Friday, February 07, 2014

We've Migrated!!! (sorta')

As The American Avian Conservation & Research Institute continues to develop and our focus narrows, our need for better tools, resources, and need for virtual presence is also increasing.  As a result we've found a new online host that allows us to capitalize on our limited programming skills, and even more limited funds.

You can find our new website by clicking here.

You'll note above that it says that we've only sorta' migrated to the new site.  We may still use this site to post interesting and relevant bird-related news and science information as it is easier to use for that purpose than our new site. Otherwise you'll be able to find almost all other information and resources at our new site.

So go check it out now!

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Ohio Avian Research & Conservation Conference

On Saturday, October 19th, the Denison University Biology Department is hosting the Ohio Avian Research & Conservation Conference 2013.

This conference will bring together professional ornithologists from museums and other academic institutions, high school, undergraduate, and graduate students, government agencies, as well as non-professional researchers and citizen scientists alike from all over Ohio to present and share their research projects with one another and with other interested individuals through oral and poster presentations.  The focus of this conference is to highlight Ornithological research by Ohioans within the state and abroad.
Our keynote speaker for this conference is Dr. Edward H. Burtt, Jr., the Cincinnati Conference Professor of Zoology at Ohio Wesleyan University, the 2011 Ohio Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, former President of the Wilson Ornithological Society and the American Ornithologist Union, and co-author of the recently released book titled "Alexander Wilson: The Scot Who Founded American Ornithology."

Why this conference is important for scientists and the public alike.

The cost of registration includes a boxed lunch (4 to choose from), a continental breakfast, any conference handouts, free parking on Denison's campus, and attendance to all presentations.  The cost for professionals, academics, and non-students is $25.00 +feeStudent pricing is $15.00 +fee

*The Licking County OCVN Chapter is offering 3 student scholarships for high school & undergraduate students who may need assistance with covering the cost of  attendance.  Contact Lori Swihart at the Licking Co. OSU Extension Office (740-670-5322) to apply.

*The Hocking County OCVN Chapter is offering 2 student scholarship for high school & undergraduate students who may need assistance with covering the cost of attendance.  Contact Rebecca Osburn, Hocking Co. OCVN Coordinator via e-mail or phone (740-603-6751) to apply.

**The Licking County Birding Fun and Nature (FAN) Club is sponsoring a student poster award for an exceptional research poster first authored by a student (high school, undergrad, or grad).
Event Sponsors:

Click the logo to read an endorsement letter from the OOS

Saturday, October 19th
(Live Tweeting of the conference by the OSU Ornithology Club @osubirds)
8:00-9:00 a.m.—Registration/Continental Breakfast/Meet-&-Greet/Hang Posters
9:00-9:15 a.m.—Welcome by Lyn Boone, Denison birder & member of East Central Ohio Audubon
9:15-9:30 a.m.—Welcome by Conference organizer/Introduction of Presenters
9:30-10:00 a.m.—"Population biology of Red-winged Blackbirds on the Lake Erie islands"--Sarah Winnicki, student, Denison University
10:00-10:30 a.m.—"Songbird responses to nest predators across a fragmented, urbanizing landscape"--Laura Kearns, School of Environment and Natural Resources, the Ohio State University
10:30-11:00 a.m.—"Using knowledge networks and data sharing to advance bird conservation and research"--Megan Seymour, USFWS
11:00-11:30 a.m.—"Migration, movements, and habitat use of greater Sandhill Cranes (Grus canadensis tabida) in Ohio"--Jason Tucker, School of Environment & Natural Resources, Ohio State University
11:30-12:00 a.m.—"Processing Nestbox Data for Future Analysis"--Richard M. Tuttle
12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.—Lunch/Poster Presentations/Social Hour
1:00-1:30 p.m.—"Seasonal difference in water loss and lipid composition in the skin of House Sparrows (Passer domesticus)"--Alex Champagne, Graduate Student, Dept. of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology, Ohio State University
1:30-2:00 p.m.—"Demographic response of the Hooded Warbler (Setophaga citrine) in forest stands with different habitat structure."--Kelly A. Williams, Ohio University
2:30-3:00 p.m.—Break (Posters/social/Restrooms)
3:00-3:30 p.m.—"Making sense of looney tunes: The role acoustic signals play in territory selection and defense by Common Loons (Gavia immer)."--Dr. Jay Mager, Ohio Northern University
3:30-4:00 p.m.—Ohio Winter Bird Atlas: The Country's First and Conservation Implications--Mark Shieldcastle, Research Director, Black Swamp Bird Observatory
4:00-5:00 p.m.—Keynote Presentation-"Alexander Wilson: journeys of a pioneer ornithologist, 1804-1813."--Dr. Jed Burtt, Jr., Ohio Wesleyan University
5:30-7:30 p.m.—Reception in Upper Floor of Slayter Student Union (*food & adult beverages available for purchase)
Sunday, October 20th
8:00-10:00 a.m.--Bird Walk at The Dawes Arboretum with local Birding Fun and Nature (FAN) Club
Where to Stay & Nearby Attractions:
For questions, help with registration, or to submit a presentation/poster title and abstract, contact Casey Tucker.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Autumn Leaves are for the Birds: A Preliminary Study of Red Autumn Foliage & An Insectivorous Migratory Bird Species


Coevolution Theory suggests autumn leaf color change in deciduous tree species may be an adaptive characteristic that functions as a signal to potential plant predators and parasites that the tree is well defended. Several additional adaptive plant-predator hypotheses have been proposed, however most do not seem to be well supported due to a number of different reasons.   A potential better explanation is that leaf color change may be a means to attract insectivorous birds.I use a combination between citizen science reports of forest color and bird frequency and digital color analysis of available satellite imagery to examine the relationship between a bird species and autumn leaf color change. I found that image analysis illustrated a positive change in red coloration over the course of the fall, that Ruby-crowned Kinglet frequency positively increased between September and October, and there was a positive correlation between the increase of kinglets and red foliage.


