How well do birds tolerate people?


Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

By Barb Gorges

Also published here:

Every soaring bird I saw in early February along 1300 miles of interstate highway between Nashville, Tennessee, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, was a black vulture or turkey vulture.

However near Vero Beach, Florida, where we were visiting Cheyenne snowbirds Karen and Fred Pannell, there was a black bird of a different shape, a magnificent frigatebird, a life bird for both me and my husband Mark.

But about those vultures, were they really more abundant along the interstate than away from it? Were they waiting for roadkill? We passed a couple landfill “mountains” that were big vulture magnets too.

We think wild birds go about their lives oblivious to people, or at least avoiding us. Except for birds coming to feeders. Or ducks at the park looking for handouts. Or Canada geese that enjoy eating the grass on park lawns and the leftover grain in farmers’ fields.

We know that some human activities are detrimental to birds. But how many are beneficial to them? Chimney swifts have experienced both. We took down the old hollow trees they used to build their nests in and they moved into our chimneys.

The speaker at February’s Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Society meeting, Cameron Nordell, relayed interesting research results on nesting ferruginous hawks and their reactions to people. Nordell, Raptor Fellow at the University of Wyoming Biodiversity Institute, is with the Wyoming Raptor Initiative.

In his previous work in southern Alberta, Nordell and his colleagues experimented in part to see at what distance hawks would flush from their nests as researchers approached by vehicle or on foot to check the nests for other aspects of the study.

Southern Alberta is a mix of agriculture, oil and gas and other development. The farmers and home owners have planted trees on the prairie and the ferruginous hawks have found them to be great for nesting—they are a ground-nesting hawk otherwise. The trees give them better protection from predators.

However, along with people came another species that climbs trees—and raids nests—racoons. Barns and other structures have helped increase the population of great horned owls and they too prey on the nestlings.

Ferruginous hawks nesting near the busiest roads were more tolerant than birds that had not seen as much traffic. Approaching vehicles were tolerated better than approaching people.

Raptors have been shown to hang out by roads, looking for injured prey species. The problem is that they risk getting hit by vehicles too.

The Wyoming Raptor Initiative (see wants to understand the state’s raptors better, including the road problem. It has two goals:

“(1) To synthesize our scientific understanding of raptors in Wyoming so that the public, scientists, land managers and energy companies will be better informed in developing and implementing future conservation strategies and land mitigation efforts.

“(2) To foster appreciation of raptors in Wyoming and the world through education and outreach efforts.”

Nordell and his colleagues will be looking at previous studies of raptors in Wyoming, gathering more data, talking to all kinds of people to get more information, and then they’ll relay what they learn.

What will they discover about Wyoming’s ferruginous hawks, for instance? What human activities help them or harm them?

Nordell also studied arctic peregrine falcons near Hudson Bay, where there were few direct human impacts. However, the weather was ferocious. Too much rain, and a young bird, poorly nourished, could succumb to the cold rainwater collecting in the cliff-face nest. Better-fed youngsters had better survival rates.

The next questions: What affects the availability of peregrine prey species and the peregrine parents’ ability to bring food back to the nest? Is there any human influence on their success? Are humans linked in any way to that Arctic location getting demonstrably rainier?

What will be discovered about peregrines in Wyoming? I watched one nail a duck on a ranch reservoir just outside Cheyenne once. The human-made lake attracted the peregrine’s food target—southeastern Wyoming doesn’t have many natural water bodies.

I look forward to answers from the Wyoming Raptor Initiative. I’m sure they will also discover many more questions.


Turkey Vulture. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Citizen science makes difference

Citizen Scientist - cover

“Citizen Science” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published 2016, recognizes contributions of volunteers collecting data.

Published May 14, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Citizen science meets the test of making a difference”

By Barb Gorges

Birdwatchers have been at the forefront of citizen science for a long time, starting with the Christmas Bird Count in 1900.

Today, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is leading the way in using technology to expand bird counting around the globe. Meanwhile, other citizen science projects collect information on a variety of phenomena.

But is citizen science really science? This question was asked last December at the first Wyoming Citizen Science Conference.

The way science works is a scientist poses a question in the form of a hypothesis. For instance, do robins lay more eggs at lower elevations than at higher elevations? The scientist and his assistants can go out and find nests and count eggs to get an answer [and no, I don’t know if anyone has studied this].

