Studying birds has many benefits

Solve biological puzzles

In this series of short videos, Dr. Kim Bostwick uncovers how the Club-winged Manakin, an incredible bird from South America, accomplishes its unique mating display.

[Estacion de Biodiversidad Tiputini, Ecuador] [Kim Bostwick, Ph.D, Curator of Bird & Mammals] As you look at this picture you see a lovely, but fairly simple looking, very normal looking bird, and yet despite that this is one of the most special animals on the planet.

The Club-winged Manakin is unique among birds in that it’s the only bird on the planet that has transformed its wing into an instrument so that it can make sounds to court females, and the sounds that it makes are sounds that should not be made by a wing.

Birds are singers, just like we use our voices, and like reptiles use their voices, and all mammals and all birds, we are all vocal creatures and so an animal choosing to make a sound with some other part of its body first of all is very weird but second of all, if you know anything about wings, wings are made of feathers and trying to imagine a feather making a sound like this should present a real puzzle. [Copyright 2011 Cornell University] End of transcript

Understand behavior

In this series of short videos, Dr. Marc Dantzker explains how studying what initially seems like chaos at a Greater Sage-Grouse lek is actually a highly structured and organized mating game.

I’m Marc Dantzker, a biologist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

What you’re looking at now is a lek, specifically a Greater Sage-Grouse lek. A lek is a gathering of males on traditional breeding ground where they’re all displaying to attract mates.

The males are the ones with the spiky tails. The females are out there too; they’re the smaller grayer ones.

It looks like chaos, birds running around helter skelter but in reality it’s an organized, highly structured social interaction.

I’m gonna walk you through it.

Each and every one of those females will choose a mate but only a few of the males will be chosen. To us, all the males basically look the same. The question is how do the females choose and why are so few of the males successful. End of transcript

Document biodiversity

In this video, Dr. Edwin Scholes and Tim Laman describe the importance of documenting diversity among the birds-of-paradise to help answer intriguing questions about how these birds evolved.

They go from expected to extraordinary in the blink of an eye.

You’re awestricken. They transform themselves to something that you’ve never seen before.

They swagger and serenade.

They dance and display.

They’re unlike any creatures on earth and one of the most astounding phenomena ever witnessed.

The Birds of Paradise.

Found here in the nearly impenetrable mountains and valleys of the island of New Guinea, in the greatest remaining tract of rainforest in the entire Asia-Pacific region; they exist nowhere else on earth.

The vast, vast majority of the land around here has no road access.

You’re just looking up into a wall of steep slope and you can tell that this is just Ridge after ridge and valley upper valley…

Evolutionary Biologist, Ed Scholes and Wildlife Photographer, Tim Laman have spent the better part of a decade trekking into this isolated wilderness in pursuit of all 39 species of these miraculous birds.

“The only way to see a King Bird-of-Paradise is to climb up into the trees where they live so, I’m heading up to my platform.”

They’ve been photographing, analyzing, and recording their every move, every behavior in an attempt to comprehend their secrets.

And in doing so, revealing extreme examples of the miracle of evolution.

“Birds-of-Paradise represent one of these singular events of evolution that stand out that are extraordinary. They’re something that’s without precedent, something that have evolved that’s so unique and so exceptional that you’re driven to to say you know, ‘Why?’ or you know ‘How did that how did that happen how did that come to be?”

The Birds-of-Paradise are remarkable not only further exceptional beauty and almost otherworldly appearance, but as veritable living textbooks on adaptation and sexual selection the females are looking at this whole package and can discern something about him by minor variation.

The more complex it is the harder it is to make it look right you know, if one little feature is out of whack you’re gonna be able to tell.

What about New Guinea has led to these birds evolving here and nowhere else?

What function do their outrageous plumes and ornaments play?

And what exactly are they doing?

“For me it always goes back to the original driving question you know and that’s how did it happen? How did the birds-of-paradise come to be? 

Witness diverse strategies of evolution at work and experience one of nature’s most extraordinary hidden wonders up close.

A world where beauty and behavior are intertwined.

A spectacle not possible any other place on earth.

End of transcript

Build scientific knowledge

In this video, Dr. David Bonter and a team of Cornell undergraduates document the feeder use of some common bird species. With their innovative experimental design, they are demonstrating the power of using common species to answer complex scientific questions.


For years I’ve been looking for ways to track the feeding behavior of individual birds. There’s an incredible amount of information that we don’t know, even about our most common feeder birds, even here in North America where everybody’s feeding chickadees and cardinals. 

It’s actually really hard to follow an individual bird over an extended period of time and keep track of what it’s doing. And bird the size of chickadees and nuthatches are way too small for GPS units and backpack receivers. 

[PIT Tag (passive integrated transponder)] 

This little tag right here is a PIT tag, a passive integrated transponder. RFID stands for radio frequency identification, and this is what allows us to track the feeding behavior of birds in an unprecedented way. 

