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Curiosity about bird banding continues

After attending the bird banding event at the arboretum a couple weeks ago, I wanted to learn more about this activity, so I called up WVU professor Christopher Rota.

“What are the effects of these urban forests on birds?”

Christopher said this question started the project. He pointed out that parks, like the WVU Core Arboretum, are important for humans as green spaces situated in or near cities.

“But from a bird’s perspective, they can be quite different from forests outside an urban setting,” he said. Some differences include the presence of different predators — notably cats. Another difference is the proximity to bird feeders, providing a food source not found in larger forests.

“I have been banding birds in the arboretum since 2016,” Christopher said. A few years later he started at Prickett’s Fort forest — which provided a nearby non-urban sample area.

To compare the two, Christopher collects data in both locations — specifically on density and life span of cardinals. He chose cardinals because they’re abundant, easy to spot after banding and because they are the WV state bird. He also bands and collects data on any bird that flies into the nets he sets up monthly in both locations.

Christopher invites undergraduate students to help with this project. “I really wanted it to be an undergraduate teaching tool,” he said. The project offers hands-on experience with both bird banding, and follow up observations.

“When you are out re-sighting birds, it is really fascinating to watch them performing their routine,” Christopher said, such as nest building. He and his students must watch closely to spot the combination of colored leg bands unique to each bird. “It really makes you slow down and watch these birds.”

They’ve observed expected species composition differences in the two locations. Kentucky warblers and others which need larger expanses of forests thrive at Prickett’s Fort, but not at the arboretum.

They’ve made some unexpected observations about the cardinal populations: “Interestingly, I’m not finding any strong differences, which is a good thing,” Christopher said. “Cardinals are just as abundant in the arboretum as they are in Prickett’s Fort, which is really good news for bird conservation.”

They have found migratory birds in the arboretum such as Canada warblers, Cape May warblers and a yellow breasted chat, which Christopher said they would not have seen had they not caught them in the nets. He said these catches indicate that the arboretum is an important resting space for migrating birds.

Another notable bird Christopher banded in the arboretum was a fledgling Carolina wren — not an unusual bird in itself. The following year he recaptured the same bird … in Prickett’s Fort forest. He thought it was an error and combed through his data looking for a problem.

“There was no mistake, we caught a Carolina wren in Prickett’s Fort that had been hatched in the arboretum,” he said.

“Right now we have a real bird conservation crisis,” Christopher said. Bird populations have declined since at least the 1960s at a continental scale, with a few exceptions.

The reasons are multiple and complex. They include loss and fragmentation of habitat, an insect apocalypse due to pesticides and other chemicals, loss of prairie and early succession forest.

“I view this work that I do as just a piece of understanding the decline, and how we can stop it,” Christopher said. “There are birds who are losers with urbanization, but there are also birds that can do well with urbanization.

“People are always welcome to join us out there,” on their monthly bird banding, Christopher said.

ALDONA BIRD is a journalist, previously writing for The Dominion Post. She uses experience gained working on organic farms in Europe to help her explore possibilities of local productivity and sustainable living in Preston County. Email