The “All About Birds” blog ( www.allaboutbirds.org), overseen by Hugh Powell, science editor at Cornell Lab of Ornithology, takes readers into the world of bird science, detailing the quirks of common backyard birds and displaying the beauties of rarer specimens.
Q. Birding is one of the most popular hobbies, and bird study is a particularly accessible area of science. Have you seen the scientific literacy of the general public change when it comes to birds?
A. I think watching birds definitely helps people become more aware of the science around environmental issues. When you have a beautiful or interesting animal to focus on, it’s sort of an entryway into the science around it. People who love warblers and orioles, for example, quickly learn about the conservation benefits of shade-grown or coffee brands labeled as bird-friendly. (Participating plantations have a more forestlike environment that provides sanctuary for migratory birds.)
And I think a lot fewer people would know about the problem of plastic debris in the ocean if it weren’t for albatrosses – that’s a sad issue but it’s also an important one for us to be aware of. The work we do at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is very science-based, and it’s great when our members and followers take their interest in birds and get involved in the science that we do.
Q. Are ornithologists seeing the effects of climate change on bird behavior or population?
A. Common Eastern U.S. birds such as the Carolina wren, red-bellied woodpecker and black vulture have been moving their ranges northward in the last couple of decades. Carolina wrens are now pretty common in the winter in parts of New England, even. A couple of our scientists recently found that birds in the New Guinea mountains have shifted their ranges upslope over the last 50 years, almost exactly in line with warming temperatures. Rising sea levels – from melting glaciers – are predicted to start swamping low oceanic islands and atolls that right now provide a safe haven for millions of nesting seabirds, including 99 percent of the world’s Laysan albatrosses and black-footed albatrosses.
Q. You recently visited Peru. What was that trip about?
A. I was writing about the World Birding Rally, in which four teams of top-notch birders spend eight straight days finding as many birds as they can across almost 1,000 miles of northern Peru. It was a sleep-deprived event filled to the brim with amazing birds – 777 species! – and amazing scenery. One of the highlights for me was finding a rare, range-restricted hummingbird called the royal sunangel in the cloud forest. It had been scientifically described just under 40 years ago by John Fitzpatrick, who is now the director of the Cornell Lab.