Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s Powdermill Nature Reserve Celebrates 50th Anniversary of Renowned Bird Banding Program
Public is invited to celebrate during a special activity day on May 14, 2011
Rector, Pennsylvania…This year, Powdermill Nature Reserve, the biological research station of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, celebrates the fiftieth year of operation of its bird banding station, the longest continually running station in the United States. Bird migration research at Powdermill Nature Reserve began in 1961 when Robert Leberman began collecting bird data during migration season. Thanks to Leberman and the dedication of a number of staff and volunteers, Powdermill Nature Reserve has grown into one of the world’s premier centers for cutting-edge bird migration research. In the fifty years since the station’s beginnings, more than half a million birds have been banded, with data on those birds informing discussions on today’s toughest environmental issues such as climate change, habitat loss, and population changes. Today the bird research programs at the reserve form an integral part of the Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems, launched in January 2011 by Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
“The data collected at Powdermill are uniquely valuable to ecological research because they are a continuous record of natural phenomena over a very long time period,” says Sam Taylor, director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History. “Also, no one can predict what the scientific questions of the future will be, and this extraordinary record of environmental change will continue to increase in its value as an unparalleled research tool for many future generations of scientists.”
Bird banding data have allowed scientists from Carnegie Museum of Natural History and other institutions to conduct long-term nature studies. These studies are vital because they can reveal trends in such areas as population demography, biodiversity, and ecosystem stability—information critical to decision-making about current and future conservation issues. For example, a 2010 study entitled Declining body sizes in North American birds associated with climate change—for which Robert Leberman was an author—used Powdermill bird banding data to show that songbird size has decreased over time. This is perhaps an effect of climate change—smaller birds have an advantage in warmer climates—and bird banding data provides evidence of that trend.
The banding work has also fostered new directions in bird research at the nature reserve, including studies of avian bioacoustics— the science of analyzing the sounds made by birds—and the development of bird-safe glass materials that are designed to reduce the number of bird deaths and injuries that occur when birds fly into glass windows or doors.
It all starts with bird banding
Bird banding is the process of affixing small, lightweight, and durable metal bands—similar to tiny bracelets—to the legs of birds. In 2001, the banding station reached the milestone of half a million birds banded.
Bird banding as a research tool began in 1902 when a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution began banding birds that he had captured and released, making it possible to track information about birds if they were recaptured later.
Modern bird banding often begins with a mist net, a web of extremely fine mesh which is set up like a badminton net in places frequented by birds. Birds fly into the net but are not harmed. Staff and volunteers remove the birds from the nets and make banding measurements. Researchers make a set of standardized observations of every bird, such as age, sex, species, weight, amount of fat on the body, and condition of the feathers. All of these data are recorded in a database and associated with a unique number stamped on the bird band, which is affixed to one of the bird’s legs. If the bird is ever recaptured—whether at Powdermill or any other banding station—or if the band is found, the bird’s information can be tracked by researchers who identify the bird by its band number.
Bird banding data from Powdermill are collected with extremely high attention to consistency and accuracy. When all of the data share the same level of quality, it is much easier to spot trends in, say, weight changes caused by loss of feeding habitat.
The sheer volume of high-quality data collected over the past 50 years has provided a jumping-off point for new techniques that are redefining how we learn about birds and their behavior. As bioacoustics assistant Amy Amones says, “We couldn’t do the other work we do if it weren’t for the bird banding station.”
Forward-thinking research with everyday applications
Carnegie museum researchers are excited about developments in the field of avian research, including new techniques that they’ve developed themselves. “We’re doing things now that we couldn’t have dreamed of in the sixties,” asserts Senior Scientist Andy Mack, based at Powdermill Nature Reserve. “We’re always coming up with new things we can do for birds.” For example:
- o “Flying into glass windows is a major cause of mortality for small birds,” states Mack. “The estimates are several hundred million to close to a billion bird deaths per year, just in North America.” A special flight tunnel designed in collaboration with the American Bird Conservancy allows research staff to test how birds interact with different windows. The data gathered over the course of this study will help window manufacturers and contractors design safer preventative techniques.
- o Carnegie museum researchers are at the forefront of bioacoustics, research based on the science of analyzing the sounds made by organisms. The aggregated data reveal information about migration patterns and population trends. However, a major goal of the bioacoustics research staff goes beyond the science: They are working on portable recording kits that will allow anyone, even schoolchildren, in urban Pittsburgh or at rural Powdermill, to collect sound samples. Children inspired by early hands-on experiences with science may grow up to become environmental researchers themselves, someday leading their own fight to protect our natural resources.
The work goes on
Like the canary in the coal mine but on a larger scale, a bird population in distress indicates larger problems with the environment. The study of the long-term bird migration data provides a window to environmental change that few similar research centers can match. And that makes the banding station a gem for researchers and amateur nature lovers alike.
“Carnegie Museum of Natural History’s contributions of scientific data on the ecology of the mid-Appalachian region, particularly in avian studies, are monumental,” remarks John Wenzel, director for the Center for Biodiversity and Ecosystems. “But that isn’t all: Carnegie museum’s bird migration research has international impacts in the way we understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems throughout the world.”
Carnegie museum’s researchers and environmental educators are passionate about sharing their work with the public. They recognize the study of birds as a way to opening conversations about larger ecological topics. The museum’s avian ecologist Drew Vitz says, "Birds are accessible, and they can be applied to many ecological issues—global climate change, habitat loss and fragmentation, and environmental contamination. In many cases, they are bio-indicators for the ecosystem at large, and that's why our station’s 50 years of data matter."
“I’m very proud,” says Bob Leberman when asked what he thinks about the research nexus that his little banding station has become. “To have seen it turn into a place of international importance—I’m very satisfied to have seen it develop the way it did.”
The nature reserve’s operations coordinator Cokie Lindsay agrees that that banding station’s legacy is a crucial one. “If we can identify and keep records of which birds are migrating through or staying to breed at the reserve, that knowledge can help us observe what changes are taking place in the environment. With our 50 years of bird banding data, we can see what we’ve lost or gained and figure out why.”
Celebrate with us on May 14
On May 14—International Migratory Bird Day—bird lovers and nature enthusiasts of all ages are invited to celebrate 50 years of bird banding and related field research at the museum’s Powdermill Nature Reserve. The May 14 public celebration includes a fun-filled day of nature activities led by scientists, researchers, and educators from Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The event is free, with drop-in activities taking place all day between 8 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. at the reserve’s Rector, PA, location. The events take place outdoors and indoors, rain or shine, so dress for the weather. Activities are designed for families and for adults. Details are available online at http://www.carnegiemnh.org/programs. No registration is necessary.
Carnegie Museum of Natural History, one of the four Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh, is among the top natural history museums in the country. It maintains, preserves, and interprets an extraordinary collection of 22 million objects and scientific specimens used to broaden understanding of evolution, conservation, and biodiversity. Carnegie Museum of Natural History generates new scientific knowledge, advances science literacy, and inspires visitors of all ages to become passionate about science, nature, and world cultures. More information is available by calling 412.622.3131 or by visiting the website, www.carnegiemnh.org.