Throughout its history, the Smithsonian Institution has been the centerpiece of American ornithology.
Bird research continues to flourish at the Institution's National Museum of Natural History, National Zoological Park, Environmental Research Center, Tropical Research Institute, and at field sites throughout the world.
In just the past decade, Smithsonian ornithologists have studied the impacts of urbanization on birds, the conservation value of shade-grown coffee, the effects of global climate change on migratory birds, the fascinating and sometimes dismal history of island avifaunas, the ravages of emerging infectious diseases on birds, and the processes underlying the fantastic diversity of South American birds.
Among the nation's bird conservation and research organizations, Smithsonian Ornithology is unique in the depth, breadth, and global reach of its science and education programs.
Every spring and summer, birds breed in our backyards. Some of these birds have survived the winter here while others have made the difficult trek from the tropics and the southern United States. Neighborhood NestWatch gives citizens the opportunity to be a biologist in their own backyards and to find out more about how birds live in urban and suburban areas.
Over the course of the breeding season, participants work with Smithsonian scientists to gather ecological data about nesting success and survival of color-banded birds in their backyards. Birds are followed from nest-building, to egg-laying, to the hatching of young. Some participants even re-sight birds banded in their neighborhoods throughout the winter.
The project continues the following spring when birds once again return to breed. Neighborhood NestWatch provides timely and valuable information about the ecology of eight focal species along an urban - rural habitat gradient. These data can allow land-use planners to make well-informed management decisions.
Managed lands can protect and enhance biodiversity. Based on field research conducted in coffee farms in Latin America, the Bird Friendly® Coffee program was one of the first of its kind to link conservation to the marketplace.
"Bird Friendly" refers to coffee produced on farms with a tree canopy cover that provides quality habitat for migratory and resident birds in tropical landscapes. Smithsonian scientists developed a set of science-based criteria that define the biophysical aspects of shade trees (e.g., height, species composition) associated with coffee. These criteria are used by independent certification agencies to determine if farms meet the "bird habitat test". Qualifying farms are certified as "Bird Friendly", enabling their coffee to be marketed for a premium price.
While some of the basic characteristics of shade coffee's ability to serve as a refuge for biodiversity are known, much work remains to be done to understand how such managed lands can best be used in overall landscape planning in tropical regions threatened with habitat destruction, loss of ecosystem services, and species extinctions.
The Bird Friendly® program is being expanded to other managed lands, such as cacao farms, tropical pasturelands and woodlots, and private forests in the eastern U.S.
Smithsonian ornithologists investigate how climate change is affecting bird diversity and populations, and how this impact differs between temperate and tropical regions. The Smithsonian has a unique set of projects underway in a broad range of forest ecosystems, from hardwood forests of New England, to Caribbean mangrove swamps, to rainforest in Mexico and Panama.
In these habitats, ornithologists monitor bird diversity and abundance, nesting success, survival rates, and annual and seasonal variation in the abundance of predators and food. They also use cutting-edge isotope and molecular techniques to understand population linkages between breeding and wintering sites for migratory species, and thus how climate effects in one season influence birds in later seasons.
These field and laboratory studies have been running for a minimum of 10 years, which allows Smithsonian Ornithology to take the long-term, synthetic, and big-picture perspective necessary to understand and predict the effects of climate change on birds.
The Smithsonian Institution is internationally recognized for its studies of systematics, biogeography, and evolution of both extant and extinct bird species.
The Hawaiian Islands, in particular, are a living laboratory for Smithsonian studies of evolution and human-caused extinctions. The Institution's ornithologists have led efforts to describe the south Asian avifauna, and have active research programs throughout the Americas.
Smithsonian geneticists have pioneered techniques that enable DNA to be obtained from sub-optimal sources, such as fossil bones. The National Museum of Natural History houses and maintains the third largest bird collection in the world, with over 600,000 specimens. Between 200 and 400 scientists visit the collections each year to conduct research. Even the U.S. military depends upon the Institution's expertise and collections to identify the remains of birds that strike aircraft.
In the last five years, Smithsonian ornithologists have discovered a new bird species in Burma, and rediscovered a finch species in Venezuela, the Red Siskin, that was presumed extinct.
Smithsonian ornithologists are leaders in the study of how emerging infectious diseases shape the ecology and evolution of birds. Two principal focuses of this program are West Nile virus (WNV) and avian malaria.
Ornithologists have been monitoring the spread of WNV in resident and migratory birds in the U.S., Mexico, and the Caribbean. The Smithsonian's monitoring efforts led to the first detection of WNV in birds in Jamaica, Puerto Rico, and Cuba. In addition, ornithologists study the WNV life cycle, from mosquitoes to birds to humans, as well as population-level responses of breeding bird species to WNV infection in the mid-Atlantic region.
Smithsonian scientists also examine the interactions between threatened Hawaiian birds, introduced and virulent avian malaria, and an invasive mosquito vector. Projects include genetic analyses of birds in relation to malaria resistance, and assessments of genetic structure in malaria itself. Smithsonian ornithologists are preparing to study avian influenza, a disease that has enormous potential to devastate both birds and humans worldwide.