Thumbnail image: Leo Sack
[Leo] All right, hello. Welcome to our webinar. This is Nest Talk with NestWatch. Thank you all so much for joining us today. This is the first in a series of webinars for the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s virtual visitor’s center programs. Over the next couple of months, we will be highlighting each of the various mobile apps and other digital tools and resources created by the Cornell Lab. For each app, we will post a short video demonstrating how to use the app in the field. For example, you may have already seen last week’s video, demonstrating the Nestwatch mobile app in Sapsucker Woods. And then we’ll follow that up with a live webinar like today. Our goal in each webinar is to introduce you to panelists who are experts on the app or resource in question who can give you more detail and answer some of your questions. With that in mind, let’s do introductions. My name is Leo Sack. I’m the public programs assistant on our visitor center team, which means I’m the lucky educator who gets to explore all of our many wonderful apps and resources, and I get to facilitate these conversations. So today’s topic is one of the Lab’s citizen science projects, NestWatch. I’m very happy to have with us. Two of the experts who run this program, Robyn Bailey is the project leader for Nestwatch. Hey, Robyn, great to have you with us.
[Robyn] Thank you.
[Leo] And welcome.
[Robyn] Thank you.
[Leo] And Holly Faulkner is the project assistant for both Nestwatch and its sister project Feeder Watch. Hi, Holly.
[Holly] Hey, Leo.
[Leo] Thank you both for making the time to be with us today. So we’re going to get the conversation started and then we’ve got a couple of questions lined up from folks who submitted their questions ahead of time. And then for our audience watching live, please type your own questions into the chat window, and we’ll queue those up for discussion as well. For those of you who are audience members here in our zoom call, let me show you how to do this. So I’m showing my own zoom screen here and notice at the bottom of my screen is the little button that says chat, so that opens the chat window on the right, and then this is really important at the bottom of that chat window, there’s a little place where it says to, and you can select who you want to address your question to. And I highly recommend that everyone should select all panelists and attendees. That’s the only way we’re all going to see your questions. And then if anyone is watching us live on Facebook, because our call is also being streamed to Facebook on the Sapsucker Woods Facebook page, you can also put questions in the comment section below that live video on Facebook. So we’ve got colleagues who are collecting all those questions for us, and we will try to get to all of them. Okay, so, Robyn, let’s start with you. Give us a bit of background here, both about yourself and about this project. What exactly is Nestwatch? What’s your role in it, and why is it so interesting to you?
[Robyn] Great, thanks Leo. So again, my name is Robyn Bailey, and I’ve been with Nestwatch for almost 10 years and in those 10 years, it’s just increasingly fascinating to me all of the things that Nestwatch can do in terms of research, communication, and education. So my job at the lab is to analyze the data, answer questions, write helpful materials to help teach people about nests and eggs and do talks like this to get people excited about Nestwatch. So what it is is a citizen science program that asks anyone who finds a nest to report that nest to NestWatch, and our scientists will be collating and accumulating that data over years and years, decades. And what that enables us to do is answer important questions about bird biology. I’m a wildlife biologist by training and a birder, but I also love other wildlife, and some of the cool things about NestWatch is that you get to experience other wildlife too while you’re out in the field. So you can find all kinds of snakes and turtles and frogs while your nest watching. So it’s really a great project to get people connected to nature and the birds in their backyard.
[Leo] Fantastic. And so just to expand on that a little bit, why citizen science? So what kinds of questions about nesting behavior or nesting success are you really trying to study here? And how does asking everyday people to help collect that data, make that possible for you?
[Robyn] Great question, with NestWatch and with most citizen science projects, the objective is to study phenomena, especially ecological phenomena that happen across really broad scales, such as entire continents or the whole world. One of the things that NestWatch enables us to do is answer these big questions about why birds may do certain things. For example, we could ask questions about why do birds lay more eggs in the North than in the South? How does climate or drought or wildfire affect birds at these large spatial scales? We can also look at things like how habitat changes can affect birds. And while it’s also possible to look at really small scale questions, the real power of citizen science is that you can address really large scale conservation questions, both theoretical ones and very practical conservation ones. One of the things that I’ve mentioned as a wildlife biologist, one of my previous jobs was going out and nest searching in the field. I know Holly has done this as well. This is a job in colleges kind of do is they look for field jobs in this line of work. So as a field biologist, I used to go out and look for nests and even on a really great year with lots of different, nesting activity, you can find 30 or 40, maybe 50 nests depending on the species that you’re tracking, and that’s wonderful and great, but imagine how many biologists it would take to answer a question about a species like the Eastern Bluebird or the American Robin if you had to actually send out biologists into the field to do that. it would take so long and it takes so much person hours in the field to do that. So the real power of citizen science is that it allows people who are interested in birds, who like to get outdoors and look at nests and learn about ecology, it enables them to channel that enthusiasm and energy into something that scientists really need. So I’m really fortunate and grateful that I don’t have to go out there and find thousands and thousands of nests because it would take me a lifetime. It would take me several lifetimes to do that. So we really appreciate our nest watchers.
[Leo] Okay, so big data power there crowdsourcing that data, but that means that NestWatch has lots of everyday people peeking into active bird nests, opening up nest boxes and all of that sort of thing. I imagine there’s some concern about the bird’s safety. How do you make sure you’re studying birds’, nesting success rates without harming them, or without negatively impacting that very success rate that you’re studying? Is there training? Is there permits? How does this work?
[Robyn] That’s a really good question because with NestWatch, we always wanna have the safety of the birds as our top priority, and it’s not worth compromising that safety if you can’t nest watch safely. So for that reason, we have a code of conduct, which is an outline of behaviors that are important to remember when we’re around nests, as well as a protocol suggesting how often you would wanna check a nest to get the right balance of data and minimize disruption to the adults. So we wanna minimize the amount of time that we’re at a nest, so the parents can resume feeding, incubating and doing their normal behaviors. Now, if you go and register for NestWatch as a participant, one of the first things you’ll be asked to do both in our mobile app and the website is to look at that code of conduct, take a short quiz and certify that you agree to abide by those protocols so that the birds aren’t jeopardized in any way. And research suggests that monitoring birds at a regular basis when done correctly, it does not harm the birds or impact their nesting success which, of course, would defeat the purpose of the citizen science project. So that’s why we have gone to great lengths to write materials that we think will help people do this in the best way possible. And, you know, we always encourage people if they’re not sure about a certain kind of nest or a different situation that’s unusual, they can always reach out to us and ask about it as well.
