Thank you for joining us for the live webchat on Thursday, May 17, 2007 with Audrey Taylor, who is biologist with the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management. She is stationed at Fairbanks, Alaska. The Questions and Answers will be posted shortly.
Ms. Taylor became interested in shorebirds while working near the Great
Salt Lake in Utah and moved to Alaska in 2003 to study these birds in
more detail. She received a B.S. in Natural Resources from Cornell
University in 1997 and an M.S in Wildlife Biology from Colorado State University in 2002. She is currently working on a Ph.D. at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Her research focuses on the abundance and distribution, behavior, and physiology of pre-migratory shorebirds on Alaska's North Slope. She is also employed as a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Migratory Bird Management. To see Ms. Taylor in action conducting research, have a look at the audio slide show entitled "Nature's Extreme Makeover" at http://www.alaskas-spirit.com/shorebirds/.
The following are the questions and answers from the chat held May 17, 2007.
Tanner from California, Pennsylvania: Do you ever take baby birds to your house to take care of them?
Audrey Taylor: Sometimes, if the mom or dad is not around. But it is hard to take care of a shorebird baby so don't try this at home!
George from California PA: How big is the wing span of a western sandpiper?
Audrey Taylor: 14 inches
Catherine from California, Pa: Do birds adopt motherless eggs or chicks?
Audrey Taylor: Sometimes they can if they lost their own nest.
Ryan from California Area Middle School, PA: Which bird flies the farthest?
Audrey Taylor: Bar-tailed godwits that breed in Alaska fly 11,000 kilometers non-stop to New Zealand in the fall!
Kevin from California Area Middle School PA: Why do you think the birds migrate other then to mate?
Audrey Taylor: Birds migrate after breeding to escape from the harsh weather and low food supply of a northern or arctic winter.
Ryan from California Area Middle School, PA: What shorebird has the longest legs?
Audrey Taylor: Check out a black-necked stilt!
Zach from California Area Middle School Pa: Do the birds mate in only one type of climate?
Audrey Taylor: Most species of birds mate in one type of habitat, like Arctic tundra or boreal forest. But some widespread species breed in many habitats.
Jalen from California Area PA: How long is a bird’s gestation period?
Audrey Taylor: For a small shorebird like a western sandpiper, the eggs take about 3 weeks to develop. During this time the adult bird(s) sit on them in a process called incubation. For larger species, egg development takes longer.
Brandon from California: How many birds would you say die or get injured during migration?
Audrey Taylor: That is a question that biologists are trying to answer - we don't know.
Brandon from California Area Middle School, PA: How much does an average shorebird egg weigh?
Audrey Taylor: Shorebirds are all different sizes, from less than an ounce for a western sandpiper to over a pound for a large species like a godwit.
Mitchell from MS 51, Brooklyn, NY: Will drilling in the Arctic Refuge in Alaska effect shorebirds?
Audrey Taylor: We are trying to figure that out right now! There are lots of shorebirds that breed and prepare for migration in the Arctic Refuge, so they could be affected by oil drilling depending on where it happens.
Jarvis from Barbara Bush Elementary/ Texas: Why do some of the birds stop at Copper River Delta and not go all the way to the Arctic?
Audrey Taylor: There are several species of shorebirds that breed on the Copper River Delta (like least sandpipers and semipalmated plovers). But many species do go on to the Arctic.
Ryan from California Area Middle School, PA: What shorebids mostly migrate to Alaska?
Audrey Taylor: The common species where I work on the North Slope of Alaska are: red and red-necked phalaropes, dunlin, semipalmated sandpipers, pectoral sandpipers, and American golden-plovers. But there are 35 shorebirds species that breed in the state of Alaska!
Leslie from Barbara Bush Elementary/ Texas: When do the birds begin their migration back to Panama?
Audrey Taylor: The adult shorebirds may migrate as early as mid-July if their nest fails. Most adults leave the Arctic by late July or early August, but the juvenile birds that were born that summer stay a little bit longer.
Dakota from California PA: Can the birds get cooled enough to die?
Audrey Taylor: Yes, if they get wet or if the weather gets really bad.
Jeff from California PA: What would happen if a bird lost all their feathers?
Audrey Taylor: It might die of hypothermia. But birds do lose some of their feathers regularly, because they get worn out and the bird needs to replace them. This is called molt.
Sam from California Area PA: What is a group of shorebirds called?
Audrey Taylor: A flock.
Zach from California Area Middle School Pa: Do you like doing your job and how much does it pay?
Audrey Taylor: I love my job, but it doesn't pay as much as being a doctor or a lawyer. In fact, if you want to be a biologist you better really love biology!
Dani from California Area PA: When they band the birds, does this harm the birds?
Audrey Taylor: No - most birds are fine after banding. It is a very fast process.
Ryan from California Area Middle school, PA: What do shorebirds eat the most?
