Nestled in the rafter of a barn, well above the livestock house, there is a mud nest. Darting in and out, a barn swallow brings food to its young. Get too close with a tractor or on foot and these mighty flyers will dive down quickly to let an intruder know to stay back.
Two researchers have a pilot study in place looking to see the effects of artificial light to the “pace of life,” for barn swallows – good or bad. A call has been made to citizen scientists, or those curious about the bird to help collect data.
In some instances, animals living where the daylight is shorter have a lower metabolism and a longer lifespan. Animals that live with more daylight have a faster metabolism and shorter life span.
Dr. Caren Cooper, researcher with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, and colleague Margaret Voss, researcher at Syracuse University, began a study at Cornell’s Biological Research Station at Shackelton Point, N.Y. Here, they noticed that the barn swallows were very active under bright artificial lights.
“We don’t know if it is common for barn swallows to be active at night when light permits it, but we thought it would be good to see what type of lighting situations exist for barn swallows across the country,” Cooper said.
The study is done in corporation with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Syracuse University and Globe at Night. It is seeking the help of citizen scientists from all over the U.S. to help monitor the birds and collect data.
Barn swallows have adapted to live near humans and nest almost exclusively on structures such as bridges, homes and barns and are found all over the world. They are a migratory bird, identified by steely blue color on their bodies. Their neck and forehead are a rufous color – reddish or brownish tint – with white underneath and a dark blue band on their chest and have a forked tail.
Barn swallows are fast flyers. They’ll swoop down making sharp turns and quick movements as they feed on insects they catch in mid-flight.
“They live in open habitats, like pastures and meadows. They use mud to build nests on structures, typically on barn rafters and under bridges, typically in colonies. It can be difficult to see into a nest because they are up high, but when the chicks get older, they can usually be seen looking over the rim of the nest,” Cooper said.
The nest and the bird’s activity that surrounds needs to be recorded and watched, Cooper said. Those participating are simply asked to submit data on such things as first arrival dates, nest building dates, estimated dates for egg laying, incubation, hatching and fledging.
“We do want people to keep an eye out for barn swallows in order to note when they first arrive in their returning migration. We want people to look at nests, monitoring them over the season,” she said.
In addition, data on lighting conditions and the amount of sky glow should also be submitted, so that it can be measured against the barn swallows’ behavior.
The study will ask participants to make some observations at night through a light pollution project called Globe At Night. Light levels near the barn swallow nests will have to be collected after sundown. Instructions on how to measure light levels will be provided to those who sign up.
“Previous studies have shown that birds living in areas with artificial light at night start singing well before dawn, start eating earlier, eat more during the day, and have more complex social interactions,” Voss said in a press release. “Expanding those activities takes its toll in energy use. We want to learn how that might play out when it comes to health and survival as the barn swallows build nests and raise their chicks.”
Cooper said they do not want people to climb or even approach the nests too closely, just observe from the ground at a distance.
Citizen science projects like these have become very important to scientists. Cooper said being a citizen scientist appeals to many people who are curious about the nature world, those who like to do things outdoors, and to those who need a valid excuse to justify time out of their busy schedules.
“People who participate in citizen science enjoy the challenges, enjoy following protocols that help them notice and appreciate their environment better, and enjoy doing a good deed. Many times citizen science projects also bring together people with common interests,” she added.
The barn swallow study is affiliated with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology NestWatch. To sign up go to nestwatch.org/connect/news/ and click on “Sign up to learn more.” This link will take you to the researchers page to sign up for participating in the study.
Aside from the barn swallow project, there are an enormous number of citizen science projects that cover many topics. SciStarter.com is a community to join to learn more about citizen science projects and ways to get involved.