Volunteering in the Owlery for the annual School of Witchcraft and Wizardry event


Lively looking owl specimens demonstrate to kids a wide variety of species


Special adaptations of their wings, skull, and talons, make owls formidable predators

Several grad students in our lab helped run the owlery again this year at School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, an annual science outreach event run by Let’s Talk Science at the University of Alberta. We taught kids a variety of facts about owls including how they are adapted to their environment, how they hunt, and how they communicate.

The students got to listen to several different species calls recorded from the wild. We had a variety of owl specimens and new this year we brought in mammal specimens (a hare, mouse, vole, and a squirrel), to show the kids what kinds of prey owls will eat. The kids really seemed to enjoy it and so did we! It was great seeing their eyes light up as they learned about owls and listened to different owl calls, there was even one kid that did a great impression of the calls of four different owl species!


Participants listened to audio recordings of owl calls

Photos and text by Julia Shonfield

2016 Internship on Elk in Ya Ha Tinda

Elk Mel Mountains

HIRING IMMEDIATELY:  We seek an intern to participate in the CICan Clean Tech Internship Program (http://cleantech.collegesinstitutes.ca/). The successful intern will assist in investigating the decline of the partially-migratory Ya Ha Tinda elk herd in and adjacent to Banff National Park (see http://yahatinda.biology.ualberta.ca/ for more information).


This phase of our long-term research is to understand cause-specific mortality for elk calves as a result of maternal behavioural trade-offs made in terms of foraging and predation risk (wolves, bears, mountain lions and coyotes). The intern will use radio telemetry to monitor adult females for parturition behavior, assist in capture and tagging of elk calves, subsequently monitor both calves and adults, and complete a final report.  The position will also include, but is not limited to, investigating elk calf mortality sites, behavioural observations, vegetation sampling, pellet plot surveys, remote camera surveys, and predator scat surveys using scat detection dogs.


The study area straddles the boundary between Banff National Park and provincial land, in and around the beautiful Ya Ha Tinda ranch, Parks Canada’s working horse ranch, west of Sundre, AB.  AT THE RANCH, THERE IS NO CELL PHONE SERVICE AND ONLY LIMITED INTERNET. THE CLOSEST TOWN (Sundre) IS 1.5 HOURS AWAY. The position available is a 6-month CICan Clean Tech Internship (http://cleantech.collegesinstitutes.ca/) that will pay ~$2800/mo. including benefits.


CALVING PERIOD (mid-May to mid-June): Shared housing is provided for project staff in the form of tent camping with a cabin/wall tent for cooking/eating or shared rooms in the research house.  Trips to town, hot showers, and laundry are FEW and FAR BETWEEN.  Weather during calving can be anywhere from COLD, wet, rainy, and SNOWY to hot and sunny.  Because we are essentially “on-call” to catch calves as quickly as possible when born, days are LONG with VERY LITTLE TO NO TIME OFF.  I do TRY to make up for this before/after the peak of calving, but no guarantees.  Because we are working long days, we eat group meals and have a camp cook who takes care of all shopping and cooking, so I typically ask that paid technicians contribute $50/week for food during those weeks.

POST-CALVING: Shared rooms in the research house provided; the house is also used by Parks Canada wardens and others unrelated to the project, so we have to be very considerate and mindful of our presence.  Work schedules are somewhat flexible, usually either 10/4 or 5/2.  Summers can be hot, WINDY, and full of FLIES.  Primary duties include monitoring the calves each day, herd classifications, and habitat measurements.


Applicants MUST meet the following qualifications:

  • The intern cannot be over 30 years old.
  • The intern must be a graduate of a post-secondary institution.
  • The intern must be a Canadian Citizen, have permanent Canadian residency status, or have been granted refugee status in Canada and legally entitled to work in Canada.
  • The intern must possess a valid, non-graduated Class 5 Canadian driver’s license.
  • Physically able to carry a heavy daypack while hiking 8-10 hrs. in mountainous terrain and grizzly bear country, even in inclement weather and colder temperatures.
  • 2)  Ability to navigate and work independently in remote/rural areas using a GPS, map, and compass
  • FLEXIBILITY; ability to maintain a POSITIVE attitude while working and living closely with co-workers; ability to work long hours and odd schedules.


Hiring decisions will be made immediately. Please email Jodi Berg at jberg@ualberta.ca:

1)   A cover letter that explicitly addresses EACH of the following:

  • why you are interested in working on the YHT Elk Project
  • how you meet EACH of the qualifications listed above

2)   Your resume/CV

3)   Email addresses for three references that can speak to your ability to conduct yourself in the field and work as part of a team

It’s all fen and games – field ecology adventures in and around McClelland Lake fen

As an incoming PhD student in Erin Bayne’s lab, I was fortunate to spend the summer before grad school north of Ft. McMurray, AB studying yellow rails and common nighthawks for the Bayne lab. I was struck by the patterns and contrasts of the boreal landscape in the oil sands area, which are well worth sharing as a photo essay.


