Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Automatic Data Collection of Bluebird Activity in Nest Boxes

Caitlin Stern, a graduate student featured in a video in the introduction to the Hastings website, is well into her fourth year of research on the social behavior of the elegant western bluebird. Working with electronic wizards at Cornell, Caitlin and her field assistants Tali Hammond, Rose Swift, and David Moldoff, and REU student Amy Lin have been building and installing tracking devices around the entrance hole of the nest boxes used by the bluebirds. This includes a loop antenna, a datalogger and a battery. Each bird has a small RFID tag attached to the leg band. Every time the bird enters or leaves the nest box, the loop detects the bird and the identifying code for the bird is recorded on a digital datalogger in a box below the nest. A small battery powers the datalogger and detector circuit. Each set up last for about 2 weeks. Dataloggers can be downloaded either in the field with a cable to a laptop, or in the lab.

This setup allows an unprecedented look into which birds are spending time at the nest boxes, revealing which birds are present during the early breeding, nest construction, egg-laying and brooding, and the critical, busy time of feeding hatchlings in the nest. Using her advisor Janis Dickinson's long-term database developed over years of bird banding here, Caitlin often has information on the age and relationships of the birds at each nest. With over 20 installed, the data are flowing in, and over the next winter Caitlin will be extracting the secrets revealed and writing up the data into her Ph.D. dissertation.