Why Are We Spending So Much Time Studying Birds?

Believe it or not, I really do like birds.

(And thus starts another blog post destined to draw the ire of my ornithologist friends…)

But here’s the thing.  I just read yet another study of grassland birds in which the researchers looked at the relative importance of variables such as habitat structure (tall, medium, and short grass, amount of shrub cover, etc.) and landscape composition (how much grassland is in the landscape).  It was a nicely designed study, but I found myself wondering how much value these kinds of studies are really adding to our ability to do effective grassland conservation.

A dickcissel sings from the top of a Woods' rose in restored Platte River prairie. Compared to most other kinds of animals and plants, we have a pretty solid understanding of the breeding habitat requirements of dickcissels and other grassland breeding birds.

Yes, we still have a lot to learn about grassland birds and their habitat requirements.  The more we learn, the better able to design conservation actions to help birds.  On the other hand, we already know an awful lot about grassland birds relative to other groups of grassland species like snakes, ground squirrels, grasshoppers, leafhoppers, fungi, and nematodes.

It’s kind of like we’re going to high school but only really studying in art class.  Art is important and enjoyable, but focusing only on art is not going to prepare us very well for dealing with the world.

If I was going to design a grassland landscape to maximize bird conservation, I think I could do a pretty good job based on what we know right now.  I’d start with multiple large blocks of prairie (hundreds of acres in size – much bigger, if possible).  Those blocks of prairie would need to include both upland and lowland grassland areas, and be floristically diverse enough to support an abundant supply of insects and seeds.  I’d include some scattered patches of shrubs and small trees in the landscape, but would place them so that there are still large areas of grassland with no woody vegetation at all.  Management would be important, and I would try to ensure that a variety of habitat structures was available each year, including the whole continuum between very short-cropped vegetation and tall dense and/or weedy cover.  It would be great to have those habitat types mixed together such that each block was a decent size (20 acres or more?) but that they were close enough together that birds species requiring more than one cover type during a season can easily move between them.  I’m sure those more up to speed on current literature might add a few tweaks to this landscape design, but I think this covers the more important components.

Sure, there are still a few holes in our knowledge of, especially in terms of their requirements for migratory habitat, but as a whole we’re in pretty good shape.  I would argue that our biggest limitation is not the ability to predict what birds need, but rather our ability to implement the necessary changes on the land.  However, that only applies to birds.  Does anyone feel they could similarly and accurately predict the landscape scale habitat needs of the smooth green snake, Franklin’s ground squirrel, or the long-jawed orbweaver spider? Not me.

A smooth green snake found in the Platte River Prairies, Nebraska. Very little is known about the habitat and/or landscape requirements of species like this one. We don't even really know much about how many there are. They are considered to be rare in most places, but we find them fairly regularly in our prairies - they're just really hard to see!

It would be different if we were confident that a landscape designed for birds would provide for the needs of all other prairie species.  I think we’re far from being able to say that.  Here’s just one reason I’m skeptical:  Grassland bird species are extremely mobile, and most migrate long distances between breeding seasons.  This allows those birds to find the best appropriate habitat (within reason) each year, even if that habitat isn’t where it was the previous breeding season.  Most other grassland species don’t have that kind of mobility, but many (most?) of them have fairly specific habitat structure requirements.  When the habitat structure where those species are living changes, how far can they travel to find appropriate habitat?  What kinds of terrain can they cross?  These are questions with huge implications for how we should be managing prairies and prairie landscapes, but we can’t do anything but make wild guesses because although we know how birds deal with those issues, we don’t know how most other species do.

I explored this issue of birds as indicators for the conservation needs of other species in an earlier post, if you’re interested in reading more.

Mice are fairly mobile species (compared to wingless invertebrates, for example) but we still know relatively little about their ability to find the kinds of habitat structure they need. When conditions change, do they travel long distances in search of appropriate habitat? Or do they just hunker down and wait for better times? If they travel, how far can they go, and what challenges do they face?

So why are we still spending so much time studying birds instead of branching out to other species and broader questions?  One big reason is inertia.  Scientists rightly like to build upon previous projects, so because there have already been a lot of studies of birds, there is a lot to build upon.  This makes sense in terms of efficiency (study methods are already designed and tested) and from the standpoint of funding availability (it’s often easier to sell a project that is builds upon what we already know than one that is reaching into the unknown).

A second reason we study birds so much is that they’re relatively easy to see, hear, and identify.  Since most research is done by graduate students and technicians, picking species that can be learned quickly is very helpful.  I should know – I did my own graduate research on grassland birds!  However, since then, I’ve learned that it’s not that hard to pick up on the sampling and identification skills needed to study other organisms, and that with invertebrate species, there are experts that can do the identification for you.

Of course, the biggest reason we study birds so much is that we LIKE birds so much.  If ground beetle watching was as popular as bird watching, prairie research and conservation efforts might look very different!  The irony, of course, is that we’re essentially focusing a very large proportion of our research and conservation effort on only a dozen or so grassland bird species (in any particular landscape).  At least if we were studying ground beetles, we’d be looking at several times that many species – and while I don’t know that much about ground beetles, I’ll bet they would be equally good indicators of the “health” of the prairie ecosystem.