Figure01Our 2015 field season started with a helicopter reconnaissance of the three large graminoid fens where we planned to deploy autonomous recording units (ARUs) to survey yellow rails. There was much banking and loop-de-looping involved; Tim Hortons breakfast burritos were not a good choice.


ARUs are an obvious choice for monitoring yellow rails for several reasons: 1) Yelow rails are highly cryptic, 2) they’re nocturnal, and 3) they live in floating graminoid fens, which are not a particularly fun place to survey in the dark. Graminoid fens are wet places, and traversing one is akin to walking across a wobbly water bed. By Elly Knight

ARUs are an obvious choice for monitoring yellow rails for several reasons: 1) Yellow rails are highly cryptic, 2) they’re nocturnal, and 3) they live in floating graminoid fens, which are not a particularly fun place to survey in the dark. Graminoid fens are wet places, and traversing one is akin to walking across a wobbly water bed.


Figure03Much of our work was in McClelland fen, Alberta’s best example of a patterned fen and a provincially significant environmentally sensitive area (ESA). The fen is on the southeastern side of McClelland Lake, north of Fort Mackay.


Figure04Patterned fens are characterized by strings and flarks. Strings are the lines of larch and bog birch. Flarks are the graminoid areas in between. Although I’ve yet to use it, I believe “flark” may be the best scrabble word ever.


Figure05These large fens can be difficult to access and hike through, so we deployed the ARUs via helicopter long line. Labmate Dan Yip developed a clever stand design that allowed the ARUs to be automatically dropped from the long line and still stay upright. Hooking the stands back to the long line for pick up required slogging through the fen though.


Figure06Slogging through fens provided the opportunity to see many unique flora and fauna. Pitcher plants are found in fens on hummocks of moss. These plants obtain nutrients by attracting insects who get caught by downward pointing hairs on the sides of the pitcher. The insects eventually drown in the water within the pitcher and the plant slowly digests them.


Figure07In other parts of the fen, microbes create a sheen of oil as a by-product of digestion, which catches the light and fragments when disturbed (by the slogging).


Figure08Our helicopter work also included aerial views of the oil sands development just south of our study area. Here, bitumen, salts, solvents, and sediment on the surface of a tailings pond creates an equally eye-catching pattern.


Figure09Back at camp, we set our tents up in a stand of live trees for safety measures. The area north of McClelland Lake for several hundred kilometres is a sandy jack pine forest that burned in 2011 during the Richardson fire, which was the second largest fire in Alberta’s recorded history. Also, pro tip: get your helicopter to pick you up at camp.


Figure10The regenerating post-fire landscape of the Richardson burn is beautiful. Lab mate Janet Ng and I came across this sunny patch of burned pine and grass during a morning survey for olive-sided flycatchers.


Figure11Turns out post-fire jack pine forest with is prime habitat for common nighthawks, which we spent the second half of the field season studying. Lab mate Daniel Yip found this nest in a stand of burned pine. Common nighthawks don’t make nests – they simply lay two eggs on bare ground. This bird has pulled out all the stops and even cleared a few pine needles.


Figure12By night, labmate Janet Ng taught me how to catch common nighthawks, my PhD study species. We worked at night because nighthawks are crepuscular (i.e., active at dusk and dawn).


Figure13Here, Janet contemplates the coming evening’s work with Maurice, our handsome nighthawk decoy, who helps lure the real birds in. This is Janet’s “science face”.


Figure14With the help of Maurice, we caught male nighthawks and fitted each bird with a satellite transmitter for a migration study by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. You can read more about the project on Janet’s blog post here. Photo credit Janet Ng.


Figure15Doing common nighthawk work in northern Alberta meant staying up real late to wait for dusk, but the slow sunsets through burned pine were spectacular.


Needless to say, I’m excited to get back up north next summer to continue studying common nighthawks!


Post by Elly Knight.

The use of citizen science to identify the factors affecting bird-window collisions at residential houses

Here’s the second post looking at the results of the Birds and Windows project! Here’s a link if you missed the first one. Today I’m focusing on the factors affecting collisions at residential houses.

In the past there have only been four studies looking at why one house has more collisions than another and each of these studies have focused on different aspects of window collision risk. These studies did not look at the impacts of multiple factors, including window type and yard attributes at the same time.

We propose the factors influencing bird-window collisions at houses be categorized based on scale into four levels: neighbourhood type, yard conditions, house attributes, and window types. Understanding the level that has the greatest impact on bird-window collision rates has implications for prioritizing mitigation options

The Birds and Windows citizen science project was developed to gain a better understanding of the factors affecting collisions at residential houses at all four levels with our main objective to focus on understanding the relative importance of variables at each of our four levels.