[Dr. David Bonter, Direct of Project FeederWatch] 

I’m the Director of Project FeederWatch here at the Lab of Ornithology. I got into ornithology because I like this, I like being outside and I was really looking for a way to get outside. And to do research that was related to feeder birds, to answer questions that we need to know about feeder birds.

So our whole set up here is we have a PVC tube that contains the birdseed. This bin here is a waterproof container that holds all of the electronics. This circle of wire here is actually the antenna that is creating the electromagnetic field that’s probing the surrounding space for the presence of a PIT tag. 

And whenever a bird lands on here to grab a seed, a bird that’s wearing a PIT tag, it will absorb some of that electromagnetic energy and send a signal back to the antenna, which will then run down through this wire here onto our circuit board. 

And it’s a pretty simple RIFD unit. It has a memory chip here, and anytime a bird with a PIT tag lands on here, on the circuit board we’re recording the date, the time to the second, and the ID number of that bird. 

One of the really neat things about the RIFD technology is that it’s been around since the 70s. It’s not cutting edge technology, it’s in boxes that Walmart uses in distribution centers that tracks the boxes, it’s in our passports. 

So, passive integrated transponder technology is out there. It has widespread commercial use, which makes it cheap for us because companies are using it like crazy. When this technology came along and that light bulb went off –hey, we can actually use this to understand the behavior of the individual birds, around the clock – how they feed during the day, their daily patterns of foraging behavior, how that changes throughout the course of the year, how birds switch their diet from season to season. 

All of these questions we can look at because of these little PIT tags that we’re putting on the legs of individual birds and tracking their individual behaviors. Live long and prosper. And students really love it. 

Change the battery…connect the circuit board to the computer. 4,000 hits at this one. We’re tracking about 125 individual birds of four species and from those 125 birds in the last two years we’ve recorded over 2.2 million visits to the bird feeders that we have out in the woods here. 

We were blown away and thrilled with the amount of data coming in from this really simple technology. And it’s open up a whole world of new research and new avenues that we can travel down and get students involved with to learn more about the natural world, focusing in on common backyard feeder birds which are the model organisms for answering bigger scientific questions. 

We’ll just put it back together, fill it up with seed. 

One of the great powers of citizen science is that we’ve got people out there watching birds everywhere in all sorts of different ecosystems and environments. And since this technology is relatively inexpensive and easy to use, I think we have the potential to expand, expand this research out and develop a network and answer some of those bigger questions. 

[To learn more, please visit] End of transcript

Conserve species

Dr. Yula Kapetanakos explains how the work she does in a lab contributes to the conservation of vultures in Southeast Asia.

[Yula Kapetanakos, Cornell Graduate Student] 

I’m sitting in a multi-million-dollar lab here at the Lab of Ornithology, but the most important things for me are right here in these envelopes: My feather samples. 

My name is Yula Kapetanakos and I study three critically-endangered species of vultures in Southeast Asia. If you see a vulture soaring in the skies, it’s one of the most beautiful sights that you can ever see. 

It’s taken millions of years for these animals to evolve, to perfect this ability to soar for hundreds of kilometers in a day. Vultures have been vilified because of their association with death and decay, and it’s actually ironic because vultures actually help keep the environment cleaner by preventing the spread of disease, by consuming animals after they’ve died. 

Vultures are extremely difficult to study. They can travel very long distances, their nests are usually very difficult to access, either high up in trees or on cliffs. 

Historically, people have relied on visual census counts, or by actually capturing and tagging the birds and re-releasing them. What we’re trying to do is to find new techniques in order to study the populations of these birds more effectively and more efficiently, by using the DNA that’s found in the tips of feathers. 

In this box are five months’ worth of samples collected in Cambodia in 2010. I spent the last three to four years collecting feathers from the field, and it’s now in this lab where I’m able to actually do the genetic analysis to determine how many individuals are within each of the populations in Southeast Asia. 

In order to isolate the DNA from each feather, I need to remove the tip, which is located in the skin, it’s embedded in the skin of the vulture, and then there’s a small little blood spot at the top which is formed as the feather is growing, and it’s also a great source of DNA. 

For this study we rely on the genetic fingerprint of each of the birds in order to identify to the species level and also to the individual level. So, just like our fingerprints, the sequence of DNA found in each one of these feather tips identifies a unique individual. 

To collect my feather samples there’s 7 field sites in Cambodia and every month between the months of January and May they place a dead cow in the middle of a field, and once the carcass is completely consumed, which can take all day, we’ll go out and we’ll collect whatever feathers the birds have left behind. 

Between the birds molting and preening themselves, as well as tussling about, we’ll end up with hundreds of feathers at each of the sites. 

This is the largest study of its kind in terms of using non-invasively collected feather samples from birds. In the past they maybe had success at capturing five to six birds in Cambodia at any one time; for us we can potentially capture the entire population within five months of sampling.

