Biology students monitor bird nesting for evidence of population decline
Story, photos and video developed by University Communications.
A merican naturalist Roger Tory Peterson called birds “indicators of the environment,” saying “if they are in trouble, we know we’ll soon be” too.
That’s one reason Dr. Katie Stumpf has her biology students research various aspects of bird life. Studying the health and wellbeing of birds can warn of environmental challenges—some yet unknown—we might face with a changing climate.
“Birds are an excellent indicator of ecosystem health since they’re able to leave quicker due to their ability to fly,” said Mathew Gordon of Thomaston, who just received his degree in biology with a minor in environmental sciences.
“Having a healthy and diverse bird population in any ecosystem promotes other species,” he said. “By studying birds, we’re able to enhance the overall quality of the ecosystems they call home, which in turn will help other populations of species grow and prosper.”
Gordon plans to pursue a master’s in biology at Georgia College & State University in the fall. He always enjoyed the outdoors and animals. When he met Stumpf and discussed field opportunities in ornithology, he was hooked.
He wants to help protect these feathery friends who seem to be everywhere—in every yard—but whose numbers are in decline.
“We’re losing huge numbers of birds, and that’s true of the Southeast, as well,” Stumpf said. “Most of the declines are due to habitat loss from human activities like agriculture or urbanization.”
“Aside from being the cutest things ever, birds are one of the first animals to respond to environmental changes,” she said. “They’re an indicator species since they’re so visible and ever-present. It’s pretty obvious when they start to disappear.”
Since 2019, Stumpf has led research on one of Georgia’s most popular birds—the eastern bluebird. Her students have published studies on nest site selection and net avoidance behaviors. Graduate students do research at Panola Mountain State Park in Stockbridge.
This year, she wanted to localize the research.
Dr. Al Mead helped Stumpf build nine birdhouses. Students in her Field Ornithology class picked site locations across Georgia College’s main and West Campuses based on what they learned about bird nesting preferences.
Students did bi-weekly checks on their assigned birdhouses. Two boxes failed to produce nest eggs due to snakes and other predators. In seven, students were able to watch step-by-step as mother birds—mostly Carolina Wrens and Chickadees—slowly built their nests and laid eggs.
Nestlings began hatching at the end of April.
“First, we started seeing the mother building the nest. Then, she put down feathery stuff and, later, she made a little dome inside the nest to lay her eggs,” said senior Haidee Martinez-Perez of Decatur, who’s majoring in biology with a minor in public health.
“We got to see the whole nesting process—how long the nests are there, how long the mother lays on her eggs before they hatch. It’s cool,” she said.
Another recent biology graduate, Alexcis Critten of Acworth, posted her birdhouse facing northwest in a bushy garden at the Newell-Watts house on South Clarke Street. Studies indicate northwest-facing boxes protect bird eggs from intense morning light and extreme summer heat. The location also has plenty of pine straw, trees and a nearby grassy field.
Although the wren liked the northwest-facing box—overall results show north- and east-facing birdhouses produce cooler environments, Gordon said. Students also discovered white painted boxes are cooler inside than darker colors or no color at all.
Baby birds were gently taken from nests and tagged for further research. Students also tagged birds at the Oconee River on the Greenway in Milledgeville. They used long ‘mist nets’ to capture birds inflight. Then, students put metal tags on birds’ feet, noted a few measurements and released them.
Tagging helps scientists estimate population sizes, see trends over time and learn about migration or movement patterns.
Their data was submitted to Cornell University for a citizen’s science watch on bird nesting. Information will be used to mitigate the effects of dangerously high temperatures inside Eastern Bluebird nest boxes. Knowing what type of environments to post boxes and in which direction will help nesting success and reproduction rates in the future.
“I first worked in the lab with blood samples from Swamp Sparrows and then began working in the field with Eastern Bluebirds at Panola Mountain State Park this past summer,” Gordon said. “The research I’ve been involved in has shown me how something like nest temperatures—that may seem insignificant—actually have a large impact on the survival of many species and their habitats.”
Ultimately, she’d like to establish a network of nest boxes on campus for research.
“I’d like to embed research into all my classes so we can understand how large or even small changes in climate alter behaviors,” Stumpf said. “Since it doesn’t seem like climate change is going to stop anytime soon, we need to figure out ways to provide nesting sites that can be successful.”
The importance of undergraduate research like this cannot be overstated, Stumpf stressed. An 8 a.m. lecture does not produce the same excitement as an 8 a.m. field excursion, which is more engaging.
One or two students each semester decide to go into ornithology because of field research like this. They get jobs with the Audubon Society or Department of Natural Resources. They work in zoos, Fish and Wildlife Service, nature conservatories or environmental consulting firms.
After getting his master’s, Gordon hopes to continue field research as a wildlife biologist.