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Keuka College News

A Bird in the Hand …

Newborn nestlings (All Photos by Hung Do Le '12)

Like most expectant parents or relatives, the wait for “D-day,” the day of delivery, is a torturous enterprise. But once the little one is safely arrived and nestled down for naps and feedings, the crowing begins.

So it is for the students in Keuka’s ornithology class and Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, Bill Brown, who have been keeping close watch on several nestboxes Brown placed along the outer perimeter of the campus, near the treeline beyond Davis Hall and the Red Barn Theatre. The nestboxes, which look like simple birdhouses to the untrained eye, are large enough for birds that prefer to live in cavities such as tree trunks to build a nest inside.

The nestbox of the Black-capped chickadees.

It has been a long wait, marred when eight of nine “active” nests of Eastern bluebirds and Black-capped chickadees were destroyed by house wrens and house sparrows, whose habit is to kick out any eggs already laid in a nest in order to take it over and lay eggs of their own. But one chickadee nest escaped the ravages of the migratory menaces, and that nestbox is the ultimate destination for Brown’s class on this, the final day of the outdoor lab for ENV/BIO 331.

Before paying a visit to the home of the new nestlings, the scientific term for baby birds recently hatched, the class stops at one additional box, where a house wren has begun to lay new eggs – three so far – after returning to the area in the last week or so.

Carefully unscrewing one side of the box, Brown reveals the wren’s nest, made primarily of twigs, with soft grasses, bluejay feathers and hair lining the inside. Fishing around with his hand, he pulls out three tiny pink-toned eggs.

Nest and eggs of a tree swallow.

“The eggs are cold because she lays them and doesn’t incubate until the second to last one,” Brown says, comparing the weight of a nickel, about 5 grams, to the eggs, which weigh about one gram each. Incubation lasts about 10 to 16 days for the swallow or sparrow, a little less, 9-13 days, for the house wren, and 12-13 days for the chickadee. It’s roughly a two-week wait before the birds will hatch from the eggs, most within a day of one another, and then about two weeks more for the nestlings to grow feathers and become strong enough to leave the box on their own.

Throughout the course, students have been studying some 104 bird species, learning to identify them by sight and in many cases, by song. Outdoor field labs have been in full swing since March so that students experience the return of migrating birds with each successive wave of warm weather. This final opportunity, to witness the start of a new life cycle for some of the birds, will serve as the capper for a semester full of discoveries.

There is no fear the mother of a baby bird will abandon her young if they come in contact with humans. That’s because most birds’ sense of smell is very limited, Brown explains as the class treks to the nest of the chickadees, where eggs hatched about three days earlier. However, as with visits to most nurseries, quiet is urged, in order to cause the least disturbance and disruption to the new family.

With the calm and confidence of a clinician, Brown quietly opens the box, reaches in and begins removing the nestlings, one by one. Eyes still shut, the tiny babies are nearly hairless, spine visible, wings flailing, crawling over and atop one another.

A newborn chickadee, about 3-4 days old.

“They’re so precious,” coos senior Janelle Davidson, cupping her hands as Brown places three nestlings in her palm. “They’re so ugly that they’re cute.”

Sophomore Justin Evanicki gets three nestlings too, senior Justin Henry gets one and Brown keeps the final bird himself –for “processing” as he calls it. As others pull out cell phones and cameras, shutters clicking to capture the birds’ official debut in nature’s nursery, he cautions the three to keep them warm.

Sitting on a small camoflauge stool, Brown opens a small red toolbox and starts in with a Sharpie paint pen, coloring the tiny toe nails of the bird in his hand, to identify it from the others. Using calipers, he measures its head, wing, tarsus (leg), and finally places it in a small plastic container atop a tiny metric scale. Its weight reads 2.6 grams.

“This guy’s already tripled in weight,” Brown announces to senior Jason Troutman, who records the measurements for each nestling into a small notebook. Troutman waves away the offer from another student to hold a baby, saying he doesn’t trust himself.

One of Davidson’s birds opens its beak wide as she places it into Brown’s hands.

“Aw, look! He’s hungry!” she trills.

After Brown has processed all the babies, Troutman reviews the stats and declares the green-toed bird the smallest and the brown-toed the largest. Brown assesses their ages at three and four days old. About two weeks after hatching, the nestlings will have grown so much that they will be ready to fly away, he says, returning them to the nest and ushering students away so the mother will return after the hub-bub of the visit.

“A bird in the hand is worth eight in the box!” Davidson says with enthusiasm, describing the disappointment of the previous weeks, learning that the bluebird and other nests had “failed.” “It was a little sad, but today makes it better. We have eight successful birds born. They’re fragile but pretty hardy at the same time.”

More nestlings may hatch in the coming weeks as the weather continues to warm and other migratory birds return or those here already attempt to lay eggs a second time, Brown says. The students spot the bright orange and black-accented markings of a Baltimore Oriole, a male, on the limb of another tree. The less vibrant female, with yellow feathers, is nearby. Like the tree swallow, the orioles have only recently returned.

Students have identified birds by sight and song throughout the course.

The nestboxes and tiny young can make fascinating research projects, says Brown, who holds a Ph.D. in ornithology. Students can study differences in eggs or nestlings relative to each species, sex differences in nestlings, success rates of fledglings (birds that leave the nest), and more. Even the nestboxes themselves can become part of research if color, height and shape are manipulated and results tracked, he says.

Since arriving at Keuka two years ago, Brown has been laying the groundwork to enable students to develop research projects with birds, salamanders, and other flora and fauna found outdoors. A microphone atop the Jephson Science Center awaits use for students to record and monitor bird calls and songs of migrating birds each night. The nestboxes are up and available. Salamander studies can start as easily as flipping over some rocks, and Brown also has a strong background in entomology, the study of insects.

“I want to create a culture of field research and encourage that culture, which needs developing here,” Brown adds. Ideally, he would like to create an undergraduate field research program where multiple students can contribute to long-term projects, and then in later years, other students can ask questions of the data itself. The ultimate goal is for students to publish research in a scholarly journal or present it at a scientific meeting, credentials that can help give those considering graduate school a rare distinction.

Davidson already conducted an independent research project using animal shelter data, then co-wrote a paper on it with Brown, which is currently under review for possible publication in the Journal of Applied Animal Welfare Science. But whether or not student research becomes published or presented, it’s clear a first goal is for the students to simply enjoy the experience.

Close-up of a newborn nestling. (by Hung Do Le '12)

Joking first to Davidson that holding the nestlings “touches my heart,” Evanicki settles down, sharing a more serious perspective.

“It’s nice to be exposed to this, to come out in nature and do the research,” he says. “It makes it easier to learn what’s actually out here by seeing it and seeing how it lives.”

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