Urban Ecology Study Watches Birds On The Web

March 22, 1999

Say you are a person of discerning taste and you are in the market for a house in Central Arizona. It must be close to schools, shopping, be on or near a golf course, and, oh, yes -- you want some Red-naped Sapsuckers in or near your yard.

Given those requirements, particularly the last one, your realtor can tell you that the right location must be somewhere in Tempe, near the Shalimar Golf Course. Of course there are lots of golf courses, schools and malls in Arizona, but only in the Shalimar area is there a recent record of someone sighting the elusive Red-naped Sapsucker, an interesting native woodpecker.

How does your realtor know this stuff? Well, it's on the web. Since May of 1998, Mark Hostetler, a research scientist for the Central Arizona - Phoenix Long Term Ecological Research Project (CAP LTER), has been supervising a systematic, continuing bird survey of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area as part of helping scientists understand the nature and dynamics of the city's ecosystem. Currently, 72 areas across the Valley (carefully chosen 1 kilometer walking routes, called "transects" by the scientists) are being regularly patrolled by CAP LTER scientists and teams of volunteer amateur bird watchers. The results have recently been put into an easily searchable database which is publicly accessible over the internet.

And the information keeps getting better, as the public database continues to record bird sightings and the project is slated to continue well into the next millennium. Currently, over 150 species have been sighted and Hostetler is in the process of recruiting additional volunteers to add still more observation areas to the project.

"There are a lot of people out there who are avid bird-watchers," noted Hostetler. "This is an opportunity for them to do what they love and apply it to the interests of science." Once the system is fully developed, Hostetler plans to have hundreds of observers regularly recording bird sightings from virtually every Valley neighborhood and contributing information directly over the internet.

The database is an important resource for CAP LTER scientists, who are studying the relationship between urban landscape structure and the organisms that inhabit it (including humans).

"Urban areas have a huge impact on avian species richness, composition, and abundance," said Hostetler. "Through a long-term study on birds in the Phoenix metropolitan area, we hope to obtain information to help planners, citizens, landscape architects, and wildlife researchers to develop strategies to manage urban areas for birds."

Hostetler sees the information as something that will be important to some non- scientists as well: "There are people for whom the issue of what wildlife they can expect to see in their yard is not an unimportant topic in buying a house," Hostetler said. "I can conceive of realtors using the information on this database to help clients find homes in good birding areas and also of developers who will be able to make use of what we learn in our study about urban bird habitats to create developments that appeal to ecologically concerned consumers."

For example, a database search indicates that someone interested in seeing interesting native Arizona birds like the Curve-billed Thrasher, the Blue-grey Gnatcatcher, Abert's Towhee, the Brown-crested Flycatcher, Gambel's Quail and the Gila Woodpecker might want to live near Rolling Hills Golf Course and Papago Park in north Tempe. On the other hand, someone whose heart is set on having a flock of imported Peach-faced Lovebirds visiting their feeder might want to live in far-east Mesa, in the vicinity of 104th St., where 72 of these colorful small exotic parrots (pets that have escaped and naturalized) have been sighted.

Though it is too early to reach any firm conclusions about what specific factors affect the distribution of specific urban bird populations, Hostetler notes that while land use type (commercial, industrial, high-density residential, low-density residential, etc.) seems to only marginally affect the distribution of certain species, the largest factor that limits where birds are located is related to what homeowners and developers decide to plant in an area.

"What's exciting about this, is that the more information we get in, the more we'll be able to nail down the environmental factors," said Hostetler. "The public will be able to participate and see the evidence emerge."

In addition to the bird survey, the CAP LTER project also plans to conduct similar surveys of other urban animals and plants. A survey of insects and other arthropods is already underway.

The CAP LTER Bird Survey Database website is located at http://caplter.asu.edu/po12/ and can be searched by date, location and bird species, with a map search expected to be added by March 19. Volunteers interested in participating in the survey should first learn about survey requirements and procedures at the website and call Hostetler at 965-5841 to receive a transect assignment.
Source: Mark Hostetler, 965-5841, Photos:

Arizona State University

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