Hi AMAfeed! My name is Christa and I'm an ornithologist, or bird biologist. My most recent work focused on bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. Ask me anything!

Christa Linn Legrande-Rolls
Jun 15, 2017

Hi Everyone! My goal with this AMA is to get others engaged in topics about bird conservation and science. Why birds? Well, not only are they my favorite animals, birds are great indicators of health in the environments in which they live. In Washington State, I worked as a biologist monitoring western bluebirds and other cavity nesting birds (among others) and managing a bird box program on a military installation. Feel free to ask questions about birds in general, how man-made cavities benefit certain birds, and more... Ask me anything!

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Hello, Are there existing blue birds in Asia?

Jun 15, 11:13AM EDT0

Hi Jess! Unfortunately, the bluebirds I've worked with in North America aren't found in Asia. Bluebirds (genus Sialia, not to be confused with other blue colored birds) are found only in North and Central America, ranging as far north as Canada and as far south as Mexico and Honduras. If you're within that range, you can potentially see three types of bluebirds - western, eastern, or mountain. Asia has some pretty incredibly blue colored birds (and other birds), though!! I can't wait to visit someday. Asia DOES have fairy-bluebirds - very different birds and different families, but still super cool :)

Jun 15, 11:39AM EDT0

Hi Christa! Have you noticed any changes in population size or behaviour in the bird species that make up the Pacific Northwest? And if so, what conservation efforts are you looking to implement?

Jun 15, 10:00AM EDT0

Hey Vincent! For the bird species I've focused on with my work, we have definitely noticed fluctuations in population size and are monitoring for changes in behavior ecology. For example, the Western Bluebird has a source population in the South Puget Sound area of Western Washington, and that population appears to be doing really well, especially over the past few years, with good weather and with effective land management. However, years of translocations (or moving individuals from one place to another) to the North Puget Sound have still not yielded an effective re-population of those areas. Likely, this is due to loss of habitat and multiple predators, especially feral cats and House Sparrows. Until the management schemes in the north can create optimal habitat for breeding, the bluebirds are going to have a hard time continuing to extend their popuation into areas they were once abundant. We're working with multiple partners to accomplish this goal, but migrating birds makes for quite the challenge :)

Jun 22, 3:44AM EDT0

Is it really an insult to call someone ""bird-brained""?

Jun 14, 10:01PM EDT0

Hey there! I'll have to go back and take a look at the origin of words like "bird-brained". I would argue that birds really aren't bird-brained at all; in fact, many are incredibly intelligent and, biologically, are pretty miraculous :) There are studies worldwide on a variety of bird species, especially corvids (like crows and jays), showing their cognitive abilities and intelligence. 

Jun 15, 11:42AM EDT0

Which birds are most at danger of extinction?

Jun 14, 6:44AM EDT0

Hey there! Great question. Depending on the region, there are various birds of extreme conservation concern. For North America, for example, California Condors and Whooping Cranes are the two species that first come to mind as being close to extinction - these animals are also heavily managed in the wild and in facilities to assist with survival and reproduction. That being said, there are a number of other birds that are declining under the radar, especially sub-species of birds that contribute to a larger genetic existence of the species. 

Jun 22, 3:38AM EDT0

Who are your favorite authors on the topic of birds?

Jun 14, 1:56AM EDT0

Hi Alyssa! So, I don't read a ton of books on the topic of birds, as far as leisure reading is concerned. I do, however, like to read scientific journal articles on bird studies and research. Let me know if you'd like more information on how I choose which articles to read. Usually for leisure reading I choose a conservation or ecology book - right now I'm reading The Hour of Land by Terry Tempest Williams. I enjoy books like American Conservation Thought, Sand County Almanac, Desert Solitaire, and other anthologies or memoirs. What do you like reading?

Jun 22, 3:31AM EDT0

Biologically speaking, what does it mean if you eat like a bird?

Jun 14, 12:00AM EDT0

Hey Michael! Interesting question. I tend to eat smaller amounts, multiple times a day (I'm not really a stuff-your-face kind of person), so I've been told I eat like a bird a number of times. The fact is, birds actually eat A LOT compared to their body weight, especially during breeding season when they're spending a ton of energy feeding themselves and their young. If you think about how much energy it takes to feed yourself, your young, defend your territory, all the while getting around by flight (depending on the bird), you're going going all day. According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the actual percentage that a bird consumes food equivalent to a portion of their body weight varies with each bird. Birds like Canada Geese can consume up to 10% of their body weight in grass, whereas hummingbirds may consume up to 100% of their body weight in nectar in one day!! (www.allaboutbirds.org/how-much-do-birds-eat-each-day/). That's pretty remarkable, and also necessary for their biology.

Jun 15, 10:18AM EDT0

What are the best schools with ornithology programs?

Jun 13, 7:05PM EDT0

Hey Steven! Great question. There are a number of schools that have wonderful wildlife science or ecology programs with ornithology as a focus. I think one of the most important things to look at when considering a specific program or school is who your mentor or advisor is going to be, and whether the program or classes are small enough that you don't get lost in the fold (or don't end up waiting three years just to take focused coursework because of the sheer number of students also looking to take the same courses). I got my graduate degree at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, and I remember being SO incredibly impressed with their undergraduate program. They really prepared there students for getting a job in their field after school. Not only this, but the graudate courses were small enough to allow students to really interact with their professors. The primary resason I moved to Syracuse was because of my advisor - she set me up for success after grad school!