However, there are hypotheses that would be more difficult to prove without a reservoir of data that was collected without a research question in mind. For instance, Elizabeth Wommack, curator and collections manager of vertebrates at the University of Wyoming Museum of Vertebrates, studied the variation in the number of white markings on the outer tail feathers of male kestrels. She visited collections of bird specimens at museums all over the country to gather data.

Some kestrels have lots of white spots, some have none. Are the differences caused by geography? [Many animal traits are selected for (meaning because of the trait, the animal survives and passes on the trait to more offspring) on a continuum. It could be north to south or dry to wet habitat or some other geographic feature.]

Or perhaps it was sexual selection—females preferred spottier male tail feathers. Or did the amount of spotting lead directly to improved survival?

Wommack discovered none of her hypotheses could show statistical significance, information just as important as proving the hypotheses true. But at least Wommack learned something without having to “collect” or kill more kestrels.

Some citizen science projects collect data to test specific hypotheses. However, others, like eBird and iNaturalist collect data without a hypothesis in mind, akin to putting specimens in museum drawers like those kestrels. The data is just waiting for someone to ask a question.

I know I’ve gone to eBird with my own questions such as when and where sandhill cranes are seen in Wyoming. Or when the last time was I reported blue jays in our yard.

To some scientists, data like eBird’s, collected by the public, might be suspect. How can they trust lay people to report accurately? At this point, so many people are reporting the birds they see to eBird that statistical credibility is high. (However, eBird still does not know a lot about birds in Wyoming and we need more of you to report your sightings at

Are scientists using eBird data? They are, and papers are being published. CLO itself recently published a study in Biological Conservation, an international journal for the discipline of conservation biology. [See] Their study tracked requests for raw data from eBird for 22 months, 2012 through 2014.

They found that the data was used in 159 direct conservation actions. That means no waiting years for papers to be published before identifying problems like downturns in population. These actions affected birds through management of habitat, siting of disturbances like power plants, decisions about listing as threatened or endangered. CLO also discovered citizens were using the data to discuss development and land use issues in their own neighborhoods.

CLO’s eBird data is what is called open access data. No one pays to access it. None of us get paid to contribute it. Our payment is the knowledge that we are helping land and wildlife managers make better decisions. There’s a lot “crowd sourced” abundance and distribution numbers can tell them.

Citizen science isn’t often couched in terms of staving off extinction. Recently I read “Citizen Scientist, Searching for Heroes and Hope in an Age of Extinction,” by Mary Ellen Hannibal, published in 2016. She gave me a new view.

Based in California, Hannibal uses examples of citizen science projects there that have made a difference. She looks back at the early non-scientists like Ed Ricketts and John Steinbeck who sampled the Pacific Coast, leaving a trail of data collection sites that were re-sampled 85 years later. She also looks to Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist E.O. Wilson, who gives citizen science his blessing. At age 87, he continues to share his message that we should leave half the biosphere to nature—for our own good.

Enjoy spring bird migration. Share your bird observations. The species you save may be the one to visit you in your own backyard again.

Bird brains

2016-02 Red-winged BlackbirdbyBarbGorges

Male Red-winged Blackbird. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle Feb. 28, 2016, “UW songbird brain studies shed light”

By Barb Gorges

We are used to thinking about many animals standing in for humans in studies that will benefit us: rats, chimps, rabbits. But should we add songbirds to that list? They apparently work well for studying how we learn to speak.

At the February Cheyenne Audubon meeting, Karagh Murphy, a University of Wyoming doctoral candidate in the Zoology and Physiology Department, explained how Bengalese finches help her study how brains learn.

Learning by example, whether bird or human, takes place in two parts. First the student observes, or in the case of male birds learning to sing so they can defend their territory and attract mates, they listen. Then they attempt imitation, practicing by listening to themselves and getting feedback.

What Karagh wanted to know is if HVC neurons in the birds’ brains are active at both stages, hearing and doing. It’s just a simple matter of plugging a computer into the right place in a bird’s brain.

First though, you have to wrangle your subjects, capturing them in the walk-in-sized aviary, and then get them used to having the wispiest of cables attached to the tiny instrument on their heads. Otherwise, they are too stressed to sing.