Extracting DNA from feathers can be a little bit trickier than blood because the concentration of DNA is so much less. The technique that we’re using isn’t a new one, but after extracting DNA from thousands of feathers, we’re becoming pretty good at getting the most amount of DNA from a small feathertip as possible. 

Throughout their Old World range all nine species of vulture in Asia are in decline. The three species that are found in Cambodia, we think the populations there are stable, although we don’t have any real, good estimates on their population numbers. 

Through the genetic work that I’ve been doing in just a few sites we’ve identified between 100 to 150 birds, and this is before actually completing all the genetic analyses for 2009 for this one species, and this gives us some optimism that perhaps there are more birds within Cambodia than the visual censuses are actually finding. 

I’m hoping that the population estimates that are provided through the genetic non-invasive marker capture will allow the conservation managers to have a much better idea of how many birds are actually surviving from year to year. 

And one thing that I want to stress heavily is that any conservation effort cannot be done single-handedly, so although my role is to do the genetic work and to collect the feather samples in the field, much of the conservation effort relied heavily on collaborations with the Cambodian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, as well as with Wildlife Conservation Society and with BirdLife International. 

It’s a partnership that together allows us to conserve these species in the long run. My research spans from lo-fi to very hi-fi. My feathers have flown over 8500 miles to get to this lab so that I can work to help conserve these species. End of transcript

Have fun!

Two composers, Maria Schneider and Theo Bleckmann, put a fun twist on bird song by matching human voices to bird sounds using the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library collection.

[Birds Got Swing: A Musical Experiment, Matching the human voice to bird song] 

[Featuring Theo Bleckmann & Maria Schneider] 

[Maria Schneider, Composer, Avid Birder] 

— [Maria] So, one of my favorite things about this time of year is all the birds are coming north and that thing of when you go out in the morning and you hear the first bird wake up  

[Theo Bleckmann, Composer/Singer] 

and then all come into a chorus, and they call it the dawn chorus, and it is like a symphony of birdsong. 

— [Theo] What I love about it is that you hear it but you don’t necessarily see the sound source, you don’t see the birds so you experience birds mostly through sound. 

— [Maria] When I started really birding more, it crept into my music, so I wrote this piece Cerulean Skies that I play a bird call that I blow out through my nose. 

— [Theo] I love looping bird sounds and just bringing nature into a performance space. Not specific birds, but just bird calls that I remember, or bird calls I just invent. 

— [Maria] So we’ve prepared some songs from the very vast Macaulay Library. I think it might be nice to get you to imitate some of those songs. I want to hear you imitate the American Bittern, because to me that sounds a little like a toilet plunger. 

— [Theo] That’s fly! Okay. 

— [Maria] So okay let’s do our first challenge here. A bird called the Common Potoo, from Costa Rica. Okay, so here he goes. 

[Maria plays the Common Potoo sound, then Theo imitates it] 

[(sung at half speed, one octave lower), (playback sped up)] 

— [Maria] That’s really good! That’s very raspy at the end. You’re going to find yourself a mate there! This one I like cuz it’s kinda from home, Minnnesota. 

[Maria plays the American Bittern sound, then Theo imitates it] 

— [Theo] There’s like a wind sound in there. There’s so much ghooo, ghooo, it’s so toilet plunger, ha ha! 

— [Maria] Once you tune into this world, you can’t tune it out. 

[White-throated Sparrow] 

[Maria plays the white-throated sparrow sound] 

Do you hear the swing on that? 

— [Theo] Yeah. 

— [Maria] Isn’t that amazing? 

— [Theo] Yeah. Can you slow that down? 

— [Maria] Um, sure. 

[Theo imitates the white-throated sparrow] 

— [Maria] This bird right now in Central Park, they come through in droves, and everybody thinks they’re so common that they’re uninteresting, but because they swing I like them. 

— [Theo] Bee, bee, beebadee beebadee beebadee. 

— [Maria] That’s you. That’s really good, I’m telling you, I would think you were a White-throated Sparrow. 

— [Theo] I got another bird as a friend. I think what makes the bird atmosphere so wonderful for us to listen to is because there’s so much detail in it. It’s not just one bird doing the same thing, but there’s all these different, you know, shapes. A variety. It’s incredible. 

— [Maria] There’s the White-throated Sparrow swinging. 

[Produced by Mya Thompson, Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Bird Song Recordists Paul Schwartz, Gregory Budney, William Gunn] 

[Directed & Edited by Noelia Santos; Assistant Editor: Lisa Madison; Cinematographer: Colin Nusbaum; Assistant Camera/Sound: Matt Reilly] 

[Photo Credits Melissa Groo, Dani Gurgel, Oliver Heisch, Wagner Machado Carlos Lemes; Bird Footage Eric Liner, Lang Elliott] 

[Music “Cerulean Skies” Courtesy Maria Schneider/ArtistShare, “At the River” Courtesy Theo Bleckmann/Winter & Winter] 

[Explore Maria’s music:; Explore Theo’s music:; Try it yourself! Explore] End of transcript