By Morgan Steele ’14
To most students, birds just fall into the background of the day-to-day, but to junior Nora Livingston and sophomore Austin Patton—self-proclaimed “bird nerds” and the only members of the College’s newly created Bird Crew—birds are so much more.
“You can go your whole life seeing birds and hearing birds but not really seeing them,” said Livingston, Bird Crew student leader. “It gives me a better sense of place when I can recognize my surroundings, and it feels a little bit more like home if everything is familiar. Many students here are interested in that sense of place and the natural intertwining of nature in their daily lives. Knowing about birds can help people feel that.”
Livingston hatched the idea for the new work crew last fall in Santa Cruz Island, California, where she conducted population studies on the Island Scrub Jay. A friend suggested that Livingston start a Bird Crew after observing her enthusiasm for birds and birding. Livingston proposed the idea to biology/environmental studies professor Lou Weber and asked her to be the crew supervisor.
“We proposed the crew through email while I was on Santa Cruz Island,” Livingston said. “It was approved, so I knew I’d be coming back to school with a new crew and one other crew member.”
To find another crew member, Weber emailed a handful of students. One of those students was sophomore Austin Patton. “My interest [in birds and birding] peaked near the end of my first semester here,” Patton said. “My parents were ornithologists, so as a kid all I wanted to do was dislike what they liked.”
Despite Patton’s attempts to resist his parents’ bird-loving tendencies, he realized in the second half of his freshman year that his childhood experiences with birds and birding really influenced him. One of his fondest childhood memories was when his parents were studying Worm-Eating Warblers. They would catch the birds, band them, and allow Patton to hold them.
“That memory stuck with me,” Patton said. “Now that I have gotten away from that whole background, I started to realize that I was paying attention to the birds. I wanted to know more about them, so I got a field guide.”
Patton had only been seriously birding for a few months when he received Weber’s email searching for Bird Crew recruits. “This opportunity was ideal,” Patton said. “It was the embodiment of everything that I was interested in—the potential for research, the potential for banding. Doing those things on a work crew and getting paid for it was too much to resist. It is a learning experience and an opportunity I probably wouldn’t get later. I had to go for it.”
On Triad Day, the first day of the fall semester, Livingston and Patton sat down together for the first time and tried to answer the ultimate question: What would Bird Crew do?
“We’re developing the crew right now,” Livingston said. “It’s beginning to take wing.”
Education quickly arose as the crew’s priority. They are working on establishing a Bird Blog, on which they will post a bird of the week and answer any questions students ask concerning birds, such as species identification and how to care for an injured bird. In addition to the blog, Livingston and Patton are leading bird walks to provide an experiential way for the campus community to learn about the birds that live on and around campus. They’ve led a few bird walks off campus and plan to continue leading weekly off-campus walks and bi-weekly campus walks. During these bird walks, Patton or Livingston lead students, faculty and staff to designated “hot spots”—areas like Dogwood or the Farm where lots of birds can be found.
“We’ll teach anyone who doesn’t know about birds what they’re hearing, what they’re seeing,” Patton said. “This gives people an opportunity to get familiar with birds like they never have before.”
“It’s a nice way to be around campus,” Livingston said. “A lot of people go on hikes, but this is a little bit slower. You get to see things and learn things as well, which is really fun.”
After a few weeks back on campus, Livingston and Patton started proposing different ways to utilize Bird Crew on campus. One project they’re considering involves researching the Savannah Sparrow Meadowlark, a field bird that sets up its nest in farm fields just before farmers cut and bail hay.
“This chops the nests to bits and totally throws off the parents, and oftentimes kills the young,” Patton said. “My thought is that if we can establish a solid set of data for the fields on campus, we can potentially redirect the Farm Crew to wait until a certain date to cut particular field because it may be a hot spot.”