Williamsburg hosts world-class birding research

The Virginia Gazette

Scientific research can be divided into two categories, applied and basic. Applied research studies answer questions of immediate interest to society, such as "Is the bald eagle population stable in Virginia?" or "Will Yellow-crowned Night-herons be able to adjust the timing of their nesting season to keep up with rapid climate change?"

In contrast, basic scientific research asks questions about how nature works, without necessarily trying to solve an immediate problem. For example "What factors determine how far apart eagles can nest from one another?" or "What kinds of crabs can night-herons crush with their specialized bills?"

These studies add to the body of human knowledge, so that future researchers can "stand on the shoulders of giants" when they try to solve societal problems through applied research. Many of the mind-boggling medical advances in recent years, such as the revolution in immune-based cancer treatments, are possible only because for decades thousands of university researchers have quietly been studying every part of the cell to understand how it works.

Here in Williamsburg we have one of the world's premier research centers for applied ornithological research. Tucked away on the fringes of the William & Mary campus is the Center for Conservation Biology (CCB), founded by Emeritus Professor of Biology Mitchell Bird and directed since inception by former William & Mary student Bryan Watts.

Best known for their work in tracking the recovery of the Chesapeake Bay bald eagle population, this is but the tip of the iceberg. CCB researchers are studying and managing the last red-cockaded woodpeckers in Virginia, augmenting this tiny population with birds from neighboring states, and now repopulating the Dismal Swamp with surplus birds from this recovered population.

CCB researchers follow migrating sandpipers up to the Arctic and back to South America using satellite trackers, and in the process have discovered that hunters in the Caribbean are driving these birds towards extinction. They manage citizen science projects to uncover why common nighthawks and whippoorwills and chuck-will's-widows are disappearing from our forests at an alarming rate.

Not all of their work involves climbing trees and trekking across tundra. A recent paper used geographical information systems to compare bald eagle migration routes with areas likely to have future wind turbine development, with the result that conflicts between the two seem less likely than expected. CCB researchers comb through archival ornithology magazines from a century ago looking for historical records of disappearing birds to help us understand today's population distributions better.

We are very lucky to have a bird research center of global importance in our midst. To learn more about their many studies, check out their annual reports at: ccbbirds.org/about-us/annual-report/.

Dan Cristol teaches in the Biology Department at the College of William and Mary and can be contacted at dacris@wm.edu. To discover local birding opportunities visit http://williamsburgbirdclub.org/.

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