[Leo] Perfect, thank you. Okay, so, Holly, I’m going to switch to you for a minute here. Holly, tell us a little bit about yourself and your role in this launch.
[Holly] Yeah, so I am kind of on the back end here working through our inbox. I manage our social media pages. I answer phone calls when we are in the office, Right now, we’re only able to check the messages. So if you do end up giving us a call, definitely leave your email address, that’s the easiest way to contact us right now. But yeah, so I handle a lot of the interactions with our participants, offer technical support, basically any question under the sun about nesting birds, and I’ve probably seen it, so.
[Leo] Awesome. And so since you’re handling a lot of the social media and all those email and phone interactions with the NestWatch community, what really stands out to you? Like what are the biggest frequently asked questions you get? Is there a common theme and feedback and stories you hear from people? Is there a sense of community? Tell us about these nest watchers.
[Holly] Yeah. So our nest watchers are a really great group of people. You can tell that they all really care about the birds that they’re monitoring. We get a ton of questions, you know, so it’s from beginners, from experts, or people who have been doing it a long time. You know, there’s always a little something different that comes up each year, right? So probably one of the more common ones, a lot of people like to ask, you know, they’ll email us and say, hey, I found a baby bird, or I found a nest, what do I do? So if you find a baby bird out of the nest, you know, it’s probably best to determine whether it’s a fledgling or a nestling. We have some more information about how to determine that on our website, but in a lot of cases, you know, if you have a bird emergency, the best thing to do is contact your local wildlife rehabilitator. They’re going to be the ones that are specially trained to handle those kinds of situations. So, you know, while we can offer help, we’re often not available 24 seven. So definitely those emergencies are best left to the rehabilitators that are available more immediately than we are, let’s put it that way.
[Leo] Absolutely, and just to expound on that comment, if somebody finds a baby bird out of the nest or they think the bird is injured, should they try to take care of it themselves?
[Holly] Absolutely not. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, it’s a federal law that prohibits people from handling and caring for wild birds. That’s one of the reasons we suggest wildlife rehabilitators, they are federally certified to be able to do that. Baby birds have really specific diets. They have specific needs, and so it’s best to contact them, even just calling them to consult the next steps. There are some things you can do under the guidance of someone with a permit, so again, it’s just best to contact them first and see what the best advice is.
[Leo] Awesome, thank you.
[Holly] In those situations.
[Leo] Right, of course. And okay, so walk us through the basic protocol here for nest monitoring in general, for taking part in NestWatch. If someone wants to get started nest watching, obviously we’ve already mentioned the code of conduct, but how do they get started actually collecting data?
[Holly] Yeah, so if you find a nest, again, like Robyn said, you know, take the code of conduct. It’s a short, easy quiz on our website. I think you do have to be signed in for that, so if you go to the your data tab on our nest watch homepage, I’ll share my screen here so I can show you what I mean, we’ll go to this page. All right. Can everybody see that?
[Holly] Okay, so here’s the NestWatch homepage, what you do is go to the Your Data tab. You can click on this button right here. I’m already signed in. I’m gonna be automatically signed in, but if you don’t have an account with us, that goes to a login page where you can create an account. And once you go to that page, you should see a map. Now, right now, I’ve already got some nest sites. I click open this button and you’ll see a whole bunch of them, but if you’re new to this, you’ll click the Add New Nest Site button, and that pulls up this big map where you can enter where you found the nest. Your nest site is gonna be that location of the nest, the exact location. So think of it as a place in space time, rather than attached to a physical nest box or anything like that. So, you know, on this page, you can enter your address or the latitude, longitude to find the location, name it, and then tell us a little bit about what kind of nest it is. Was it found in a nest box? If it was on a live tree branch. You choose all of that. Enter in the additional information, hit save. That will bring you back to that nest page here, the main page. And I’m gonna start one here that I’ve already started, you would, this will say add attempt when it’s a brand new nest site, so you click on that, you know, bring you to the Nesting Attempt page. This Nesting Attempt page, you’ll have the option to enter your species, which is not necessary at first. Sometimes it’s hard to identify the nest when you first find it. You might need to wait for some eggs to be laid, or if you observe the adults coming to and from the nest. So that can be entered at any time. There’s a little bit more information here in the middle about the nest box itself. If you do have a nest in a nest box, there might be some questions about whether it has a predator guard, which we’ll probably talk about a little bit later on in the webinar and some other information there. And then you’ll see this section of the nest attempt. This is the most important section. This is where you will enter your visits, your nest visits to the nest. A typical nest has a lifespan of about a month or so, maybe a little bit longer, so nesting attempts typically have about 10 visits across that life span if you’re visiting every three to four days. That’s where you report your eggs, your young, the status of the nest, if there’s any cowbird activity. And then when you’re done, you can just summarize the nesting attempt, tell us what fate the nest had, so at least one young fledged let’s us know that that’s a successful nest. Any of the other options here are to help us know what reason the nest may have failed. So in some cases, no eggs hatched would be an option there. You can enter in your important dates, your totals, and then end the nesting attempt and it will be finished. You’ll have a nice little summary. Let’s go back and stop sharing my screen now. I know that was probably a little bit, a lot of information there but
[Leo] But that’s great. Can you take us back to the home page really quick?
[Leo] NestWatch homepage, this is a new design for the homepage, isn’t it?