A sedge wren on velvety gaura in the Platte River Prairies. Tiny birds, with cute little tails and aggressive personalities, sedge wrens are great examples of why birds are so compelling to people.

Look, I get it.  We’re not going to turn this battleship on a dime and move all the bird research funding and effort into smooth green snake and ground beetle research within a year or two.  However, I do think it would be really valuable for those doing bird research to incorporate broader community questions into their projects, whenever possible.  Maybe we could start by asking questions about how well birds really do represent the needs of other species?  Would funders of grassland bird research be open to that line of exploration?  It would allow us to build upon what we know about grassland birds by testing those known parameters on other taxa.  If we could figure out where the needs of birds and other species diverge, that’d be a great step forward in terms of defining future research needs.  Are great prairie chicken landscapes also great grasshopper landscapes, or not necessarily?  Do sedge wrens and massasaugas have similar habitat needs, or at least compatible habitat needs?  If not, how do we balance the needs of both species?  Let’s build on what we know about birds, but do it through some comparative analyses with other species.

Because you’ve got to admit – ground beetles are pretty cute too!

Ground beetles like this one (Pasimachus sp?) are abundant and diverse members of the prairie community. What do we know about their conservation needs? Not much.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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25 Responses to Why Are We Spending So Much Time Studying Birds?

  1. treestanding says:

    this was a very interesting post. i liked the suggestions for broadening the current areas of research too – contrasting the needs of different species and so forth. we have a large yard that i am trying to make over into a haven for native plants and animals, including snakes & insects. it is definitely true that much of the literature (at least that i’ve come across) deals with bringing birds and butterflies in – not so much snakes, toads, different insects – at any rate, not beyond the simple things like having a brush pile, water sources, and plants that attract beneficial insects.

    thanks,
    julianna

  2. Excellent points! I hope that your ideas have some impact where it is needed.

  3. Glenn Pollock says:

    As a young boy in the late fifties in western Iowa it was common to see Francklin’s Ground squirrel and Jack Rabbits. I have not seen either species since about 1965. Francklin’s Ground squirrel are wild and common at the Zoo in Omaha. They have adapted to humans and beg food at the snack bar. I am sure the squirrels ancestors were a wild population living at the Zoo location. Why they have adapted to location when other have been exterminated from their habitat I do not know. There is also a escaped population of black tailed prairie dogs living at the Zoo but they were a captive exhibit at one time and not native to the area.

    • Patrick Swanson says:

      Interesting history, Glenn. Is there any possibility of working with the zoo and trying to reintroduce them into suitable habitats locally/regionally? I’m not very familiar with their habitat requirements, but it would seem that as more prairie/oak savanna is restored/ reestablished, we need to work on restoring the fauna too, especially those that are not as mobile as birds!

      • Glenn Pollock says:

        Yes I have. The Zoo thinks it is a good idea and the Game and Parks people also. We would need permits from Game and Parks but what I need the most is a grad student to run the project. Do you know any student that might be interested.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Glenn, we’ve had Franklin’s ground squirrels living under our grain bins at the TNC shop as well. However, I also see them crossing the road between other nearby prairies, so I think we’re just seeing a few spillovers from prairies into our grain bin habitat! It’s a species I’ve always wanted to know more about. If they’re adaptable enough to live at the zoo and under our grain bins, what are doing so wrong that we can’t keep them around in our prairies?

  4. jeanine lackey says:

    Chris, very good topic and discussion. I, of course am a bird lady, but also a snake, mouse, dragonfly, grass, forb, and yes even a beetle person. But, perhaps it is not so much a question of where to focus research, but what’s the best strategy for habitat managers to sell the ideas to private landowners. It’s much easier convincing a landowner to restore prairie to benefit grouse, sharptails, or burrowing owls as opposed to a restoration or other management practice to benefit a venomous snake, a rodent or a bee. Know what I mean? I could be way off base here, usually am.

    Jeanine Lackey

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Actually, Jeanine, I think you’re largely right on, and it’s a great point. I do think we can use some other things (pollinators, for example) to sell habitat projects for landowners, but birds are certainly valuable in that regard. However, I don’t think that actually changes my point. If we could learn more about how/when birds represent the needs of other species and natural systems, we’d be able to better use them as surrogates for larger conservation needs. We might sell a project idea or give advice to a landowner interested in grouse, but we’d have research that would tell us how that advice would also affect other species. We don’t really have that now.

      I’m not saying birds aren’t important. I’m arguing that we could gain more conservation benefit by bringing our base of knowledge of other species up instead of working really hard to get relatively small increases in our knowledge about birds. I’d love to be able to talk to a landowner who’s interested in pheasants and burrowing owls and lay out a potential habitat plan that would benefit those species, and then explain how slight tweaks to that plan would maintain most/all the benefits for birds but would exponentially increase benefits to pollinators, beetles, snakes, etc.

      Thanks for the comment!

  5. Excellent point. I believe we know more about ground beetles species assemblages in corn and soybean fields than we do in native grasslands. Of course, that’s one family of insects – how many other families are represented in prairies???