Karagh recorded the firing pattern of the HVC neurons, producing something like the electrocardiogram that shows heart beats, and compared it to the spectrogram, another linear graph of peaks and valleys that visualizes the frequencies of the song she played for the bird to hear, and then the song the bird sang. Both spectrograms matched the peaks and valleys of the HVC neuron pattern, essentially showing the neurons are used for both auditory and motor output, the action of singing.

Recently, something very similar has been found in humans, called mirror neurons.

The second speaker was Jonathan Prather, an associate professor in the department’s neuroscience program. While Karagh has been studying males learning to sing, Jonathan has been figuring out what the female Bengalese finches want to hear.

Female birds don’t sing. At most, they produce call notes to communicate. But they enjoy listening to males sing and they judge them by their song to determine which one is the fittest potential mate, which will give them the fittest young.

Jonathan thought there might be a “sexy syllable,” some part of the song that would get the females excited, measured by how often the females call in response. He measured their responses as he played back songs he had manipulated.

Or maybe it was tempo, so he manipulated the recording to go faster in some trials, then slower in others. Or maybe the female birds would react differently to songs at different pitches. That would be similar to human women who, studies have shown, are attracted to men with deeper voices (connected to higher testosterone levels).

Apparently, female finches are looking for quantity and complexity, for males who sing in the most physically (neuromuscular-wise) demanding way. That means sweeping from high to low notes a lot, and really fast. Think how opera stars singing the most demanding repertoire get the biggest applause. A bird that can sing well is well-fed, healthy and of good breeding—perfect father material.

The field of neurobiology is more about figuring out human brains, but when birds are used as models, birdwatchers find it intriguing. The questions from the Audubon audience reflected their familiarity with birds.

Our songbirds in Wyoming are only seasonal singers, so birds from equatorial locations that sing year round are used to make trials more efficient. Would there be a difference?

Are female bird brains different from the male brains? Yes, because learning songs increases one part of the male brain, however, females have other roles that increase the size of other parts of their brain.

If a young bird never hears another bird sing, will it eventually sing? Not really, it will only babble in an unformed way, as human babies do when they start out.

If a young bird hears only the singing of a different species, will it learn that song instead? Yes, although not completely perfectly—there is some genetic influence on bird song.

And what about the mimics? What about birds like starlings and mockingbirds that learn to imitate lots of other birds’ songs and even some human vocalizations and mechanical noises? Karagh broke out in a grin. That line of study could keep her busy for her entire career.

Curiosity, generosity rewarded by the University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute

Biodiversity Institute logo

The University of Wyoming’s Biodiversity Institute was organized in 2012.

Published Nov. 10, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Curiosity, generosity rewarded by UW’s Biodiversity Institute.”

2014 Update: Chris Madson continues to write at his blog, Many of the Dorns’ publications are available.

By Barb Gorges

It’s wonderful when friends are recognized for a lifetime of work they enjoy.

Last month, the Biodiversity Institute recognized Chris Madson of Cheyenne, and Jane and Robert Dorn, formerly of Cheyenne, now residing near Lingle.

The Biodiversity Institute, established in 2012, is a division of the University of Wyoming’s Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. It “seeks to promote research, education, and outreach concerning the study of living organisms in Wyoming and beyond (” This was the first year for what will be biannual awards.

Chris’s award for “Contributions to Wyoming Biodiversity Conservation,” highlights his 30 years as editor of Wyoming Wildlife, the magazine published by the Wyoming Game and Fish Department. The week before the awards ceremony, he retired.

Each issue has been a compilation of the work of the best nature and outdoor photographers and writers, who were attracted to the prize-winning magazine. Judith Hosafros, longtime assistant editor, should also be credited for her attention to graphic details and proofreading that made it easy to read all these years.

Most subscribers turned to page 4 first, to read Chris’s monthly elucidation of issues or hosannas to nature, and then they looked for any articles he authored.

Getting in touch with Chris for what might have been a minute could turn into a conversation exploring a topic in nearly any field–not surprising for a man with degrees in biology, English, anthropology and wildlife.

Chris’s dad was also a writer and conservationist in Chris’s native state of Iowa. He remembers his dad interpreting the scenery on long car trips. When I spoke to two of Chris and Kathy’s three daughters at the awards, Erin and Ceara, they both mentioned long drives as favorite times with their dad.

