How birds in the Pacific Northwest experienced the pandemic

A community science effort asked hundreds of Northwest residents to keep tabs on birds, and they learned a lot about themselves in the process.

woman knees at a park near a bay to watch birds

Birder Elaine Chuang gazes across Smith Cove Park in Seattle on May 20, 2021, noting the various species of birds in the area for a COVID-19 community science project. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

From a picnic table at Smith Cove Park in Interbay looking east, Elaine Chuang can help you find an osprey. 

“You have to be lined up with me here,” she says, orienting toward a large processing ship and eyeing a manmade platform 500 yards beyond it. On top sits an osprey that recently flew up from Central America. “When she's down and all you can see is her head, then you know she's on eggs,” says Chuang in a Texas accent made faint by 27 years in Seattle. “They're laid one a day, and after about 30 days, then they'll start to hatch.” The ospreys are dependable. Yesterday, Chuang saw the male swoop in with a fish.

Chuang has been staking out the pair religiously as part of a novel and groundbreaking community science project. Started by researchers within the University of Washington School of Environmental and Forest Sciences at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns last year, the UW Lockdown Birding Study was launched to help people better understand both how different species of birds in the Pacific Northwest respond to human behavior and environmental changes during the pandemic; and how well we can detect those birds during this time.

Lead author Olivia Sanderfoot, a graduate researcher, had planned to continue studying the impacts of wildfire smoke on bird vocalization for her Ph.D. research. But when lockdowns prevented her from accessing her study areas, she and principal investigator Dr. Beth Gardner — an associate professor and Sanderfoot’s adviser — pivoted. 

With social distancing measures in place across the Pacific Northwest for weeks to months, we are presented with a unique opportunity to learn more about how human behavior directly and indirectly affects birds and identify actions we can take in the future to safeguard birds in urban and suburban settings,” they wrote in a project description on the crowdsourced birding app eBird, which volunteers used for the study. 

More than 900 people initially signed up to participate in the project, which ran from April 1 through June 30, 2020, and is continuing over the same period in 2021. For 10 minutes at a time at least once a week, volunteers monitor birds in their backyards or spaces they can access without violating shelter-in-place ordinances. In each 10-minute survey period, volunteers log all the birds that they see and hear from one vantage point.

A person wearing binoculars standing in a park with a bay of water behind her

Birder Elaine Chuang notes various bird species she is seeing at Smith Cove Park in Seattle on May 20, 2021. Chuang visits the same spot a few days per week as part of a COVID-19 community science bird survey. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Birder Elaine Chuang notes various bird species she is seeing at Smith Cove Park in Seattle on May 20, 2021. Chuang visits the same spot a few days per week as part of a COVID-19 community science bird survey. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Birders have different perspectives on what techniques yielded the best results for the survey. Some sat deadly still while others flitted around, getting down on the ground while whipping out their binoculars to get just the right vantage. 

For the past few weeks, volunteer Tracy Campion has been surveying from her Bothell yard, always in her polka-dot pajamas, with Jack Sparrow, her three-legged one-eyed “pirate dog,” by her side. “I'm sure these neighbors are like, ‘this lady's crazy,’ because I'll be holding up my phone trying to figure out what the [bird] song is and it's barely dawn,” says Campion, who has done field studies before as a primatologist. “But it's just a nice way to wake up. Even if it's cold or rainy, I come out in nature first thing in the morning to see what the birds are doing and get a count on everybody.”

To get counts, volunteers across the Pacific Northwest log in to eBird, start a timer and enter all their sightings, along with a tag for the survey to identify their report. 

There’s a lot of data left to parse, and more data yet to come, but what they’ve identified so far (detailed in a draft paper yet to be peer-reviewed) says as much about humans as it does birds.

Findings

Study data show 404 people spent more than 1,200 hours birding in service of the study, submitting 7,216 10-minute survey checklists via eBird at 479 study sites. Volunteers noted 193 species of birds at these sites, the vast majority (72.7%) of which were yards. The researchers could account for not only the natural and built aspects of habitat (canopy cover, roads), but also resources meant to attract birds, like feeders, fountains and bird houses. More than half the sites included bird feeders within view of volunteers. 