Birds and Windows 1

Since the launch of the Birds and Windows project there have been 34114 observations entered from homeowners in Alberta. Of these there were 930 collisions and 102 fatalities.

Of the collisions in Alberta, 497 could be identified to species or family. There were collisions from 53 different species. Birds that frequent feeders accounted for 295 of the identified collisions and 202 collisions were by those birds that do not visit feeders.

The most common species were Black-capped chickadees (n=50), American robins (n=40), Dark-eyed juncos (n=31), Bohemian waxwings (n=30), Cedar waxwings (n=24), and Black-billed magpies (n=22). There were a number of birds categorized as sparrows, chickadees, or waxwings which could not be identified further and as a result the numbers for Black-capped chickadees, House sparrows and both waxwing species are likely higher than reported above.

Birds and Windows 2

The factors identified at the yard level were the best explanation for the number of collisions. Those at the neighbourhood level were a close second.

Overall, the 3 factors identified as having the largest effect on bird-window collisions was whether the house was in an urban or rural location, the height of vegetation in the front yard of a house and whether or not there was a bird feeder present within 10 m of the house. There was additionally a large effect of seasonality on collision risk.

At the neighbourhood level there was a strong effect of both urban/rural location and season. Rural homes during the fall had a daily collision risk 10.84 times greater than urban houses in the winter. Those houses more likely to have a collisions where rural homes during spring and fall migration.

At the yard level the presence of a bird feeder, the height of vegetation in the front yard, whether the yard was considered developed or undeveloped and season had the largest effect on collision risk. Houses with a feeder in the fall had 5.96 times more collisions than a house without a feeder in the winter. Those houses more likely to have a collision were homes with a bird feeder, during spring and fall migration, houses with vegetation in the front yard 2 storeys or higher and houses in an undeveloped landscape.

At the house level the number of windows, the year the house was build, the building type and season had the strongest effect on collision risk. Those houses more likely to have a collision include houses with more than 10 windows, houses built before 1970, single-attached houses and during spring and fall migration.

At the window level whether or not vegetation was reflected in the window, the side of the house the window was on, the direction the window faced and the type of glass of the window were the best predictors of a collision. Those windows more likely to be a collision window include windows that reflect vegetation, windows on the front of a house, windows facing south and Low-E and UV glass windows. Birds and Windows 3In looking at differences between those birds that visit feeders and those birds that do not, the presence of a bird feeder increased collision risk 6.13 times for feeder birds and 2.96 times for non-feeder birds. This suggests that similar factors are affecting both groups. As well, those homes with bird feeders are more likely to have urban gardens and have created bird-friendly regions at their homes which are attracting non-feeder birds.

These results are generally consistent with other studies which have focused on a handful of the factors we have outlined. Factors associated with vegetation and increasing bird abundance have the largest effect on collision risk. Reductions to vegetation cover and abundance might reduce collisions however homeowners are not likely wanting to reduce the vegetation and number of birds in their yard. Instead we suggest we shift our focus towards developing the most effective window deterrents.

Public Seminar: The use of citizen science to identify the factors affecting bird-window collisions at residential houses

On Tuesday, December 8, Justine Kummer will be presenting a public seminar for her MSc defence. Come hear about her research in the University of Alberta Biological Sciences Building room CW 313 at 1pm.

Bird Feeders 2

Talk Summary

Every year a large number of birds die when they collide with windows. The actual number however is difficult to ascertain. Previous attempts to estimate bird-window collision rates in Canada relied heavily on a citizen science study that used memory-based surveys which may have potential biases. Building upon this study and their recommendations for future research the Birds and Windows citizen science project was designed to have homeowners actively search for collision evidence at their houses and apartments for an extended period. The first objective of the Birds and Windows project was to see how a more standardized approach to citizen science data collection influenced bird-window collision estimates and to see if the same patterns observed by memory-based surveys were observed using different data collection methods. Comparing the results from the Birds and Windows standardized searches and memory-based surveys revealed differences in absolute values of collisions but similar relative rankings between residence types. This suggests that memory-based surveys may be a useful tool for understanding the relative importance of different risk factors causing bird-window collisions.

The second objective from the Birds and Windows project was to gain a better understanding of the factors affecting collisions at residential houses. It currently remains poorly understood which types of buildings and windows are most problematic. Understanding whether neighbourhood type, yard conditions, house attributes, or window types have the largest effect on collision rates is crucial for identifying which mitigation options might be most effective. Factors at the yard level had the best model fit for predicting bird-window collisions at residential houses. Conservation efforts should target variables at this level and those factors that attract birds to an individual yard. As few homeowners are likely to take an approach that reduces the number of birds in their yards, focus should instead be given to bird-friendly urban design and developing the most effective window deterrents.