[Leo] So I think this is beautiful, and it has a lot of, you know, really easy to find all of the different things that are useful in NestWatch, not only submitting your data, but also more information about birdhouses, about how to identify mystery nests which I know we’ve got questions about coming up. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s easy to find on this homepage.
[Holly] Alright, I’ll stop sharing for now.
[Leo] Awesome, thank you. And so I wanna get into our audience questions. And one of the questions that was submitted to us ahead of time was by Paul, who wanted to know if we would be seeing a demo of the phone app. And so I’m able to do that on my screen, I have a fancy computer set up here. I also want to post into the chat. I’m gonna post a link to those who haven’t seen it. We have a short YouTube video that is a demo of using this app on one of our nests in Sapsucker Woods. And so if you haven’t seen that, it’s on our Facebook page, it’s on YouTube, and that is probably a really good explanation of how to do all this stuff that Holly just demonstrated in the website, you can do the same thing in the app. You can hit edit existing nest, pick a nest, see everything that you’ve already observed with that nest. And then when you’re ready add a visit and it will let you, you know, put in the date and time, enter the number of eggs, the number of young, most of those same questions that are on the website. I think the website has a little bit more detail about things like predator guards on the nest box and stuff like that. But you can basically add all of this data for all of your nest checks through the app, essentially the same way. I don’t wanna go through every bit of that since we’ve already done it in that YouTube video, but if people have specific questions about how to do something in either the website or the app, we’re happy to show you that. And I did get one of those questions already. I got a question from Kathy who asks, how do I close out a nesting attempt? And so, for example, I’ve got a nest box here that not much has been happening in it, even though I’ve been seeing the adults around, if I decide, okay, nothing else is happening here, I can in the app, I can say end attempt. And then just as a Holly mentioned in the website, this would get you a chance to confirm that this is the end of that nest attempt and then it’ll ask those same questions. Did at least one young fledge or what was the ultimate fate of this nest? So if people have more questions about wanting to see something demonstrated in either the app or the website, please submit those questions to us.
[Leo] Yes, Robyn?
[Robyn] Can I just interject? Yes, I wanted to just pause and say, that’s a really great question because it’s actually really important that you do close out a nest attempt. Sometimes that can be overlooked. You might enter your first five visits and then never go back and forget to end the nest attempt. But that’s a really important thing to do, that’s a great question. It tells scientists that this nest is over. I’m finished monitoring it. Even if you say that the outcome is unknown, that’s super helpful for us to know, okay, this person has done reporting on this nest. What we don’t wanna do is carry on with that. Let’s say, for example, it’s a nest box or a robin that uses the same nest year after year. What we don’t wanna do is continue adding data year upon year upon year without ever closing it down because the unit of data that NestWatch looks at is a nest attempt, which is from egg to fledge or fail. So that is our unit of study, and for a single nest box, you could have three nests in one year. You could have two robin nests in the same nest on your porch, so it’s very important to close that out. So thank you to the person who raised that question.
[Leo] Excellent, and to clarify, so if a nest attempt fails. Let’s say a predator eats all of the eggs, but the parents are still hanging around and might try again, you would close that out and then start a new nest attempt if they lay more eggs?
[Holly] Yep, a new nest attempt should be made once those second clutch of eggs is laid.
[Leo] Excellent, and as long as we’re talking about that, there was a question before about, I already lost it. But somebody was asking, Judy asked, I recently lost four bluebird eggs to a raccoon who managed to overcome the baffle, leave his footprints all over it, ate the bluebird eggs, but the bluebird parents are still hanging around. Should I remove the nest from the nest box to encourage them to start all over or leave the nest in there?
[Robyn] That’s a good question. For birds that nest in nest boxes, I typically do remove the nest after a nesting cycle is complete, especially for failed nests. I find that birds don’t often reuse a failed nest. So it’s important to kind of clean it out and get those nest materials out. Even for successfulness, they can be completely soiled with the waste of the young. So I do typically clean them out and you know, get all the debris out of the nest so that another bird can start over. It’s okay not to do that if you don’t want to clean nest boxes in between nest boxes or I’m sorry, in between nest attempts, that’s okay, some people don’t. But you at least wanna clean it out at the end of the season or in the spring so that the nest box doesn’t eventually fill to the top with nesting material and then become not usable by the birds. So at some point you should definitely give it a clean out. Occasionally I’ll have birds come in and make a second nest so quickly before I have a chance. So obviously they will use it if you don’t clean it out. But if it’s particularly dirty or it’s failed and the nest was torn up by predators, I definitely do usually clean that out.
[Leo] Okay, and then you said after a successful fledge as well?
[Robyn] If it’s successful, the nest will probably be pretty dirty so you’d wanna clean it up.
[Holly] And I was just gonna piggyback off of that and say, you know, it is a really important to make sure that the nest is finished and a new one hasn’t begun when you do this. You know, you don’t wanna be cleaning out a box that has eggs in it, unless you’re absolutely sure that they’re infertile and they’re not being incubated or in progress of starting a new nest. So anytime you’re unsure, it’s fine to just wait until you have more clues as to what the situation is.
[Leo] Excellent, perfect. Thank you both. Let’s see. Anne Marie asks two great questions about how you handle less than perfect data. So, for example, she says many times it is difficult to count all the young in a nest box, and this is something other people have referred to as well, because the nestlings are so close together. Maybe they’re on top of each other, and it’s hard to count exactly how many of them there are. So how are you able to use data from sites that have an unknown number of young?
