For the birds!

This is a guest post by my partner and teacher-naturalist extraordinaire at Audubon New York, Laura Revilla. She gets to spend her time teaching 2-4th graders about NYC birds and their conservation.


Laura with the kids!

What is mating? That was a question a got from a 2nd grader my first day of work as a Teacher-Naturalist at For the Birds!. I was stunned, did not have an answer ready at all, but luckily was quickly saved by another 2nd grader who told her that is was like ‘getting married’ but for animals. Lesson number one; never use a word or phrase that cannot be explained in simple terms. Teaching children about urban birds and wildlife conservation is a very rewarding activity. Birds are everywhere; sparrows, pigeons, starlings, doves; yet they are wild animals with interesting interactions and behaviors that can be used to teach kids about ecology and conservation.

Birds teach us about the importance of habitat conservation and biodiversity, clean water and geography- as many birds migrate, for thousands of miles, twice a year, every year. One particularly amazing example is the ruby-throated hummingbird that migrates from the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico to the southeastern United States every spring, a journey of 500-600 miles over the Caribbean Sea that takes 24 hours without a break!

While migrating birds are incredible and adapted for the journey, they still need resting places with food resources on their way to nesting sites; places they depend on year after year. Unfortunately, many times these migratory paths become death traps for countless birds. For example, China’s second most important migratory bird route has become an illegal hunting ground. In addition, it is estimated that between 100 million and 1 billion North American birds are killed each year by collisions with buildings; some 90,000 birds annually in New York City alone.


Planting bird habitat in NYC

Birds unite us; make this world a smaller place, reminding us that we are all connected with shared ecologies and how our local actions can have global repercussions.

I teach my second graders that anyone can make a difference and I believe it. Here are some examples of ways you can have a direct, positive impact on bird survival:

  • Put up a bird house in your yard
  • Put a bird bath in your yard to provide a year-round clean drinking and bathing water source for birds
  • Erect bird feeders and nectar feeders in proper distances from windows or places where birds can’t be ambushed by predators
  • Limit the use of lawn chemicals and pesticides in your garden, which are harmful not only to birds, but to a variety of wildlife and to household pets
  • Hang cutout silhouettes of birds, such as hawks, in large windows to prevent birds from colliding with the windows of your home
  • Plant native fruit and berry-bearing bushes and trees on your property
  • At night, turn off the lights or close the blinds of your high-rise offices or apartment buildings, and spread the word to your co-workers

Bird Book Journaling

By the way, pigeons mate for life. That is why the second grader asked me what I meant by mating. Every year male pigeons court the same female all over again, creating a display of throaty coos accompanied by strutting, puffing shimmery throat feathers, bowing, and tail fanning and dragging, as if it were the first time they met.

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Chernobyl’s Birds Adapt to Radiation- latest Science Bulletin!

The Chernobyl nuclear disaster had a high ecological cost, with local wildlife suffering from physical deformities and reduced populations. The site has since emerged as a unique environment for scientists to study the long-term effects of continuous radiation exposure on plants and animals.

Our latest Bio Bulletin looks at a recent study showing that many bird species are surprisingly adaptable to life in highly radioactive areas.


Functional Ecology: Chronic exposure to low-dose radiation at Chernobyl favours adaptation to oxidative stress in birds

Nature: Chernobyl birds adapt to radiation

University of South Carolina: Chernobyl Research Initiative

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Veil of Ignorance

Hi readers! I just got back to NYC from Missoula, Montana! I was at the North American Conference for Conservation Biology. It was a good conference and I was able to present some of my work on tiger beetles and watch many of my fellow museum colleagues give great talks. I also went to a great session on invasive species- but not in the way you’d think. I’d like to take this post to summarize some of what was discussed in that session.

Beautiful coastal terrace prairie? It is FULL of invasive grasses.

Beautiful coastal terrace prairie? It is FULL of invasive grasses.

How do you react to the word “invasive”? It has an immediate negative connotation, so when you call a species “invasive” it sounds like a property of the species and you may automatically think about how we need to get rid of it! Well, species are only “non-native” and “invasive” because we, humans, moved them from one place to another- either on purpose or by accident. Native species, the “good” guys, are those which have evolved in a place and adapted to it. Think about your neighborhood park or backyard- or any natural area you spent time in- growing up. Does it look differently now? Were the species there when you were a kid “native”? What about those now present? There is often an emotional connection with “native” species that also makes us having negative feelings against the “invasives”. Many scholars have likened this feeling to xenophobia– or fear of foreign people- but I’m not going to get into that philosophical debate here.