Color change in autumn deciduous foliage was once considered a non-adaptive characteristic due to leaf senescence.  Archetti (2000), however, proposed the Coevolution Theory that suggests autumn leaf color change in deciduous tree species may be an adaptive characteristic that functions as a signal to potential plant predators and parasites that the tree is well defended. Since then several additional adaptive plant-predator hypotheses have been proposed.
 In addition to plant-predator hypotheses plant physiologists have proposed that color change in autumn foliage serves a physiological purpose for the tree. 

•Color as Signal to Insect Leaf Predators/Parasites

Several hypotheses have been proposed which suggest that leaf color may act as a signal to insects (Archetti 2000; Archetti et al. 2009; Hamilton and Brown 2001) or that insects exhibit preference for leaves that have undergone color change (Archetti 2007). However these do not seem to be well supported.

-Hamilton and Brown (2001) found that tree species that express stronger autumn coloration had greater diversity of specialist aphid species.

-Archetti (2008) illustrates that weak trees also produce bright colors, which he suggests means that these weak trees can cheat to take advantage of the color signals.

-No herbivorous insect has yet to be shown to possess photoreceptors for the color red (Chittka and Döring 2007).

-White (2009) suggests that aphids should prefer green and yellow leaves, because they have more nutrients available to the insects than red leaves.

•Color as a Signal to Migratory Insectivorous Birds

Stiles (1984) proposed the idea that plants may use red color cues to signal to birds the availability of fruit and the work of Schmidt and Schaefer (2004) reinforce this idea. They found that Blackcaps showed preference for the red fruits over other colors of fruit, even though they had never experienced any colored fruits before.

A study by Burns and Dalen (2002) suggests that plants with dark berries may rely on the change in fall leaf color, or what Stiles refers to as “foliar fruit flags”, to create a highly visible contrast to attract birds.

Anthocyanin pigments, responsible for red coloration in fall leaves, are actively produced only in autumn, unlike other leaf pigments which become un-masked with the breakdown of chlorophyll (Chittka and Döring 2007; Archetti et al. 2009). The production of this pigment requires energy during a period of time when trees are actively reabsorbing nitrogen and other nutrients from leaves.

Only about 10% of temperate tree species exhibit red coloration in autumn, though this varies regionally, and within tree species there is variation in the production of of different colors in autumn (Archetti et al. 2009).

 I hypothesize that the red coloration in deciduous tree species is not a signal to aphids or other insect predators and parasites, but is rather produced as a response to the presence of these insects and serves as a signal to attract fall migrating insectivorous bird species to function as a control mechanism for insects. 


•Fall Peak Leaf Coloration

I was able to obtain a complete listing of the 2012 peak fall leaf coloration reports through contact with an Ohio Division of Forestry forester (Burdick pers. comm., 2012). Each site was evaluated and scored on a scale of 1 to 5 where 1= “Mostly Green,” 2= “Changing,” 3= “Near Peak,” 4= “Peak,” 5= “Fading.”  The score for each site was assessed once per week between mid-September and the end of October.
I evaluated the number of different sites with each score for each week, and then plotted this to determine when peak autumn foliage occurred in Ohio (Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Bar chart illustrating the color status of sites over the course of the 2012 autumn season in Ohio.  This figure shows how the number of sites shifted from “Mostly Green” in mid-September to “Peak” in mid-October.  Peak foliage coloration is determined to have occurred around Oct. 17th.

•Evaluating Bird Data

Bird data was obtained using the online citizen science website, eBird (2012).  I conducted a search for bird species reported in Ohio through the “Bar Graphs” feature of the site.  I refined the search to birds reported only in 2012.  This produced a list of 331 species.  I narrowed the list based on the following criteria: primarily arboreal species, migratory in fall, insectivorous, foliage-gleaning foraging behavior.  The remaining list was then searched using the bar graphs of occurrence to find species whose migration coincided with peak leaf color graphs.  The result was one species; the Ruby-crowned Kinglet.  Other species may also meet these criteria, however the Ruby-crowned Kinglet was chosen as a representative species based on perceived best fit to the criteria.

 Once the Ruby-crowned Kinglet was chosen as a representative species a search was conducted to find its frequency within Ohio between September 1 and November 1, 2012 (Fig. 2). Frequency is defined by eBird (2012) as the number of checklists reporting a given species out of the total number of checklists reported.

Figure 2: Bar graph illustrating the frequency of reports of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in Ohio for days in September & October 2012.  A polynomial trend line has been added to illustrate to show peak occurrence of the species during its migration.

•Foliage in Ohio

Color satellite images were obtained from the DigitalGlobe website.  Images were searched using the criteria that they were from Ohio and produced between September and October 2011 & September-October 2012.  DigitalGlobe satellite scans appear as rectangular-like polygon shapes.

 Once the satellite scans were obtained they were then analyzed for color based on a modification of a protocol established by Murakami et al. (2005).  Their protocol proposes the use of Scion Image software, which has since been discontinued and re-configured into a newer software package, ImageJ (Rasband 2012), which was developed by the National Institutes of Health for biological imaging analysis (Ferreira and Rasband 2012).