[Robyn] That’s a really good question. But first, let me address the how do you count the babies if they’re all piled up on top of each other. And the best way to do that? What I have found is to look for the beaks. Often there’s a tangle of arms or wings, legs, and heads, and it is really difficult to tell what you’re looking at. But if you can look for those bright yellow beaks, which often stand out, there’s only one of those. So if you can find one beak per baby, that’s usually what I do and you may not see them all and that’s okay. But look for the beaks, it’s easier than trying to count the number of wings and divide by two. So it’s easier to look for beaks. And then the second part of that question was how does NestWatch use that data? And that’s a really important question because we actually really do want that data. So for example, as you saw from Holly’s demo, what we’re asking is for people to put in each success of nest checks. So you may have one egg and then five eggs and then an unknown number of tiny pink featherless babies, and then it may later be obvious that it’s actually five babies and then five older babies. So we’re looking through that chronology and what that does is a history of the nest success. And we use a method called daily survival to calculate nest success, which means that we can use a nest of any length. So if your nest only lasts for two nest checks, that’s okay. It’s every bit as useful as a nest that lasts 10 or 12 nest checks. And then what we’re doing when we allow you to enter that unknown, you can enter an unknown in that circumstance. We don’t know how many babies or eggs are in there. It still tells us that the nest was alive on that day. And vital rates are one thing that scientists in general look at to study the health of populations. And what I mean by vital rates are how long an organism survives. So it could be any organism. It could be a white tail deer or a turtle or a bird, and you would measure its survival by checking on it at regular intervals. And so entering that unknown is telling us that there was something in the nest, the nest was alive on that day, and it gets factored into a calculation of how long the nest survived. So we actually can use those data. Those imperfect data are perfectly okay, and we will definitely put them to use. I think I answered the whole question, but feel free to follow up, Leo, if there was more to that.
[Leo] Well, so Anne Marie also had a second question about handling less than perfect data. She says, how is the data used when the final outcome of the nest is unknown? For example, if you didn’t actually witness the fledglings leave the nest, but all data to that point has been favorable that they’ve been healthy growing young, they looked ready to fledge, there’s no evidence that predators attacked or that anything else happened, but you didn’t actually see them leave. Do you mark that as fledging, and how does NestWatch actually use that data?
[Robyn] That’s another great question. So NestWatch will allow you to, if you know, pretty certainly that it failed or it was successful, you can enter that, but there are many options. One of them, it’s unknown and that tells us you’re not exactly sure. And it’s fairly common not to see a nest fledge. It’s pretty rare in fact, to come upon a nest and see the babies fledging. It does happen, especially if you have a nest box and you can check it regularly, but more often than not, you actually won’t see that nest fledge. So what’s helpful is having a good understanding of the species’ biology. So let’s say, you know, that species is typically in its nest for 14 days and you saw it on day 12 and you went back on day 15 and it wasn’t there, and the nest was really dirty and full of poo, and the nest was really flat from all those little bird feet stamping it down. That’s typically a good sign that the nest fledged, and in that scenario most scientists would put that this nest fledged because it survived up until the point where then the young were basically ready to fledge. In other circumstances, it might not be clear and it’s fine to say unknown, or if you have evidence that it failed, definitely do tell us that if that’s what you think happened. And the reason we’re able to use those unknown outcomes is it relates back to that previous question about the nest checks, and the nest checks are really important because as I mentioned previously, they let us calculate that daily survival, which is the best way to get at really specific nest survival. So for example, if I was looking at precipitation, rain and how that affected nest success, I could actually look at it from the very start of the nest all the way to the end and say, okay, after like five days of rain nest success, maybe it goes down, that’s just a made up example. But the nest checks are very important for looking at nest success, so even if you don’t know the outcome of the nest, it’s still totally fine to put that in. In fact, it’s welcome to still fill that out, even if you’re not totally sure what happened.
[Leo] Excellent, thank you. So we have questions from several people on the theme of nests where they can’t really tell what’s going on inside. Kathy has a chimney full of Chimney Swifts, but she doesn’t even know how many nests of Chimney Swifts are in that colony. And then I’m also seeing questions coming in through our chat from various people with woodpecker nests or robin’s nests that are too high to see up into where they know it’s one nest, and they can hear that there’s, you know, nestlings or something, but they have no way of being able to see in and count the number. So are those things useful to NestWatch?
[Holly] This is kind of a two part question. You know, in terms of Chimney Swifts, if you can’t tell, you know, Chimney Swifts in chimneys first of all, they’re often they are roosting not necessarily nesting sometimes, but not always. But yeah, if you can’t tell whether, let me rephrase this. Nesting attempts are supposed to record one clutch of eggs, right? And if you can’t tell how many birds have how many eggs and et cetera, or how many birds are nesting within that chimney, then that’s a little bit different, you know, than reporting one bird that does. That you might not be able to tell how many eggs that are, but you know that at least it was just one nest. Does that make sense? In a way that we can use data on a nest, let’s say in that example of a robin’s nest, right? If it’s high enough and you can’t see how many eggs are young or in it, you can use the letter U and that signifies unknown, like Robyn was talking about. The data is still useful to us and it helps us know, you know, you know there’s eggs, you know there’s young, you’re just not sure how many. In the case of the Chimney Swifts though, that the aggregate data, you know, knowing, okay, there’s unknown nests, maybe in that chimney, right? That’s different data and doesn’t fit as well. It’s not able to be analyzed in the same way as the rest of our data. Is there anything else to add Robyn?
[Robyn] Yeah, Chimneys Swifts in particular are pretty hard because their nests are even more inaccessible than most. So scientists for that reason actually know very little about them, so if you are lucky enough to be able to put a web camera or have some way to access what’s going on in your chimney that would be awesome. People even construct artificial chimneys for Chimney Swifts that make it a little easier to access. But we actually know, scientists don’t know a whole lot about Chimney Swifts because they’re so hard to monitor. But let’s take the woodpeckers and raptors as other examples. In that case, maybe you can’t see what’s going on in the beginning, but usually for raptors and woodpeckers, in particular, you will eventually be able to hear and see the young, and that is a possibility that would allow you to count them. Oftentimes woodpecker young are very vocal so you can hear them, that’s how a lot of people find woodpecker nests, because the babies are so loud. That does give us useful information about there’s definitely babies in the nest. So you’ll be able to pick up on cues like that as you get more experience with nest clutch, but partial data are better than no data. And I think what Holly was kind of getting at is that if you just absolutely know nothing about the nest, even whether or not it’s active, maybe you don’t take an opportunity to report that because it could be, for example, a nest from last year that you just saw in the trees, and you don’t know whether or not it’s an old nest or a new nest. In that circumstance, I would not report that because we really do hope to have some information about when the nest was active. So if you can get that then definitely go for it.
