Tracking new life on campus
Dr. Alex Champagne’s love of biology began in boyhood. “I enjoyed being out in nature, especially watching birds,” he says. “Birding was an activity that I could enjoy with my dad (the director of a nature center), and I also enjoyed … keeping a list of species that I'd seen in my lifetime. Many weekend trips and even longer family vacations were planned around seeing birds that would be new on our ‘life lists.’”
Today, the assistant professor of biology’s research as an animal physiologist typically requires more time in the lab than in the field. But over the past few months, like so many other things, that has changed.
Since 1973, USI has monitored nest boxes around campus to record the habits of Eastern Bluebirds, Carolina Chickadees and other birds. Dr. Jim Bandoli, Professor Emeritus of Biology, developed and maintained the University’s “bluebird trail” for many years before asking Champagne to take the lead in 2015. “Because of his work mapping out the boxes and experience coordinating volunteers, it was a seamless transition,” Champagne says.
Those volunteers, tasked with visiting all 38 boxes on the trail twice a week, are traditionally students gaining valuable field data collecting experience and information for research projects. Because of COVID-19, however, Champagne and Bandoli are carrying on the nearly 50-year tradition themselves. “[We note] the species in each box, the presence of eggs and chicks, and track the progress of each box throughout the spring,” Champagne says.
The trail delivers a long-term dataset which allows USI researchers to relate biology with other events. “In recent years, bluebirds on campus are laying their eggs about 10 days earlier … than they were 20-plus years ago,” Champagne says. “This advancement can be attributed to warmer spring temperatures, thus showing how birds respond to climate change.”
As for how they respond to a global pandemic?
“The birds have injected some much-needed life into campus,” he says. “It’s rewarding to see that even though it seems like nothing is normal right now, it’s business as usual for the bluebirds and chickadees.”
All about the birds
- Of the 38 nest boxes on USI’s campus, those most visible are near Reflection Lake, the baseball field and the residence halls.
- In the early 20th century some cavity nesting birds, like bluebirds, saw their populations decline as people increasingly removed dead limbs and trees and replaced wooden fenceposts with metal ones. “People began constructing ‘bluebird trails’ (putting up artificial nest boxes) to provide homes for these birds while tracking their success,” explains Champagne. “As a result, populations rebounded, and bluebirds are now common again.”
- USI students and/or faculty track the birds throughout the summer. Chickadees typically lay one clutch of eggs per season, but bluebirds often lay multiple clutches.
- This year’s first eggs appeared in late March, and the first chicks fledged in late April.
- The birds that use USI’s nest boxes stay on campus. “Carolina chickadees often don't move more than a few miles from where they were born for their entire lives,” says Champagne, who dubs chickadees the ultimate homebodies. “Bluebirds may partially migrate in the winter, but many can still be seen on campus year-round.” In fact, several studies show a pair of bluebirds may return to the same location, and often the same box, year after year. Young often return to the same area they hatched from as well. “It's very likely that many of the birds we're tracking this year are descended from the birds that were here when this study started in 1973.”
- In 2018, USI’s bird trackers got a big surprise when a pair of chickadees raised a bluebird chick along with their own brood. The unusual family was documented in the Courier and Press.
- Watching and listening to birds can help decipher a geographic location, the time of year, and the type and quality of the birds’ habitat. “Early in the monitoring season, the trilling of Dark-eyed Juncos is commonly heard near many of the boxes, but as the season wears on and the juncos migrate north, their songs are replaced by the ascending buzz of the Northern Parula and the hoarse phrases of the Summer Tanager,” says Champagne. “Keeping this kind of ‘bird calendar’ is a fun hobby most of the time, but it's been especially helpful during this time when we're working from home and days and weeks seem to blur together.”