 Each satellite image was imported into Adobe Photoshop 7.0.   Color saturation was maximized using the image adjustment feature (fig. 3).


                        Figure 3: Example of a satellite image (e.g. Shawnee State Forest in Ohio) maximized for color saturation in Adobe Photoshop 7.0.
Each saturated satellite image was saved in the JPEG format and then imported into ImageJ.  Once in ImageJ the image was manipulated by splitting the color channels into individual 8-bit images representing red, green, and blue.

The blue image was discarded since I was interested primarily in the amount of red and green foliage represented in each image. 
I then worked with the two remaining images individually to analyze the amount of the target colors present in each image.  Using the ImageJ software I created a threshold image for the color.  This resulted in a black & white image where the target areas were white and negative space was black (fig. 4). 
         Figure 4: The single channel image (e.g. red) is converted to a threshold black and white image.  Negative space is colored black. Target areas are white.
In order to analyze the image the threshold image was inverted so that target pixels were colored black and negative space was colored white, and then a particle analysis was conducted on the image.  The particle analysis produced a percent of image area value for the color being analyzed.
This process was repeated for the green channel image, and each satellite image was treated in the same manner.

 The percent area of red and the percent area of green was recorded for each satellite image, and then a ratio of red:green was calculated for each image.  Images with more red foliage would presumably have higher ratios of red:green, and images with more green foliage would have lower ratios of red:green.  The ratios were plotted and then compared to the frequency of Ruby-crowned Kinglets observed in Ohio on the days that the satellite images were made.


A plot of the red:green values, obtained through image analysis, showed a positive increasing trend over the course of the two years. Additionally, a plot of the frequency of occurrence of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in Ohio in the fall for two years also showed a positive increasing trend (fig. 5), suggesting that the species increased over the course of the season due to migration, and this increase coincided with the increase in red foliage in Ohio forests.

A correlation analysis of the two data sets  for both years resulted in r-values of 0.344423 and 0.520657  for 2011 & 2012 respectively suggesting a positive correlation between the increase in red foliage and the occurrence of Ruby-crowned Kinglets in Ohio.

Figure 5: A plot of red:green ratio values from color analysis of satellite images (green line) illustrating a positive increasing trends from September through October for 2011 & 2012.  The plot of Ruby-crowned Kinglet frequencies shows an increasing trend from September through October for both years as well.


This study establishes a possible correlation between the presence of red foliage in autumn and a migratory insectivorous bird species, the Ruby-crowned Kinglet. This preliminarily may support the idea that trees develop red foliage as a means to attract birds, specifically Ruby-crowned Kinglets, during fall migration. 

The development of red foliage may be in response to insect parasites/predators, like aphids, though further research is needed to elucidate this influence on leaf color development. If this idea is supported, then it expands Stiles foliar fruit flag hypothesis (1984) beyond the idea that plants attract birds through the use of red foliage to help disperse seeds. Trees may also attract birds to help control insect loads during a time of year when they are most stressed.

While it is possible that the presence and increase of migratory Ruby-crowned Kinglets in Ohio is coincidental as leaves reach peak coloration in the autumn, the positive r values suggests that there is at least some degree of correlation between the two.

The use of satellite imagery to study fall leaf coloration change is a useful tool.   However it is a rather crude tool because I was not able to differentiate between forest types or tree species.  Additionally, because I was reliant on available satellite scans temporal and spatial coverage was rather limited.

Citizen science bird data has been utilized extensively for many different kinds of studies, however it is not without its limitations.  While eBird allows data to be searched at different temporal and spatial scales researchers are still limited based on where birders have chosen to make & report observations .  This means that some areas are not covered and reported, or have limited coverage, if they are not well birded.



Archetti, M.  2000.  The origin of autumn colors by coevolution.  Journal of Theoretical Biology. 205:625-630.

Archetti, M.  2007.  Autumn colours and the nutrient retranslocation hypothesis: A theoretical assessment. Journal of Theoretical Biology 244:714-721.

 Archetti, M. 2008. Decoupling vigour and quality in the autumn colours game: Weak individuals can signal, cheating can pay.  Journal of Theoretical Biology. 256:479-484.

 Archetti, M., T.F. Döring, S.B. Hagen, N.M. Hughes, S.R. Leather, D.W. Lee, S. Lev-Yadun, Y. Manetas, H.J. Ougham, P.G. Schaberg and H. Thomas.  2009.  Unravelling the evolution of autumn colours: an interdisciplinary approach.  Trends in Ecology and Evolution. 24:166-173.

Burns, K. C. and J. I. Dalen. 2002. Foliage color contrasts and adaptive fruit color variation in a bird-dispersed plant community. Oikos. 96:463-469.

 Chittka, L. and T.F. Döring. 2007.  Are autumn foliage colors red signals to aphids?  PLoS Biology. 5:1640-1644.

 eBird. 2012. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance [web application]. eBird, Ithaca, New York. Available: (Accessed: Nov. 2012).

Ferreira, T. and W.S. Rasband. “ImageJ User Guide — IJ 1.46”,, 2010–2012

Hamilton, W.D. and S.P. Brown. 2001.  Autumn tree colours as a handicap signal.  Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B. 268:1489-1493.

Murakami, P.F., M.R. Turner, A.K. van den Berg, P.G. Schaberg. 2005. An instructional guide for leaf color analysis using digital imaging software. Gen. Tech. Rep. NE-327. Newtown Square, PA: U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Northeastern Research Station.