The most observed bird species included American crow, dark-eyed junco, black-capped chickadee, American robin, house finch, Anna’s hummingbird, song sparrow, spotted towhee, Bewick’s wren and northern flicker. 

“The study was designed to tease apart this idea of where are these particular species and what drives where they are?” Gardner says. 

Lots of things may affect bird behavior, from static elements like land cover or canopy cover to the dynamic aspects of outdoor spaces — weather, temperature and air quality measures of pollutants, including fine particulate matter and nitrogen dioxide. The researchers wanted to know how much the probability that birds visited a given survey site is influenced by the type of habitat it offers and, on a given day, how those dynamic factors affected people’s ability to detect birds in spaces where we know they’ve been seen before. 

a sparrow looks at the camera while eating from a hanging bird feeder

A sparrow is seen atop a bird feeder at Nadine Santo Pietro's home, while she conducts a 10-minute COVID-19 bird survey in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood on May 21, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

A sparrow is seen atop a bird feeder at Nadine Santo Pietro's home, while she conducts a 10-minute COVID-19 bird survey in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood on May 21, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

There might be a bird nearby, but in order for someone to realize that it spends time in a given habitat, three components of detection need to be met: Birds and people need to hang out in the space at the same time; the bird needs to do something that catches the eyes or ears of a person, and the person needs to have the wherewithal to know what to do with that information. 

Ultimately, the researchers homed in data submitted by the 376 people in Washington and Oregon who followed the survey protocol and produced usable data. The resulting upcoming first-year analysis is based on these participants’ 6,640 eBird checklists created from surveys at 429 monitoring sites, and focused on 46 recorded bird species observed frequently enough to provide good data.

Accounting for the effects of seasonality, weather, air pollution and change in human mobility from a pre-pandemic baseline using Google mobility data, the researchers noticed a few strange things. For one, they found that air pollution — something rarely investigated in the context of bird detection even before the pandemic — had a statistically significant effect on detecting 10 of the 46 bird species included in the final report. But most interestingly, there was a relationship between the level of human mobility (based on the location history of Google users at a county scale) and our ability to detect birds. 

They had expected to see that when people moved around less, volunteers would notice more birds. Half of the studied species were detected less frequently when the percentage change in human mobility — which closely correlates with traffic — was down. Twelve species were less likely to be detected as mobility increased, while volunteers were more likely to see 23 species at higher levels of mobility. “It suggests that the relationship between human mobility and detection of birds is more complicated than a simple masking effect of traffic volumes on birdsong,” Sanderfoot says. “And it just shows that we're very much part of our local environment.”

“We saw an effect of human mobility on detection for 76% of study species, [which] means our study shows that there is a relationship between human mobility and one of those three components of detection — I have no way of teasing it out,” Sanderfoot says. “For those species with positive relationships, I have one of two hypotheses: Birds are changing their behavior in a way that makes them more noticeable” — they might sing more loudly when there are more cars on the road, for one — ”[or] birds are spending more time where our observers are as traffic ticks up.” 

The researchers’ dataset suggests that on most days, human mobility was much lower than it was just prior to the pandemic.

hand holding sketchbook with a drawing of a sparrow

Nadine Santo Pietro, who does COVID-19 bird surveys in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood for a community science project, often sketches birds. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Nadine Santo Pietro, who does COVID-19 bird surveys in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood for a community science project, often sketches birds. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Volunteer Nadine Santo Pietro noticed changes in her Phinney Ridge-area backyard as traffic picked up. “At the beginning of the pandemic, I would sit up here because you could hear,” she says from a porch looking out over the yard. She selected her study site so she can be less obtrusive to birds, to the point that sometimes she surprises them when she moves suddenly. But increased traffic noise now interrupts her site. “It sounds like being next to a waterfall.” Sometimes, she’ll notice birds stop singing when traffic is low, and resume singing when it starts back up. 

They also noticed that while birds like glaucous-winged gulls — which eat our trash and find ways to live in built spaces — continue spending time in highly urbanized areas, American crows that use human spaces similarly were seen less in urban areas. The researchers suggest that crows, which aren’t restricted to coastlines, may have moved elsewhere when urban businesses put out less trash.

