08/16/2019

Supporting Texas’ Feathered Friends

17:40 minutes

a bird in a field
A greater prairie chicken. Credit: Alan Bartles

San Antonio is a great place for birding. Along with Texas Hill country, the Edwards Plateau, and the gulf coast, the region’s intersecting ecosystems make it a good home—and a welcome pitstop—for birds. When SciFri visited San Antonio, we talked with experts about some of the different ways that human actions can affect bird ecology.

Iliana Peña, the Director of Conservation Programs at the Texas Wildlife Association, talked about sustainable grazing and other changes to ranching procedures that would make the tracts of land held by large Texas landowners more welcoming to grassland birds. She also spoke of the relevance of hunting as a tool in bird conservation and as a driver for conservation and research funding. 

a woman kneeling down on gravel with a bird in her hands
Jen Smith releasing a greater prairie chicken. Credit: Jen Smith

Jennifer Smith, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio, described her research on the effects of wind farms on prairie chickens in Nebraska. Texas is the largest generator of wind energy in the nation, so it’s important to consider the direct effects of both wind turbines (birds flying into the blades) and the indirect effects, which can range from habitat disturbance, changes to predator populations, and more. Smith also discussed new research about the effects of urban bird feeders on the health of birds in and around San Antonio. 

two women and one man sit on chairs on a stage, each with microphones
Iliana Peña and Jennifer Smith talk with Ira about birds in Texas. Credit: Cindy Kelleher

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Segment Guests

Iliana Peña

Iliana Peña is Director of Conservation Programs at the Texas Wildlife Association in San Antonio, Texas.

Jennifer Smith

Jennifer Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio in San Antonio, Texas.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow, coming to you from the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts in San Antonio, Texas. 

[APPLAUSE] 

San Antonio is a great place for birds. You’ve got the Edwards Plateau to the Northwest, the Gulf Coast to the Southeast, the hill country nearby, and a great intersection of ecosystems that make the area either a good place for birds to live or to stop over on their way to somewhere else. And maybe you like watching birds, or you even put out food for them. Maybe you do that in your feeder. 

But have you considered all the many different ways that human actions can affect bird ecology? That’s what we’ll be talking about, including some ways that you may not have thought of. So let me introduce my guest. Iliana Pena is Director of Conservation Programs for the Texas Wildlife Association based here in San Antonio. 

[APPLAUSE] 

She’s also former director of the Mitchell Lake Audubon Center just south of town. Welcome to Science Friday. 

ILIANA PENA: Thank you. 

IRA FLATOW: Jennifer Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Welcome to Science Friday. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Iliana, for those of us not from here, and I’m looking at myself, what makes San Antonio such a good place for birds? 

ILIANA PENA: Well, you mentioned at the beginning, San Antonio is the confluence of three different eco regions. So you get a beautiful assemblage of birds that come into this area. We’ve got at Mitchell Lake, we have wetlands. We have hill country. We have South Texas plains. So it’s just a really diverse environment. And so it welcomes lots of birds. 

IRA FLATOW: Now I understand that you have a special fondness for shorebirds. 

ILIANA PENA: I do. In my other job before I moved to Texas Wildlife Association, I did a lot of work with Texas Audubon on coastal bird species. A lot of people in Texas don’t know, but there are all these tiny islands along the Texas coast that are nurseries for all of your brown pelicans, reddish egrets. That’s where they’re all born. So yeah, I have a affinity for that little bit. 

IRA FLATOW: Can’t claim you. Can’t blame you. I love shorebirds myself. Jennifer, I couldn’t help but notice that your accent might not be from around here. Are there local bird species that now you have come to admire locally? 

JENNIFER SMITH: Yeah, for sure. And that’s one of the things which attracted me to come to Texas for this job, was I teach ornithology and avian ecology. And this is a great place not only to do research, but to teach. And yeah, of course the road runners, it’s our school mascot. Go, runners. 