Rasband WS. ImageJ, U.S. National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland, USA,,1997–2012.

Stiles, E.W. 1984. Fruit for all seasons. Natural History. 8:43-54

Schmidt, V. and H. M. Schaefer. 2004. Unlearned preference for red may facilitate

recognition of palatable food in young omnivorous birds. Evolutionary Ecology Research. 6:919-925.

White, T.C.R.  2009. Catching a red herring: autumn colors and aphids. Oikos. 118:1610-1612.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Wind Energy Follow-up

Innovative designs, based on nature, may make wind energy even more environmentall-friendly to wildlife as discussed in this article from Discovery News.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Wind Energy May Not Be As Bad for Birds; Bats on the Other Hand...

State study details turbine bat and bird deaths

The Associated Press
Updated: 06/29/2011 05:27:39 PM EDT

PITTSBURGH—Wind turbines in Pennsylvania kill an estimated 10,500 bats and 1,680 birds each year, according to a report from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
That's an average of 25 bats and four birds at each of the state's 420 turbines.

The Daily American of Somerset reported that approximately 30 participating developers agreed to conduct one year of pre-construction and two years of post-construction monitoring of birds and bats at each site using Game Commission data-collection and study guidelines.

The report found no eagle deaths and three endangered bird deaths. The birds (all found in September 2009) included two blackpoll warblers and one yellow-bellied flycatcher. All three were considered to be migrants. Two endangered Seminole bats carcasses were also found during the study, and were also believed to be migrating.

State wildlife biologists aren't sure how the deaths will impact the long-term health of bat and bird populations.

"We don't really have a good population estimate on bats, so 25 bats per turbine per year seems like a lot, and if you do the math with all of the turbines we have—and how many are proposed—it's a huge number," said Tracey Librandi Mumma, a supervisory wildlife biologist for the commission. "But whether that number will impact the population is something we're wrestling with right now."

Experts said the impacts could vary greatly by species.

With some endangered species the loss of a single bird could be detrimental, while with common species the loss of several hundred birds wouldn't have a major impact, Paul Fischbeck, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said Wednesday.

Michael Gannon, a professor of biology at the Pennsylvania State University of Altoona and a recognized bat expert, had reservations about the report.

"One of my chief concerns is that they're keeping their (raw) data very secret. Does the data support their conclusions? If you can't review something it's not science," Gannon told the Daily American.

The report noted that some wind sites in Pennsylvania were not part of the cooperative study. Florida Light & Power Energy's subsidiary, NextEra Energy Resources, has five active projects and is the largest non-cooperating developer.

The report said that 31 of the 86 projects have a high risk of bat mortality, and 15 have a high risk of bird mortality. The Nature Conservancy estimates that between 750 and 2,900 additional wind turbines may be built in Pennsylvania by 2030.

Fischbeck added that just focusing on deaths caused by wind turbines doesn't tell the whole story. Another recent scientific study found that cats caused more deaths in a suburban area than any other predator.

A U.S. Department of Agriculture report estimated that about 550 million birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings, 130 million in collisions with power lines, 100 million by cats, 80 million by cars, and 67 million by pesticides. Wind turbines kill about 28,500, or far less than 1 percent, the report said.
Scientists look for surviving Eskimo curlew birds
By Yereth Rosen ANCHORAGE, Alaska Thu Jun 23, 2011 6:34pm EDT

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (Reuters) - Federal scientists are on the lookout for the Eskimo curlew, as they work to determine if the elusive shorebird last seen two decades ago still exists.

The said it is seeking any information about the Eskimo curlew, a tundra-nesting bird once abundant over the skies of North and South America, which was nearly hunted into oblivion by the mid-20th century.

The agency, which made its announcement in the Federal Register on Wednesday, will review whether the bird should continue to be classified as endangered or formally designated as extinct.

The last sighting confirmed by the Fish and Wildlife Service was in Nebraska in 1987, said Bruce Woods, a spokesman for the agency.

An unconfirmed sighting -- of an adult and a chick -- was recorded in 1983 in Alaska's Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, Woods said.

The Eskimo curlew population once numbered hundreds of thousands, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service. It is the smallest of four species of Western Hemisphere curlews, and is known for its long migration route from Arctic tundra breeding grounds to wintering lands in South America.

But the birds died off in drastic numbers due to overhunting, the loss of prairie habitat that was converted from grasslands to agriculture and the extinction of a type of grasshopper that made up much of their diet.

Most were gone by the beginning of the 20th century, according to the Fish and Wildlife Service.

Despite its scarcity, the Eskimo curlew is well-known to bird lovers.

It was the subject of a classic short novel, "Last of the Curlews," that chronicled the life of a lonely Eskimo curlew waiting on the tundra for a mate and, finding none, flying solo on the long fall migration. The 1954 book was adapted into a children's movie in 1972.

The wildlife inquiry, to be conducted by the service's Alaska scientists, is the first such formal review of the Eskimo curlew under the Endangered Species Act, Woods said. The bird was listed as endangered prior to passage of the act. such reviews are typically completed within 12 months.

Brendan Cummings, senior attorney with the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, said he hopes the bird continues to be listed as endangered and not written off as extinct.

Continued listing will cost little and could help protect far-north habitat home to other birds and wildlife, he said.

"While I have my doubts, I think it would be premature to close the coffin lid on the species," Cummings said.

