Friday, September 27, 2013

Update on fall banding and fruit research

We are a little more than halfway through our modified fall banding. This year, we are concentrating on obtaining as much data as possible on the diet of fall fruit-eating birds. Many bird species switch from a summer diet made up primarily of insects to a fall diet heavy in fruit. This abundant, easy-to-eat food source is particularly important to migratory birds.

After our research showed that migratory thrushes gain weight during stopover at our campus study site, the next step was to pinpoint what resources these birds were using while they were here. Fortunately, there is a reliable and low-tech way to find out: identify the seeds in their poop. (You can find more details by following the links above.) We began collecting samples from thrushes in 2007, and from all birds in 2009. As of the end of last year, we have collected samples from 1,208 birds of 16 species. That's nearly 8,000 individual seeds, of which fewer than a dozen have gone unidentified (see the post on our seed website for more information on how we identify seeds).

Although these seem like big numbers, we need to make sure we have large enough samples sizes from individual bird species during certain time periods to make sure we can do proper statistical analyses. This way, we hope to answer a number of questions, especially whether or not particular species prefers certain fruits and if some fruits help birds gain more weight than other fruits.

This fall, to maximize number of samples we have modified our usual banding routine. When we have done comprehensive migration monitoring, we begin banding very early in the morning, which is when we tend to catch the most birds. Typically, birds captured the first hour or so have not had time to eat much, so we did not obtain many samples from them. This year, we are starting later in the morning and staying open later in the day, providing more overlap with bird foraging. We'll also aim to spend more hours during peak migration/fruiting periods -- late September to mid-October. Overall, this means we will probably band fewer birds, but get more samples.

So far over the 16 days we have banded this fall, roughly a third of all birds have contributed a sample. If we only consider those species most likely to eat fruit -- the primary species are American Robin, Gray Catbird, Cedar Waxwing, and the thrushes, but there are others that eat fruit less often -- the percentage jumps to over 65%. We have collected over 500 individual seeds.

Fruit crops fluctuate from year to year. Last year, the very early spring warm weather and the summer-long severe drought devastated fruit crops.  This year much more normal rainfall and temperatures has resulted in bumper crops of fruit. Some are especially impressive: branches are sagging under the weight of crabapples (both wild and ornamental) and the wild grape crop is nothing short of phenomenal, the largest I have seen in over 25 years.

Not a vineyard! Wild grape crop.
Many factors go into fruit choice in birds: fat, sugar, protein, and micro-nutrient content; size and color; pulp-to-seed ratio; and abundance are just a few. Not surprisingly, the dominant seed in our samples this fall so far is grape, present in 65% of samples. As the crop is depleted and other fruits ripen, the proportion will decline, but no doubt it will be higher than any other year so far. In past years the percentage of grapes has ranged from 5 to 19%.

Grape seeds provided by an American Robin.
This winter we will be doing our first statistical analyses of our samples to see what our data looks like. Stay tuned!

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