The Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch

Established and directed by Dr. Peter P. Marra of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in Washington, DC, the Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch opens up opportunities for ordinary citizens to get involved in a nationwide program by being biologists in their own backyards. Participants in the program will gain an in-depth understanding of birds in their neighborhood, while assisting scientists to gather crucial information with regard to the survival of backyard bird populations.

Efforts to asses the state of backyard bird populations focuses on finding the answers to two main questions. Firstly, how successful are backyard bird nests? Secondly, how long do backyard birds live? Neighborhood Nestwatch volunteers work along with scientists in finding occupied bird nests and then monitoring the nests over a period of time, recording and reporting their observations. Scientists are keen to compare the success rates between nests which are found in urban, suburban and rural backyards. Additionally, researchers from the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center have been marking individual birds with combinations of colored plastic leg bands. Citizen scientists are required to keep on the lookout for these banded birds and report their sightings. More than 3,700 birds have been banded, with over 420 sightings being reported in subsequent years.

Analysis of preliminary data collected by Neighborhood Nestwatch participants suggests that cavity-nesting birds, such as house wrens and chickadees, have higher nesting success. It is thought that the main reason for this may be that cavity nests are more protected from predators. These birds also lay larger clutches of eggs than their open-cup nesting neighbors, but they make fewer nesting attempts per season. Birds with long nesting seasons, such as cardinals and robins, lay small clutches and have a fairly low rate of nesting success.

Sadly, our modern environment often has a negative effect on birds. For example, even though lead is no longer a component in gasoline, birds are still being affected by lead from years ago which has accumulated in soil and plant life in urban and suburban environments. Even minute amounts of lead in a bird’s system can lead to reduced weight gain for nestlings, as well as reduced ability to sustain essential metabolic functions due to organ damage. Ongoing research in this regard will no doubt reveal the impact that an increasingly urbanized world will have on bird populations and other wildlife.

The Smithsonian’s Neighborhood Nestwatch has learned a great deal about backyard birds in Washington, DC, in a project which is encouraging entire families to work as a team in fulfilling their observation tasks. Neighborhood Nestwatch participants are gaining valuable insight into the role that birds play in the environment – and having a whole lot of fun in the process.