By Lee Anna Sherman
Little kids have a lot in common with hummingbirds. Both are small in size, quick in motion and fond of sugar. Plus, kids think hummingbirds are cool.
So pairing Oregon schoolchildren with the feisty, orange-throated hummers that share their Willamette Valley habitat seemed like a scientific and educational slam-dunk to ornithologist Matt Betts, a researcher in forest ecology at Oregon State University. A few years ago, he spearheaded a project with the Oregon Natural Resources Education program in OSU Extension to bring hummingbird science and fieldwork to classrooms. The project got even richer when he and OSU science educator Kari O’Connell looped in students and teachers from a satellite study site in Costa Rica.
“Schoolchildren in both countries are collecting data on hummingbird abundance, diversity and nectar use to find out whether landscape fragmentation alters hummingbird distribution patterns,” explains the OSU Teacher Research Experience Blog site, where three Oregon teachers posted messages about field studies they conducted last winter with their Costa Rican counterparts.
Unlike humans, whose numbers are climbing steadily in the Northwest, hummingbirds — particularly the once-ubiquitous rufous (Selasphorus rufus), a key pollinator of trees and shrubs — are quickly declining. Seeking reasons for the tiny birds’ precipitous 4 percent annual drop (a rate of decline even faster than the endangered spotted owl’s), the Betts Lab is collecting data and running experiments on the impact of forest composition, forestry practices and fragmentation (the patchy remnants of woodlands after logging, wildfire or construction). A landmark Betts study in 2010 suggests, for instance, that declines in rufous hummingbirds, as well as orange-crowned warblers and purple finches, are linked to reductions in “early-seral” broadleaf habitats — the first successional growth of trees and shrubs after a disturbance. The hummingbirds tend to decline further (along with certain songbird species like the Wilson’s warbler) when herbicides are used heavily to suppress weeds in places where seedlings have been planted, Betts and his colleagues reported recently in the journal Forest Ecology and Management.
Human development drives a lot of habitat fragmentation. That’s where fourth- and fifth-graders in Albany, Corvallis, Philomath and Woodburn are helping to shed light on hummingbird abundance. In partnership with their Costa Rican peers near the Las Cruces Biological Station, where the Betts Forest Landscape Ecology Lab is doing pollination studies with the green hermit hummingbird, the Willamette Valley students and their teachers have been engaging in active wildlife ecology. After hanging birdfeeders filled with sugar-water (simulating the sweet nectar hummingbirds sip from flowers) at their schools and homes, the students monitor food consumption, record hummingbird visits, identify species (the Anna’s hummingbird inhabits the Willamette Valley along with the rufous), and trade insights internationally via the post office and the Internet.
The student datasets have been plotted on maps and graphs. So far, those data indicate that hummingbirds prefer forested areas to developed areas for feeding. And the little kid-little bird partnership will generate more data in the years to come.
Oregon State ornithologists are carrying out studies from the Oregon coast to the Willamette Valley, Cascade Range, Columbia Plateau and the Zumwalt Prairie. See Avian Nations in the fall 2014 issue of Terra.