Local research looks at impact of housing development on songbirds

Ashley Jackson and Aaron Grade with the field technicians with the Widlife Conservation Society check their trail camera and audio recorders in North Meadow Creek. Jackson and Grade are part of a four person team looking at bird populations in the Madison Valley to try and determine how housing developments impact avian communities. Photo by Greg Lemon

A project looking at bird communities in the Madison Valley could provide some clues as to how housing developments impact bird species and other wildlife.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is just wrapping up the fieldwork on the first year of a three-year study around Ennis, said Michale Glennon, scientist with the Wildlife Conservation Society in New York.

A four-person team of WCS scientists has been in the Madison Valley since May counting birds and other wildlife in and around subdivisions near Ennis, along with undisturbed places away from development.

The idea is to try and understand the impact housing developments have on songbirds and how those impacts could be mitigated, Glennon said.

The Wildlife Conservation Society is a conservation organization based in New York. It was started in 1895 to focus on saving wildlife and habitats around the world. WCS owns and manages the Bronx, Queens, Central Park and Prospect Park Zoos in New York, along with the New York Aquarium. But the organization is also involved in wildlife research around the globe.

Ashley Jackson documents information about the audio recordings she's collected in North Meadow Creek. Jackson is part of a four-person team looking at the impact of housing developments on avian communities in the Madison Valley. Photo by Greg Lemon

The work in Montana will be compared to similar work done in the Adirondack Mountains of New York, she said. The Adirondacks are a heavily forested area where housing developments must clear trees and brush to build homes. This is different than in the Madison Valley, where housing developments are often built in grasslands or areas that have a patchwork of tree stands and open spaces.

“You have to mow down a lot of trees even to build the roads or to have a lawn (in the Adirondacks),” Glennon said. “(The Madison Valley) is a place where the patches of forest are interspersed with a lot of openings … Because the change in habitat structure was greater here (in the Adirondacks), we thought we’d see a greater relative impact on birds in these eastern temperate forests.”

However, what the initial findings show is the impacts are similar, she said.

Those impacts include some displacement of some of the more rare songbirds and an influx of some of the more common birds, Glennon said.

For instance, in the Adirondacks, development usually draws crows, which are very common. However, other more reclusive birds seem to need more space.

Similarly, in Montana birds like tree swallows and mountain bluebirds seem to thrive around homes, where birdhouses are common. However, birds like some kinds of native sparrows seem to move farther away, said Jamie Hogberg, who leads the WCS field team in the Madison Valley.

“There are some birds that can take advantage of the niches created by the homes and some who can’t,” Hogberg said.

To gather the information needed for the study, Hogberg and her team have contacted landowners around the Madison Valley along with homeowner’s associations to ask for their help with the study.

The study has involved point counts, nesting studies and trail camera studies.

The point counts were mostly done in the spring and involved Hogberg and her crew going out early in the morning to a designated spot and listening for songbirds. The idea is that in late spring songbirds are more actively calling in search of a mate and so these point studies can give researchers a great idea of the variety of birds using a specific area.

The point counts were done both in subdivisions and away from developments, she said.

Identifying birds by their song is a skill that takes some practice to master, but when you’re really listening for birds, it’s amazing what you can hear.

“In the forest, most of the bird detection is by sound,” said Aaron Grade, who is part of Hogberg’s team.

To help learn bird songs, the crew used resources online, like the Cornell University ornithology website, along with other modern aids, like smartphone apps.

The team also set up devices to record audio along with trail cameras to try and see what other animals were using the areas they studied.

Along with an animal component, the study will also contain a social component, Glennon said. The idea is to not only see how animals are impacted by housing development, but also how they are impacted by what people do and the choices they make.

The overarching goal of the study is to provide local citizens and governments, along with planners and developers, tools to be able to thoughtfully consider impacts of development on local bird and wildlife communities, she said.

“We’re not interested in taking it out there and saying here’s what everyone should do,” she said. “What we really care the most about is being able to make use of the information.”

The study could even help homeowners enhance their property to attract different kinds of bird species, Glennon said.

The field crew is about done with work for this season, but will be back again late next spring, she said. So far the response they’ve received has been great.

“We were completely overwhelmed by the postive response we got from people,” Glennon said. “We got a few (landowners) who said ‘Absolutely, no way’ but they were very, very few and far between.”



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