(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis and Greg McCune)

Photo: Eskimo Curlew specimen, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History, photo by Casey Tucker/Wild Auk Photography.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Cats, Birds, & Catbirds...

It’s sometimes difficult to think of our friends as lethal killers. Nobody expects that their faithful companion—who sits by you in the evenings while you read or watch television, or follows you around the kitchen while you prepare dinner, or comforts you when you’ve had a rough day—harbors a murderous lust that can only be deemed a predatory instinct. Yet a predatory instinct is exactly what friends like Fluffy or Whiskers (pet cats) possess.

A new study by researchers with the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center illustrates the impacts that outdoor cats can have on the survival of Gray Catbird young.

There is perhaps no topic in bird conservation as contentious and controversial as that of outdoor house cats and birds. This is especially evidenced by an incident that occurred in Texas that drew national media attention, and polarized bird lovers and cat lovers across the U.S.

In November of 2006 Jim Stevenson, director of the Galveston Ornithological Society and author of the “Wildlife of Galveston,” was out birding at a favorite spot near the San Luis Pass channel bridge spanning in Galveston in November of 2006. He found a group of federally endangered Piping Plovers roosting among the grassy beach dunes below the bridge. As he watched the birds, a feral cat, from a nearby cat colony, began stalking the plovers. To protect the birds, he attempted to capture the cat and failed. The next day, Stevenson returned with a rifle and shot the cat that had been stalking the plovers the day before (Barcott 2007). It was a shot that set off a powder keg of debate and legal proceedings.

A bridge toll operator had been feeding and maintaining the feral cat colony that lived below the bridge. He considered the 15-20 cats to be his pets (Williams 2008). He became outraged when Stevenson killed the cat he had nicknamed Mama Cat (Murphy 2007) and called the police. Stevenson was arrested and charged with animal cruelty, which carried a penalty of up to two years in jail and a $10,000 fine (Barcott 2007, Murphy 2007). The case went to trial and eventually charges against Stevenson were dropped because of a deadlocked jury (Williams 2008).

Shortly after his trial, Stevenson had to flee Texas for a period of time because of death threats and a reported attempt on his life (Meyers 2007). Unfortunately, this case illustrates how emotion-fueled this issue is and both sides mean well for the animals that they love.

How Many Cats? How Many Dead Birds?

The introduction of domesticated cats into North America was innocent enough. It’s thought they were brought from Europe in the early 1800’s to help control rodents in eastern seaboard cities (George 1974). However, while their intended targets were rodents cats are opportunistic and will prey upon whatever they can catch. Almost a century after their introduction North America’s cat population had grown substantially as did their impact on non-target species, like birds.

In his 1915 book, “Wild Bird Guests,” Ernest Harold Baynes began compiling some early estimates of how many outdoor cats existed in the U.S., and how many birds they killed annually. Baynes reported that Frank Chapman, a prominent ornithologist of the time, calculated that a single cat could kill as many as fifty birds in a single season, and that the estimated 25 million cats of New England could kill 500,000 birds annually. Similarly, Baynes reported that another ornithologist had estimated 70,000 farm cats in Massachusetts were killing 700,000 birds every year in that state (Baynes 1915).

In 1972 the American Humane Association estimated 31 million cats existed throughout the U.S. (Ogan and Jurek 1997). By 1990 there were an estimated 60 million cats owned by households in the U.S, according to U.S. Census data (Coleman et al. 1996). These numbers do not include feral or semi-feral cats that are not considered pets. Recent estimates by the American Bird Conservancy put the number of pet cats in the U.S. closer to 90 million. A 1997 report by the Progressive Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) estimated that 50 million cats lived outdoors, as feral animals, in urban alleys, abandoned buildings, and parks across the U.S. Conservatively, anywhere from 40 to 80 million cats may roam the outdoors and perhaps many more when we consider feral cat colonies.

A survey of landowners in southeast Michigan estimated that approximately 15-56% of landowners had outdoor cats and the total number of cats ranged from ~800 to ~3100 and killed between ~16,000 and ~47,000 birds (Lepczyk et al. 2003). Sadly, the researchers suggest this may be an underestimate of both the number of outdoor cats and the number of birds killed in the region. While rural landowners typically had more outdoor cats, urban areas had higher cat densities (cats per hectare (ha)). Additionally, over 20 species of birds were reported as prey items, with sparrows and Blue Jays being the most frequently reported prey items (Lepczyk et al. 2003).

A 1996 study from Wisconsin suggests that the 1.4 to 2 million estimated free-ranging outdoor cats in that state may kill anywhere from 8 to 219 millions birds every year. If we assume that other states have approximately the same number of free-ranging outdoor cats that kill the same estimated number of birds, a rough calculation would find that there are approximately 70 to 100 million outdoor cats in the U.S. that kill anywhere from 400 million to 11 billion birds annually. Another estimate suggests there are at least 120 million free-roaming cats that kill an estimated 500 million to 3 billion birds annually (Dauphiné 2008). If either estimate is accurate, then the annual avian mortality caused by outdoor cats is potentially comparable or greater to mortality resulting from collisions. It’s also scary to think that birds make up only an estimated 20% of the prey items of outdoor cats. Small mammals make up an additional 70%, with the remaining 10% being other animals including reptiles and amphibians (Coleman et al. 1996).

