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Days of our Swainson’s Warblers

September 12, 2008

I’m spying on birds. Swainson’s Warblers to be precise.

I’m currently helping a North Carolina State graduate student with his study on the enigmatic southeastern specialty. It’s perhaps the least known eastern warbler species, and his study should go a long ways toward filling in the gaps in its natural history. A big part of the project involves using remote cameras to follow the birds 24 hours a day while they raise young. The cameras are basically hooked up to a car battery and suspended above a nest. Each tape documents about 24 hours in the life of a pair of Swainson’s Warblers from egg to fledging. My job, along with a few others, is to watch the tapes and code the behaviors. Yes, I am getting paid for this.


It may come as a shock to you, but the vast majority of the tapes, especially during incubation, involves watching a bird on a nest as it sits, leaving every hour and a half to two hours to forage, then returning after about 15 minutes to sit. Lather, rinse, repeat. Fortunately, I can watch in fast forward.

When the eggs hatch things get more exciting, but only a bit. The pair typically returns to feed every 20 minutes or so, occasionally exhibiting other behaviors like nest-watching, where the adult simply sits near the next checking things out, or brooding, where the adult sits on the nestling.

The point of all this is to get an idea of what variables cause a nest to be successful versus abandoned. Whether it’s time spent at the nest or frequency of feeding or things of that nature. I certainly don’t know the exact direction that the grad student is going with this, but there appear to be many possibilities.

Of course, not every next is successful, for various reasons. Occasionally, the nestlings or eggs will be predated, usually by snakes though there’s one incidence of a Screech Owl finding a meal in a Swainson’s Warbler nest, all caught on tape. Nests have failed because of ants or spiders, and of course, by that scourge of forest birds, the Brown-headed Cowbird. Though, it should be said that when the researchers found a cowbird egg in a monitored nest, they removed it. So advocation for the species as a whole comes at the expense of “pure” date, but it’s a expense I’m sure all of us would be willing to make.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately on these somewhat boring tapes, but I know that, with my help, more can be done for Swainson’s Warblers in the future. And that’s a really comforting thought.

One Comment
  1. September 13, 2008 2:10 pm

    What an awesome species to be monitoring! That’s the part of research I like: getting to see a side of their daily activities you’d never normally get to witness. Getting paid to do it? Priceless.

    Wait, by definition it is priced . . . but you know what I mean.

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