    Of course I agree – ground beetles are pretty cute!

  6. GeoShurr says:

    Hi, Chris~
    Thanks for this post. It’s inspired me to pursue using wildlife to monitor eco-health.

    I know a herpetologist who does contract surveys for state and federal agencies. I’m going to communicate with him about doing a herp survey of wetlands on our farm. awe are currently conducting a wetland inventory in our 200 acre riparian pasture. Wetland vegetation is always a big deal, but maybe reptiles and amphibians would also have a story to tell.

    George Shurr

  7. Jeff says:

    Anyone know of any good research on white tailed jackrabbits?

  8. Ian Lunt says:

    Great blog Chris, while I sympathize about the birds, you could look at the issue in another way perhaps. If you wanted to maximize the ‘variety’ (or diversity) of any group of organisms, then the broad principles you describe (such as create diverse habitats and a range of disturbances) may turn out to the best guidelines for promoting diversity, no matter what group of organisms you look at. If you want to promote a single species, then that’s a really different question again. As a general principle, maximizing habitat to promote the abundance of any single species isn’t likely to promote the diversity of a range of organisms, no matter which type of organisms we look at. To complicate things further, this broad principle of maximizing habitat and disturbance diversity may well promote diversity among the species that are already present in the patch, but won’t necessarily help those that can’t get back into your patch, like the poor dispensers that you mention. But I’m curious… If most of the world’s ecologists and naturalists studied beetles instead of birds, it strikes me that your broad management approach – maintain habitat diversity – may still be the best guideline to follow. No matter how much we learn, we’ll still have to manage in ignorance of the detailed requirements of most organisms. The ‘bet hedging’ approach you use may, in the end, be the only broad principle we can adopt. All the same, good luck with your long-term plan of turning birdoes to better pursuits! 

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Ian. To clarify, I’m not advocating that we switch from a single taxa (birds) to another single taxa (beetles)!! Just hoping we can spread our research attention a bit more broadly to be sure we’re not managing anything out of existence by using birds as our surrogates for how to manage our landscapes.

      Maybe another way to say what I’m thinking is that we might end up using the broad approach of maintaining habitat diversity, but with certain sideboards. Information on invertebrates, herps, and other species’ needs would be what defines those sideboards.

      Chris

  9. John Hall says:

    My wife and I see Franklin’s ground squirrels on a number of occasions yearly at Chalco Hills in Sarpy County. They seem to have a thriving colony on both sides of the inlet creek and I have even seen them along the trail that splits the main lake from the inlet side.

  10. UrsulaV says:

    Could one factor that conservation-wise, we’ve got laws in place protecting birds, so it’s easier to actually enforce recommendations derived from research? So far as I know, there isn’t a Migratory Beetle Act. It may just be easier to get access, funding, etc for birds.

    • Anna says:

      I suppose people would rather sponsor birds than beetles or snakes – they’re pretty, common, etc. I wonder if a Migratory Beetle Act or something could be set up – or something like it, just to raise awareness of the other species that need help?

      • I don’t know how many migratory beetles actually exist, or indeed migrants in most other insect groups. Notable exceptions include Lepidoptera (butterflies, moths) and Odonata (dragonflies). Within these groups, it is rarely the migrants that require some sort of special managment consideration. They are strong fliers and simply go where they need to go to find their larval food or habitat, which is the whole point of their migration. Non-migrant species of “leps” and odonates may, on the other hand, have very stringent habitat requirements and notoriously low vagility (tendency to wander fro their place of origin), so may require quite particular managment consideration.

  11. Rebecca Christoffel says:

    I really like your post. You might be interested to learn of an all-volunteer, non-profit dedicated to the study of any kind of organism living in grasslands in the United States. The organization is Prairie Biotic Research, and we are particularly interested in encouraging and supporting the study of less well-known and less-appreciated organisms. Interested individuals can check out the projects that have been funded over the years, including reports and photo images at http://www.prairiebioticresearch.org. Each year, we administer a Small Grants Program, in which we award up to $1,000 for the study of any kind of organism found in US grasslands. We have 10 scientific advisors who rank the proposals to help in determining which proposals to fund in a given year. Over time, the program has grown from one in which 2 proposals were funded annually, to one in which we fund between 15 and 20 researchers annually. Please help us to continue to offer this opportunity by going to our Website and making a donation. Thank you!

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Rebecca. I actually submitted an application to Prairie Biotics this year, so I’m aware of them – but I appreciate the comment so that others will see it too. I’m glad to provide free advertising!

  12. Like Chris, I also studied birds in graduate school and have also sometimes thought “OK. Enough already about birds!” But it could be also argued that birds, because so much is known about them already merit even greater study. The vast body of information that has resulted from the efforts of amateur naturalists and professional ornithologists allow us to ask (and answer) more sophisticated ecological questions for birds than we are able to for other taxa (e.g., importance of stopover areas during long-term migration). So while I certainly agree that we need to encourage the study of other, one could say neglected taxa, ornithology will continue to play a key role in advancing our study of ecology and conservation biology.

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