Enjoying the Birds of the Ottawa Valley
Bird Study Projects

The Breeding Bird Atlas

ruffed grouse nest A Breeding Bird Atlas divides a province up into squares, usually 10x10 kilometers, and assigns each to an observer to collect evidence of birds' successful breeding over a five year period. Atlassing does not depend on 'hot' birding skills so much as on patience. With an entire summer available, it is possible to know every bush and tree in a square, and all of the resident birds. They are all that count.

When atlassing, you will study the behaviour of birds, not obscure markings of rarities. Breeding is considered "probable" if a pair is observed, especially courting, in the habitat where they normally breed, if territorial song is heard from an individual bird for more than a week at one spot, if a nest is being visited or built, or if an adult bird appears especially agitated at your presence. Breeding is considered "confirmed" if a genuine distraction display is observed, if a recently used or active nest is found, with eggs or young, if an adult is seen carrying food or a fecal sac, or if very recently fledged young are seen. Once you have watched a frantic parent trying to keep track of a brood that has just left the nest, you may never just "list and run" again.

Atlassers should also try to determine the number of breeding pairs in their square, to place breeding success in population context. It's a joy to atlas a territory, to become familiar with every meadow, woodlot and stream, to recognize bird friends from the week before, to watch the cycle of the seasons reflected by familiar geography.

The Breeding Bird Survey

The Breeding Bird Survey is an annual sample (since 1966) of the populations of breeding birds over the entire North American continent. It is done by skilled volunteer birders, in Canada under the direction of the Canadian Wildlife Service (CWS).

Once each June, CWS-selected 40 kilometer road routes (244 of them in 1980) are surveyed. An observer, together with an assistant to record the data, starts 30 minutes before local sunrise, that is, about 4:30 a.m. Every bird seen or heard during a three minute period at each of 50 precisely-determined stops is noted. Typically, over a thousand birds of some 70 species have been logged by the time the end of the route is reached, about 9 a.m.

Observers must be familiar with all calls of all species likely to be found, and must have acute hearing, since most birds are heard from the road, rather than seen. Observers must also have the discipline to follow precisely the rules that are necessary in order that the results stand up to scientific scrutiny. It is a challenge that will sharpen your skills as a birder.

The routes are carefully chosen to sample all habitats in proportion to their actual occurrence over the continent. As a result, year-to-year variations and long-term trends determined by the survey are highly significant, and are a valuable contribution to the understanding of ecological pressures on birds. The results are frequently used in environmental impact assessments and similar policy decisions.

If you are interested in contributing to the understanding of birds, and can undertake to keep up a survey route for a number of years, contact the CWS.

Bird Banding

The banding of birds has given us more facts about bird migration than any other technique. Being a bird bander is a hobby that tends to run in families, and last a lifetime.

To join the 670 people across Canada who band migratory birds, you must have a federal license. In addition, you must have a provincial license for some birds, like raptors. To become a bander, you must apprentice with a licensed bander. After demonstrating reliability as a handler and identifier of birds, you can qualify for a permit. Banding is done in several Valley backyards on a regular basis, at field sites, and at the Ottawa Banding Group station at Innis Point, Shirley's Bay.

In-hand identification is very different from field identification. It must be much more reliable. A thick manual lists the truly diagnostic features of each species, sex and age group - for example, details of the bottom of warbler feet. The one absolute rule is: if there is any doubt as to species, don't band. Trustworthiness is more valued than brilliance behind a mist net.

Why do banders enjoy banding? Most primarily enjoy birds up close. Sketchers and photographers see birds as individuals this way. (So do fingers. Grosbeaks bite, hard!) Banders travel vicariously with every report that one of "their" birds has been picked up in some far-away locale. Banding is a "good deed" for ornithology and, unfortunately, increasingly a documented warning of the collapsing ecology of life on our continent that many of us wish were heeded.

Even if you don't proceed to a banding license, helping with bird banding gives a unique view of bird identification. If you have the manual dexterity to become a bander, and think you might enjoy it, contact a local banding group.

Individual Projects

Even for the most inveterate lister, there may come a time when lists become inadequate as the center of the universe. Or, maybe you found your true calling as a birder with the Ontario Breeding Bird Atlas, now completed. At such a life crisis, you can reorient your birding skills towards bird-related projects that can last you a lifetime.

The most valuable volunteer projects have continuity over a long period of time. To start with, it would be useful to have breeding data covering ten years or more of almost any area such as an Atlas square. Population estimates should be made for each year, and possible causes of population changes noted. Museum and NCC cutbacks are almost wiping out local field research. Volunteer studies of either specific habitats or of specific areas could be the sole source of data for future decisions affecting the Mer Bleue and Alfred Bog in particular.

There are many other studies of potential value. A description of wetland habitats around the region, noting areas, water depths, times of drying up, vegetative succession, and resultant bird life. A continuation of the OFNC Owl Census. A systematic search for colonial nesting sites, particularly of great blue herons, black-crowned night-herons, or bank swallows, or of roosting sites of blackbirds, starlings, crows, even pigeons. A regular census of sewage lagoons....