Audrey Taylor: Mostly aquatic invertebrates like worms, small clams, and insect larvae.
Cordell from MS 51, Brooklyn, NY: How do you pick locations to study shorebirds?
Audrey Taylor: We let the birds tell us where there are important habitats! Sometimes we study a site to see if it IS important to shorebirds.
Shannon from California Area Middle School, PA: Can wind currents throw the birds off their path or interfere with their sense of direction?
Audrey Taylor: Yes -especially young birds that have never migrated before. Birders love big fall storms because sometimes birds get lost in the weather and end up in very unusual places.
Tanner from California, Pennsylvania: Do birds like different types of weather?
Audrey Taylor: Birds like nice weather just like humans. But they respond to different weather patterns in different ways - if the weather gets too bad on the breeding grounds sometimes they abandon their nests. And after a big storm many birds will leave a migration stopover and start flying.
Steven from Glennallen, AK: Since the shorebirds eat so much at their stopovers and gain so much weight, doesn’t it make it difficult to fly?
Audrey Taylor: Yes - sometimes birds get too fat to fly and then they risk getting eaten by a predator. So most birds eat enough to get to the next stopover site (or maybe a little more) and then migrate.
Josh from California Area Middle School Pa: What do they do when they are let free after being caught?
Audrey Taylor: They fly back to their flock and start feeding.
Robert from California Middle School PA: What shorebird is the biggest of them all?
Audrey Taylor: Curlews and godwits are the biggest shorebirds.
John from California PA: If a bird dies with her baby inside of her, does she still have it?
Audrey Taylor: Birds lay eggs instead of having babies. If the chick dies inside the egg before it is ready to hatch, the bird usually abandons the egg in the nest.
Kevin from California Area Middle School PA: Why do you think the shorebirds are so picky when they choose a mate?
Audrey Taylor: Because they want to find a mate that will pass on good genes to their chicks. If the chicks survive, then the bird has its own genes passed on.
Joe from PA: Do the birds feathers grow over their ears?
Audrey Taylor: Yes.
John from California PA: If a bird loses a wing, does it just die because it can’t fly?
Audrey Taylor: If a bird breaks its wing, it will likely die because it can't migrate. Sometimes broken wings can heal, though, and the bird will live.
Katie from California Area Middle School, PA: Do you agree that it is insensitive to tag a bird?
Audrey Taylor: Tagging birds disturbs the birds for a short time, so from that perspective it has an impact on their lives. But we have lots of evidence to show that tagged birds survive very well, and we have learned a lot from tagged birds that helps us better understand their biology and thus help conserve their populations and habitats.
Sam from California Area PA: How long do the bands stay on?
Audrey Taylor: Hopefully as long as the bird is alive! But sometimes birds do lose their bands.
Lythea from California Area Middle school, PA: Is it possible that the bird could be smart enough to take the band off their leg?
What’s the smartest shore bird? And what makes them so smart?
What’s so significant about the shore birds? Your opinion?
What made you interested in shorebirds?
Audrey Taylor: Some birds are smart enough to remove bands, so we try to fool them by gluing the bands shut or making them wrap several times around the leg. Usually a bird stops noticing its bands after a while because it has more important things to do like feed or raise chicks. Larger shorebirds have larger brains and are therefore harder for us to outsmart.
Shorebirds are amazing because they migrate so far, they have a wide variety of mating systems, and because they form large flocks that fly in spectacular formations.
Sarah from California Area PA: How many tags can go on a birds leg?
Audrey Taylor: I have put as many as 6 bands on a bird' s leg for individual identification.
Randall from California Middle School, PA: Can a little bird choke on the tags that you put on his legs?
Audrey Taylor: No- we glue them shut so the bird can't remove them and choke. I don't think they would eat them anyway.
Molly from California Area PA: Do these bands send out signals?
Audrey Taylor: The bands don't, but sometimes we put radio transmitters on the birds that send out signals.
Nick from California Area PA: How do you put the radio transmitters on the birds?
Audrey Taylor: We clip an area of feathers above their tail and glue the radio on. Sometimes we put a little harness around their body that holds the radio on. Other times the radio is actually implanted into the birds' body cavities.
Carlos from Barbara Bush Elementary/ Texas: When you lose the signal with a tagged bird, what do you do to find them or do you just accept that maybe they died?
Audrey Taylor: Often we fly in a small plane over a larger area to see if the bird has moved away from our study site. Or sometimes we go out for a longer time and walk farther to find the signal. Or other times we know it means that the bird has migrated on and it will be picked up further along the migration route.
Kimberly from Barbara Bush Elementary/ Texas: Why do some birds fly in a V-formation when they migrate and why do some make a circle pattern when they land in their groups or start to take off?