Chris made Wyoming Wildlife much more inclusive than the typical hook and bullet publication—for instance, the October issue had three major non-game bird articles. Illuminating the conservation ethic was always uppermost for Chris, and that’s why he was nominated for this biodiversity award.

The Dorns received the Contributions to Biodiversity Science Award. Both Bob and Jane trained as scientists: Bob with a doctorate in botany, and Jane with a masters in zoology. They met in 1969 at UW, he coming from Minnesota and she from Rawlins. They have been a productive partnership ever since.

When Bob first started his studies at UW that year, he realized there was no single good plant guide for Wyoming and he set out to correct that, publishing “Vascular Plants of Wyoming” in 1977. It’s essentially a key he made for identifying hundreds of plants, based on his and many others’ research, and Jane has provided scientific illustrations for it. The third edition, still with a humble, plain brown paper cover, is available through UW’s Rocky Mountain Herbarium. It’s considered the bible by anyone working in botany in Wyoming.

Bob has had his own biological consulting business, working on clearances and inventories for threatened and endangered species, reclamation evaluations and wetland determinations.  But he has continued to have scientific papers published, and other books. Many of his contracts called for inspecting remote areas and at this point, out of the 448 units he divided the state into back in 1969, he has botanically surveyed 445.

Jane is no slouch, botanically. Growing up, she spent a lot of time on her grandparents’ ranch and her parents impressed on her that everything has a name. I’m not sure it is possible to divide Bob and Jane’s joint interests in botany and birds, but when researching in the nation’s great scientific libraries, Jane tends to find the birds.

Having met them through the local Audubon chapter, Bob and Jane became my mentors when I first started writing this bird column in 1999. They put their research into two editions of their book, “Wyoming Birds.” Doug Faulkner continually credits them throughout his 2010 book, “Birds of Wyoming.” Jane wrote the chapter for him on the history of Wyoming ornithology and Bob wrote the chapter on landforms and vegetation.

While both books often save me from having to make phone calls, the Dorns’ book also has 70 pages of Wyoming birding hotspots and directions on how to get to them.

What Jane, Bob and Chris have in common is not only intelligence and education, but insatiable curiosity that has and will keep them going long after any official retirement; the afternoon before the awards ceremony on campus I found Bob doing research in the herbarium.

And they also share a huge spirit of generosity, making all of us, maybe unknowingly for many people, beneficiaries of their scientific and conservation passions.

Red Crossbill beaks evolve

Red Crossbill

Isolated populations of Red Crossbills have evolved bills that are most efficient for extracting seeds from cones of particular species of trees in their locality. Photo courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published May 16, 2007, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Professor sheds light on crossbills. Research points to more than one species of crossbill in North America.”

2014 Update: See for more about Craig Benkman and his continuing research into crossbill mysteries.

By Barb Gorges

Crossbills are species of birds that eat seeds from the cones of spruce, pine and other evergreens. Over time they’ve evolved mandibles that cross at the tips. These odd beaks can be slipped between the scales of cones to pry them apart far enough for the crossbills to reach seeds with their sticky tongues.

Both the white-winged and red crossbills can do this. However, the red crossbill was the star of the program given by Craig Benkman last month for the Cheyenne Audubon chapter.

Craig is a professor at the University of Wyoming, in the Zoology and Physiology Department, and is well recognized internationally for his crossbill studies. He has determined that there may be as many as nine types of red crossbills that are candidates for designation as separate species. Red crossbills are found in North America and Europe.

To be considered a species means the members of it either don’t breed outside the group or crossbreeding produces no successful young.

Types of red crossbills are different in size and in the calls they make. They also have different tastes in cones.

While Craig can show you really cool 3-D graphics of his statistics at, let’s cut to the chase here.

Over the last 5,000 to 7,000 years, red crossbills have evolved their seed extraction methods to such an efficiency that the bills of different populations match seeds of particular conifer tree species. For instance, the red crossbills that work over lodgepole pine have different sized bills than those that specialize in spruces.

Watch a crossbill husk a seed (see the video on Craig’s Web page) and you will see it uses the same side of its bill each time. It has a sharp ridge in the upper mandible that acts as a wedge or hammer and in the lower mandible there is a groove that is perfectly sized for the preferred seed.