[Leo] So let’s say you see a woodpecker nest cavity in a dead tree. Let’s say you see the parent birds going in and out of the nest. Maybe you’re hearing sounds of nestlings, something like that, but you don’t know when the nest started, you don’t have a date of when the eggs were laid. You can’t count, at least not right away, maybe when the birds are older. But when you first discover it, you have no way of counting how many are in there? That’s still worth reporting to NestWatch as best you can. Correct.
[Leo] Okay, excellent, thank you. Let’s see, so many questions to go through here. This is great. So Paul had other questions about data entry. Should data only be entered by one observer, for example? Are duplicate records a concern if multiple people are reporting the same nest? And should historical data be entered?
[Robyn] If I understood that,
[Robyn] You can go.
[Robyn] If I understood the first question correctly, two people can report on the same nest. For example, if two people take turns monitoring a nest in a park of an osprey they can both add data to NestWatch, but what we don’t want is two people entering the exact same data and duplicating that record because that’s gonna give us an artificially high number of nests. So it’s possible in NestWatch to log in and both of you can submit data on the app or using NestWatch’s website. So it’s definitely possible for two people to enter data just not exactly duplicating the same effort if that makes sense. The second question, you might have to remind me what the second part of that question was.
[Leo] Historical data, can and should people enter historical data from nests they know about in the past?
[Robyn] Absolutely, yes. We love historical data. We love it, yes, and you can enter it actually directly into the website. So we have two ways you can do that. One of them is to enter it directly into NestWatch, and we have had people just type in their data from the 1960s, and you can just type that right into NestWatch, there’s no restriction. The other way to do it is if you have a large set of data from, let’s say, for example, you did a research project, or you’ve been volunteering at a nature center and the data are, you know, 20 or 30, 50 years old, you have it all on a spreadsheet of some kind. You can send that to us, and we can bulk upload it into our website so that it all goes into the database. We do that for special cases where there’s a lot of data and it would take too much time to manually enter it all into the website. Historical data are really important because they give us a look backwards at what the conditions were when birds lived 50, 60 years ago, and that’s a unique, historic perspective that we can’t get otherwise. So 100%, we would love to know about that.
[Leo] Excellent, and then one more question kind of along these lines about why aren’t there interactions between NestWatch and entering data for another citizen science project eBird. And I suspect, I know the answer to this because they’re collecting different types of data, right? But I wanna give one of you guys a chance to respond to that.
[Robyn] I can take a crack at it, and Holly, if you have other thoughts you can chime in. So as you probably noticed when Holly was showing you the data entry form on the website, NestWatch is really asking for quite different information than what other bird counting projects are. We’re actually looking very deeply into a nesting event to see how many eggs, how many hatch, we calculate hatch rates, fledge rates. These are all things that help us get at those vital rates that I mentioned previously. And it’s really different from most other citizen science projects, even other ones that are focused on documenting where birds nest or how many birds are nesting. NestWatch is different from eBird in that our goal is not to document absolute numbers of birds that were in a place at one time, which is why you would submit a checklist of all the birds on eBird. NestWatch’s goal is to, so for example, if we know a bird population is declining, well, we then need information about why is it declining? Is it declining because the nests aren’t being successful? Is that population declining because there’s too many predators and they can’t reproduce fast enough to replace themselves. So it’s actually a really different type of data, but you’ll be happy to know you can use your same login as eBird, and it’s all kind of going into this common database that all the scientists have access to. So it’s not entirely separate, but the data structure are just very different. It’s very different from some other projects that you may have participated in, and it’s very good at looking at why nests fledge or fail. But it’s not great for estimating how many total numbers of birds are out there in the environment, so I don’t know if you have anything to add to that, Holly.
[Holly] I would just say that, you know, when you’re participating in eBird, you’re making these singular checklists in time, right? And in NestWatch, we have a way to connect to all of your visits over different days to the same nest attempts and keeping all that data together, you know, it keeps it all together in one spot in our database too. So we can analyze it a little more easily than connecting random data across checklists.
[Leo] Excellent, all right. And just so our viewers know eBird is another one of those citizen science projects from the lab that has a mobile app component. So we will have programs on that later on in the season. Let’s see, but yeah, again, very different types of data looking for different things here. So we’ve got a lot of folks interested in predators coming to nests and nest boxes. And we’ve actually got multiple questions about nest box design. And first of all, I think we should raise the point, you don’t have to be monitoring a nest that’s in a nest box, right? So you can be monitoring a robin’s nest that’s in a tree, any kind of nest you find, correct? But let’s talk about nest boxes for a minute. And actually just to set us up for this, would one of you comment on why nest boxes? Why bother building and setting up and monitoring a nest box?
[Holly] Yeah, I can take this one. So nest boxes are usually used by birds that are cavity nesters. So, you know, each species of birds has their own preferences to where they like to nest. You’re not gonna find a robin in a nest box, you know, they build open cup nests. So some common cavity nesting birds would be like bluebirds, Tree Swallows, chickadees. So the nest box itself mimics their natural habitat, their natural nesting habitat which is in the cavity of a tree. That wooden box kind of mimics that dark enclosed space that protects it from a lot of predators, not all of them, which is why adding predator guards to those nest boxes or poles can be helpful.
[Leo] Excellent, and so let’s, that’s a good segueway into talking about nest box design and those predator guards. So George from Colorado asks about the video that we have that demonstrates the NestWatch app. That video shows one of our bird boxes in Sapsucker Woods, and that bird box is mounted on a metal conduit pipe. So thin like half inch diameter, three quarter inch diameter metal tube, that is the pole holding up the nest box which seems like something that’d be kind of hard to climb, but it also has a cone-shaped metal predator shield below the box. So George wants to know what predators can climb a metal post like that. And he has not noticed any predation from the ground at his nest boxes, but he’s gotten them on the same type of metal pole. Is it important for him to add shields?