Finally, the effects of bird feeder presence and placement on bird-window collisions at residential homes was determined through a manipulative experiment. During the study there were 1.84 times more collisions when the bird feeder was present. However, there were no collisions at half of the study windows. High variance was observed in the number of collisions at different houses, indicating that effects of bird feeders are context dependent. Changing the occurrence, timing, and placement of feeders can alter collision rates but is only one of many factors that influence whether a residential house is likely to have a bird-window collision or not.

In conclusion, I provide recommendations for conducting future survey-based citizen science projects and outline the next steps for bird-window collision research in working towards stopping avian mortality from collisions with windows. I have thoroughly outlined a number of factors affecting bird-window collisions and the focus of future research should now shift towards reducing the problem. The Birds and Windows project saw a number of successes as a citizen science project and citizen science remains the best method for collecting large scale data in real-world scenarios and should continue to be used in similar experiments.

Bird Feeders 3

New publication on bird feeders and bird-window collisions

Justine Kummer recently published a paper on the effect of bird feeders on bird-window collisions at residential houses. Check it out here!

If you missed it last time, there’s a blog post recap of the bird feeder project.

This experiment was part of her larger Birds and Windows Project.

Bird Feeders 2

Seminar: Projecting boreal bird responses to climate change: considering uncertainty, refugia, time lags, and barriers

Diana Stralberg will be presenting her thesis defense seminar on Tuesday, November 3 at 1pm in the University of Alberta Biological Sciences Building room CW313. Check out her abstract below.

Photo by Craig Machtans, Environment Canada.

Photo by Craig Machtans, Environment Canada.

Abstract: Often referred to as North America’s bird nursery, the boreal forest biome provides a resource-rich environment for breeding birds, supporting high species diversity and bird numbers. These birds are likely to shift their distributions northward in response to rapid climate change over the next century, resulting in population- and community-level changes. Using a new continental-scale avian dataset, I have developed models to project climate-induced changes in the distribution and relative abundance of 80 boreal-breeding passerine species. For such projections to be useful, however, the magnitude of change must be understood relative to the magnitude of uncertainty in model predictions. In my first chapter, I found that the mean signal-to-noise ratio across species increased over time to 2.87 by the end of the 21st century, with the signal greater than the noise for 88% of species. I also found that, among sources of uncertainty evaluated, the choice of climate model was most important for 66% of species, sampling error for 29% of species, and variable selection for 5% of species. In addition, the range of projected changes and uncertainty characteristics across species differed markedly, suggesting the need for a variety of approaches to climate change adaptation.

Species and ecosystems may be unable to keep pace with rapid climate change projected for the 21st century, however. In my second chapter, I evaluated an underexplored dimension of the mismatch between climate and biota: limitations to forest growth and succession affecting habitat suitability. I found that end-of-century projected changes in songbird distribution were reduced by up to 169% when vegetation lags were considered, indicating that limits to forest growth and succession may result in dramatic reductions in suitable habitat for many species over the next century. I used these results to identify conservative and efficient boreal conservation priorities anchored around climatic macrorefugia that are robust to century-long climate change and complement the current protected areas network.

Vegetation change may also be delayed in the absence of disturbance catalysts. In the western boreal region, a combined increase in wildfires and human activities may aid these transitions, also resulting in a younger forest. In my third chapter, I developed a hybrid modelling approach based on topo-edaphically constrained projections of climate-driven vegetation change potential, coupled with weather- and fuel-based simulations of future wildfires, and projections of large-scale industrial development activities, to better understand factors influencing decadal-scale upland vegetation change. I simulated scenarios of change in forest composition and structure over the next century, conservatively concluding that at least one-third of Alberta’s upland mixedwood and conifer forest is likely to be replaced by deciduous woodland and grassland by 2090, with a disproportionate loss of both young and old forest classes. During this timeframe, the rate of increase in fire probability diminished, suggesting a negative feedback process by which a warmer climate and more extensive near-term fires leads to an increase in deciduous forest that in turn, due to its relatively low flammability, leads to a long-term reduction in area burned.

Finally, boreal species’ projected range shifts could be impeded by the northwestern cordillera, which separates boreal Alaska from the rest of the North American boreal region, and appears to have historically prevented many species from expanding into climatically suitable habitat after the last glacial maximum (LGM). Using paleoclimate simulations for the past 20,000 years, I analyzed the relative importance of migratory and life-history characteristics vs. climatic factors on the distributions of North American boreal-breeding species. I then used this information to predict which species are most likely to shift their distributions from Canada into the Alaskan boreal region in the future. The high relative importance of climatic suitability within the northwestern cordilleran region suggests a capacity for several species to disperse into Alaska once climatic connectivity is achieved in the future, which is supported by recently recorded signs of breeding activity.