Using its tongue to hold the seed in the groove, the crossbill bites down and breaks the seed husk and then removes it. It’s a very efficient system if the bird and the seed are perfectly matched.

Serendipitously, Craig discovered that instead of “collecting” birds, he could use dental impression material on live birds to measure their palates, the inside of their mandibles. He can statistically prove that crossbills with a particular seed preference have a particular groove measurement.

While a crossbill with a pine cone bill can get seeds out of a spruce cone and husk them, it isn’t as fast and it can’t eat as much per minute as the right type crossbill. In this case, time is food is life.

Craig can show that those birds forced to make do with the wrong seed are less likely to survive and less likely to produce young, even if they are in the same forest as the type of crossbill that matches the cones available.

Crossbill breeding is very dependent on having enough seeds. They breed anytime of year, except perhaps late fall, so if a spruce-beaked bird can’t find a good spruce cone crop, it won’t breed until it does.

Craig has studied the crossbills of the South Hills range in Idaho extensively. The lodgepole pine cone crop is quite dependable and the type of crossbill found there has been able to settle down over several thousand years and evolve to match its food source closely.

While individuals of other types of crossbills can be found in the South Hills, in among this resident type, Craig has found that they are unlikely to breed or crossbreed.

If mating should occur between crossbill types, the young might be inefficient at eating seed from all cone types and be doomed to never getting enough seed to be in condition to breed.

The evolution of crossbill beaks continues because trees continue to evolve tougher cones. The trees with the toughest cones will have seeds that survive to grow and produce more seed and trees.

On the other hand, crossbills with the best beaks for the toughest cones will produce more young. Craig calls this the co-evolutionary arms race. However, in many locations squirrels throw a monkey wrench in the works, which is another story.

If red crossbills really are nine separate species, birdwatchers will have to differentiate them by calls. That seems to be how the birds do it themselves.

As a flock, they travel nomadically across the northern forests. They land on a tree and begin sampling cones, calling out their results, so to speak, and attracting others of their type.

Within a few minutes a flock can determine that a tree doesn’t have enough seeds per cone to make it worth their expenditure of energy. Craig has been able to determine that the flock is more efficient at determining this than a lone bird. Remember, time is food is life, so it is better to be part of the flock.

And once in the flock of one type of crossbill, individual birds are unlikely to meet individuals of another type.

Craig and his graduate students continue to research answers to red crossbill questions.

The next question is how much data will it take to prove to the American Ornithologist’s Union, the arbiter of North American bird species designation, that there is more than one species of red crossbill on this continent?

A note in the June 2007 issue of the national magazine, Birder’s World, mentioned Craig’s study and that the South Hills type is currently under review.

Stay tuned!

Hummingbirds shed light


Hummingbirds gather at a feeder on Sandia Crest, with the city of Albuquerque, New Mexico, 5,000 feet below. Photo by Barb Gorges.

Published May 25, 2005, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “UW researchers seek hummingbird secrets.”

2014 Update: Bradley Hartman Bakken, Ph.D., is a comparative and environmental animal physiologist. His principal research interests concern osmoregulation and the renal, gastrointestinal, and hepatic mechanisms that vertebrates use to cope with their environment. For information about his current work and a list of his publications, see This article has been collected in several online archives.

By Barb Gorges

Hummingbirds are captivating creatures.

Bradley Hartman Bakken, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Wyoming, can entertain an audience for an hour with his PowerPoint show of fascinating hummingbird facts.

For instance, hummingbirds can beat their wings 30 to 80 times per second. Their tiny hearts beat 500 times per minute at rest and 1200 times when active. They are the only birds or vertebrates that can fly backwards.

But Bakken didn’t come to the study of hummingbirds through the pursuit of trivia. His interest is in the physiology of kidneys and he began working with hummingbirds as an undergraduate under the guidance of Carlos Martinez del Rio, a professor in the Zoology and Physiology Department.

Bakken discovered that hummingbirds use–or actually don’t use–their kidneys in a unique way.

They live almost entirely on flower nectar, except for the occasional bit of protein from a passing insect.

Because nectar is mostly water and hummingbirds need a lot of sugar, they must expel a lot of water. Bakken said if humans drank as much water as hummingbirds in proportion to their body size, they would die—their kidneys would be overwhelmed.