Ecological interactions between birds and cats

As bird-lovers, we might be concerned that providing bird-feeders in our backyard might increase the number of birds that are preyed upon by cats, especially given that a 1994 study based on Project FeederWatch data suggests that cats account for 29% of the predation of birds at feeders (Dunn and Tessaglia 1994). A survey study in Michigan found that the number and density of bird feeders in a landscape was not correlated with the number of birds killed by outdoor cats (Lepczyk et al 2003). This means that it doesn’t matter if you have one feeder or dozens of feeders in your backyard, cats will potentially kill the same number of birds in your yard.

A study in Georgia found that 28 outdoor cats visited a yard over the course of a two year period. 26 of those cats were considered to be feral cats. Two were domesticated cats that were allowed to roam outdoors. The number of cats preying upon birds in the yard was enough to result in a decreased abundance of birds in the yard (Dauphiné and Cooper 2008). As bird lovers we have to be aware that creating habitat for birds in our backyards may expose birds to higher levels of predation from cats, if there are a lot of outdoor cats roaming our neighborhoods. Being aware of this is important because it allows us to take measures to help reduce predation pressures from cats.

While direct predation on birds is what we think about when we think about bird-cat ecological interactions, we must remember that cats can affect birds in other ways as well. For example, as an efficient predator, cats are a potential competitor for predatory birds; competing for rodent prey.

One study found that six cats were capable of removing 4200 mice from a 35 acre study plot in just eight months (Pearson 1964).

The predation behavior of three cats was observed over the course of five years to measure what kind of impact they could make in the potential prey items of raptors in a 20 acre area. Between 1967 and 1971 the three cats caught almost 484 prey items with 42% of those prey items being Prairie Voles (Microtus ochrogaster). Young cottontail rabbits (Sylvilagus floridanus) made up the greatest volume (40%) of prey items (George 1974). Both species are major prey items of a variety of raptor species including Red-tailed Hawks (Preston and Beane 1993), American Kestrel (Smallwood and Bird 2002), and especially the winter diet of Northern Harriers (Macwhirter and Bildstein 1996).

Beyond predation or competition outdoor cats may also cause stress on birds that might affect their survivability and their ability to reproduce (Dauphiné 2008).

Trap and Release Programs

One of the biggest problems with outdoor cats is that they are capable of being prolific breeders, and because outdoor cats are often subsidized by well-meaning humans who feed them (Patronek 1998), the off-spring of outdoor cats possess a greater likelihood of surviving to adulthood than many natural predators might have. As a result, outdoor cat populations can become disproportionately large and have a greater impact on native wildlife populations. While it may not sound pleasant, unfortunately the most effective solution is trapping and euthanizing outdoor cats (Andersen et al. 2004).

Some well-meaning cat-lovers have promoted an alternative remedy to this problem, in lieu of euthanasia, by promoting “Trap, Test, Vaccinate, Neuter, and Release” (TTVNR) programs. The idea behind these programs is that by trapping outdoor cats, testing them for diseases, and neutering them before releasing them back into the outdoors, it reduces the capability of outdoor cats to increase their populations which lessens the number of cats preying on birds and other animals.

While the idea sounds good in theory, it is extremely flawed. Outdoor cats, regardless of whether they have been neutered or not, still prey upon birds. Secondly, TTVNR cats often are managed in cat colonies by individuals or groups of volunteers from animal welfare organizations. These cat colonies increase the density of predatory cats in a given area, where they have the potential of having a greater impact on local wildlife populations.

In the summer the beaches of Cape May, New Jersey host federally threatened Piping Plovers, a small migratory shorebird related to American Killdeer. The beaches are also home to a TTVNR cat colony very near to the plover nesting beaches (AP 2007). The cats pose a threat to the threatened plovers; preying upon the adult plovers while on their nests, their eggs, and the young plovers that are born flightless. In order to protect the Piping Plovers Cape May’s City Council implemented a plan to move feral cat colonies at least 1000 feet away from beaches that host Piping Plover nest colonies. This was decided only after federal agencies threatened to withhold necessary funds that would enable Cape May to replenish its beaches. The 1000 foot buffer was a compromise between what cat lovers wanted and what US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) officials had a promoted—a one mile buffer (AP 2008). While the 1000 foot buffer may have fulfilled Cape May’s commitment to the USFWS to receive the necessary federal funding for its beaches, it may do little to protect Piping Plover nest sites as cats can easily cover the 1000 foot distance while hunting.

Cape May is not alone with regard to conflicts between outdoor cat colonies, their advocates, bird nesting colonies, and the people who watch and protect birds. Feral cat colonies have been established on Long Island’s South Shore beach alongside Piping Plover nest colonies (Kilgannon 2006). Florida in particular has potentially some of the largest feral cat colonies, because cats are regularly abandoned by people who stay in Florida in the winter but travel north in the spring and summer. Florida also has some of the most emotionally charged battles over endangered species and feral cat colonies (Gorman 2003).

In some cases feral cat colonies may pose a threat to human health in a different way. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has had to take action to round up feral cats at J.F.K. International Airport due to the potential threat the cats pose to planes on runways. The action to capture the feral cats was mandated by the Federation Aviation Authority, which regulates how wildlife and other animals are managed around airports. The action has met with opposition from the Humane Society and other animal activist groups (Lee 2008).

In an attempt to curb TTVNR efforts many groups are stepping forward to make the problems with these programs known. The Association of Wildlife Veterinarians and the National Association of State Public Health Veterinarians, through written statements, have publicly opposed TTVNR programs (Burton and Doblar 2004). The American Bird Conservancy launched the Cats Indoors! in 1997 in an effort to keep both cats and birds safe by teaching cat and bird lovers alike about the importance of keeping cats indoors. These programs, while important, have yet to be shown to truly effective at reducing the problem of outdoor cat colonies and their impacts on birds.

