For Scientists Who Study Birds, This Spring Is Without Precedent

Due to COVID-19, many researchers who track avian health have stopped or limited work just as migration, breeding, and nesting season ramps up.

Once a year, on Prince Leopold Island—a remote, cliff-bound breeding site for five species of Arctic birds in Nunavut, Canada—environmental scientist Mark Mallory and his team drop down in a helicopter for a day of intensive fieldwork.

It’s one of several spring and summer field projects for Mallory, who studies the effects of environmental contaminants and rapidly accelerating climate change on Arctic seabirds such as gulls, terns, and ducks. The Prince Leopold Island study stretches back decades, but this year, Mallory and his colleagues couldn’t risk the possibility of spreading COVID-19 to remote areas with limited healthcare options and vulnerable populations. “The general consensus was that this is really serious and deserves a full-stop,” Mallory says. “Especially in the case of the Arctic, we’re just going to say no this year.”

He’s just one of many scientists around the world who have called off field research during the COVID-19 pandemic in a global effort to slow the virus's deadly spread. The stoppages come at a critical time as birds migrate, breed, nest, hatch, and take their first flight this spring. “Lab experiments can stop and wait,” says Anne Charmantier, an evolutionary ecologist in Montpellier, France, who studies Blue Tits and Great Tits and has also canceled her field season. “The birds are not going to wait for us.”

In particular, researchers who track specific bird populations over years and decades by checking on nests and counting eggs and chicks or attaching bands or trackers are bracing for a blank year in their datasets. Monitoring and research on a wide range of species, from recovering songbirds like the Kirtland’s Warblers to declining shorebirds such as American Oystercatchers, is canceled or delayed. Some researchers say they can take any data gaps into account and pick up with their work later, but in other cases, a missed season may have a trickle-down effect. “Our ability to talk about how birds are doing is put at risk,” says Thomas Gardali, an ecologist who oversees 25 projects for Point Blue, a California-based nonprofit conservation science organization. “We need to determine how well populations rebound from tough years. Those datasets take the pulse.”

Canceled or delayed work could, in some cases, limit scientists’ ability to gauge how well conservation measures are working. For example, California State Polytechnic University biologist Andrea Bonisoli-Alquati called off work to investigate whether the state’s 2019 ban on lead ammunition for hunting had reduced lead levels in Turkey Vultures. He planned to compare the blood and feathers of vultures that migrate to those that stay all year—now he is just hoping he can perhaps catch migrants on their way south. If not, the work will have to wait until next year. “The stop this year risks creating a gap for the year precisely when data are most needed to provide an early test of the efficacy of the ban,” he says. Meanwhile, Nicole Michel, a senior quantitative ecologist at the National Audubon Society, has put off a “before and after” survey to study the effects of planned forest restoration work on Minnesota’s birds; she worries she may now miss the pre-restoration data. 

On the other side, many experts pointed out that this year also offers a unique opportunity: a large-scale, real-time experiment of how birds fair in suddenly quieter, less-polluted, less-populated habitats. Researchers at the University of Washington, for example, are hoping to use the observation logs of birders to unpack how birds in the Pacific Northwest are responding to a season of social distancing. Susan Heath, director of conservation research for the Gulf Coast Bird Observatory, hopes to receive permission to access to closed beaches in order to study coastal birds with no humans nearby. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get that kind of data,” she says.

Whether spring fieldwork can continue as planned in 2020 comes down to a number of factors: the size of research groups, their proximity to study sites, risk to local communities, and restrictions put in place by federal and state authorities, among others. “There’s a perception that fieldwork is a lonely thing and could go on because it’s one person out there collecting data,” says Nat Seavy, director of migration science for Audubon’s Migratory Bird Initiative. “It seems like an isolated job, but a lot of conservation is about building relationships and interacting and bringing diverse groups together.”

Even in places where research can be a solo activity, COVID-19-related public land, park, and school closures have significantly curbed access to the field. Volunteer community scientists, for example, may no longer access up to 40 percent of the 750 Bald Eagle nests that are part of Audubon Florida’s EagleWatch Program, says Shawnlei Breeding, who oversees statewide monitoring project. “It’s a fairly solitary activity,” she says, “but it’s become a little more dicey.” Since the species begins nesting and laying eggs around October, volunteers have already recorded and shared some 13,000 nest data entries this season. But the program may have to abandon data from any sites where they can’t finish documenting how many chicks survived to fledge—the most important piece of data for tracking the health of the state's eagle population. Because the species is federally protected, monitoring data is shared with state and federal agencies and telecommunications companies, which are forbidden from disturbing active nests on their structures. 

Not all surveying projects have come to a halt. This is the first of five years for the New York Breeding Bird Atlas III, a project that taps volunteers to census all the birds breeding in the state. April is when activities pick up and resident birds start nesting, says coordinator Julie Hart—and data are indeed rolling in. “People are going out and taking advantage of that little bit of time outside,” Hart says. “There are a lot more people watching for leaves and flowers and birds coming back. It’s bringing a lot of comfort.” 

Gardali and his colleagues are still figuring out which long-term Point Blue research projects, some of which have been ongoing for more than 50 years and span sites in Sierra Nevada forests, San Francisco Estuary marshes, and even Antarctica, can go on in 2020. One of those efforts, a 23-year project focused on threatened Spotted Owls in Marin County deemed essential by local authorities, is underway—albeit with special COVID-19 precautions like a mandatory 6-foot distance between researchers, hand washing after going through gates, and rules forbidding shared equipment like spotting scopes. Plans for other projects that start in May or June remain precarious.  

In Texas, Heath is in the position of deciding whether to cancel the spring field projects she oversees. Since January, she and her staff have kayaked or boated out to check on nesting American Oystercatchers, a migratory species of conservation concern. “It’s not a crowd of people—we're just going out and doing our thing," Heath says. Local law enforcement has confirmed they can continue their surveying. “I’m just nervous about doing that,” she says. “I haven’t really decided what to do.” Two other research projects, focused on nesting Black Skimmers and Wilson’s Plovers and both set to start in April, will probably be delayed or canceled since the chemical plant and beaches where they take place are no longer accessible, she says. “I try to calm myself down and say, ‘It’s not the end of the world,’” Heath says. “But you hate to lose out.”

Like many others whose spring plans have suddenly changed, scientists are also finding there’s still plenty to do with their extra time. Researchers whose work is now a no-go say they instead plan to spend the year analyzing backlogs of historical data collected years or even decades earlier. “At first I felt frustrated, knowing the birds are still out there. But I feel very lucky actually” says Charmantier, whose French project’s dataset dates back to 1976. “It’s a gold mine."