Science AMA Series: I’m Dr. Jeff Brawn, a University of Illinois ornithologist and conservation biologist. You may experience a heightened awareness of birds during these early weeks of spring—particularly at 4 a.m. when neighborhood chirping seems ridiculously loud. I study birds year round! AMA!


Hi reddit!

I’ve been fascinated by birds ever since taking a class in ornithology as an undergraduate. Now, as a professor and researcher at U of I, a lot of what I do is about bird populations and how they "tick" and how to conserve them. For example, in one project we tracked the role of robins in the spread of West Nile virus ( Although the primary culprit in spreading the virus is the common mosquito, robins are accomplices. They’re what we call "super-amplifiers" of the disease. Crows and jays just can't handle West Nile virus and they die when they get it, but robins do much better. They are a competent host of the disease. And, because robins are common in urban environments, they might be part of the smoking gun for why and where the disease is and isn't.

Since 1986, I’ve been involved in a project with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute studying bird populations in Panama’s Soberania National Park—approximately 100 square miles of protected rainforest. It’s also home to well over 500 bird species. Because we have over 30 years of data, we were able to study the effect of changing environmental conditions and its relationship to bird populations.

Because the tropics are relatively stable with milder seasonal change, tropical birds may not be able to handle environmental disturbances as easily, physiologically or behaviorally, as temperate-zone birds. Those Midwest birds who wake us up while it’s still dark are able to make it through below-zero winters and 100-degree summers—environmental stress that tropical birds never experience. Consequently, tropical ecosystems and animal populations may be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change.

Here’s a link to the full paper about the research that appeared in Nature Climate Change:

This article, Will climate change leave tropical birds hung out to dry? includes a short video of me talking about why I think this research is so important.

You can learn more about me here:

I'll be answering your questions at 1pm EST. Ask Me Anything!

Hi Reddit! I'm going to start answering some great questions.

Thanks for all of the great questions! Happy birding!

So why do they chirp like crazy around 4am during early spring?


The 4 a.m. factor is why some people don't study birds.

Birds have >songs> and <calls>. You're probably hearing both. They may be setting up territories, attracting mates, or just practicing for when they reach their breeding grounds. Artificial light can set them off. Robins are particularly noisome.

During the late fall and winter, I often see hundreds, literally HUNDREDS of crows occupying clusters of trees throughout the whole neighborhood. Some of them are flying around and pretty much all of them are CAH-CAWWWWing. What are they doing? I live in upstate NY, if it's relevant.


I'm from out East as well. What you're seeing with these hundreds of birds is a nocturnal roost. They form roosts with up to thousands of birds.

Do birds have a hive mind to which of their flock are sick? Say that its migration time and a group takes off to warmer climate, if one bird picks up a disease will the others know to keep away or abandon it or will they simply ignore it and the disease spread throughout the entire flock?


It depends on the disease. A lot of birds like ducks can pick up botulism from the water. Other bird diseases are transmitted through mosquitoes and some are directly from individual to individual, like avian flu. If a bird is sick, it will probably separate itself from the flock because it can't keep up. Unlikely that the birds actively shun a sick bird.

Thanks for being here, Dr. Brawn. In urban and suburban areas, do light and noise pollution affect bird behavior (ie do they chirp louder or less than in rural areas)?


Yes, urban environments fundamentally affect bird behavior. They adjust their vocalizations to noise. Their activity level can be affected by artificial light. There are lots of birds that have learned to exploit urban environments, like urban crows learning to dumpster dive.

I'm in the Midwest. What are the buzzards doing in the tree tops in the morning with their wings spread? Is this unique to them?


Those are probably turkey vultures. They are indeed warming up. The other commenters are correct. There are several species of large birds that do that.

Probably a dumb/too general question, but what's your favorite kind of bird? What bird is the most interesting to bird watch/observe behavior?


Not a dumb question at all! I am partial to nuthatches and woodpeckers. A good way to see interesting behavior is to put up a bird feeder.

I'm actually living in Champaign at UIUC, and I've been complaining to my friend about loud birds waking me up in the morning. I'm wondering which birds in this area are the ones making all the noise.


I don't live in town, but it's likely cardinals, robins, house sparrows, maybe grackles.

How are birds doing in general? I just read that in Europe, there are ever less birds, due to things like humans and human crops and human crap (pesticides) on the crops. But in the world, in general?