The most reliable route to publishable work is to pick a single species as your life-long special bird. A study of the life history and behaviour patterns of any species at the edge of its natural range here, such as cardinal or mockingbird, or of a locally declining species such as field sparrow, would be especially productive. Develop, and do not hide, a passion for observing "your" bird, a curiosity about its world, and a love for its uniqueness.

Most of these subjects require only moderate birding expertise. Some would fully use the most finely-honed skills you could have. There is a startling lack of such projects, professional or amateur, carried out in the Valley. For example, of the 448 Canadian mapping census studies catalogued by the CWS since 1972, only 2 were done in the Ottawa region. Most Canadian studies are done by forestry interests in coniferous habitats. Across the country, there are few studies done on land not coveted by commercial interests, such as wetlands or abandoned pasture.

Ornithology - Studying Bird Navigation

Navigation is knowing where you are and where you want to go, in terms of both direction and distance. Different birds rely on different navigational methods. Long-lived geese, who can migrate with experienced elders, can learn landmarks such as the Ottawa River. Smaller birds, such as warblers, have too high a mortality rate to rely on others. They must fly alone.

Some use the sun to determine direction. Looking directly at the sun would blind a bird as fast as it would you, so they judge the angles of shadows or detect the polarization of sky-scattered sunlight. (Polarization is a property of light that we can see only with "Polaroid" sunglasses, or with a crystal of cordierite such as the Vikings used.) The sun, of course, moves during the day, so birds relying on the sun must have a precise sense of time. They do, to within about 15 minutes.

Most small birds migrate by night and use star patterns to tell direction. (That way, the days are free for eating.) No sense of time is needed to tell direction from the stars, but for a bird, relying on hereditary instinct, there is a different problem to be solved. The rotation of the earth precesses around an arc 47 degrees wide every 25,000 years, so the "north" star changes with bird generations, too quickly for evolution to keep up. So, each bird must learn its own north star. There are two learning methods we know of. Most watch the sky as nestlings and learn the star pattern that does not rise and set over the night - that's north. Others genetically know magnetic north, and relate the stars to it, some only when young, others throughout life. Any bird that navigates in both northern and southern hemispheres must somehow learn the other hemisphere during its first migration.

Curiously, although a sense of time combined with use of the stars is adequate for genuine navigation, as opposed to solely direction finding, no bird with both time sense and star sense appears to relate the two. Why not? We don't know. It is theoretically possible to determine position precisely from the movements of the sun. Here, the answer is simpler. Birds cannot judge the angles involved accurately enough. No bird appears to be born with true navigation instincts, only with direction-finding ones. On their first migration, birds seem to wait until the weather feels right, fly in an appropriate direction, and stop when they run out of stored fat. (Within a species, birds that migrate farthest are fattest when they start.) Why is this the most effective strategy?

Some birds take safety in numbers. They flock before and during migration, and migrate mostly by day. Do they do it by majority vote? We know only that each fall, up to 10,000 starlings drift like black chiffon over the south end of the Island Park bridge, while some 30,000 blackbirds congregate at the Ramsayville marsh. Swallow counts at Pembroke top 150,000.

For the return journey, a multitude of learned clues are used. Some birds can sense the earth's magnetic field and use it day by day. (We can, too, although few of us are aware of it.) The earth's magnetic field flips, north for south, every half million years or so. So, birds sense, not the direction of north, but rather the direction where the magnetic field dips most sharply - always north in the northern hemisphere. Some birds can hear super-low frequency sounds, a hundred notes below the bottom of a piano keyboard. Such sounds travel for long distances. Can they hear where they are, as a blind person does? Pigeons are known to rely on smell to recognize home. Some sea birds discharge strong-smelling oils on their nesting sites. Do they home in on their smell? Do pelagic birds taste sea water, as fish are known to do, to tell where they are? Polynesians use wave patterns for navigation. Many birds that migrate over water call continuously in a way similar to that of bats. Do they listen to the sound reflected from the waves? Small birds seem to use physical landmarks only for the last few hundred meters of travel. Why not farther afield?

If any of these so-far-unanswered questions interest you, you have started on the road to being an ornithologist. The interest can last a lifetime.

Science - Why do Birds Sleep?

Why does any animal sleep? All do. That is, they enter a period of relative inactivity, both physical and mental, at regular intervals.

Muscles need rest, to recharge the supply of chemicals they need for work. But this rest is hardly what dreams are made of, for the heart muscles of the hummingbirds at our honeysuckles rest less than a tenth of a second between beats.

There are times when activity is not worth it. The slim chance of a chickadee's spotting a grub by moonlight is not worth the considerable risk of physical injury from flying into a branch it can't see, is not worth the risk of being heard by an owl that it can't dodge, may not even be worth the extra energy loss to the cold moist sunless air of night compared to day. So, sleep evolved for all animals as a way of conserving energy until a more propitious time.

