Here’s a birdwatching tip. If you want to attract the region’s bright and colorful lazuli buntings to your feeder, use white millet — and white millet only.
That’s the word from Utah State University ornithologist Clark Rushing, who knows a bit about lazuli buntings. This summer, Rushing launched a major study to track the songbirds on their winter migrations and evaluate the stresses put on their population.
“If your feeder is full of sunflower seeds and even red millet, like in the common feed mixtures that you get at the hardware store, you’ll get very few buntings,” Rushing noted in a recent interview with The Herald Journal. “But if you put just white millet in your feeder, especially with the hanging platform feeders, you’ll get lazuli buntings almost anywhere in town.”
Rushing is using feeders in his study, but they are a lot more complicated than anything local residents might use. They feature a solar panel that powers an electronic data-collection device intended to log the arrival of any lazuli buntings banded in the study. And, of course, they dispense white millet.
A handful of the feeders have been placed in Logan Dry Canyon and near the mouth of Logan Canyon at the USU Challenge Course. Others are stationed near the bottom and top of the Tony Grove road in Logan Canyon.
“Every time one of the birds visits one of those feeders we get a log that that bird was there, and over the course of summer and subsequent years, we’ll have records of what birds are using the feeders,” Rushing said. “From that we can estimate survival probabilities.”
But how does one catch a tiny songbird to band it?
Rushing explained that he and his research assistant periodically place what are known as “mist nets,” made from ultra-thin material, near the feeders, then stand by to see what gets trapped.
The effort was launched in early spring of this year, when lazuli buntings started showing up in the region for their annual summer breeding season, and so far the researchers have banded about 200 birds. Another 25 were fitted with data-collection devices that will help track the birds and map their migration patterns.
The devices are a new, federally approved technology that employs a tiny light sensor and fits on the birds like a little backpack. The sensors only weigh a half of a gram, which Rushing said amounts to only about 3 percent of the birds’ typical body weight.
In the past, the batteries needed to power such tracking devices were too large for tiny songbirds.
“A lazuli bunting only weighs about 15 or 16 grams,” Rushing said. “That’s the equivalent of about three quarters. I always joke that a lazuli bunting is about 75 cents, so they’re very, very small. Until these new devices were available, we’ve had no way to track the birds’ fall migratory movements or where they are spending the winter."
It is known that many lazuli buntings wind up on the Pacific Coast along the Baja Peninsula, but ornithologists would like to know more about their routes south. The light sensors will allow them to do that.
Every five minutes they take a reading that records the intensity of light in the place where the bird is, and scientists can apply a formula to this information to determine the longitude and latitude of the bird at any given time. The lightweight tracking devices don’t have enough power to transmit this information to a satellite or cell tower, so Rushing and his graduate assistant, Kim Savides, will have to rely on recapturing the birds upon their return to Cache Valley next year to get the information they're hoping for.
Although the research project focuses exclusively on lazuli buntings, the results could add important data to the body of research on all migratory songbirds in the region.
“The larger goal of my research is trying to understand what factors drive changes in population size of migratory birds,” Rushing said. “Lazuli buntings are really unique in that their populations are relatively stable. That’s not the case for most migratory birds in North America. As a whole, migratory birds have experienced long-term decline.”
Scientists don’t know for certain why most of these species have declined.
“We don’t know if it is related to changes in habitat on their breeding grounds, changes in habitat on their wintering grounds, things that are happening during migration, climate change …” Rushing said. “So a lot of my research is trying to figure out what determines whether populations of migratory birds are going up or down, and to do that we need to know where these birds are spending the winter and their migration routes.”
Although all of Rushing’s feeders have been placed in the Cache Valley area, this is only because he is based here. The buntings are common throughout the Rocky Mountain West.
Contrary to what the casual observer might think, high populations don’t translate into long lifespans for songbirds. Rushing said the average lifespan of a lazuli bunting is about a year, with about half of newborns not living beyond a month or two because of risks posed by predators and harsh weather. Still, the hardy survivors can live up to 6 or 7 years.
Local residents with questions about the study or information to share with Rushing can send emails to firstname.lastname@example.org.