[APPLAUSE] 

So, you know, and a wide range of other species. I mean, Texas is home to 600 species. 

IRA FLATOW: How many? 

ILIANA PENA: A little over, yeah. 

JENNIFER SMITH: 600. 

IRA FLATOW: 600 species. 

JENNIFER SMITH: So it’s the state with the biggest number of birds in the entire US. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. 

JENNIFER SMITH: And so– 

[APPLAUSE] 

Yeah, and so not only am I an academic ornithologist, I’m a birder, too. And so this is an awesome place to be. 

IRA FLATOW: So you say. Everybody knows that Texas does things big, and they do things big with bird species. 

JENNIFER SMITH: Yeah, true. 

IRA FLATOW: Too. Now Iliana, I know that you’re a bird person, but you spend a lot of time these days thinking about cattle and ranching. 

ILIANA PENA: I do. 

IRA FLATOW: Tell us why. 

ILIANA PENA: Ironically. Well, because Texas is a private land state. So I imagine many of you have heard that we are 95% privately owned, and there are cattle all over this state. So when you’re talking bird conservation, you’ve got to be talking to landowners. 

IRA FLATOW: Give me an idea of what you mean by that. How do you deal with the two? 

ILIANA PENA: So I think many of us know that bison used to roam the central part of the United States into Canada and other grazers. And so our grasslands, our environments kind of evolved with grazing animals. And so today, we have cattle on our landscapes. 

But we use those cattle sometimes in maybe not the most appropriate way. So more and more landowners are beginning to understand that you can use grazers or cattle as a tool to improve habitat. So we are working with landowners to encourage what we call regenerative grazing or ecological grazing. 

IRA FLATOW: Now we have a couple of slides that we’re going to show right now that talk about their before and after pictures of the habitats. What are we seeing up here? 

ILIANA PENA: So most often, people that graze will sometimes do what we call continuous grazing. So you have 1,000 acres. You may put out 200 cattle, and they just kind of do what they want to do, right? So they may make the impacts on that landscape kind of over and over again. Well, what we’re encouraging landowners to do is to do rotational grazing or regenerative grazing. 

And what you see in the first picture is a property just outside of Marfa, Texas that was continuously grazed for years. And when the new landowner purchased it, they implemented this rotational grazing, which, more than anything, is all about rest period, right? So the cattle will come and graze really hard. But then they’ll leave, and they can leave that area for more than three months, six months. And this is what you see afterwards. So you don’t want to see bare ground. Ideally, you want to see fords or vegetation cover on the ground. 

IRA FLATOW: And you also see not just the plants. You see that it affects the soil– 

ILIANA PENA: Oh, yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: –itself too, right? 

ILIANA PENA: Don’t get me started on soil. 

IRA FLATOW: Go ahead. I’m getting you started. There’s a couple of pictures for you to talk. 

ILIANA PENA: No, it’s absolutely fascinating. Like, I had one of these, like, [EXPLOSION] moments, right? And cattle are these amazing little biological creatures. If you use them as a good tool, they’re dropping feces and urine, hair, saliva on the ground. They’re trampling it all up. They’re putting it in the soil. Then you take them away, and they improve soil. And if we improve our soil health, you guys, we actually improve soil’s ability to capture water, to improve water quality. And in a state like Texas, that’s– and all over the United States– that’s important. 

So here what you’re seeing, the first one is like a brick, right? Does it look like a brick? That soil is not doing what it can for the landowner. It’s not doing what it can for wildlife. If you look on the one on your right, it’s very porous. It has organic material in it. It’s actually able– see all those little porous areas that allow water to filter through and be captured? It’s acting like a sponge like it’s supposed to. So good soil health is key to a land manager doing what they would like on their land. Yeah. 

IRA FLATOW: But what does this all have to do with the birds, though? 