We have an additional need for sleep. Parts of our brain, in particular the cerebral cortex, have to be logically reorganized at frequent intervals. Our cortex stores information in a criss-crossed manner that provides incredible speed and richness of recall of complex memories. A drawback of this approach is that new memories can modify old ones, making them incorrect. Also, old memories, that may need to be quickly recalled for survival, get buried by the tangle of new ones. A house full of children must be tidied, to get rid of sand and dust, and to enable things to be found when needed. Our cortex is tidied up too, during so-called REM sleep. We show obvious mental impairment if we go without REM sleep for even a few days.

But, the tiny blackpoll warbler that we see in the Valley every spring and fall feeds for a full day on the east coast, then at nightfall launches itself on a three day nonstop flight over the depths of the Atlantic Ocean direct to South America. Loss of aerodynamic control for even a second at any time during this flight would result in fatal damage to its wings, given the speed at which it flies. Yet, if it reaches Brazil during daylight hours, it immediately begins to feed again. For a 15 gram bird, this is the equivalent of a 70 kg human going without sleep for an entire month. Since this flight is the supreme challenge of the year for this species, it seems unlikely that it carries around excess brainpower so that parts can rest.

How can this be? Are birds' brains really that different from ours? The answer seems to be - yes. For birds, as for the reptiles from which they sprang, the cortex is of minor importance in the brain. Birds' intelligence resides in a quite different structure, the striatum. They have developed it to a degree unique among life on this planet. How is it different from our cortex?

Science is the process of asking questions, the state of curiosity unsatisfied. By working with questions of this sort, we will understand more, not only of the brain of birds, but of our brain and of the nature of all perception.

On Being a Naturalist

It is not necessary to become a naturalist in order to enjoy birds, any more than it is necessary to become a birder or a scientist. But, it is, if you will excuse a pun, the most natural culmination of an interest in birds.

Being a naturalist is a state of mind. Within Western cultures, the Christian religion is often blamed for the introduction of the ecologically disastrous doctrine that man has "dominion" over all the earth. Probably though, such a concept of stewardship, even ownership, is an inevitable (that is, natural) by-product of a self-conscious brain.

Most wild species appear to interact with other species only as a resource to be exploited, or as a predator to be avoided. Saw-whet owls do not overtly concern themselves with the well-being of mice. However, species that happened to behave in such a way as to destroy their resource base have been eliminated by natural selection.

You probably assume that the human species can directly connect short-term action and long-term survival, without nature's intermediary of extinction. Careful study, not to mention sad experience, suggests otherwise. We are incapable of knowing all the consequences of our actions, for reasons of psychology, sociology, and physics. Unless we can come to accept this, the extinction of our species may well be imminent.

A naturalist's ethic is aimed at the preservation of all things, including those of whose existence we are unaware. For their sake too, not just for ours. It is based on the acceptance of oneself as a biological creature, on the acceptance of membership in the process of life on this planet.

Naturalists have problems with words! One can quickly find ringing declarations that species have a "right" to exist - a concept with no meaning in nature. Equally common is the view that we should "control" our natural drives, that have been honed by millions of years of evolution - thus assuming that we know how to do it. Or, that we should "manage" solely ourselves - a capricious view that ignores nature's obvious acceptance of species that manipulate other species for their own ends.

It seems that such an ethic involves too much of what we are, and too much of our view of the world of which we are a part, to be expressed in a "left brain" manner. It has too many aspects that any one "angle" can make the overall picture clear. So, only you can truly understand your own ethic. Accept that.

Becoming a naturalist is not a guarantee of inner peace and tranquility! You may well come to despair of the sanity of your fellow countrymen, who dump over a kilogram of pure poison for every man, woman and child in the country each year on Canadian farms. (Some is so potent that a single kilogram would be sufficient to kill the entire population of the Ottawa Valley.) You may even come to feel "Who has the right to decide, for the countless legions of people who were not consulted ... for millions to whom beauty and the ordered world of nature have a meaning that is deep and imperative ... that the supreme value is a world without insects ... a sterile world ungraced by the curving wing of a bird in flight?" (Rachel Carson). However, you may simply cease your own use of pesticides, and feel better in your heart (and, probably, safer in your home).

You may well come to find distasteful the difference between natural and human hunting. Wild predators eat what they kill. But, for every duck carried home by a hunter, many more die a slow death from wounds, or from ingesting the spent lead pellets from shotguns. (We have known for over sixty years that lead at the bottom of marshes kills a quarter of a million waterfowl each year, but it took until 15 years after this was written, 1 September 1999, to prohibit solid lead shot in Canada.) However, you may simply exchange your own shotgun for a camera, and continue to enjoy undiminished the challenge of the chase and its camaraderie.

You may well come to feel that if you are going to be able to continue to enjoy birds as part of nature, you are going to have to do something about it. However, you may be content with experiences like the Winter "mood".

It's up to you. Only you can develop your own naturalist's ethic.

main page
next page