[Robyn] That’s a really good question. And one that NestWatch has been looking at for several years. So if you probably noticed, Holly mentioned that predator question was showing up on the data page in NestWatch. We asked that for nest boxes, in particular, because we did a long term study about predator guards and how they can impact positively or negatively the nesting success of birds that nest in cavities or particularly nest boxes. And so what that study found was that nest boxes with predator guards had a somewhat better chance of fledging young then nest boxes without it. It was not 100% percent exclusion of all predators, so nothing works perfectly 100% of the time. But on average, looking across multiple species across the entire U.S., we found that it actually gave close to a 7% bump in nest success for boxes that were guarded versus those that didn’t have a predator guard. So does that mean your birds are gonna fail or that there’s always going to be a predator if you don’t have one? It does not mean that, certainly you can. George in Colorado may have noticed that his boxes are okay, but some of us, like myself included, have some predators that know where our boxes are and have found them. It’s pretty frustrating to find out that a raccoon or a snake has learned where your nest box is and that it’s always gonna provide them with a meal. So we put predator guards on them to prevent that from happening, just to give the birds a little bit of a chance. I love snakes. I used to study snakes. I don’t mind them, actually. I think they do a lot of great ecosystem services in terms of rodent control, but some of us don’t want to find them in our nest boxes. Raccoons also are very abundant and actually benefit from human subsidies, so all that cat food and bird seed out in the environment, that can attract a raccoon into your yard so you might want to, if you have a situation where your nest box is close to your feeders, you might wanna put a predator guard on it. So if you don’t have them, it’s not the end of the world, but we do recommend it if you want your birds to have the best chance of being successful. And it can be more determined by if you’re doing research, maybe you want to look at natural predation rates, so maybe you don’t put one on. There can be valid reasons for not doing it, but it’s totally a recommended suggestion that we have found that it’s backed by the data from NestWatch, that if you do put one, it will be most likely helpful for you.
[Leo] Good to know. And on a similar note, Kathy asks about Noel guards and will specifically, she wants to know, will Noel guards protect nest boxes from snake invasion? Holly, would you mind showing us the features of a good bird house page that people can see what a Noel guard looks like? And maybe one of you can comment more about them.
[Holly] Sure thing, so it should be on your screens shortly. All right, so Features of a Good Bird House is a section of our website that shows a whole bunch of tips for making your nest box the best it can be for the birds. I’ll scroll down here to the predator guard section, and you can see, we don’t recommend adding perches to your boxes. That can be a good way to give predators a leg into your box there, but there’s three types of predator guards we show here. The collar or the nest cone. A metal nest cone’s a great addition. A stove pipe, and like Kathy had said, they had a Noel guard, it’s like a little cage that’s in front of the entrance hole.
[Leo] And are those Noel guards effective for deterring snakes specifically?
[Holly] They can, but I think the better nest predator guard for snakes is gonna be metal collars or the stove pipe baffle, something a little bit more preventative from them getting up the pole. You know, snakes have pretty rough scales. The sharp metal isn’t necessarily gonna be 100% effective on them. Like Robyn was saying nothing’s 100% effective all the time. Robyn, do you have anything to add there?
[Robyn] I will say that when we did our nationwide study of predator guards, we found that any guard was helpful versus no guard at all, but the Noel guard did come out as slightly less helpful, slightly less associated with successfulness. So if I was going to pick, I might go for the stove pipe or the metal collar, but there’s no reason you can’t have two. In fact, that study showed that multiple predator guards are better than just one. So you could have, for example, a collar or a cone or baffle below and a Noel guard on the box. Some people add a little wooden rectangle that goes over the hole that just makes the entrance hole a little bit deeper so that a cat or a raccoon can’t reach into the hole as easily. So there are other predator guards than what are shown here, but you could have, two would probably be the most you would need. But if you were in a really bad situation with a lot of predators, but you could definitely add a second one, one on the box and one on the pole to really try to give your best shot for the birds if you wanna do that.
[Leo] Excellent, and before you stop sharing your screen, Holly, would you scroll down a little bit farther and show us the part about entrance holes?
[Holly] Yeah, so the entrance holes here, we’ve got this little quick guide for a lot of the common species that you might find in your nest boxes and the entrance hole sizes they prefer. So we’ve also got a couple notes here about European starlings and house sparrows, which are invasive species in North America. Both of them can compete for the same nesting spaces, as your native birds, and so if you wanted to exclude them, there’s certain hole sizes that, you know, if you have a smaller hole size than, for example, one in a quarter inches that’ll exclude house sparrows. So the only birds, unfortunately that fit into boxes with such a small entrance hole size are visa, the house wrens and chickadees, anything larger than one in one quarter inches will allow the house sparrows in there. We have a page on our website called Managing Invasive Species, which can help you. There’s some other techniques that you can follow to help discourage house sparrows ’cause they’ll compete with your bluebirds, your tree swallows, you know, some of the more common species a lot of people find in their boxes. And then European starlings are one and nine one inch and 9/16 of an inch. So they’re just a little bit over an inch and a half, so usually, if you have an inch and a half or smaller, you can exclude starlings from entering your boxes. But, yeah, if you wanna take a look at this, it’s our features of a good birdhouse guide with all these different preferences for those species.
[Leo] Excellent, thank you for sharing that with us. And I asked about that because I know those entrance holes are one way of trying to exclude some of those invasive species, and I am seeing a lot of different questions about invasive species. And Amy’s asking how Brown-headed cowbirds affect nest success. Other people are asking about house sparrows, about starlings, and I wonder if either of you would like to give us a little bit of a general answer about what NestWatch has learned about invasive species in general.