Jun 15, 10:12AM EDT0

What is a surprising or unusual fact about bluebirds?

Jun 13, 3:21PM EDT0

Hi Elizabeth! I suppose a couple of facts about bluebirds come to mind. First, since they are in the thrush family (like robins) they lay blue eggs. It's coincidence that bluebirds also happen to have blue feathers, but a lot of people find that interesting :) Also, bluebirds are one of the few birds that will hover in one place in the air before diving to the ground to capture food (insects). So, if you see a small-ish, blue-colored bird hovering somewhere in North America, it's more than likely a bluebird!!

Jun 14, 4:49AM EDT0

How much of your work is done in the field?

Jun 13, 11:15AM EDT0

Hey there! I would say it's about 50:50 (or evens out to somewhere around there). The spring and summer are the busiest months for being outside in the field since that's the bird breeding season. A smaller portion of time is spent in the office during those months, unless there is correspondance to be made or data needs to be entered. In the fall and winter, however, I would be in the office more of the time, doing data entry/analysis and writing papers, since most of the birds would be gone for the colder months. 

Jun 14, 4:46AM EDT0

What is the most coveted bird on a bird watcher's list?

Jun 13, 10:17AM EDT0

Hey Elizabeth! The answer to this question really varies from person to person. Some birders are interested in the total number of birds that they see, others might be interested more in seeing the rare birds for their region (or rare in total numbers, as in threatened or endangered). Honestly, I've never been a total numbers kind of person. If there's a rare bird in the area, I'll see if I can seek it out since it might be the one and only time I get to see it ever again. If I don't find it, I don't get too worked up about it, though. My joy in bird watching is taking my binoculars with me and seeing which birds I can spot or hear on a walk or hike. Right now, since I've just recently moved to Germany, I have a lot of birds on my "have to see" list - high up there is the Hoopoe. With thier giant crests (I'm a crest lover) and stunning flight displays, I hope to find one and just watch it for hours. Once I've accomplished that, I'll shift my attention to another bird in hopes of seeing it one day. :)

Jun 13, 11:03AM EDT0

What are some of your favorite ""bird"" slang terms, like bird-brained?

Jun 13, 8:45AM EDT0

Hey Gregory!! To be honest, I don't typically use bird slang words. I suppose I haven't thought about it much until now :) In looking at phrases like "bird-brained" or "for the birds", they usually have a negative connotation associated with them, which is why I probably haven't used them. I'll have to go back and take a look at other slang words to figure out from where they originated! I would argue that birds really aren't bird-brained at all; in fact, many are incredibly intelligent and, biologically, are pretty miraculous :)

Jun 15, 10:47AM EDT0

Do bluebirds live up to their symbolism as happy signs?

Jun 13, 8:29AM EDT0

Hi Deanna! In my opinion, yes, bluebirds 100% live up to their positive symbolism. Personally, I find bluebirds incredibly calm and cheerful, and I have heard that many tribes have positive symbolism associated with bluebirds as well. In observing and working with them for a couple of years, I have a couple of thoughts on this. In watching bluebirds' behavior, they make sweet, unassuming noises and songs, and when their partner re-arrives as the nest, or they're simply talking to let others know of their territory, they'll do this happy-flutter with their wings. I'm anthropomorphizing them, of course, but I think this has something to do with that positive association we have with them. While bluebirds will defend their territory if need be, they also aren't especially aggressive toward other birds, thus they aren't considered very mean in personality. Also, many people will erect bird boxes in their yards, neighborhoods, parks, etc. and being able to see these beautiful creatures in daily life brings a special kind of joy into one's day, I think. :)

Jun 13, 11:08AM EDT0

Is the bird attack in the movie ""The Birds"" possible or realistic?

Jun 13, 7:17AM EDT0

Hey there! Good question. I'll start by saying that corvids, especially crows and ravens, have had the misfortune to be the brunt of negative symbolism when it comes to birds. These animals are actually incredibly intelligent, and their cognitive abilities, especially for birds, is quite astounding. They mean well and are pretty harmless. That being said, there's pretty much zero chance that droves (or in the case of crows or ravens, murders) of birds will come and attack people out of nowhere, for no reason. IF, however, you get too close to a bird's nest and they feel the need to defend their nest and their young, you could have an angry male and/or female bird divebombing your head. This really only becomes dangerous with raptors, including hawks, eagles, and owls, because they have sharp talons and are potentially big enough to leave a good-sized gash in your head, or elsewhere on your body, if they feel they need to defend. If you come into an area and see a large raptor, especially if it is making a ton of racket (otherwise known as alarm calls), make sure you keep a safe distance to avoid any stress on the bird (and you!). I'll add that I've been dive bombed by a number of birds, and sometimes they graze your the top of your head and make a chittering noise, but I've never been injured by one.

