Cincinnati -- You might say "a little birdie told them." Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have found that counting birds can provide important information about the condition of a wetland.
"How healthy is the habitat?" asked graduate student Jamie Coleman, who also works for MAI, a Loveland company under the direction of UC alumnus Frank Mink that does environmental assessments. "It's good to have a quick indicator."
As part of his master's research, Coleman developed an index which relies on bird counts to evaluate the condition of wetland habitats. He is continuing that work as a doctoral student in the lab of biology professor Michael Miller.
Birds turned out to be a good indicator for several reasons. Different species of birds prefer different environments. So if you find many water-loving birds and few birds adapted to drier habitats, that's an indication that the wetland environment is thriving. Birds are also fairly easy to track.
"If you look at butterflies or certain insects, that would give a more direct indicator," said David Styer, a professor of mathematics and amateur birder who also worked on the project. "The problem is there aren't many good records of butterflies and insects in an area. There are lots of experienced birders, however ... and even a very poor birder can tell the difference between a duck and a sparrow."
Birders also tend to keep very detailed records of what they see. Working with Professor Styer, Coleman learned to identify species commonly found in the Greater Cincinnati area. Then, he tracked bird occurrences in five Indiana and Ohio wetlands as well as three Cincinnati parks for a dry land comparison. Coleman used his own observations as well as the records of well-known birders.
With Styer's help, the two then developed a mathematical formula which can be used to evaluate the ecological condition of wetlands. When they tested the model, they found significant differences in the bird populations of dry areas such as Mount Airy Forest and French Park and wetland areas such as the Oxbow region near the Indiana-Ohio border. They even found numerous marsh species such as rails and bitterns in newly reconstructed wetlands in the Miami Whitewater Forest. "As soon as the habitat was available, the birds were there," said Styer.
Coleman believes this type of index will be a useful tool to provide a quick comparison among wetlands as well as a way to monitor the health of one particular wetland over time.
As part of his Ph.D. research, he also hopes to refine the model and extend his work with birds to other types of wetland environments. For example, U.S. EPA researchers are interested in the possibility of using birds to monitor riverside environments. Coleman has been invited to share his findings with EPA researchers in a special seminar on Tuesday, Dec. 10.