June 23, 2015
Cliff swallows have moved onto, rather than into the Museum! Last week, Kimball Garrett, Museum bird expert, reported finding a nest under the eaves of the building directly facing the historic LA Memorial Coliseum. As he got close enough to snap this photograph, Kimball observed a pair of young swallows peering out of their finely crafted mud dwelling.
Check out that architecture! The adult breeding pair work together to collect mud pellets from the immediate area and use their bills to transport and mold them into a viable nest.
Cliff swallows, Petrochelidon pyrrhonota, have historically nested on our building–back in the 80s and 90s Kimball would see them every year–but recently they have been noticeably absent. We are not sure what has caused them to return, but we're definitely tracking their progress and hope they return next year.
As their name implies, before humans came along these birds would build their mud nests on vertical cliff faces. Today, they are just as easily found nesting under freeway bridges, and in the eaves of buildings. Locally, cliff swallows are remembered fondly as the, "famous Mission San Juan Capistrano birds." For two centuries a celebration has been held for the annual appearance of these birds at the mission. The story goes that like clockwork the birds would show up on March 19th, Saint Joseph's Day, to nest on the old church buildings. But recently, due to urbanization, the birds have been bypassing the mission and nesting elsewhere.
Although we don't have hundreds of swallows nesting at the Museum, we are an attractive enough site to host a nest–we have everything they need. A building where they can find good attachment points with physical protection from above, a decent supply of flying insects to eat, and mud for constructing their nest.
However, as Kimball points out life in the city isn't easy for a cliff swallow, there are aggressive animals to deal with. The two creatures of concern are house sparrows, Passer domesticus, and unfortunately, us humans.
In the bird world, house sparrows are notorious aggressors. They steal nests, destroy eggs, throw baby birds out of nests, and generally wreak havoc on all manner of other birds. Because house sparrows are not native to North America (they were purposefully introduced to the US in the 1850s) and are such a threat to native bird species, some bird enthusiasts choose to actively deter them and/or remove them from their property. It is important to note that, because house sparrows are an introduced species and therefore not protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, people are allowed to remove house sparrows and their nests. Not true for the native cliff swallows. However, many home and business owners chose to illegally knock down swallows nests constructed on their buildings.
We here at the Museum choose to celebrate our cliff swallows and all of the nature that calls our Nature Gardens home.
April 10, 2015
Last week, husband and wife ornithologist team Kimball Garrett (Museum ornithology collections manager) and Kathy Molina (Museum Research Associate) partnered with citizen science staff to band house sparrows (Passer domesticus). We hope that by banding these birds, we'll be able to understand how they use our urban environment. These little brown birds are literally everywhere, yet not much is known about their local behavior. What we do know is that they are originally from Europe and were purposefully introduced to North America starting in the 1850s. Because they are very adaptable in both urban and rural areas, their numbers have since exploded. You might recognize them as the bird that once stole your French fries!
Kimball wants to know more, "do they spend all day feeding and socializing in our Nature Gardens or do some have lunch at the Science Center and then come back?” I'm thinking they could even head over to USC for happy hour snacks! But, how do you figure out where our birds hang out, what they do? Sure, radio tracking is an option but that is expensive and difficult to pull off, especially on small birds. A cheaper, and I'd contend more engaging process, is to think about bird accessories—colored ankle bracelets, aka bird bands!
To get this citizen science project off the ground, we had to have some birds in hand (pun intended). Although house sparrows seem super friendly, literally coming in for a landing at our cafe tables, they really don't want to be caught. We tried using potter traps (little wire mesh traps that get tripped when they go in to eat the bait we've left inside), but none of them were curious enough to hop in on this day. It was clear that we needed an additional strategy. Kimball and Kathy decided to set up some mist nets.
We anxiously waited, becoming more and more worried that we would not catch anything, especially as school children began to crowd around our trapping areas. But then finally one flew into the net (don't worry the birds are not harmed in any way, its almost as if they're lying in a hammock)! A female! The challenge was still not over once it was caught. These birds are tough and are not afraid to bite. In fact, I had to loosen the sparrow’s beak from Kimball’s finger.
Once the bird was in hand, Kimball and Kathy quickly and deftly attached the colored bands --two bands on the left or right leg (six different colors), which gives us the option of uniquely marking up to 72 birds. They also applied a uniquely numbered metal band issued by the U.S. Geological Survey, took a wing measurement and weighed the bird.
Although, we only caught two birds on this first try, we plan to band and release many more. Eventually, the Nature Gardens and Exposition Park will have a whole flock of banded house sparrows, and that's when we'll need your help. We're going to need your citizen scientist eyes to track these banded sparrows. So on your next visit to NHMLA or Exposition Park, keep your eyes open. If you spot a banded house sparrow, please let us know. All you have to do is send us a quick e-mail with the date, time, exact location, what the bird was doing, and what color bands you saw on their legs (remember not to mix up their left and right) to firstname.lastname@example.org. If you're fast and lucky enough to get a picture, send that along too.
We can't wait to see how this all works out!
Written by Miguel Ordeñana
March 30, 2012
This week I've been working with Jared Nielsen, one of the Museum's Exhibit Technicians, who also happens to be a DIY (Do it Yourself) enthusiast. With his help we've managed to build and install two nest boxes and launch our first garden surveillance balloon!
Jared installing a nest box in the Shadow Garden
The other nest box in the Home GardenThe nest boxes we chose are made of PVC and designed to be particularly appealing to certain cavity nesting birds such as Western Bluebirds, Sialia mexicana. These birds have been spotted in Exposition Park by Kimball Garrett, the Museum's resident ornithologist, and we hope they'll stick around to use our new nesting sites. The boxes are also designed to be minimally appealing to other species of birds that we don't wish to encourage, such as introduced European Starlings, Sturnus vulgaris, and House Sparrows, Passer domesticus.We ordered the boxes from the Gilbertson Nestbox Company and Jared brought all the materials necessary to assemble and install them in the North Campus. The cost for all materials including the nest box is approximately $30 each. Instructions for installation and how to properly monitor birds that move in are available on the Gilbertson website.I'll keep you posted, and let you know as soon as any birds move in. Of course Sam Easterson, our resident video naturalist is also waiting in the wings. As soon as a nest is built, he will install a video camera and we'll hopefully be able to capture images of eggs being laid and nestlings hatching!As if that wasn't exciting enough, today we launched our first garden surveillance balloon.
Affixing the surveillance camera to the balloonOur garden surveillance balloon is a project Jared discovered through the Public Laboratory for Open Technology and Science. Their Grassroots Mapping project provides instructions on how to build your own balloon mapping kit, or you can purchase a kit for $85 from their website!Jared opted for the DIY approach and sourced all of his own materials, including the 2 meter wide weather balloon and a rental helium tank! Following the Grassroots Mapping instructions, Jared rigged the balloon to carry a camera and tethered it to a 1000 foot long string which he held onto as we walked it around the site. The camera was also adapted to continually take pictures every second until our 16 megabyte memory card was full (about 2 hours). Over the next few days Jared will take all the images and stich them together using a free online software that will create an aerial map of the North Campus gardens. Not only will this map look really cool, it will also help us to keep track of all of the plants in the gardens and see how it changes over time. Yes, we are going to do this again, maybe even every few months!
We needed a lot of help from staff to make sure the balloon didn't float away as we were filling it with helium!(Jesse Daniel, Jared, Briana Burrows, and Karen Ewald)
Karen celebrates a successful launch
Our first aerial view of the North Campus.Can you spot us in the bottom right corner?