But hummingbirds and humans are both able to lose water through breathing and evaporation through their skin.

Hummingbirds are just much more efficient. Because they are so small, their proportion of skin surface to body volume is high. Humans, being bigger, have a much lower ratio so sweating doesn’t help us as much.

In fact, hummingbirds give off so much sweat, another hummingbird researcher, Ken Welch, visiting UW from the University of California – Santa Barbara, said they smell like wet dogs.

The only time hummingbird kidneys actually kick in is when the birds are feeding, Bakken said. They don’t use their kidneys overnight since they can lose as much as 11 percent of their body weight just by evaporation during that time anyway.

If humans lost as much, they’d be in a coma.

Bakken has been working with captive broad-tailed hummingbirds. His next step will be to determine the effect of a lower surface to volume ratio in a larger hummingbird. He travels this fall to Santiago, Chile, for three months to study the giant hummingbird. This larger bird weighs 21 grams and is similar in size to a sparrow–dwarfing Wyoming’s broad-tailed hummingbirds that only weigh about 3.5 grams. [Later, he’ll look into nectar-feeding bats in Mexico.]

Scott Carleton, another UW doctoral candidate, also works with hummingbirds to explore the physiology of energy use.

“They have the highest mass specific metabolic rate of birds,” he said, “and they’re easy to study—it’s all nectar.”

Carleton wanted to know whether hummingbirds operate more on stored energy or on the energy that comes directly from nectar.

Because the sugar from sugar beets has a different carbon isotope signature than cane sugar, the breath of a hummingbird can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer to determine how much of which sugar it is burning.

The hummingbird is fed one kind of sugar and then switched to the other. The first sugar, stored as fat, produces one isotope and the other, burned as it is consumed, shows the other.

Welsh traveled to Wyoming to spend three weeks here this spring to answer a similar question. He demonstrated how his research subject takes a sip of nectar from within a mask that analyzes the carbon dioxide and oxygen in its breath. The results appear instantly on a computer graph.

What fuels a hummingbird when it takes its first sip of the day?

It appears that within five minutes the bird fuels its hovering flight totally on the sugar it is ingesting. Humans also make use of sugar quickly when exercising intensely, but still have to get 50 percent from stored energy.

The researchers also found that caged hummingbirds, which are less active than those in the wild, are able to maintain their weight when tempted with a constant source of sugar water. Except twice a year, Bakken said.

Even though day length is controlled and never changes for his hummingbirds in the laboratory, they tend to put on a little extra weight in the spring and fall as if in preparation for migration.

Bakken said this could be in their genetics and not just a response to day length or temperature.

Hummingbird facts

–331 hummer species are found only in North, Central and South America, but fossils of modern-type hummingbirds from 30 million years ago have recently been found in Germany.

–Ecuador has the most species, 163, and the U.S. has 19. Wyoming has black-chinned, calliope, broad-tailed and rufous hummingbirds.

–The rufous migrates farther than any animal when comparing distance to body weight. In spring they migrate from Mexico along the coast of California to southeastern Alaska, then return south via the Rocky Mountains in July and August. If a six-foot man took as long a journey, proportionate to his size, he could make 13 trips to the moon and back.


It’s difficult to distinguish some species of hummingbirds, especially mid-summer when this photo was taken above Albuquerque, New Mexico, when the females and juveniles look nearly identical. The male bird on the left appears to be a Broad-tailed Hummingbird. What do you think? Photo by Barb Gorges.

What to feed hummingbirds

Wyoming wildflower nectar is 80 percent water, so make yours four parts water to one part sugar. Use red feeders, but don’t dye the nectar. Use only regular table sugar–cane or beet sugar, hummingbirds love both, but not honey since it’s too waxy and could carry mold spores.

Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes

Wyoming Birding Bonanza logo

Wyoming Birding Bonanza’s logo features an American Avocet

Published April 7, 2013, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Wyoming Birding Bonanza strikes again.”

2014 Update: Organizer James Maley moved on to another position this year.

By Barb Gorges

Are you ready for the second annual Wyoming Birding Bonanza? Polish your binoculars because you can be a winner.