Audrey Taylor: A V-formation is probably aerodynamic - the birds behind the leader can take advantage of the reduction in drag. Flying in a circle pattern might be a way to confuse a predator when they are taking off or landing.
Celeste from Glennallen AK: What are the main predators of the shorebirds?
Audrey Taylor: Mostly raptors like peregrine falcons, northern harriers, and gyrfalcons (in Alaska, anyway). Humans used to hunt shorebirds too but now they are protected from hunting in most places.
Mark from California Area Middle School: Are the birds able to digest a lot of dirt from their food and if so how much?
Audrey Taylor: Probably not - it likely just passes through their digestive tract.
Adam from California Area Middle School, PA: Is the beak of a bird made of bone, and is the color determined by heredity?
Audrey Taylor: A bird's bill is made partly of bone and partly of hard tissue. The color is determined by heredity and is usually particular to the species.
Dakota from Caifornia PA: Do birds fight for territory and for food?
Audrey Taylor: Most shorebirds do not fight over territories or food, but some species defend their own breeding territories (like pectoral sandpipers).
Randall from California PA: How does the western sandpiper defend itself?
Audrey Taylor: They stay in large flocks during migration so that a predator has a hard time singling out one bird. They are often drab in color so predators can't see them easily. And they sit very quietly on their nests.
Megan from Satori Elementary, Galveston Island, Texas: Does bird migration happen worldwide or just in certain places? Could lack of a place to stop during migration make the birds die or possibly go extinct?
Audrey Taylor: Bird migration is world-wide. Some bird species have gone extinct because their traditional stopover sites have been changed or destroyed by buildings - the birds need a place to rest between flights.
Megan from California Area Middle School, PA: What is the life expectancy of the birds?
Audrey Taylor: Small shorebirds like the western sandpiper you have been seeing during the live broadcasts can live 5-7 years (probably) in the wild. Larger birds live longer.
Dani from California Area PA: If a bird gets hurt will the other birds help them?
Audrey Taylor: Probably not - the other birds are more concerned with getting to the breeding grounds or raising their chicks.
Jeff from California PA: What would happen if a bird breaks its leg?
Audrey Taylor: Sometimes we see birds with broken legs - they can still fly and feed while hopping on one leg.
Molly from California Area PA: If there is something wrong with their baby bird, will the parent abandon it?
Audrey Taylor: If the baby can't walk and keep up with the other chicks, the parent will eventually leave it behind.
Brea from California PA: Do birds ever choke on their food?
Audrey Taylor: Not that I've seen.
Ryan from California Area Middle School, PA: What shorebird has the longest beak?
Audrey Taylor: I think a long-billed curlew has the longest bill.
Jordon from California PA: How do you tell the age of a shorebird?
Audrey Taylor: Mostly by the color and shape of the feathers - young birds have different feathers than adult birds.
Katie from California Area Middle School, PA: What is the highest elevation the birds can fly?
Audrey Taylor: Well, some birds have been seen flying over the Himalaya Mountains, which are over 20,000 feet high!
Joe from PA: What is the average elevation for the birds to fly and how fast do they go?
Audrey Taylor: Some birds fly really high up (like 6000 feet), and others fly pretty close to the ground. It depends on the weather and the terrain.
Billy from PA: How do birds always know where to go back to after migration?
Audrey Taylor: That's a great question! They have an innate sense of direction and they use lots of environmental cues (like the sun, the stars, and the earth's magnetic field) to navigate to where they think they need to go in the winter or to breed.
Tanner from California, Pennsylvania: Do birds ever try to eat each other if they are really hungry enough?
Audrey Taylor: I don't think so - shorebirds only eat invertebrates, so another shorebird doesn't look like food.
Billy from California, PA: Why is migration so important?
Audrey Taylor: Because it allows the birds to take advantage of environments with large amounts of food or low levels of predation, but where the winters are too hard for birds to survive.
Tanner from California Area Middle School, Pa: Do the birds change their colors to different environments?
Audrey Taylor: No, but they change their colors for different seasons, either to attract a mate during the breeding season or to blend in with their environment and reduce predation risk during the winter.
Dakota from California Area PA: How many feathers do birds have?
Audrey Taylor: Lots!
Alexis from Satori Elementary, Galveston Island, Texas: Do all types of shorebirds migrate?
Audrey Taylor: Almost all shorebirds migrate - some of the longest migratory flights of all birds. But some tropical-nesting shorebirds do not migrate, and others fly only short distances.
Jeff from California PA: Iif a bird doesn't eat what it picks out of ground, will another bird eat it?
Audrey Taylor: Most shorebirds eat what they find very quickly.
Brandon from California Area PA: If a human touches a shorebird’s eggs, will the mother bird leave the nest?
Audrey Taylor: No - shorebird moms are very dedicated and they will come back.
Mark from California, Pennsylvania: Can a female bird lay eggs more than twice a season?