Jun 13, 11:18AM EDT0

What is your opinion of Audubon's work on birds?

Jun 13, 6:49AM EDT0

Hi Evelyn! Thanks for your question. I think that Audubon was a pioneer in bird information gathering for his time. Although looking back it may seem strange that he killed a lot of the birds he found, it was considered the norm in his time and many of those specimens have been used for scientific and genetic purposes. In addition, Audubon spearheaded some of the first efforts in waterfowl population and habitat conservation, as well as started movements like the Christmas bird count, which used to require capturing the killed animal rather than just recording it on a sheet of paper. He was an incredible artist, assisted in IDing as yet undocumented species, and moved forward some incredible conservation efforts. His legacy through the Audubon Society, as well as other initiatives and organizations, is pretty fantastic, in my opinion. I'd love to hear what you think as well!

Jun 15, 10:35AM EDT0

Are you afraid of any birds, and which ones?

Jun 13, 2:33AM EDT0

Hey Michael! I wouldn't necessarily say that I'm afraid of any birds, but I have a healthy respect for their personal space, whether they're big or small. Birds enjoy their space, and are often more afraid of us than we are of them. In addition, especially during breeding and nesting season, birds will get more territorial in an effort to defend their space and protect their mate and their young. Birds have sharp beaks and claws (eagles, for example, catch live food with their talons, which you don't want to be under; sunbitterns have long, pointed beaks specifically for spearing fish, and you don't want that spear through your hand; parrots have big, thick beaks for crushing nuts and fruit for food), and they'll defend themselves if they need to. Just like any wild animal, it's good to respect their space and let them be, but it doesn't mean there's any reason to be afraid of being in their presence.

Jun 13, 11:26AM EDT0

What can an ornithologist expect to earn per year?

Jun 13, 12:30AM EDT0

Hi Vray! The answer to this question varies quite widely depending on the organization, company, or agency for which a person works. Ornithologists can be found in academia (the salary of which depends on the institution), the federal system (such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, U.S. Forest Service, Federal Parks or Reserves systems), the state system (such as State Fish and Wildlife, Land Management, Game, etc.), the non-profit system (through NGOs or even through freelancing), through contracting companies (sub-contracted out by larger organizations), and through self-employment (by applying for research grants). You can imagine that someone working through grants or NGOs probably doesn't earn as much as those in the federal or state system, but again it depends on how much money an organization or region gets based on the need for that work. The ornithologists I've worked with have earned in the range of $20k-$70k per year, but again that depends on organization and time of service. Feel free to message me if you have further questions about this! I haven't worked in each of these systems, but I know ornithologists who have worked in one or the other. Thanks!

Jun 13, 11:36AM EDT0

How does the number of bird species compare to that of other animals?

Jun 12, 11:21PM EDT0

Hi James! There are approximately 10,000 species of birds worldwide. Compared to other vertebrates, there are quite a few more birds, with the exception of fish, with three times the number of species compared ot birds. This doesn't compare, however, to the total number of different invertebrate species, including insects - there are nearly 1 million different insect species!! 

Jun 14, 4:29AM EDT0

What are the biggest environmental threats to birds?

Jun 12, 10:45PM EDT0

Hi XSMITH! I believe the two biggest threats to birds are loss of habitat and outdoor cats. The work I've done thus far in my career has focused on bird population assessment due to habitat loss or fragmentation of habitat. This loss of habitat has seen many species of birds decline. I'll add that habitat also isn't just where a bird is found - it's where adults fine suitable nesting places and foraging locations for food, among other things, and separately where juveniles or young birds go to survive before they're strong enough to forage on their own and fly away. In addition, there have been numerous studies about the impacts of feral and outdoor cats on native animal populations. According to a peer reviewed study conducted by the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute and the US Fish and Wildlife Service,  cats are estimated to have been responsible for up to 33 bird species extinctions and kill up to 2.4 billion birds per year in the U.S. alone. When you think about it, those numbers are pretty staggering.

Jun 15, 11:33AM EDT0

Do you think you share any traits with birds?

Jun 12, 10:39PM EDT0

Hey there! Good question - I've not thought much about that before. Humans in general share some traits with birds biologically, but personally I would say my trait is that I'm up when the sun comes up and I'm ready for sleep when the sun goes down :) Maybe this is why I took to bird watching so well?? Unless, of course, we are talking birds of the night, like owls.

Jun 15, 11:14AM EDT0

Anatomically, what makes birds so suitable for flight?

Jun 12, 10:28PM EDT0

Hi Daniel! There are a number of components that make birds suitable for flight, including their bone structure, feather structure, organ placement, and diet. Birds have hollow bones and are thus very lightweight. They also have many sets of feathers that serve different purposes and functions, some for flight, some for balance, others for insulation. But the way that feathers sit on a bird are streamlined to assist in flight. A birds' lungs sit at their center of gravity, as their lungs and organs are the heaviest parts of their body, and they don't carry more weight than is needed. Also, their diets are very geared towards being protein-heavy, which allows them to store the energy for strength in flight, among other purposes. Thanks for your question!

Jun 15, 11:10AM EDT0