[Robyn] Okay, I can take a crack at that. First of all, I’ll clarify the cowbird question. It’s a common misperception that Brown-headed cowbirds are invasive, so they’re actually native. They have expanded their range, so now they’re pretty ubiquitous, but they are still a native species. So we don’t recommend managing against Brown-headed cowbirds. For species that are endangered and the cowbird is threatening them, there are typically professional wildlife biologists in those areas that are managing cowbirds specifically for endangered species. But the rest of us should just let nature take its course because cowbirds have no other way to reproduce, so they have to be parasitic upon other species. So that’s the cowbird question. As far as the two invasive species that are most likely to be found in your nest box, the European starling and the house sparrow are the two that are most problematic for many people because they’re taking that space away from a native cavity nesting bird, and in some cases can be causing that nest to fail or even potentially killing the adult if it comes down to a fight for the right to use that box. So the exclusion tactics that we just pointed out with the nest size entrance hole is a good way to exclude many species from using a box that they’re not wanted in. We also have some other techniques, as Holly mentioned on our webpage specifically about managing invasive species. And what I can tell you is that one of the easiest things to do, if you don’t have a lot of time to spend, but you still don’t want those species breeding in your boxes, we found recently in a field study that if you put a little bit of vegetable oil on the eggs of those species, they won’t hatch. That will help in future years. Your boxes won’t be as occupied by those species, and those species won’t be breeding in your boxes, but it enables them to carry out their nesting cycle so that they don’t then go and take over another nest box if you were simply to remove the nest and eggs. So managing invasive species is not for everyone. Some people don’t have the time or the interest to do it, but if you are a person who has been frustrated repeatedly by non-native species using your boxes, check out our website, email us, we have lots of ways to help with that problem so that you can enjoy the native species using your boxes.
[Leo] Excellent, thank you, and my apologies for mixing that up with the Brown-headed cowbirds, you’re absolutely right. So the management techniques you were just suggesting are for species that are actually non-native not just nest parasites, like the cowbirds which actually are native.
[Holy] Yep, those Brown-headed cowbirds are native and protected by that same federal law. And I just want to add something too, I did see a question in the chat there about whether it was true that house finches, that cowbirds do poorly in house finch nests. And I just want to chime in quick, that it is true that they don’t usually do well because house finches are one of the few species that feeds their young mostly plant matter, and cowbirds generally need the proteins from insects. So they don’t do well, and I wanted to expand on that by saying there are other species too, that have learned adaptations against cowbirds. So, you know, seeing a cowbird egg in your nest, isn’t always a death sentence for those host’s young either.
[Leo] Excellent, and I don’t know if you fully answered this or if there’s any room to expand on this, but I think Amy’s original question about Brown-headed cowbirds was actually to what extent they affect the nest success of the host species. So is that something that NestWatch has been able to study?
[Robyn] That is something that could be studied with NestWatch data on an individual species basis, because it will of course affect different species differently depending on how they react to cowbirds. Some birds will eject the cowbird eggs. Some will just build over the top of it and lay more eggs of their own. So they have ways of pushing back against the cowbirds. It’s not something that I have personally conducted a study on, but those data are in the NestWatch database, and we could look at it. Many other scientists have, in the past, looked at cowbirds and analyzed nesting success with and without cowbirds in the nest, and they do parasitize birds. I couldn’t tell you the exact species rate at which birds might fail because of cowbirds, but often they are able to raise the cowbird and at least one of their own young. But I don’t have those statistics right off the top of my head about the most common species that are plagued by cowbirds.
[Holly] And the host young, one of the reasons why cowbirds do well in those nests is because they hatch a little bit earlier, they can monopolize the food from the adults as well. So sometimes, you know, it can adversely affect the host young, but again, like I said, it’s not once you see the egg in the nest, it’s not, I wouldn’t be too upset about it at first. That makes sense?
[Leo] Okay, going back to the invasive house sparrows and maybe the starlings as well for just a minute, Janice asks what your thoughts are on sparrow spookers on the top of a nest box or the use of opaque, plexi roofs on bluebird boxes?
[Robyn] There are many devices. People are so innovative and clever, and people have come up with many of the devices over the years to try and exclude house sparrows from their boxes. I personally, haven’t seen really convincing evidence that sparrow spookers really do keep out house sparrows at least in the longterm. I know some people report having initial success with it. It’s not something, when we went to analyze predator guards, we didn’t have enough people putting sparrow spookers on the top of the box. I actually did try to analyze it, but we didn’t have enough data from people all over the country who are doing that to analyze it. So I, unfortunately, don’t have a real solid, broad enough evidence-base to say whether or not they work, but from what I hear, they will work for a short amount of time and not work. The plexiglass I really can’t speak to at all. I haven’t tried that, but from all of my reading and all of the nest watchers that I meet at conferences and when I give presentations, many of them report that certain innovations will work for a short amount of time, but if the sparrow is desperate enough, it may well continue to pursue the box. But, unfortunately, I really can’t speak to the plexiglass solution very much at this point. Yeah, there are other techniques I would try first, I guess, before I would modify the box like that.
[Leo] Excellent, and as long as we’re talking about nest boxes, Laura brings up a great question that I was hoping we would get to just to put this out there for everybody. Are participants discouraged from monitoring nest boxes, that they did not put up themselves since they are most likely not, or since those boxes are most likely being monitored by the person who did put it up?
[Holly] I think this ties back to the duplicate data issue that we talked about earlier. If somebody else is monitoring that nest, and you’re also monitoring it, you know, how do you know that they didn’t also stop by a little bit earlier that day to monitor the nest? Another big thing to keep in mind is private property. If you find a nest box that’s, you know, on the side of the road or somewhere that may be under private property, we ask our monitors to recognize and respect those boundaries as well.
[Robyn] But it couldn’t hurt to ask, right?
[Leo] If you know who the owner is, absolutely. I would say ask, but this makes me think of a couple of things. One, Sapsucker Woods, I’ve been monitoring a lot of the nest boxes in Sapsucker Woods this spring, which has been an amazing experience for me, but we get a lot of visitors to our trails in Sapsucker Woods and then I’ve also noticed that several of our local parks here in Ithaca have a bunch of nest boxes along the trails in these very busy parks. I’m not actually certain who owns or monitors those nest boxes, but I imagine if everybody visiting those parks or everyone visiting Sapsucker Woods was going in and opening up those nest boxes 10 times a day, that would probably not be a good thing for the birds, correct?