One speaker at the session, Emma Marris, challenged us to conduct a “Veil of Ignorance” experiment. In other words, if we didn’t know if the species were native or not, how would we manage the site? For example, if we were managing an area- say a park- for a rare fish-eating bird as well as trying to maintain good recreation conditions, would we try to eradicate all of the grasses that cover the meadows? Why would you do this? If those grasses happen to be from another country originally, you might call them invasive and might decide to attempt to get rid of them. But would you be successful? Probably not. In the meantime, you might just use up all of your limited time and money that you could have spent attempting to improve habitat for the rare bird- such as improve water quality. The ‘Veil of Ignorance’ is a useful thought experiment when checking management priorities versus values.

TallamybookOf course, there are many examples of how eradicating invasive species should be at the top of a manager’s priority list. For example, Doug Tallamy from the University of Delaware discussed how non-native trees in suburban neighborhoods support half the number of butterfly and moth caterpillars, thus drastically reducing the amount of food available to birds, and in turn, bird populations. Tallamy argued that the butterflies and moths are specifically adapted to the native trees and couldn’t effectively use the non-native trees to breed. Thus, Tallamy writes about how planting and replacing non-native with native trees and plants can greatly improve biodiversity, particularly in human dominated areas. He concluded that it is better question to ask if introduced plants have net value when managing rather than just aim to eradicate them immediately.

A final couple points raised in the discuss I found very provocative and worth thinking about were well, what about the Endangered Species Act? If, say, the Tea Party politicians caught on that conservation scientists are not as concerned about non-native species, will they use this reduced concern for native species as a reason to go after the Act? Finally, I leave you with a thought posed by Chris Thomas from York, “If we define base lines [for conservation management] as a past state, then everything is going to move away from those baselines, and we are dooming ourselves to failure.”

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIV

Blog post coming soon…in the meantime, enjoy these cartoons!

Another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation giggle & groan (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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Conservation corridors benefit plants too!

Here is our latest Bio News about a very cool study showing that conservation corridors can increase plant dispersal!

The AMNH link with the study and other resources:

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Just call me the Science Advisor

I wanted to write a little about one very cool aspect of my job: science advisor to bio bulletins. It sounds exciting, and it is! I am a the scientific advisor, or conservation expert, for the videos that play in the Hall of Biodiversity at the American Museum of Natural History. Now, many of the halls in the museum have their own videos playing and not all the videos in each hall are produced by the museum’s science bulletins team, but many are- and I get to work with them! The science bulletins team is an exciting group of artists, editors, and animators that have an amazing amount of scientific knowledge to boot.

There are three types of ‘bio’ bulletins that I am part of: short 2-minute overview videos of a cool study or conservation science news that come out every month, short bio data visualizations on visible changes on the planet that come out a few times/year, and bio documentaries ~8 minute longer pieces on conservation expeditions and more in-depth analysis of a study that are produced twice a year. See them all here:

So far, I’ve been able to advise on all three types. The process is relatively the same for each, however, with the time needed to research material allocated respectively with the time of each piece (i.e. longer for documentaries), so I will elaborate on a recent bio news that we completed on invasive crazy ants! The month starts out with the bulletins team sending me a few recent studies or conservation news pieces they are interested in making into a bio news story- they also sometimes ask if I have an idea for a story. Last month, one of the producers sent me a story that I thought would be a great visual news story: crazy ants taking over the south!

Now, of course, the story has to be of potential wide interest and have great visuals to accompany the script. My job is to not only read the scientific articles for background and help decipher the science, but I also make sure the conservation message is clear and direct. I specifically take this last part very seriously and make sure each video has a conservation angle people can understand- much like this blog :).

Once a story is chosen, I read the relevant articles and wait for a draft script and accompanying slides. In one case, I also reached out to my fellow scientists and network for some photos to use (see the beetles in: and I suspect I might need to do more of that in the future. I then get to go through a series of edits with both the script and the visuals, mostly editing the script for scientific accuracy and a prominent conservation message. The videos are great and it’s very cool to see our work in the Hall of Biodiversity- and the public taking in the conservation message.

I will post them here as we complete them every month. Here are the two latest visualizations and bio news, respectively:

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Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss XXIII

Here are another 6 biodiversity cartoons for your conservation pleasure/pain (see full stock of previous ‘Cartoon guide to biodiversity loss’ compendia here).

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