ILIANA PENA: Well, so grassland birds s a guild a birds love a diversity of different landscapes, right? So some like short grasses. Some like tall grasses. Some like real dense grasses. Some don’t. And when you’ve got cattle doing good work on the land, they’re creating a diversity on the landscape. And so you begin seeing bird populations benefit from good grazing. 

IRA FLATOW: One of my favorite things about Texas besides a lot of good food here in town and being San Antonio is the wind energy that you have, the wind power that you have in this state. Jennifer, you’ve done work on how wind farms affect prairie chickens. For those of us who don’t know what a prairie chicken is. 

JENNIFER SMITH: Yeah, so I did this work up in Nebraska. But even though I did it in Nebraska, it’s really relevant to Texas. I worked on the greater prairie chicken up in Nebraska, but we have lesser prairie chickens here. We also have the endangered [INAUDIBLE] here. And obviously, Texas, again, is ranked number one. So Texas, being big again, ranked number one in wind energy development in terms of install capacity. 

[APPLAUSE] 

So the work I did is completely irrelevant to Texas. But yeah, so we did a really big project led by [INAUDIBLE] Powell. He’s a professor at UNL. And it’s a big team of us, and we looked at lots of things. We looked at the effects of pre-existing 36 turbine facility on nest survival, female survival, [INAUDIBLE] survival, and numerous things that we can look at in terms of population growth. And the wind farm had no effect on any of those things. Yeah. 

[APPLAUSE] 

And then some of the other things we looked at were– we asked the question, do the wind farms affect the behavior of male prairie chickens? So something about prairie chickens is what’s really cool is that in the breeding season, at the beginning of the breeding season, the males congregate at known sites, which we call [? boomer ?] grounds or [? lex, ?] where a bunch of males– think David Attenborough’s show, like a wide number of males come to these booming grounds, and they perform elaborate displays for females. And the females come, and then they pick the best male with whom to mate. And then after that, the male has nothing to do with the rest of the raising with chicks or incubating. 

So yeah, so we looked at the behavior. And we did actually find that the wind farm did affect the behavior of these males at the [? lex. ?] So we found, interestingly, that the males at sites closest to the wind farm spent more time in breeding, so courtship behaviors, than individuals further away. So that was one of the only kind of effects that we saw of the wind farms and prairie chickens. 

IRA FLATOW: When you hear wind farms and birds, you probably think of birds smacking into the turbine blades, right? But that’s not what you look at mainly. 

JENNIFER SMITH: Right. So when we think about wind farms and birds, we probably all think about those direct impacts. That’s what we see a lot reported in the news. And those do exist. We know that between 140,000 and 328,000 birds are impacted directly through collisions on wind farms, but that’s not what we considered. So we looked at what’s known as indirect effects. So for example, do wind farms cause habitat loss, which could have an effect indirectly on birds? Or do they act as barriers to their movements? 

IRA FLATOW: And coming from the east where we have these giant buildings, I know how many birds are affected by those buildings that no one talks about very much. 

JENNIFER SMITH: Right. And so estimates in the literature suggest that there’s a number of things affecting birds potentially. And I say potentially because we’re still very at the infancy of this research. But it looks like buildings are actually having quite a large impact on birds more so than wind turbines. 

IRA FLATOW: Wow. Let’s go to the floor here. Yes, first question. 

AUDIENCE: You spoke about the large land owners. What about the small land owners that maybe have less than an acre? What can we do besides sticking out a bird feeder or sticking out a hummingbird feeder or a birdhouse? 

ILIANA PENA: I think actually our smaller landowners are wonderfully able to help us with pollinators. Pollinators need a lot of help. And you have the ability to make a choice about what kind of yard you choose to have. And so I would encourage small landowners. Like you said, you mentioned about an acre, but encouraging you to help pollinators. Because that supports insects. That supports birds and the like, so. 

IRA FLATOW: But you also are studying bird feeders. 

JENNIFER SMITH: Yeah, and so at the moment I’m starting a big project here in San Antonio, which actually is integrating citizen scientists. So if anyone is interested in doing some really cool citizen science here in San Antonio, get in touch. Awesome, I see some fingers. Brilliant. 

