YardMap News: New research is taking shape in YardMap, and how to avoid West Nile virus in your yard

The Dirt: News from YardMap
Joining together to break new ground for birds

August 2013

Octagonal sampling units 

These octagonal yardmaps are sampling units in a research project in Binghamton, N.Y. Maps drawn by John Scott.

New Research Takes Shape

Something big is taking shape in YardMap. There are 114 octagonal yardmaps, each as big as two city blocks, scattered throughout Binghamton, New York. Have you seen them?

A Master’s student at Binghamton University named John Scott is investigating which habitat features shape the bird communities of a medium-sized city like Binghamton (population 46,551). The octagons are his sampling units, in which he maps the habitat and conducts bird surveys. Why an octagon? YardMap doesn’t allow circular habitats (yet), but an octagon is a pretty close approximation. Mr. Scott and his team of interns mapped these sampling points over a period of eight months. Scott says the team chose to use YardMap because it is very easy to learn the program, and everyone on the team, including interns, could easily be trained to map the plots. Habitat information was then extracted from YardMap and correlated to bird diversity, noise, traffic levels, and the number of trees and houses.

Scott found that the most important habitat feature for birds depends on the season. “In order for urban areas to truly benefit and support natural communities, they must address the needs of organisms year round and their seasonal changes in habitat preference,” says Scott. While there is no silver bullet, YardMappers can help birds by promoting plant diversity in cities, especially that of trees and shrubs. In a nutshell, don’t just plant a single tree; plant a variety of species. In particular, increasing shrub cover can support more diverse bird communities all year long, not just the “urban exploiters” commonly found in cities.

Scott also found that increased noise levels (known to negatively affect birds) were associated with less diverse bird communities, especially after leaves have dropped in the fall. Because paved surfaces and buildings can amplify noise, we need more vegetation and other sound-mitigation measures to dampen the stress-causing noise of cities.

The bright spot is that in medium-sized cities like Binghamton, neighborhoods are small and have the potential to change rapidly. Programs like YardMap can catalyze rapid attitude shifts through the power of social networking. This study was developed as a first step in a much larger, interdisciplinary study, called the Binghamton Urban Ecosystems Initiative, which seeks to study Binghamton, N.Y., as a comprehensive ecosystem. With Scott’s groundwork in place, this research is poised to become a long-term citizen-science study.

Mourning Doves in the snow 

Mourning Doves in the snow. Photo by Janet Wiedenhoeft.

New Featured Yard: River Oaks

Even though Cory Wiedenhoeft was a self-proclaimed “avid birder” before he purchased his Wisconsin home, his transition to a more natural, wildlife-friendly landscape wasn’t because he had a clear vision to provide a habitat for birds…at least, not at first. Rather, he just got tired of spending three hours a week mowing grass, so he started mowing less and less. Over the course of five years, he noticed more grassland birds like Chipping Sparrows and Sandhill Cranes visiting, white-tailed deer started coming to bed down in the tall grasses, and his yard list expanded to include at least 80 different bird species.

Surrounded by open farm fields, woodlands, and the Rock River, our newest featured site, River Oaks, hosts a number of birds that benefit from access to these three distinct vegetation communities. Cory now manages the property for natives and has planted many new native trees which will provide food and cover for birds. These efforts have not been in vain. Cory describes how “Each new season brings us something new to look at, and our yard work has become so much more than trying to make the lawn look aesthetically pleasing. We now feel like our yard is helping to make the world a better place for wildlife.” Read on to learn more about his efforts at River Oaks.

West Nile Virus:
Not In My Back Yard

Gray Catbird in a birdbath
Gray Catbird in birdbath. Photo by Jay D. via Birdshare.

Amid mounting concern over the prevalence of mosquito-borne West Nile virus, we are hearing more warnings calling for residents to rid their yards of standing water. But your birdbath or pond need not be emptied to avoid attracting the virus’ host: breeding female mosquitoes (only female mosquitoes need blood, so you’ll probably never see the other harmless half of the mosquito population).

Water is a primary habitat need for birds, but West Nile virus is also lethal to birds. In fact, countless birds have died from West Nile virus since its introduction to North America in 1999. Here, we offer some tips to keep you and the birds healthy, without having to eliminate this critical habitat component:

  • Mosquitoes need stagnant water to breed. Eliminate sources of water that are not intentionally provided for habitat. Uncovered trash cans, wheelbarrows, old tires, and clogged rain gutters are just some of the places where water can stagnate and attract mosquitoes, and they’re probably not ideal sources of water for birds, anyway.
  • Wash your birdbath out at least once a week to remove larvae and freshen the water daily.
  • If you have a rain barrel, don’t let the water collect for weeks–put it to use in the garden! If you’re not quite ready to use it, put a cover over it.
  • If you have a pond, add mosquito fish. Mosquito fish eat the larvae, keeping your pond healthy.
  • Don’t worry about creeks or streams; mosquitoes can’t breed in flowing water.

Remember, if an infected mosquito bites you, you have less than a 1% chance of severe illness. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “Most people (70-80%) who become infected with West Nile virus do not develop any symptoms.” Nevertheless, some infected people can experience moderate to severe symptoms, so be sure to apply a bug repellent to your clothes and wear long pants and sleeves, especially in the evening (the mosquitoes that spread West Nile virus bite between dusk and dawn). Aerial and ground spraying are relatively ineffective for killing adult mosquitoes, so controlling the larvae and wearing bug repellant are likely your best options.

Birds can’t wear bug spray, however, so by following these tips, you can help reduce the risk to them and to your family. If you do find a dead bird, use gloves to place it in the trash. Remember, you cannot get West Nile virus from birds, only from being bitten by a mosquito.

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The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is a membership institution dedicated to interpreting and conserving the earth’s biological diversity through research, education, and citizen science focused on birds. Visit the Cornell Lab’s w
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