The Public and Private Faces of Birds with Professor Dan Baldassarre

More than perhaps any other taxa, birds have managed to associate themselves with the beauty of nature. An ecosystem devoid of bird calls just feels like it’s missing something, and whilst tigers, koalas and elephants might be the face of many a conservation movement, you can’t lure them to your backyard or local park with a simple feeder (at least I hope not). The bird-watching community worldwide is massive, and ranges from casual backyard birders to those who are willing to travel far and wide to see a new species.

For bird scientists, there are pros and cons to the public’s love affairs with birds. The bird community is a huge source of information and a great place to raise awareness of conservation issue. Yet at the same time, our idealisation of birds has led to a lot of misconceptions, both about their population health and their private lives.

Professor Dan Baldassare came into bird ecology through a fascination with animal behaviour. The author of the fantastic paper “The Deal With Birds” (which we’ll get into in a subsequent article, Dan has spent his academic career studying the lives of a range of birds, from the striking Northern Cardinal to the incredible vampire ground finch.

I spoke to Dan recently about our relationships with birds, some of the positives that have come from it, and how our perception of them may have blinded us to some of the realities of their lives.

Sam Perrin (SP): There’s a ton of cute birds out there that people love, yet the reaction is a bit shocked when we tell them about some of their more dastardly activities. Do people have a hard time associating the realities of the life of a bird with its appearance?

Professor Dan Baldassarre, State University of New York, Oswego (DB): I think so. There was a study recently by Justin Schuetz and Alison Johnston, and they were basically asking people about their gut reactions to different bird species. Which ones they found frightening, which ones they found adorable. Owls came out as particularly cute and adorable, despite the fact that they’re pretty vicious hunters. That may be attributed to their big faces and round eyes. I think there is something to that, in that people ascribe personalities to birds that probably in most cases are not very accurate. Most birds, especially during the breeding season, are just full of raging hormones and either trying to mate with or kill everything that they come across. And I don’t think that’s an attribute that most people get when they see a lovely little chickadee land at their bird-feeder. It’s something you only start to appreciate once you’re studying them and getting a window into their lives.

SP: Has there been a species that’s been particularly disturbing?

DB: The weirdest bird I worked on were the vampire finches. This is one of Darwin’s finch species that’s a blood feeding specialist. When I started it was a behaviour that was known anecdotally but nobody had really studied it in great detail. That was irresistible to me, that was something that I had to see for myself and study.

Related: Creature Feature: Vampire Finch

The vampire ground finch, Geospiza septentrionalis - "It’s something that the average person would have no ability to fathom that a bird could do, attack these larger birds and peck giant holes in them and drink millilitres and millilitres of blood." (Image Credit: Dan Baldassarre, CC BY 2.0)

The vampire ground finch, Geospiza septentrionalis – “It’s something that the average person would have no ability to fathom that a bird could do, attack these larger birds and peck giant holes in them and drink millilitres and millilitres of blood.” (Image Credit: Dan Baldassarre, CC BY 2.0)

That’s probably at the top of the list for me in terms of weird life-history traits.

SP: Urban birds are still often regarded as boring, despite the fact that they can be as complicated as the Australian magpie or as beautiful as the red cardinals you work with. Why does that perception of them still float around?

DB: They’re common, they’re familiar. People assume either that they’re just boring, or that we know everything about them. They live in the cities, they live in people’s backyards, people think we must have studied them to death, right? When I started thinking about working on the cardinals, I thought that as well. I didn’t know if I could do any work on cardinals, everything’s probably done, there’s probably ten different research groups all working on cardinals. But I started asking around and reading the papers and realising that there’s a couple dozen papers on cardinals and that’s about it, nothing like what you would expect. City birds and other common birds really do fly under people’s radar. And the more people study them, the more people find interesting things to learn about them. That’s been my experience so far with the cardinals. They’re awesome to work with, there are all sorts of cool avenues for research, and despite the fact that they’re insanely common, there’s a lot of things that people haven’t looked at.

SP: Urban birds, as with all urban life, are a tricky balancing act with regards to

conservation. They have adapted to our presence, yet we do still have negative effects on larger populations. Is there a threshold when we go from a threat to just something these birds have to deal with?

