Posted by: atowhee | January 22, 2019


January 19, 2019, Corvallis
The opening remarks from Dr. Selina Heppell contained praise for citizen scientists, even though she remarked there were more than 30 ornithology PhDs in the Corvallis community. She said the symposium (now only five years old) had a record of over 380 registrants and was an excellent chance for academics and amateurs to share information.
The keynote speaker was ace birder and author, Kenn Kaufman. He traced the history of birding and its influence on ornithology as that became a more professional discipline. He rightly gave recognition to Oregon as an important site for ornithological research and history. Finley was specifically mentioned. I will add Lewis & Clark, Townsend, Nuttall, Williamson, Bendire…
He talked of many of my favorite figures in American ornithology. Kenn is turning 65 this year. That is exactly the age of Roger Tory Peterson when the long-haired young Kenn met him.img_0519
His historical tour began all the way back with Mark Catesby in the early 18th Century. Catesby was the first man to produce colored images of some North American birds. Kaufman then talked of Audubon’s drive to discover new species that had not already been found by Alexander Wilson, Thomas Say and others. Kaufman did not make it clear that Audubon’s great musical ear (he sometimes played fiddle professionally when he was broke) that sometimes allowed him to differentiate species: Carolina from Black-capped Chickadee, Western from Eastern Meadowlark. These were both “splits” he did by recognizing song divergence in common enough birds that others had seen but taken as all the same. Audubon’s careful observation of dead specimens also led to his discovery of Lincoln’s Sparrow on a trip to Newfoundland.
Kaufman then related George Sutton’s victory (by a few hours) in a race against a Canadian team…to see who could finally find an active Harris’s Sparrow nest for the first time in remote central Canada. That was in 1931. Kaufman talked to Sutton 46 years later and said you could still George relate the wonder of finding the tiny nest after may hours of search and failure.
Kaufman spoke briefly of William Dawson, one-half of the first birding team to see 100 birds in a single day, back in the early 20th Century. He did not mention that Dawson went on to write a three-volume encyclopedia of all known California birds.
Best of all Kaufman credited many of the women so important in American ornithology. Harriet Hemenway and her Boston socialites friends who founded the Audubon Society and pushed male ornithologists into helping them ban the commercial hunting of egrets and other birds for feathers to go on women’s hats. Next time you yawn at a Great Blue Heron remember that Harriet saved them for near-certain extinction. Hunters especially favored nesting adults because that is when the valued plumes were at their most luxuriant. The babies then starved.
Then he spoke admiringly of Margaret Nice who spent decades studying each and every Song Sparrow on a small tract of land near her Ohio home. She produced reams of specific detail and an overall understanding of Song Sparrow courtship, breeding , feeding and behavior that set the standard for all bird species studies that followed.
Most importantly he spoke of Florence Merriam Bailey. Her Birds Through an Opera Glass [old-fashioned name for those primitive binoculars, 3 power at best] book began the revolution that produced today’s field guide and modern birding with binocs, scope and camera. Before her MEN birded with a shotgun. img_0534She wrote several more bird books including the first field guide for western birds that gave visual descriptions of living birds, not carcasses. Kaufman concluded it was women who helped lift ornithology from sport to science. He could have added Audubon once said he had a bad day in the field if he didn’t bring home at 100 dead birds.
He ended with a reminder that we are now living in the greatest age of discovery in birding. With genetic information, digital analysis, eBIrd and other great avenue of citizen science, amateurs and professional are constantly adding knowledge. Again with the discovery of the “four sexes” of White-throated Sparrow it was a woman field biologist who was so crucial in untangling that sparrow’s fascinating sex life. Click here to read about the research.
Then we heard from graduate students and professors on their field work. Some notes of what we listeners heard.
Cardinals may re-nest up to seven times. Most seabirds do not. Caspian Terns nesting on East Sand Island in the Columbia River will often re-next once. At least one pair studied re-nested four times, six eggs laid in one season and successfully raised two young late in the season with the final nest. Older terns are more likely to re-nest if eggs or young are lost.img_0584
Birds under greater stress have a lower survival rate. Hormone chemistry of feathers can be sued to study the stress level of the bird.
A study of the Hawaiian Duck shows that it is succeeding in protected wildlife refuge, but doing less well in other, un-managed habitat.
A study of the Pigeon Guillemots on Naked Island in Alaska is trying to trace and explain the bird’s decline. One the largest known colony of those guillemots it began to decline after the Exxon oil spill but that decline has not stopped. Trapping all the introduced mink off the islands may be a hopeful move as the population now is growing, more successful nesting and some birds moving from other nesting colonies.
A study of ravens in eastern Oregon finds may are highly mobile, one bird banded near Baker City was re-found in Las Vegas. What are the odds of that? I ask. The study is aimed at finding out what effect the ravens have on Sage Grouse nest success.
We heard of the tough odds against some raptors on Puerto Rico. It was not any more cheery to hear of the Black Harrier in South Africa where both DDT and PCBs are widespread in the environment.
A study of Sage Grouse and fire altered habitat is on-going. Females with young used recently burned landscape. How and why is the question being pursued. Final, cheering note—up to a dozen prisons in six northwestern states are letting inmates grow sage plants which are then put into natural habitat to help the sage grouse.img_0678 I had just recently learned that Oregon prisoners near Salem are growing milkweed plants that are then distributed into the environment to help monarch butterflies which reached a low point last year on the migration to California.
OSU students now work a bird banding station in the Willamette River corridor. The number one bird: Swainson’s Thrush, 87% of them first year birds…and not a single one re-caught in contrast to resident birds like Spotted Towhee or Song Sparrow. It appears the thrushes are just using the Willamette as a path, not an apartment.
Can’t wait until next year’s symposium.


The TV was determined to tear up his handler’s name badge.  And did so.


  1. What a great synopsis of the symposium! Thanks for sharing. I did not take notes so will steal and print yours. Thank you again!

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