think birds will always be the primary way people connect with nature.”