Audrey Taylor: Yes - depending on what species and what latitude it is breeding at. Many Arctic shorebirds only lay once in a season, but other species lay all year round.
Dakota from California Area PA: Do shorebirds shed?
Audrey Taylor: Yes - except it is called MOLT in birds and it happens two times each year so they can make new feathers that help them fly better and attract a mate.
Jenna from California Area PA: What do you mean by extent of breeding plumage?
Audrey Taylor: How many feathers the bird has that are the color and shape it will use to attract a mate.
Dara from Califorina Middle School: How many different kinds of birds migrate a year?
Audrey Taylor: Many, many species of birds migrate each year - have a look in your bird field guide and the range maps will tell you where the different kinds migrate.
Jamar from Satori Elementary, Galveston Island, Texas: How cold does it have to get before the birds start to migrate ?
Audrey Taylor: Shorebirds in the Arctic leave in August or September, when it gets to 30 degrees and starts to snow.
Mark from California, Pennsylvania: Can a bird get frozen in the water?
Audrey Taylor: I don't think so - they would leave before they got frozen.
Shannon from California Area Middle School, PA: Are the birds "picky" in choosing a mate?
Audrey Taylor: Yes - most shorebird males have to display and "show off" their colorful feathers and their songs to attract females, which tend to be the picky sex.
Josh from California Area PA: How fast can the birds fly?
Audrey Taylor: About 45 miles per hour.
Mark from California, Pennsylvania: If a bird would swallow or eat dirt or mud from the food they eat, will it be extremely harmful?
Audrey Taylor: No - shorebirds eat small mud particles all the time when they eat their invertebrate prey. The mud probably just passes through their digestive system.
Mark from California, Pennsylvania: Do the birds go back to the migration spot more than twice?
Audrey Taylor: Sometimes birds return every year to the same migration spot.
Jenna from California Area PA: How many times do shorebirds hearts beat in one minute?
Audrey Taylor: Small shorebirds have a very fast heartbeat - much faster than ours. Maybe as much as 100-120 beats per minute.
LizE from California Area PA: How many different ways can you tell if a bird is male or female and what are they?
Audrey Taylor: The ways we can tell the males and females apart are by color and extent of breeding plumage, overall size, size of bill or wing, whether a bird has a brood patch (for keeping chicks warm), and by their display behavior. Or, sometimes only by DNA.
Sara from California Area PA: How many times do shorebirds flap their wings a minute?
Audrey Taylor: That's a good question! They can fly about 45 miles per hour but I don't know how many wing beats per minute.
Abbey from Glenallen, Alaska: Do shorebirds take care of their young after they hatch, or do they leave them to fend for themselves?
Audrey Taylor: Shorebird parents show their young how to feed, and they brood them to keep them warm, but they mostly take care of themselves.
Robbie from Mt. Eccles Elementary School-Cordova Alaska: Why don't shorebirds breed in the southern wintering grounds?
Audrey Taylor: Possibly because there is more competition on the wintering grounds, or because there is more food available in the Arctic.
Dania from Barbara Bush Elementary, Texas: In the last webcast, we got to see a good picture of the nets used to catch the birds. Once you catch them, what type of notes do you take on them before tagging them and releasing them again?
Audrey Taylor: We collect data on the birds' size (bill length, wing length, and leg length), weight, age, degree of molt, and sex. Sometimes we also collect blood samples for hormone analysis or DNA.
Ian from Brooklyn, NY: At what age do shorebirds fly?
Audrey Taylor: Shorebirds can fly (a process called fledging) about 2 weeks after hatching!
Kristy from Virginia: Do you notice any effects from global warming?
Audrey Taylor: Some species of birds are nesting earlier as the Arctic gets warmer. Also, we see increased erosion along the coastline due to more frequent and intense summer storms.
Nora from Virginia: Have you found any birds that you have tagged?
Audrey Taylor: Yes! I received a beautiful photo of a Western Sandpiper that was banded in Barrow, AK in August 2005 and resighted in Gray's Harbor, Washington in September 2005. Even more exciting: I also received a photo of a Dunlin (closely related to Western Sandpipers) that I put a radio transmitter on in Barrow in August 2006...the photo was taken outside of Tokyo JAPAN in November 2006 and you could still see the radio on the bird. This Dunlin became an international ambassador!
Ben from Virginia: What's your favorite bird?
Audrey Taylor: red phalarope
Randall from California PA: Can you show us a picture of a phalarope or describe it? This is a bird our class has not seen yet.
Audrey Taylor: Phalaropes are the most aquatic shorebirds. A red phalarope is mostly gray in the winter but grows dark red feathers during the breeding season. Red-necked phalaropes look similar but have a red neck and gray body during breeding. Both species feed in the water by swimming in circles, which creates a current that pulls up invertebrates from the bottom of the pond.