Cayuga Nature Center   Smith Woods   Total species found
  6 0     2 1     6 5


There are approximately 10,000 extant species that have evolved from earlier feathered dinosaurs within the Theropod group. Primitive birds – like Archeopteryx – date to the mid-Jurassic period, 170 million years ago. Birds’ closest modern relatives are crocodiles and alligators. Birds play many roles, including as predators, pollinators, scavengers, seed dispersers, seed predators, and ecosystem engineers. 

Characteristics of most birds make them unique from the perspective of ecosystem services. Because most birds fly, they can respond to irruptive or pulsed resources in ways generally not possible for other vertebrates. Migratory species link ecosystem processes and fluxes that are separated by great distances and time. 

The vast majority of bird species observed during the BioBlitz – or at any time in the Cayuga Basin – are native species. However, there are a handful of very common birds that were introduced to North America by humans. On the BioBlitz species list the Pigeon (from Europe/Africa), Starling (Europe) and House Finch (Mexico) have all been introduced to the area. Non-native species can be benign, but in most ecosystems non-natives compete with native species for food, nesting locations and habitat.

When you come across a bird feather look at it closely. Is it perfectly symmetrical along its central shaft? If so it is a rectrix – a feather from the tail used for steering in flight. If the feather is asymmetrical, with one side narrower than the other, then it is a remex from the wing, used for thrust and lift. This is the key to flying. Human flight engineers shape the wings of airplanes after the convex and asymmetrical remiges (plural of remex) of birds, thus allowing humans to fly.

The Cayuga Basin is an important flyway. The Cayuga Basin provides important habitat for birds migrating along the Atlantic flyway from Canada to the Caribbean. Species migrate to take advantage of the different seasonal temperatures that control the availability of food sources and breeding habitat. Many landbirds, shorebirds and waterbirds undertake annual long distance migrations, triggered by decreasing hours of daylight and changing weather conditions. These birds spend the summer breeding season in temperate or polar regions, and the non-breeding season in the tropics or in the opposite hemisphere. Migration routes and wintering grounds are both genetically and traditionally determined depending on the social system of the species. Birds prepare for migration by substantially increasing body fat reserves. Sooty Shearwaters have the longest migration path, flying annually between Alaska and New Zealand, 39,000 miles. Birds need suitable habitat across the length of their flyway thus bird conservation becomes a global concern. Additionally, the timing of bird migration has been altered by global climate. The Ruby-throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubris) is a North American native species with a widespread range east of the Mississippi River. This hummingbird is migratory, spending winter in Mexico and Central America, then flying north to its breeding range in the spring and summer. Hummingbirds have the unique ability to hover while flying, and can even fly backwards. This is accomplished by the birds’ unusual wing musculature, which allows the wings to rotate almost 180° and move in a figure-eight pattern. The hummingbird can beat its wings at a rate of 80 beats/second. Hummingbirds are insectivores and insectivores, with specialized tongues to extract nectar from deep within flowers. Ruby-throated Hummingbirds are tiny, only 3 inches in length, with the male sporting the iridescent red throat that gives the species its common name. Their small size makes their migration to Central America even more astonishing. While some birds follow the Gulf coastline south, many make a direct crossing of the Gulf of Mexico, traveling 500 miles in a nonstop flight of 20 hours!

Silent Spring

Birdsong – or rather, the lack of birdsong – is the phenomenon that gives the title to Rachel Carson’s groundbreaking 1962 book Silent Spring. Carson identified the widespread use of agricultural pesticides as the cause for declining populations of bird species. Apex predators and scavengers are most at risk from the effects of biomagnification of pesticide toxins in the food chain. In the US in the 1950s there were only 412 nesting pairs of once widespread Bald Eagles (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) recorded in the lower 48 states. The pesticide DDT caused eagle egg shells to thin to the point of collapse under a brooding bird, thus leading to a steep decline in population. Rachel Carson’s book sparked the modern environmental movement, the ban of DDT for agricultural use, and the creation of the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Following the ban on DDT and federal legal protections for Bald Eagles, the population recovered, reaching 100,000 birds by the early bird’s ability to fly has captured the human imagination for millennia.


Scott Sutcliffe was the Lead for Team Ornithology. He joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology staff in 1985. Scott is a graduate of the Cornell University's College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) and the University of New Hampshire. Scott is the Lab of O’s Director of the Annual Fund and Stewardship. Before joining the Lab of O he worked for Audubon and The Nature Conservancy. His passions are birds and environmental conservation!