Creative Inquiry

Project Spotlights

The Early Bird Might Not Get the Worm

Hummingbirds disappear in the winter and return in the springtime, hovering outside your window while drinking from a bright red feeder. Chirping birds are a sign that spring has finally arrived, shortly followed by blossoming trees and warm weather. However, as global climate change becomes a great concern in our society, science studies show that these natural cycles are changing. A Creative Inquiry team from the forestry and natural resources department is examining the spring arrival dates for several bird species to see how they compare with climate changes.

This Creative Inquiry team, led by Dr. Jason Courter and Dr. Ron Johnson, analyzes data compiled from both researchers and thousands of everyday people who call themselves citizen scientists. These volunteers, who may or may not have scientific backgrounds, contribute to databases by providing their own observations in nature. This citizen science method allows for a large collection of data by enthusiastic individuals over many geographic regions.

The Creative Inquiry team has compiled over 80,000 bird arrival dates, thanks to citizen science volunteers from the programs Journey North (1997-2010) and the North American Bird Phenology Program (1880-1969). Dr. Courter comments that the most rewarding aspect of the project is "working with students, watching creative ideas emerge from group discussions, meeting and networking with enthusiastic and knowledgeable contributors to various Citizen Science project, and showing students that they can meaningfully contribute to our understanding of large-scale ecological processes that affect us all."

Ruby-throated hummingbirds are one of the birds that the team is focusing on. Their spring arrival dates are being compared to climate data from U.S. weather stations. The team has found that hummingbirds in the Eastern United States are arriving two weeks earlier than they did a century ago. Unsurprisingly, this corresponds with the recent trend of climate change. So what's the harm of changing migration dates? While the temperatures are favorable for the birds, the major concern is that their food sources aren't changing at the same pace. This poses a huge problem if the birds continue to arrive earlier, and the plants or insects that they typically consume are not available.

Climate change is not the only factor this group is considering, however. While the changing climate appears to be playing a role in bird migration, the Creative Inquiry team is also curious how backyard bird feeders are influencing arrival dates. Bird feeders are a reliable food source that may influence the places that birds frequent. Another aspect the team is examining is how often first arrival dates are reported on weekends by citizen scientists. Citizen scientists are much more likely to go backpacking, bird watching, or sit in their backyard on a weekend where they could notice the birds. Since weekends fall on different days each year, it's important to see how this affects citizen scientist data. Additionally, the team is analyzing if food resources are changing as the bird migration patterns shift.

Corissa Boaman, an undergraduate who has been on the team for a number of semesters, noted, "My favorite aspect of this Creative Inquiry is getting all this new data that has never been looked at before, analyzing it, and working together as a group to figure out what everything means." These students aren't just analyzing data, though.

The group attended the 2012 Carolina Bird Club Winter meeting in Southport, NC, to present their results. They got the opportunity to give a survey about how citizen volunteers report the information they collect. While on this trip the group also enjoyed bird watching with an expert, seeing over 80 species of birds, including the federally endangered Red-cockaded woodpecker.

Team members strongly encourage anyone who appreciates wildlife and nature, ranging from hummingbirds to tulips to gray whales, to participate in a citizen science program such as eBird (, Journey North (, or Project Budburst ( This project demonstrates that everyone can play a role in science and how valuable citizen scientists are in the natural sciences.

By: Briana Kloc (Decipher Issue 1, Fall 2012)