DB: This is something that conservation people and managers think about all the time. How to prioritise money, essentially, is what it often comes down to. There has been a big shift recently from “we need to stop urban encroachment as much as possible” to “how do we manage these potentially fragmented and smaller potential patches of suitable habitat”. I think there is potentially some sort of switch point there where urban conservation turns to a losing battle against the inevitable. Certain species of birds are just not going to tolerate human encroachment. And especially if they are potentially close competitors with a species that really loves human encroachment and doesn’t care about disturbance, those species are going to be in trouble for sure.

But there are ways to try and manage some of these smaller patches of habitat in urban areas. And the more people look at it, the more people realise that birds are pretty ingenious  and pretty resourceful compared to what we usually give them credit for. So even migratory species that you would think would never be caught dead in an urban area, during migration, will stop in tiny little patches of forest. And those patches can be absolutely critical for them to just get a little break and a little bit of refuelling during migration. So people are realising that even preserving these tiny little green patches within urban areas can be really impactful for some bird species.

SP: Onto the birding community, which is such a rich source of data. Is the integration between the birding community and the bird science community good enough?

DB: I think it is pretty impressive. There’s a spectrum, as with anything. There are a lot of casual backyard birders who are really not very scientific, don’t have much of a scientific background. But people who get into birding with any degree of seriousness tend to really go crazy with it. There is this whole culture of keeping lists of all the birds you’ve seen, keeping really meticulous notes. Especially with the advent of services like eBird, where people can easily record all that data online.

Related: The Bird Watching Community: Citizen Science at its Finest

I think most of the people who use eBird have an understating of the importance of that data, they’re not just doing it to keep track of their own lists. They’re doing it because they understand it’s really important and useful data. I think that message has gotten through to the birding community pretty extensively. Most birders, they understand that they can really powerfully impact the scientific community with the birding data that they can produce. So I think most people would say that that integration is pretty strong and pretty meaningful.

SP: Coming from the other side then, is there pushback against the use of citizen/community science data?

DB: There is certainly some of that, and I often pity the people who work with those datasets, because there is a lot of cleaning of those types of data that you have to do to be able to feel like you can rely on it. Figuring out how to control for things like search effort, and the density of observations  in different areas. There are enough people that do work with those datasets, and nowadays we have the data management tools to clean those datasets up and make them reliable. It’s something that people are aware of but I don’t think it’s a big concern per se in the scientific community. I think it’s a pretty good and useful sort of partnership thus far from both sides.

SP: What are the biggest spatial biases found in those datasets?

Dan with a Northern Cardinal, a species which may seem commonplace to many North Americans, but on which there was relatively little research (Image Credit: Dan Baldassarre, CC BY 2.0)

Dan with a Northern Cardinal, a species which may seem commonplace to many North Americans, but on which there was relatively little research (Image Credit: Dan Baldassarre, CC BY 2.0)

DB: Urban areas, and also areas that are hotspots for other reasons. Public lands, or parks and things like that tend to accumulate lots and lots of observations. Also, if there are particularly interesting or unusual species that pop up in a particular area, that word travels quickly, and so all of a sudden you’ll see a massive influx in reports and lists from that particular area, from all these people that are going there looking for this particular bird. There’s probably also a big coastal bias. So it makes the data challenging to work with. But people who are a lot smarter than me and spend a lot of time with those datasets have figured out ways of controlling for those factors.

SP: Have there been big efforts to cover up holes in data coverage?

DB: I don’t know on a smaller spatial scale, so within the United States for example. But there have been concerted efforts to get data from other countries. So eBird started in the US, and that’s where most of the data has come from. But they’ve been steadily expanding into the neotropics, and all over the place now. And there’s been especially an interest in Latin America in order to start getting good data on migration for example. So the species that we see up in the United States, just in the spring and summer when they’re breeding, are doing all sorts of cool interesting things throughout the rest of the year down in Central and South America. There didn’t used to be a lot of data coming from those areas, and that’s no longer the case. So that’s been really successful, I know that the eBird people have been really happy with how it’s taken off in Latin America.

Sam Perrin is a freshwater ecologist currently completing his PhD at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology who detests birds but will draw them. You can read more about Sam’s research on his Ecology for the Masses profile here, and follow him on Twitter @samperrinNTNU.

Image Credit: Dan Baldassarre, CC BY 2.0, Image Cropped, Rotated

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