Safety of Outdoor Cats

Beyond the threat that outdoor cats pose to birds and other wildlife they may also be a threat to themselves and to people.

Outdoor cats are susceptible to any number of environmental stressors like inclement weather conditions and cold temperatures.

Outdoor cats are also vulnerable to larger predators, even in urban settings that might seem relatively sheltered from wildlife. Recent studies by researchers at Ohio State University have found that feral cats composed at least 1% of the diet of urban coyotes in Chicago, but that coyotes in urban settings may also kill outdoor cats as a way of removing potential competitors for prey items (Gehrt 2007). In southern California the presence of coyotes in habitat fragments had a positive influence on bird populations in the fragments. Coyotes preyed upon cats in the fragments, which helped keep cat populations in check. As a result, scrub-breeding birds in habitat fragments with coyotes had greater bird diversity. 21% of coyote scat samples collected during the study contained the remains of cats that had been preyed upon by the coyotes. Additionally, 25% of radio-collared cats in the study were preyed upon (Crooks and Soulé 1999).

One important finding of the southern California study found that cat owners around the habitat fragments were surveyed and reported that 42% had lost a cat to coyote predation. Additionally, when coyotes were thought to be present in an area 46% of cat owners restricted their cats’ outdoor activities (Crooks and Soulé 1999).

Disease can also be a major source of mortality and injury for outdoor cats, and these diseases pose a threat to people as well.

A study of animal bites in El Paso, Texas in 1995 found that a majority of cat bites (89%) resulted from provoking cats, and women and adults in general were more likely to be bitten. The disturbing finding of the study, however, was that 92% of cat bites were from cats that had not been vaccinated against rabies (Patrick and O’Rourke 1998). In 2002, a major advocate of outdoor cat colonies was bitten while feeding the feral cats in the colony on Singer Island in Florida. The cat was rabid, and as a result the cats in the colony were destroyed by the county for public health reasons (Gorman 2003).

Feline Leukemia is another disease that outdoor cats are susceptible of contracting. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center (2006) 2-3% of all cats in the U.S. are infected with the Feline Leukemia virus, but that infection rates rise significantly to 13% or greater in cats that are in high risk of infection. Outdoor cats, especially those in feral cat colonies, are especially susceptible to risk of infection because they are exposed to other cats of unknown infection status and because they have a higher risk of being bitten by an infected cat. Feline Leukemia is a common source of cancer in cats, but can also weaken their immune system sufficiently enough to make them susceptible to a variety of other diseases. Fortunately, tests have shown that cats may not be able to pass the disease to humans, however the other diseases that they may be susceptible to, from a weakened immune system, may be transmitted to people.

One disease in particular that deserves more attention due to its potential impacts on humans is Toxoplasmosis. Toxoplasmosis is a disease caused by a parasitic microorganism named Toxoplasma gondii.

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) (2008) 60 million American are infected with Toxoplasmosis. Once infected with the microorganism you’re infected for life. Fortunately, most healthy people don’t realize they are infected because T. gondii establishes a balance between itself and the host’s immune system. However, pregnant women, children, the elderly and others with compromised immune systems are more susceptible to the effects of T. gondii.

In most healthy individuals, an infection by T. gondii may produce flu-like symptoms until the parasite is established in the immune system of its host (Zimmer 2006). However in pregnant women, the microorganism can result in miscarriage, a stillborn child, and the birth of children with abnormally enlarged or smaller heads (CDC 2008).

In some cases T. gondii infection can result in lesions of the eyes, though typically only occurs in T. gondii uses a body’s dendritic cells to quickly travel throughout a body. Dendritic cells are commonly found in the spleen and lymph nodes and help regulate a body’s immune system. When T. gondii infects a body it hijacks dendritic cells and directs these cells to move throughout the body, which enables the microorganism to travel into places it would not normally be able to including our brains (Zimmer 2006).

Some scientists suspect there may be a connection between schizophrenia and Toxoplasmosis infection in humans, though this hasn’t been well established yet. Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that soldiers diagnosed with schizophrenia were twice as likely to have blood samples exhibiting Toxoplasma infection than soldiers not diagnosed with schizophrenia (Zimmer 2006).

Right now you might be asking yourself what does human schizophrenia and Toxoplasmosis have to do with feral cats. Well, cats are a carrier and distributor of the T. gondii microorganism.


Literature Cited

Andersen, M.C., B.J. Martin, and G.W. Roemer. 2004. Use of matrix population models to estimate the efficacy of euthanasia versus trap-neuter-return for management of free-roaming cats. Journal of the American Veterinarian Medical Association. 225:1871-1876.

Barcott, B. 2007. Kill the cat that kills the bird? New York Times (12.2.07)

Baynes, E.H. 1915. Wild bird guests: how to entertain them. E.P. Dutton & Company. New York.

Burton, D.L. and K.A. Doblar. 2004. Morbidity and mortality of urban wildlife in
the midwestern United States. Pages 171-181 in Shaw et al., (eds.), Proceedings 4th International Urban Wildlife Symposium.

Coleman, J., S. Temple and S. Craven. 1996. A conservation dilemma—The Free-ranging Domestic Cat. The Probe. 127:1-2, 5.

Cornell Feline Health Center. 2006. Feline Leukemia Virus. Prepared by the American Association of Feline Practitioners and the Cornell Feline Health Center, Cornell University, College of Veterinary Medicine, Ithaca, New York 14853-6401.

