Most studies about birds focus on wild habitat. But this summer researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, D.C., are focusing on backyards.The study, called Neighborhood Nestwatch, is taking place in five areas along the east coast from Florida to western Massachusetts.
It’s early in the morning in a small backyard in Greenfield.
“I can just, just get some of the red of his crown catching the sunlight a little bit,” says urban wildlife ecologist Susannah Lerman of UMass Amherst. She’s peering up through binoculars at a distinctive bird that’s foraging for insects in a tall tree.
“A pileated woodpecker in Greenfield, in downtown Greenfield! it’s pretty exciting,” she says.
The bird is usually found in forests. Lerman, who heads up the Neighborhood Nestwatch study in the state, says she’s always impressed with what she finds.
“You know, you go in with such low expectations,” Lerman says. “You think there’s nothing here. This is a city. When you actually stop and listen and look there’s a lot more going on here.”
The study, which is funded by the U.S. Forest Service, is focused on the most common species, like the American robin and the Black-capped chickadee, in places like Springfield, Longmeadow and Gill. Researchers want to understand how human-dominated landscapes affect nesting and year-to-year survival. For instance, they want to see if nesting is more successful in rural or urban areas.
Working alongside Lerman is avian ecologist Thom Bullock. Thinking like a bird, he walks the edge of the yard and notices a break in a fence.
“There’s all this vegetation taking over and it creates a little pathway,” Bullock says. “Like a little road,”
A flyway to get from one yard to another without being exposed to predators. It’s also a good place to catch the birds.
Bullock sets up what look like volleyball nets except with barely-visible mesh, to intercept birds. He plays recordings of birdsongs to lure them in.
This is the third year of the study in Massachusetts and the second in this yard in Greenfield. So far this morning, Bullock has observed six species. Homeowners Joe Mirkin and Sophia Pastori say the study has opened a window into another world.
“I saw a Rose-breasted grosbeak for the first time in the yard last week,” Pastori says.
Getting homeowners interested in wildlife is one goal of the study. Another is to enlist their help. Researchers want to know the location of nests – and whether they succeed or fail, along with the number of eggs and how many young birds fly away.
Two cardinals are caught in the net. And they aren’t happy.
“Did you see them?” Mirkin asks. “They came at the same time from opposite directions. It’s so fuzzy”
Mirkin points to a bird with new feathers. Bullock calmly untangles it from the net along with an adult male, presumably the father. Bullock uses this moment to teach the homeowners
“This looks like an juvenile male because see they’ll start molting in, their adult plumage when they’re juveniles,” Bullock says. “And he has all this red.”
Five birds and two and a half hours later, Sophia Pastori assists Bullock as he bands a Carolina wren.
Bullock gently wraps an aluminum band stamped with a number around one of the bird’s tiny legs.
“Alright, and in that section there you’re going to write the band number: 258197909,” he says. “Alright! Now the color bands.”
And then he adds a unique combination of colored bands, like bracelets, that can be used to identify this bird from afar. Since the study began in western Mass. researchers have banded more than 1100 birds in 114 backyards.
“So which birds are the most difficult to handle?” Pastori asks.
“The house wrens because they’re so small,” Bullock replies. “It’s hard to keep a good grip on them. And they’re very wiggly, but you get used to it. So the weight for this Carolina Wren is 21.34 grams. Less than an ounce.”
Besides weighing and measuring the birds, Bullock also takes notes on the vegetation in the yards. The study correlates nesting success with the amount and type of vegetation, including invasive plants.
Susannah Lerman says she hopes the study inspires homeowners to make their yards more bird-friendly.
“Like letting their lawn grow a little bit longer or planting more native plants,” she says. “Maybe putting up bird box, a nest box.”
The last bird banded today is an American robin. Bullock gets ready to release it, placing it beak-up on Sophia Pastori’s open hand.
“Oh, wow,” Pastori says. “I can feel its little head.”
But the bird doesn’t budge. Bullock gently blows air on the robin, like a burst of wind.
The data that’s collected helps scientists understand how birds thrive when they live close to humans. And giving humans the chance to feel the warmth of a wild animal may be critical to the long-term vibrancy of these backyard birds.