The competition was dreamed up last year by James Maley and Matt Carling, both of the University of Wyoming’s Department of Zoology and Physiology. James is collections manager of the Museum of Vertebrates and Matt is an assistant professor.

Their goal is to increase the number of bird observations for Wyoming during spring migration that are recorded in the data base, and to get birders into the habit of submitting information. The data is used by scientists.

Last year, the contest ran from mid-April to mid-June but this year it is being pared back to May 1 – 31, concentrating on the peak weeks.

And again, thanks to the return of sponsors—the Audubon societies of Cheyenne, Laramie and Cody, UW’s Biodiversity Institute, Audubon Wyoming and eBird, there are prizes.

Registered contestants who enter at least 15 checklists will receive a WBB T-shirt. A checklist is a list of bird species and number of individuals of each, seen in a particular location during a period of time. James promises this year’s T-shirt will be a work of art. Everyone who turns in at least 10 checklists will be entered in a grand prize drawing.

Also, for each Wyoming county, the participant reporting the most species will win a prize. Last year, I was the Laramie County winner and received the latest edition of the National Geographic field guide. This year our county is up for grabs since I’m going to be out less often.

For better odds, try birding Big Horn, Converse and Sublette counties, where no checklists were turned in last year, James said.

“April, May, and June of 2012 are now the top three months of all time for number of checklists statewide,” he said. There were 1,282 turned in, compared to 424 for the same months in 2010. A total of 266 species was observed in 2012.

I know I paid closer attention to the birds around me because of the competition. I found a summer tanager in our backyard May 11, considered rare for Wyoming.

James passed on a list of other rare bird sightings from 2012:

–1 Glossy Ibis at Meeboer Lake (west of Laramie) on April 17

–1 Lesser Black-backed Gull also at Meeboer Lake on April 17

–1 Black-and-white Warbler at Holliday Park on April 21

–1 Juniper Titmouse at Guernsey State Park on April 22

–1 Long-tailed Jaeger at Hutton Lake NWR on May 3

–1 Northern Cardinal in Laramie on May 4

–5 Short-billed Dowitchers at Hutton on May 5

–1 Snowy Owl at Keyhole State Park on May 15

–1 Blackpoll Warbler at Hereford on May15

–1 Cattle Egret in Rock River on May 17

–1 White-eyed Vireo near Lander on May 28.

So, are you ready to earn that WBB T-shirt? You can do it by simply counting the birds in your backyard for a few minutes at least 15 different times. Here’s what you need to do.

First, sign up at, if you haven’t already. It’s free. Click on the “About eBird” link, and then the “eBird Quick Start Guide,” the first link on that page.

When setting up your observation locations, select a hotspot marker if there is one at one of your locations already, such as Wyoming Hereford Ranch or Lions Park. Otherwise, on the map your personal marker may be hidden underneath the hotspot’s. You can view your data for a hotspot alone or collated with everyone else’s. If you have questions about eBird, call me.

Next, sign up for the Wyoming Birding Bonanza at It’s also free.

Here are the rules.


1. Participants will count only full species as defined by the current American Birding Association checklist.

2. Birds identified to a taxonomic level above species may be counted if no other member of the taxonomic level is on the checklist. For example, duck sp. can be counted if no other ducks are seen.

3. Birds counted must be alive and unrestrained. Sick and injured birds are countable. Nests and eggs do not count.

4. Electronic devices are allowed, but see ABA’s Code of Ethics for guidelines.

Time: We will extract final eBird data for the Bonanza on 30 June 2013.

Area: Anywhere in Wyoming.


1. Participants must only count birds unquestionably identified. If in doubt, leave it out.

2. Know and abide by the rules.

3. Share information with other birders–they’ll thank you.

Good birding to all!


Northern goshawk whereabouts revealed by statistics

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk is a hard-to-find forest hawk. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published March 5, 2008, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “On tail of secretive goshawk; Twice it’s been denied endangered species listing because too little is known.”

2014 Update: I was able to see two of the three goshawks found December 2013 on the Cheyenne Christmas Bird Count and another Feb. 15, 2014 in a tree in the Cheyenne Botanic Gardens grounds.

By Barb Gorges

The northern goshawk is not a bird on my life list despite my having lived all of my life within its North American range, roughly north of Interstate 80 and in the Rockies and west.

