The 'Little Way' to Our Feathered Friends
By Erin Reder
As spring begins to make its way into the area, the Sisters of Charity Motherhouse at Mount St. Joseph, Ohio, reflects the changing of the seasons. Bare, leafless trees and flowers bud, daylight stretches for longer durations, and the sound of a northern cardinal singing “Pretty, Pretty, Pretty” can be heard as you walk along the property.
Yes, the sounds of the songbirds are a clear indication that spring has arrived, but to S. Marty Dermody and Dr. Jill Russell their calls have a different meaning. Located in the St. TheresaCourtyard of the Motherhouse sits the Clifford Bird Observatory (CBO). Opened in the fall 2007, and named after Sister of Charity Adele Clifford, a former College of Mount St. Joseph president, past biology department chair and avid bird watcher, the bird banding station allows the Sisters of Charity, and the College of Mount St. Joseph, to educate the public, inventory natural areas and become part of the global effort involved in bird conservation.
S. Marty and Jill have been involved since the station’s very beginning. An avid birder – and considered “the expert” to Sisters, employees and acquaintances, S. Marty first approached Jill, an assistant biology professor at the College and co-founder/executive director of the Avian Research and Education Institute.
“I was hired on as a faculty member at the College, and received an e-mail from S. Marty saying she was excited to bird with me,” Jill said. “The first time we met we talked about placing a banding station on the Mount St. Joseph property.”
Jill said the Mount is located in the middle of a migratory flight zone. “Birds fly through here during their migrations and stop to re-energize and fill up their gas tanks so they can make it to their next stop,” she added.
The banding station provides a means for documenting changes in the abundance and productivity of songbirds in the Miami Valley. Since 2007, the pair has banded 346 birds of 20 different species, including the American Goldfinch, Carolina Chickadee, Downy Woodpecker, Tufted Titmouse, Mourning Dove, Northern Cardinal, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Dark-eyed Junco and White-throated Sparrow.
They document species, age, body measurements and gender, if that can be determined. Individual feathers are taken for stable isotope and genetic studies. Blood samples are drawn to review DNA. Finally, they attach a small metal band around the leg of each bird, allowing them to study and track when a bird’s flight path next brings it their way. The whole process of collecting data for each captured bird takes less than five minutes, after which the bird is released unharmed.
Results are sent to the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Maryland, which maintains the bird banding database for all of North America. According to the PWRC Web site, individual identification of birds makes it possible to conduct studies of dispersal and migration, behavior and social structure, life-span and survival rate, reproductive success and population growth – research that is valuable to the future of particular bird species.
Birds are important indicators to the health of our environment, gauging threats to our water, air, natural resources, climate and more. In addition, birds are appreciated by the public for both aesthetic and economic reasons. According to the Avian Research and Education Institute, more than 63 million people in the U.S. watch birds for recreation while more than 90 million feed birds – together spending more than $14 billion annually on these activities.
The general population may enjoy spotting birds in their backyard, but what many may not realize is that the number of birds that nest in North America and winter south of the United States has significantly declined in recent years. Habitat loss has resulted as cities expand into rural areas and land is converted to agriculture. In addition, global warming has contributed to northward movement of species of every kind; and the birds that are not heading north are left with nowhere to go.
“If we destroy the migratory path of these birds it forces them to stop somewhere else, costing time and energy,” Jill said. “It also impacts the amount of fat they need to put on to reproduce. A female may only lay three eggs instead of four – and that impacts survivorship.”
Habitat loss also can decrease the range of certain bird populations. This can result in the reduction of genetic diversity, and even the production of infertile young, since these birds would have a higher possibility of mating within their population.
It is information such as this that can be determined as birds are banded and tracked at CBO. And as Jill explains if problems with species abundance and diversity are identified, it will enable them to further educate others of the importance of public policy that supports conservation and protects the environment.
This year S. Marty and Jill found another educational opportunity through the Clifford Bird Observatory’s existence. Jill is currently teaching a basic birding course at the College of Mount St. Joseph this spring semester, and said she coerced S. Marty to assist with the lab on Thursdays.
“[S. Marty’s] enthusiasm is contagious and the students love her,” Jill said. “I wouldn’t even consider teaching the class without her. When we are in the field she hears birds that no one else can hear – and she is so good at imitating bird calls.”
The course covers basic birding techniques, identification and appreciation of species native to the Cincinnati area and bird banding. This is the first time a birding course has been taught at the College, and has given students a better appreciation and sense of responsibility.
“Working with the students provides an opportunity of sharing with new birders who are excited about seeing and learning the calls of our feathered friends,” S. Marty said. “Getting younger students involved allows us to assure a future of citizens concerned about the world and environment in which they live. Hopefully they will share their enthusiasm and try to do the same with others to make a difference in our natural world.
Other College courses, such as Ecology and Animal Behavior, use CBO for observation, as well. In addition, S. Marty teaches an annual four-week course in the spring discussing the variety of bird species that live in the Cincinnati area. The LifeLearn program is sponsored by the College and Bayley Place.
Three years ago S. Marty and Jill could never have predicted the impact and reach the station would have to Sisters, students and the general public. CBO has grown into a community-wide educational tool that will continue into the future. But S. Marty can’t help but think of her personal plans, as well.
“Having the bird banding and feeding station here at the Mount helps me to look forward to the future of my work and life here at Mount St. Joseph,” S. Marty concluded. “The Mount has always had a warm place in my heart, and as I plan to retire and live here in the future practicing and learning about what lives in our environment gives me energy that improves not only my knowledge but my spirituality of creation that exists among us. It is sacred and revives my spirit to hear the songs of not only the cardinals mentioned earlier, but all the birds and creatures that share this space.”
Many thanks to Dr. Jill Russell and the Avian Research and Education Institute (www.avianinstitute.com) for information in this article.