Sanderfoot says that the data is strong enough that the level of birding expertise among volunteers couldn’t account for the variation in detection alone. She says people’s physical presence isn’t a huge factor in bird behavior, especially for urban species. 

In surveys of the volunteers themselves, many said they were eager to participate to indulge their fascination with and concern for birds and the environment. Others signed up to learn more about nature, the chance to contribute to science, for fun, or for mental health benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic 

“A lot of people don't think of themselves as scientists, but they're out there collecting data!” Gardner says. 

The fact that Sanderfoot put time into training her volunteers and standardizing their surveys allows her to make stronger analyses than if she simply drew from general eBird data, says Michael Schrimpf, an ecologist in Manitoba who also researched bird behavior in the pandemic. 

a woman on a porch looks out at a backyard with sketchbooks in the foreground

Nadine Santo Pietro conducts a 10-minute bird survey from the back porch of her home in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood on May 21, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Nadine Santo Pietro conducts a 10-minute bird survey from the back porch of her home in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood on May 21, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

“When you know that things are more standardized, you're able to make comparisons with a smaller dataset, and the comparisons that you can make are a little bit more precise,” Schrimpf says. Using eBird data from about 93 counties in North America, Schrimpf’s study into where eBird users saw birds showed greater counts of many species in counties with stronger lockdowns. 

“It’s not just the things that we build — the roads and the buildings and everything — but how we use them that has effects on wildlife. And for the most part … all you have to do is reduce that human activity, and birds will use spaces more.” 

What’s next, for birders and the birds

Sanderfoot says there is much left to study, but volunteers are creating a second season dataset that will help answer some lingering questions. 

“I wasn’t expecting to tell a story about human mobility … and I've actually been pushing myself to learn more about noise pollution and light pollution and these other facets of urbanization that are often confounded with air pollution that could help explain why that is,” Sanderfoot says. 

“I think that many people expected that we would be able to more readily observe birds, and our study suggests that that was not true for all species, which creates this opportunity to think a bit more critically about both how birds might have changed their behavior during lockdowns,” Sanderfoot says. 

Bird populations change annually, Sanderfoot says, as do environmental conditions. This year is supposed to be warmer than 2020, which may show up somehow in this year’s bird behavior. 

As they noticed changes in bird behavior and relationships with the environment, the volunteers noticed similar changes within themselves.

Reflecting the sentiments of many participants, Santo Pietro didn’t consider herself a birder before all of this. “I liked watching birds, but I didn’t know much about them. Before, you know, we could name like, crows and robins, and then the rest were Little Brown Birds. “I found we had so many more birds than I thought, just from being asked to look for them.” 

Santo Pietro has since signed up for bird identification and drawing classes through the Cornell Ornithology Lab, and started journaling. She has multiple journals filled with bird drawings, tallies, environmental conditions and unusual sightings. “Once I started this, I realized how much I did not know,” she says.

Campion identifies birds mostly by sound, and can hear differences in calls now. She’s also more aware of how changes in the environment affect birds: The day after a forested area behind her house was razed for development, her yard felt like a “bird airport,” she says: They decked the fences and blotted the sky, looking for a new place to live.

Birding can be a “gateway drug” to so much of nature, Chuang says. When she talks, her ears are always scanning. “You don't want to turn it off,” she says, pointing out a harbor seal. If you want to know where to find birds, you have to be able to read the landscape. She points out a cotoneaster bush. “Eventually, you’ll want to know that it has red berries that cedar waxwings love, and in some of my counts last year, there would be 50 cedar waxwings on that bush,” she says. 

While volunteers were stuck inside, some say watching birds even helped their mental health. Campion finds herself coming out to her yard even during nonsurvey times to talk to the birds. She started gardening to beautify her research area. Santo Pietro says the survey process gave her hope. 

“Part of it was everything else was just so hard and falling apart — and, yet, the birds are still building their nests, having to feed their babies and they're still singing and, I don't know, it really helped a lot in that way,” she says. “There's something moving forward.”

Update: This article was updated to reflect the hatching cycle of an osprey at 10:52 a.m. on Wednesday, May 26, 2021.

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