[Holly] Yep, again, it’s coming back to the code of conduct, right? You wanna make sure that you’re reducing disturbance as much as possible. So if you have any doubts, you know, contact the people that had the park or the whatever area you’re in, and it’s probably good to ask them first before you take any action there.
[Robyn] But they might be really glad to have your help, so if you feel there’s a nature center or a golf course, that’s maybe not keeping up with their boxes, you can definitely check in with them. They might be really appreciative of having your help.
[Holly] Absolutely, always worth asking.
[Leo] Absolutely, so I know we’re actually at one o’clock here, so we’re closing in on wanting to wrap this up. I’m trying to think of you know, maybe one good last question for us here. Gosh, and we haven’t even gotten around to talking about what we’ve been seeing in our nest site, Sapsucker Woods. Let’s see, let’s say you find a mystery nest, and let’s say you’ve found a mystery nest, and I’m going to share my screen for just a moment here. And so there it is, you should be seeing my screen now with an image of a nest from one of our nest boxes in Sapsucker Woods, and I was really fascinated by this nest when I first opened up the nest box. It’s a really small nest. These eggs are about a centimeter to a centimeter and a half in diameter. The nest is a cup of really a very fine plant material. There’s some hair mixed in, animal fur, and then the extra space inside the nest box has been filled in with moss. There’s a whole bunch of eggs here. Nine of them, they’re white, they’re speckled with brown. If I had not seen the adult, what resources would I use to figure out what nest this is?
[Holly] We have a great tool on NestWatch called Common Nesting Birds. The tool shows a bunch of common birds that are in the Eastern and Western bits of North America, and we have some filters on there. So you can sort by your location, what kind of nest it is, where it was found from habitat. And it’ll give you a list of birds that are possible identifications for the nest that you found. That’s not to say it’s an exhaustive list. You know, you can click into each species, you can see pictures of the eggs in the nest. They don’t match the nest that you see? That’s something that you can take a picture of the nest and send it to us, we’re more than happy to help you identify it. But the Common Nesting Birds’ tool is definitely a great place to start.
[Leo] Excellent, so the Common Nesting Birds’ tool, it’s easily accessible from the Nestwatch.org website, correct? And then another resource that we didn’t get a chance to talk about today, but from that same website, you can get to the Right Bird Right House tool as well, correct?
[Holly] Yes, this is one of my favorite tools on our website. Yeah, sorry. It’s really, really useful anybody who wants to get into monitoring nests, installing a nest box is probably the easiest way. So our Right Bird Right House tool allows you again, it’s got filters. You can sort by your location, the kind of habitat that’s in your backyard, and then it gives you a whole list of species that are cavity nesters or ones that nest in a similar kind of nest structure. And then we have construction plans for how to build a box that would attract that species and each species page. So let’s just say Eastern Bluebirds, right? So we’ve got a construction plan for the box. It’ll tell you how far apart to place boxes if you make more than one. For Eastern bluebirds that’s 300 feet. For tree swallows it’s 35 feet. You know, so it varies between species. It also tells you how high to mount the box, what kind of habitat, what to attach it to, the breeding range so that you can see whether you’re on the edge of breeding range or if you’re in the middle of it. It’s a really great tool for folks wanting to get started on this.
[Leo] Wonderful. Well, thank you both so much for joining us. I believe we are out of time for today, but I think, I hope we’ve gotten to most of the questions that folks have asked us. And if people have more questions that we did not get to today, where can they send those questions?
[Robyn] I can see it and maybe others can see it too. But next to Holly’s name, you’ll see our email address. It’s email@example.com. For nest watchers who wanna take their nest watching to the next level and really get into nest and egg ID, there are also some good resources. One of them is, this is the Eastern, but there’s also a Western version of Birds’ Nests in the Peterson guide. And there’s another really much thicker book called Nest, Eggs and Nestlings of North American Birds. This is also a really good resource. So if you don’t find the nest that you’re looking for and you really enjoy nest finding, check out these two books, and if all else fails and you don’t see the adult, you can email us, firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll help you out. There are many resources available to you, and maybe if we don’t know the answer, we can point you to one of the many resources that could help you out.
[Leo] Excellent, so I think that’s our story here. Holly, Robyn, thank you so much for being with us. Anything else you wanna add before we wrap this up?
[Holly] I would love to just let everybody know that NestWatch can accept data on any bird, anywhere in the world. So there’s no restrictions to the bird species that we can accept, so if you find a nest and you wanna monitor it, feel free to do so.
[Leo] Excellent, thank you, so once again, nestwatch.org, NestWatch mobile app. Email more questions to email@example.com. And thank you everybody for tuning in to join us. Thank you for participating in NestWatch. We hope you all will go out and watch nests and monitor them and submit your data. And don’t forget to follow that code of conduct when you do. Holly, Robyn, thank you for joining us, and everyone, thank you for tuning in and happy nest watching.
[Holly] Thanks Leo.
[Robyn] Thanks Leo. Thanks to all our nestwatchers out there watching.
[Leo] Indeed. Bye everybody.
[Robyn] Bye.End of transcript
I manage the research, education, and communication initiatives for NestWatch, the Cornell Lab’s citizen-science project focused on nesting birds. The Cornell Lab has been monitoring nesting birds’ reproductive success since the 1960s, and this long-term database is the nation’s richest source of information on avian reproductive biology. A large focal area of the project is nest boxes, and how best to provide them and support the birds which use them.
Through NestWatch, my research and writing focus on small things we can all do to help birds every day. I am interested in… Read full bio
Do you have questions about nests and baby birds? Robyn Bailey and Holly Faulkner talk about nesting birds and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s NestWatch citizen-science project and answer audience questions.