Bird-Friendly Communities

Frozen birds have flown the coop!

Launched in 2013, Audubon North Carolina’s Bird-Friendly Communities initiative is a partnership program involving more than 20 organizations with a vision for creating a more bird-friendly North Carolina. This vision statement guides the goals and projects of the group: “Bird-friendly communities give birds the opportunity to succeed by providing connected habitat dominated by native plants, minimizing threats posed by the built environment, and engaging people of all ages and backgrounds in stewardship of nature.”

Please welcome guest blogger Wendy Hawkins, an avid birder who coordinates Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out program in downtown Winston-Salem.

Lights Out volunteers in Winston-Salem, Charlotte and Raleigh spend their early mornings surveying the streets for birds injured or killed from window collisions during evening migration. Estimates indicate that 100 million to 1 billion birds fall victim to buildings every year in the United States alone. And this fall, dozens of birds were found in downtown Winston-Salem.

So, where do the birds go?

All of the birds collected by our volunteers of Forsyth Audubon continued a different kind of migration from downtown Winston-Salem to the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences in Raleigh! This special blog series takes Audubon readers behind the scenes to see how Lights Out work supports important research and education programs for bird conservation in our state.

Birds Flock to the NC Science Museum

Recently, Nathan and Sarah Gatto of Wright’s Backyard Birding Center packed the collected birds in dry ice. Then Ron Morris, former president of Forsyth Audubon, Randy Hawkins and I, took the baton and carted them to the NC Science Museum where our day of exploring really began.

Curator John Gerwin, head of the “dead bird department,” escorted us into the hidden bowels of the museum. As we followed him solemnly in single file, various employees commented on the apparent “funeral procession.” “Yes,” we agreed, “in a way, it was.” Toward the basement we continued until we reached a room where the serious stuff happens.

Scarlet Tanager specimens showing color variations. Photo by Ron Morris

The Basement: Little do most people know what happens “below deck!” Upon entering, we met two gentlemen diligently at work, each dissecting a bird carcass. Brian O’Shea, an expert and chief “dissector,” with the official title of Collections Manager for Ornithology, worked on his own specimen alongside Edward, a young, bright-eyed high school student who was just beginning his first bird dissection – ever! Brian worked on a Wood Thrush while Edward took on a Dovekie, which is a small black-and-white seabird that winters off the coast of North Carolina.

Frequently sprinkling sawdust to keep the parts dry and graspable, they worked – carefully, steadily and skillfully. Both were excited to show us their projects and explain their work. John showed us the cabinets where they dry the skins, preparing them for storage or mounting. Brian showed us the logbook where each bird is carefully recorded (species, age, sex, location found, date, etc.)

Suddenly, it was like Christmas, rather than a funeral, when John turned his attention to the cooler we had brought! Opening the lid he smiled, wide-eyed, at the 80 or so birds that lay frozen inside. Riffling through, he began extracting all sorts of interesting specimens. Some of the most intriguing findings included Cape May, Magnolia and Black-throated Blue Warblers, as well as a Grasshopper Sparrow and a baby Chimney Swift he said must have just fallen from the chimney because it didn’t look developed enough to be capable of flight. Sixty-two of these birds were found in Winston-Salem this fall, with a few more birds in the Gattos’ freezer from the previous year that must have “missed their flight” on the previous museum trip.

John commented on how amazing it is that many of the rather elusive birds migrate right through cities such as ours – often at night. So little we may realize about what is happening right over our heads – especially during migration!

A specimen of the extinct Passenger Pigeon, part of the permanent collection at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Photo by Ron Morris

The SUB-basement: If the basement wasn’t already enthralling enough, then it was on to the SUB-basement! Down there are about 30,000 preserved bird carcasses and wings all fully catalogued and labeled in drawers of huge cabinets – row after row. “What would you like to see, in particular?” John asked. Wow! I could hardly think of what I should say. So many possibilities! Fortunately, Ron was on his toes with some suggestions. “A Passenger Pigeon, a Carolina Parakeet?” Yes, he had a female Passenger Pigeon in the process of being repaired in order to be placed with her male counterpart on display in the main part of the museum. The Carolina Parakeets were already on display.

Thinking of extinct species, I remembered to ask about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker. They didn’t have one of those, but they did have other interesting woodpeckers: the Pileated, Red-headed, Red-bellied, Northern Flicker and Downy. Also, there were amazing drawers of huge wings: Osprey, various swans and various hawks.

Since 2011, Forsyth Audubon’s Lights Out volunteers have contributed more than 250 birds – representing 50 species – to the museum’s collection. Click here to learn how the Forsyth Lights Out program was started. Mecklenburg Audubon and Wake Audubon volunteers also monitor their downtown buildings for collision victims.

Find out why museum specimens matter in the second installment here.

How you can help, right now