However, I have never lived within its habitat, the forest. Years of forest recreation and birding with experts has never led me to a glimpse of the gray hawk with the white belly, even though it is a large bird: 2 pounds, 21 inches long with 41-inch wingspan.

The Sibley Guide to Birds describes the goshawk and the other two accipiter species, Cooper’s and sharp-shinned hawks, as difficult to identify-though I’m pretty sure it is the sharp-shinned terrorizing my feeder birds. Accipiter species have the short, rounded wings and long tails that allow them to navigate in the trees. Other hawk species prefer the wide open spaces.

The goshawk is listed as a sensitive species in six of the eight US Forest Service regions, including Region 2 which includes most of Wyoming.

It is a “management indicator species” which means it is potentially sensitive to habitat changes, especially since it requires large trees for nesting.

Twice the goshawk has been denied listing as a threatened or endangered species because it was ruled that there was not enough information to support either status.

How does one study a bird a field guide describes as secretive? How does one find a set of needle-like talons within a forest of needle-leaved trees?

Jeff Beck and two colleagues came up with a system a couple years ago based on a suggested national protocol. He was the local Audubon chapter’s guest speaker last month and is assistant professor of Wildlife Restoration Ecology in the Department of Renewable Resources at the University of Wyoming.

He said traditionally biologists monitored any known goshawk nests for activity each spring. But over time this method shows a downward trend as, I would presume, even with a thriving population, preference for a particular pine tree nesting site might wane as the health of the tree declines over time.

Beck’s team’s job was to design a more statistically satisfying sampling method for the forest bioregion in Wyoming and Colorado.

First they studied 58 known goshawk territories and statistically analyzed them to see what they had in common. Was it slope, the steepness of the mountain side? Or aspect, the direction the slope faced? Or elevation? The predicting factor turned out to be vegetation.

Nesting territories were 4.6 times more likely to be in lodgepole pine forest than spruce/fir forest. This may not be news to falconers who prize goshawks and are also looking for nests–from which they are licensed to pluck young to train for their sport.

Next, knowing from research that a goshawk nesting territory averages 688 hectares, or 1700 acres (and may contain several nests per pair over the years), Beck and his team laid a grid of 1700-acre sampling units on Forest Service land and chose 51 units for a pilot monitoring program.

Finally, field biologists hit the ground twice, once during the time studies showed would coincide with nesting and once during fledging.

In each 1700-acre study unit, the field biologists played a tape of goshawk calls to elicit a reaction from one if it was present. But because the auditory range was only 150 meters (492 feet), there were a lot of acoustical sampling points to cover in each unit.

It’s one thing to draw dots on a map, but it’s another to get to them, to overcome thick timber, steep slopes, swamps, bad weather and bears. Also, goshawks deal with intruders by slamming into them, so everyone had to wear hardhats. Next time you see field biology statistics, imagine all the sweat and stories that go into them.

What Beck and his colleagues found was a 65 to 75 percent probability of detecting goshawks. Also, 33 percent of the samples had goshawks. And, goshawks were 6.5 times more likely to be seen in their primary pine habitat than their secondary spruce/fir habitat.

Using statistics, the team was able to determine how many sampling units would be required to detect a 20 percent change in goshawk population. And they were able to determine that sampling sites closer to Forest Service offices produced nearly the same results as sampling remote sites and so monitoring costs could be reduced.

A long term monitoring program like this could show if the goshawk population rises and falls in a natural cycle. It could show the effects of timber harvesting or recreation pressure, including that of falconers.

But with the pine beetle infestation launching itself throughout Colorado and Wyoming, it will undoubtedly document the goshawks’ reaction to a much larger natural cycle in which, at this moment, their preferred nesting trees are dying.

Will it be easier for goshawks to find prey (rabbits, grouse and squirrels) when the trees are mere skeletons?

If so, will that advantage be offset by the ease with which their main adversary, the great horned owl, might devour their young?

Goshawks are also found in Britain, Scandinavia, northern Russia and Siberia and south to the Mediterranean region, Asia Minor, Iran, the Himalayas, eastern China and Japan. So we can look for information from biologists there and share our findings with them.

Meanwhile, I’ll take a closer look at piles of sticks in large pine trees. Perhaps I should wear a hardhat so I don’t risk my head while adding to my life list.