But this project here in San Antonio is running on from some of my PhD work that looked at the effects of garden bird feeding in the UK. So we found that bird feeding actually decreased clutch size, so the number of eggs that a bird produces, which is actually kind of opposite to pretty much any other study that’s been done. 

But that really highlights a really important point that you can do one scientific study on a question. But you often have to replicate it because these results can be site and species specific. So we found that. We found– and this is kind of a consistent finding across studies– we found that feeding on birds advance when they lay their eggs and when they initiated building their nests. So that basically in a nutshell means that they bred earlier. 

And that can have important consequences because birds, at least in some species, birds that are able to leave the nest earlier in a season have a higher likelihood of surviving over the winter. Because they’ve kind of got more time to build up their fat reserves, for example. And then we found some slight changes in some other behaviors. So for example, we found– and I should say this work was done on two species closely related to chickadees, blue and great tits. 

And we found that they spent longer in incubation behavior compared to birds which weren’t fed, which allowed them to shorten the amount of time that it took for the eggs to hatch. And again, this is important because it was shorter incubation period, and those birds hatched sooner and could leave the nest earlier. 

IRA FLATOW: I’m Ira Flatow, and this is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. Iliana, let’s talk about hunting. I know quail hunting is very popular here. Give us an idea of the interplay between hunters and the quail and how hunting affects the quail population. 

ILIANA PENA: So hunting is a huge major contributor to conservation. I mean, yeah. Honestly, hunting is used to help manage populations of deer and other wildlife. So hunting used as a part of a management plan is very appropriate and important to manage some species. 

Regarding quail, our hunters and our conservationists are the biggest contributors to conservation dollars for studying bobwhite quail and research. And so, yeah. And a lot of people aren’t aware of this, but our model of conservation, if you are impassioned about protecting the environment, hunters and hunter dollars actually contribute to over 69% of the conservation dollars that support our wildlife. 

And unfortunately, we’re seeing less and less hunting. But I have to say there’s a bit of an uptick. More and more people are beginning to say, you know what’s better than organic? Wild game. Anyway, as it relates to quail, the interesting thing about bobwhite quail is as we do good for bobwhite quail, we do good for a slew or a guild of grassland birds. 

And so it’s funny. It’s an iconic bird. People– I don’t know. Raise or by applause, how many have ever scared up a covey of quail in your lifetime? 

[APPLAUSE] 

Isn’t that amazing? And sadly, bobwhite quail are in decline. And Texas is in one of those places, South Texas and in the panhandle, in which those areas where those birds are doing OK. But it’s a challenge, and it’s sad to think that my six-year-old daughter may never get to experience that. But as I said, what we do for quail is good for other grassland birds. And so that’s why quail and hunter dollars are important. 

JENNIFER SMITH: I just want to add a little bit there. The project that I spoke about on wind farms and great prairie chickens, that’s actually funded through what we call Pittman-Robertson dollars. That’s excise tax on hunting equipment. So we were awarded that money through in Nebraska. Again, parks commission. And even if you don’t hunt, you can go out and buy a duck stamp. And that money goes towards conservation. 

IRA FLATOW: I want to thank Iliana Pena, director of conservation programs for the Texas Wildlife Association. Jennifer Smith is an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental Science and Ecology at the University of Texas at San Antonio. Again, thanks to both of you for being with us today. 

[APPLAUSE] 

Still feeling a little bird crazy? Our Science Friday Book Club has been reading Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds and learning about how smart birds are. Pick up the book, and check out ScienceFriday.com/BookClub to join the discussion. Taking us to the break, our musical guests for the evening, [INAUDIBLE]. 

[APPLAUSE] 

[MUSIC PLAYING] 

After the break, we take you inside the world’s most dangerous bio lab safely after this. 

[SINGING IN SPANISH] 

This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios.

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