Pileated woodpeckers are the largest living woodpeckers in North America. They use their powerful beaks to carve large rectangular holes in trees while searching for their favorite food, carpenter ants. Other species like wood ducks, pine martens, swifts and even bats use the holes for nesting and shelter. Photo by Elena Calderone '21
Depictions of lively chickadees and brightly-colored cardinals on holiday cards and decorations can often coax a smile out of even the most cranky recipients and observers.
“There’s a reason for that,” said Dan Cristol, Chancellor Professor of Biology at William & Mary.
Cristol, an avid ornithologist, cited a 2021 study from King’s College London which indicated that seeing or hearing birds was the dominant factor in mood-lifting nature encounters, and that the cheering effects of bird observations can last as long as six hours after the experience, even among those suffering from depression.
“So, it’s notable that Christmas cards and other greetings have birds on them as symbols of home, happiness and celebration,” said Cristol.
Birds benefit humans in numerous ways, but they’re in trouble. Avian populations in the United States and Canada have declined by almost 3 billion individuals over the past 50 years. That’s a population decline of more than 25% in less than an average human lifetime.
Habitat loss, window strikes and environmental contaminants are a few of the top reasons for declining bird populations, but faculty and students at W&M are determined to address these challenges. A key factor in this ongoing endeavor is W&M’s personal approach to education, which provides undergraduates with an unusual opportunity to participate in applied research in numerous fields, including bird conservation.
“Some students apply to W&M specifically because they want to do undergraduate bird research with faculty,” said Cristol, “And a lot of graduate students also choose W&M because they want to study birds.”
W&M has an extensive history of studying and aiding birds.
Cristol’s predecessor, Mitchell Byrd, began inspiring students with his ornithology class in 1956, guiding hundreds of students in bird conservation research. Byrd was instrumental in the regional recovery of both the bald eagle and peregrine falcon and also worked tirelessly to conserve other species. Byrd went on to found the Center for Conservation Biology with former student Bryan Watts, who now serves as its director.
“He really built a national reputation for William & Mary in bird work that continues today,” said Watts, director of the CCB, in a 2008 article.
“And his name is Byrd, after all,” said Cristol.
Founded in 1992, the CCB is a powerhouse of ground-breaking bird conservation research, carrying out 30 to 40 major studies per year and providing valuable information daily to the conservation community.
“The CCB works with birds of conservation concern throughout the Western Hemisphere,” said Watts. “We have done projects from the high Arctic to Argentina. We have decades long commitments to about 100 species and work with other species as the need arises.”
Projects are selected to fill in gaps in existing information and increase public awareness. CCB’s website provides a wealth of information about its essential conservation work.
“One of the driving themes to our work is that we believe that how a society treats wildlife is a reflection of its moral/ethical compass,” siad Watts. “Through research and education we can change how people think about and care for wildlife. This is an important part of growing as a responsible society.”
Both undergraduate and graduate students study birds at the CCB, and there are also plenty of opportunities on the W&M campus.
Cristol has mentored students in applied research since 1996. Recent projects include the effects of deer overpopulation on the avian community and the positive and negative impacts of golf courses in relation to birds. As is the norm at W&M, those papers, which have undergraduate first authors, are in the process of being submitted to scientific journals for publication. Information gleaned from the research can be utilized to determine effective conservation measures.
Cristol’s own work, including current and former students, takes place at superfund sites, the government’s highest-priority toxic waste sites around the country. At those sites, Cristol determines local birds’ levels of exposure to legacy pollutants, such as dioxin or mercury, and calculates the extent of contaminant-related population declines. He also helps to develop optimal restoration strategies.
Cristol’s research has so far resulted in two large settlements with chemical companies to fund bird-related research and education and to create new habitat to aid in replacing birdlife lost through contaminated sites.
“Globally, billions of birds die each year from collisions with human-made structures,” said Swaddle. “Window collisions account for most of this problem.”
To combat this challenge, students in Swaddle’s lab focus on technology.
“Our group has designed and tested several technologies that reduce collisions,” said Swaddle. “We use fundamental knowledge about how birds sense their world to make structures such as windows and communication towers more evident to them. This helps to promote bird conservation while also allowing for economic development for people.”
Matthias Leu, associate professor of biology, is a conservation biologist whose work includes bird studies with students. For example, a 2023 study focused on whether wading birds prefer natural fringe salt marshes to human-engineered living shorelines, an effective means of shoreline stabilization that uses native vegetation, often in combination with low sills, to protect shorelines from erosion due to severe weather and rising sea levels.
Leu’s research indicates that wading birds use living shorelines for habitat at least as much as they use natural fringe salt marshes. Thus, living shorelines hold promise for bird conservation by way of providing valuable habitat that isn’t available with harder methods of shoreline stabilization like bulkheads and riprap.
For students who aren’t yet sure if they want to do bird-related research, Cristol’s ornithology class provides an introduction to the field. Lecture information includes everything from the physics of flight to why owls ears’ are asymmetrical, while labs consist mostly of outside trips to identify and observe birds in their natural habitat.
The Bird Club of W&M also encourages students to experience the cheering benefits of birds. W&M students are invited to attend popular Friday afternoon bird walks, and binoculars are provided. All levels of bird-watchers are welcome, from first-timers to experts.
“Friday afternoon!” said Cristol. “At other schools, people might be doing something different to get ready for the weekend. Here, they go birdwatching, which is fantastic!”
What can the general public do to help birds?
One of the biggest challenges birds face is loss of habitat, so creating habitat with an emphasis on native plants is a powerful move that gives birds food to eat, water for drinking and bathing and locations to shelter and nest. Native plants host native bugs, which are the best food for native birds. Even small yards make a difference, and that difference is amplified when neighbors join the effort, creating larger patches of uninterrupted habitat.
Homeowners can also add decals, dangling cords and other treatments to windows to decrease the likelihood of window collisions.
Additionally, light pollution interferes with bird navigation and migration, so installing shielded light fixtures and turning off outdoor lights or using motion sensors are more bird-friendly options.
Catios are another thing to consider. Domestic cats kill a whopping 2.4 billion birds each year. Catios are the next best thing to roaming free, allowing cats to breathe fresh air and experience the outdoors without killing birds or being exposed to outside dangers.
Community science is an effective way to participate in bird conservation.
Also called citizen science, these projects allow non-scientists to participate in conservation research by providing valuable data.
The CCB monitors Osprey Watch and the Nightjar Survey Network. The website provides guidance for newcomers to osprey observation, while the Nightjar Survey Network is best for more experienced birders who can identify species by their calls.
“Small steps can make a huge difference, especially when people work together,” said Cristol. “Researchers here at W&M and around the world are determined that birds will brighten human lives for generations. The efforts of the general public can play a huge role. Maybe this year, when people send that holiday card adorned with cheerful birds, they can also head out into the yard to plant a native shrub and spread a little cheer for the birds as well.”