Earning my Tail

So — I’m writing to you from inside the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which is my (our) new home base for the summer. The SMBC is not actually a building, but a series of (mostly basement) offices inside the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute which is located inside (in the very back) of the National Zoo. (I knew before coming here that the SMBC is a “sub-unit” of the zoo; I didn’t actually know it would be physically inside the Zoo. Coming to a zoo for work is just plain cool; also, the surrounding Rock Creek Park is quite lovely.) This work location is pretty central to downtown DC, to say the least; despite that, I’ve had barely had any time to explore. The past three days we’ve been filling out paperwork, setting up and taking down mist nets, practicing point counting, and getting some bird-banding practice. Today we spent most of the day en route to Baltimore to pick up our government vehicles… it sounded cool at first (I felt a little naked driving a government car without a pair of Ray-Ban Aviators or some other kind of government-issue-looking dark glasses), but it quickly became nerve wracking as I realized that downtown DC traffic is horrible (extra horrible when you’re in a nice car) and the “Beltway” is not actually a highway but a parking lot with cars that move every few minutes. Don’t get me started on the fumes… I thought Detroit’s air was bad. I guess I was never stuck in traffic long enough to really appreciate it.

Tomorrow morning is our first Neighborhood Nestwatch visit. This involves meeting a participant in their backyard, doing a point count (recording birds we see or hear within a 50M radius — I’m really going to have to practice that), setting up mist nets, and banding focal species. During the 5 hours, we sit and chat with the participants about the birds, banding, and science (why we band, and how their participation — the data we collect from their yard — fits into the larger picture), all while involving the participant in as many aspects as possible. The goal is to get data while educating about birds and science (a labor-intensive but effective permutation of citizen science).

To summarize the research focus, Neighborhood Nestwatch compares the distribution, abundance, nesting success, and overall well-being of birds across an urbanization gradient. This just means that birds from urban, suburban, and rural areas are compared; the data can be used to answer so many questions about birds and how to conserve them. Ideally the results will influence land planning decisions (how certain environmental features help or hurt birds and to what degree).

(I wonder if the urbanization gradient is more statistical than geographical. Although DC and Baltimore are two major urban focus points, it’s not like the rest of the sites are arranged radially around them and gradually “ruralize” as you move further out; once you get out of the immediate downtown area, the city is more accurately like a patchwork quilt of habitats;  I’m sure there is some statistical magic that happens to shake it all out into a gradient. Anyway… I’m still learning about the actual anatomy of the project. I’ll have to keep you updated as my understanding improves.)

Development of “Urban Nestwatch”, the project I’ve been hired into, will start next week — we’ll be doing the same thing (bird banding and interpretation), except we’ll be “taking the show on the road” and doing it at an urban schools and folding in some planned educational activities. The most exciting part of it is that Urban Nestwatch doesn’t exist yet — it’ll be up to us to create the general framework, develop the activities, and implement it about 20 to 25 times before the summer is over.

Although I’m not sure how it will look yet, it seems like we’ll be doing K-5 whole-school assemblies that focus on birds and bird banding, as well as some classroom visits. Each school visit will probably be different; the only consistent item that I know of so far will be mist netting and bird banding demonstrations. I’m really excited about this, and I know that the kids will be, too! (There’s already research on the program’s impact on normal Neighborhood Nestwatch participants — it is a “highly effective tool” for educating the public,  increasing science literacy, and fostering sense of place according to the paper published in Conservation Biology. Hopefully we can continue to explore these aspects with Urban Nestwatch.)

The school is will also ideally become a Nestwatch study site that Nestwatch banders will continue to visit year after year — not only does it benefit the kids, but it benefits science, too (by becoming a data point)!

Of the three Urban Nestwatch interns, there are two of us on board as educators  (strong education backgrounds) and a third who is an experienced bander. I can’t wait to see how we can blend our talents to develop an excellent and memorable program for kids!

From DC with love,


P.S. The title of this post was inspired by the first bird I de-netted here in DC:

… A whole handful (five!) similar-looking birds got captured in our net yesterday; three of them didn’t have tails! There was a reason for it, though: those three  birds were fledglings just learning to fly, and their tails hadn’t grown in yet. The other two were the parents; they were a Carolina Wren family.

Here is the family member that I removed from the net. He or she didn’t have a tail yet, but it was growing in. In addition to saying that you’re  “earning your wings” when you’re learning to fly, maybe we can say that you “earning your tail”  when you’re learning to steer, balance, and control…. very important skills to have when you’re flying high, however you want to interpret that.


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