Crooks, K.R. and M.E. Soulé. 1999. Mesopredator release and avifaunal extinction in a fragmented system. Nature. 400: 563-566.

Dauphiné, N. 2008. Impacts of domestic cats on birds in North America (Abstract). Proceedings of the 4th International Partners in Flight Conference.

Dauphiné, N. and R.J. Cooper. 2008. Conservation meets the cat lady: Protecting bird species of continental importance in our own backyards (Abstract). Proceedings of 4th International Partners in Flight Conference.

Dunn, E.H., Tessaglia, D.L., 1994. Predation of birds at feeders in winter. Journal of Field Ornithology. 65:8-16.

Gehrt, S.D. 2007. Urban Coyote Ecology and Management: The Cook County, Illinois, Coyote Project. Ohio State University Extension Bulletin no. 929.

George, W.G. 1974. Domestic cats as predators and factors in winter shortages of raptor prey. Wilson Bulletin. 86: 384-396.

Gorman, J. 2003. Bird lovers hope to keep cats on a very short leash. New York Times (03.18.2003)

Kilgannon, C. 2006. On Long Island, cats and birds clash, and people take sides. New York Times (03.20.06)

Lee, J.S. 2008. Airport cat roundups resume, as do protests. New York Times (06.03.08)

Lepczyk, C.A., A.G. Mertig and J. Liu. 2003. Landowners and cat predation across rural-to-urban landscapes. Biological Conservation. 115:191-201.

Meyers, R. 2007. Cat shooter Stevenson flies the coop. The Daily News: Galveston County (11.30.07)

Murphy, K. 2007. Birder admits killing cat, but was it animal cruelty? New York Times (11.14.07)

Patrick, G.R. and K.M. O’Rourke. 1998. Dog and cat bites: epidemiologic analyses suggest different prevention strategies. Public Health Reports. 113:252-257.

Patronek, G.J. 1998. Free-roaming and feral cats – their impact on wildlife and human beings. Journal of American Veterinary Medical Association 212:218-226.

Pearson, O.P. 1964. Carnivore-mouse predation: an example of its intensity and
bioenergetics. Journal of Mammalogy. 45:177-178.

Williams, S.E. 2008. Bridge worker gets citation for too many cats. The Daily News: Galveston County (01.08.08)

Ogan, C.V.; Jurek, R.M. 1997. Biology and Ecology of feral, free-roaming, and stray cats Pages 87-92 in J.E. Harris, and C.V. Ogan, (eds.), Mesocarnivores of northern California: biology, management, and survey techniques, workshop manual. August 12-15, 1997, Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. The Wildlife Society, California North Coast Chapter, Arcata, CA 127 p.

Unknown. 2007. Government may step in to save birds from cats in Cape May. The Associate Press (08.05.07)

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Tuesday, February 08, 2011

More Evidence that Birds Can Adapt to Urban Noise Conditions

A new study by researchers from Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales shows that House Finches are capable of making short-term adjustments to their vocalizations in urban environments, which typically are louder than more natural environments.

The study suggests that some bird species are capable of adapting to urban acoustic environments.


Experimental evidence for real-time song frequency shift in response to urban noise in a passerine bird

Eira Bermúdez-Cuamatzin, Alejandro A. Ríos-Chelén,Diego Gil and Constantino Macías Garcia

doi: 10.1098/rsbl.2010.0437
Biol. Lett. 23 February 2011 vol. 7 no. 1 36-38

Research has shown that bird songs are modified in different ways to deal with urban noise and promote signal transmission through noisy environments. Urban noise is composed of low frequencies, thus the observation that songs have a higher minimum frequency in noisy places suggests this is a way of avoiding noise masking. Most studies are correlative and there is as yet little experimental evidence that this is a short-term mechanism owing to individual plasticity. Here we experimentally test if house finches (Carpodacus mexicanus) can modulate the minimum frequency of their songs in response to different noise levels. We exposed singing males to three continuous treatments: low–high–low noise levels. We found a significant increase in minimum frequency from low to high and a decrement from high to low treatments. We also found that this was mostly achieved by modifying the frequency of the same low-frequency syllable types used in the different treatments. When different low-frequency syllables were used, those sung during the noisy condition were longer than the ones sang during the quiet condition. We conclude that house finches modify their songs in several ways in response to urban noise, thus providing evidence of a short-term acoustic adaptation.

New Animated Bird Movie--This Spring

Coming this April is a new animated movie, titled "Rio," by the creators of the "Ice Age" movies.

Like the movie "Happy Feet" this upcoming movie uses characters based on real bird species, catchy music, and vivid animation to tell an interesting story and address conservation issues.

The movie focuses on the last two parrots of a species called Blue Macaw in the movie and the need to breed these remaining individuals to save the species from extinction.

It also touches upon the impact that animal smuggling and illegal pet trade can have on bird populations.

The Blue Macaw characters seem to be based on actual species, like the Spix Macaw and the Hyacinth Macaw, which have suffered as a result of illegal pet trade and habitat loss. Fortunately, Hyacinth Macaws have not been decimated to the extremely low levels of the birds in the movie, however Spix Macaws disappeared in the wild in 2000 and around 120 individuals remain in captivity today. It's hoped that captive breeding coupled with habitat restoration will allow for the reintroduction of the birds back into their native habitat eventually.

So go see Rio this April and consider supporting organizations that are helping to save parrot species from extintction.