National Aviary project tracks birds near Saltsburg ‘bird haven’
Bob Mulvihill carefully held the small American cardinal in his hands Saturday morning in rural Indiana County. He placed a thin piece of numbered metal around one of the bird’s legs, along with red- and yellow-colored bands.
That will allow residents in that area to track the bright red bird with sharp beak.
“This allows them to track the movement of the birds and track their lifespan,” said Mulvihill, an ornithologist with the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s North Side, said of the Neighborhood Nestwatch project at the home of Dan and Marcy Cunkelman in Conemaugh Township. Neighborhood Nestwatch is a program of the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center.
The Cunkelmans and their neighbors can monitor the birds and submit sightings throughout the year, said Molly Toth, a spokeswoman for the National Aviary. It helps scientists gather important data about the birds’ migratory patterns and nesting behaviors, as well as their survival rates across a rural to urban gradient.
Mulvihill was among about a dozen people Saturday who were involved in a bird catching, cataloging and banding program at the Cunkelman’s four-acre property, which is about seven miles from Saltsburg.
“They will return here every spring and summer,” allowing ornithologists to understand how long they live, Mulvihill said.
The Cunkelmans have been involved in the National Aviary’s citizen science project at their home for five years, said Marcy Cunkelman, a master gardener.
They have created a safe haven in their property not far from the Conemaugh River Dam by selectively growing many native plants and pollinator plants in plots spread across their property. Those plants attract birds, bees, and butterflies.
“It’s never boring here. You are always learning and observing” the birds, Cunkelman said.
Mulvihill, who spent 30 years as an ornithologist at the Powdermill Nature Reserve near Rector, Westmoreland County, used an audio device that played bird sounds to attract the real birds to fly into black “mist nets,” where the birds would get stuck. Mulvihill and other volunteers carefully removed the birds, cataloged the type of birds they had caught and their weight, put the bands on them and released them.
The Neighborhood Nestwatch program is focused on capturing and recording eight species: song sparrows, American robins, Northern cardinals, Northern mockingbirds, Gray catbird, song sparrow, Carolina wren and Carolina chickadee.
“They have created space for many of our targeted bids,” Mulvihill said.
Of the 50 sites in Western Pennsylvania where the Neighborhood Nestwatch is conducted, “Marcy has created the gold standard” for bird havens, Toth said.
It is the farthest site from Pittsburgh that is involved in the Neighborhood Nestwatch program, Toth said.
Among those helping in the catch-and-release initiative Saturday were Kim Shawley of Slickville and her two grandchildren, Ella Blair, 6, and Xavier Blair, 11, also of Slickville.
“I’m a bird lover and do a lot of nature walks. They (grandchildren) can learn about the world around them and then keep it intact,” Shawley said. “They have a great interest in being in being junior Audubons.”
Joe Napsha is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Joe at 724-836-5252, [email protected] or via Twitter .