The future is not bright for nearly all aspects of biodiversity. Current and near-future rates of extinction are very high. Habitat loss is the primary culprit, especially in the tropics.

People who do what I do have to avoid being depressed about what they learn.

I frequently see different species of birds come together and forage; like bluebirds, cardinals, robins, chickadees. It seems like they feel safe from the others presence and are emboldened. Is there a name for this?


Its called mixed species flocking. It's a common behavior in the winter.The basic principal is there's safety in numbers.

Hi Dr. Brawn,

Why have birds evolved to lay their eggs, incubate them, and then have them hatch? Since the mother sits on the eggs until they hatch, isn't is more beneficial to carry them inside longer?

  • Sarah (an NRES student)

The main reason birds have eggs is that they'd be too heavy fly with a clutch of 3 or 4 eggs inside them. Good question from an NRES student!

How did you get into studying birds, and do you have a favorite story from your work with them? I am amateur birdwatcher in Southern AZ. if you get a chance you should visit "Madera Canyon" a famous area for birds here. Thanks for the AMA and contributing to bird conservation.


First of all, Madera Canyon is great. I did graduate work in Arizona.

I became interested in environmental science in 1970 because of the first Earth Day. I got hooked on birds the first time I was able to identify one by myself.

One of my favorite stories is having a toucan almost gnaw off my picky finger in Panama.

I've gotten really into the local birds lately. We have a nice variety in my neighborhood, but some Crows are moving in and now we're watching an ongoing turf war.

It is my understanding that crows can drive other species out of an area, and I believe we're watching it happen. I am already seeing fewer of some species. (Our annual cardinal family has disappeared!) The mockingbirds have a perch that has become a battle zone - and almost every day I've seen as many as 3 at a time attack a crow for invading.

My question(s): is there anything (humane) I can do to make the crows not want to move in? I hate to sound "crowist," but frankly, their songs aren't as pretty as the birds they're pushing out. Could this possibly be a temporary home for them? Or should I just get used to the crows?

It's the loss of the other birds that bothers me the most. And the mockingbirds can only do so much to keep the crows away. They're trying, but I wonder if it is futile. So is there anything I can do outside of watching the show?

Thanks for doing the AMA!


Crows are among the most intelligent birds. They have fascinating behavior. They can actually recognize individual humans. So give them a chance. It they are a real nuisance, contact your local department of natural resources. They may have some insights. There are also lots of websites to consult as well.

Whenever I'm camping I hate what we've dubbed 'horny crows'. Is there anything I can do to pick spots that may be more quiet than others?


I'm not sure whether they're feeling amorous or not, but they're hanging around the campground because people are feeding them. Avoid them by finding an isolated spot to camp.

I read somewhere that male birds are the ones that sing/chirp. Is that even close to correct?


Indeed, males are the ones that sing the most often. Females do communicate vocally, but the songs you associate with birds are almost always males.

How do you see the near future of Ornithology and zoology in general to look like based on the amount of new people joining the field?

I'm studying zoology but am not sure what direction to go as there are so many. Cognition in animals, patterns, ecology, evolution, etc. Do you have any idea what fields are "emptier" than others?


As far as biology goes, by far the emphasis is on molecular and cellular biology. Especially as it relates to biomedical research. There will always be a need for people who study organisms. If you're interested in conservation, let your values guide where you go.

When thinking about populations of different types of birds, what are the methods you use to characterize each type of population? That is, what methods do you use to measure their between-population variability (e.g., robins and tropical birds have different characteristics), and what methods do you use to measure within-population variability (e.g., robins have different characteristics from each other)? I can imagine that measuring these characteristics could reveal important insights into how bird populations may have adapted to their environments.


That's a complicated question. For songbirds, you have to know species-specific songs and calls and you spend time in the forest and record everything you see and hear.

There's a lot of analysis involved to actually estimate abundances.

Your intuition about birds is very good. Some birds change their songs in cities versus rural areas because of background noise.

Dr. Brawn,

I started to really get into birding about 5 years ago, and the more I learned about birds and their declining numbers, the more urgent and real climate change became as an issue to me. How do you see the role of the citizen enthusiast in raising awareness and influencing change? When I go out and tick off birds in eBird, is that data actually useful to anyone (beyond me and my own interest)?


Great to hear about your interest in birds. eBird data are invaluable. Citizen science in ornithology has been incredibly useful.

Keep in mind, climate change will increase some species and decrease others. So, as scientists, we want to be able to predict which is which.

Good morning from central Illinois!

I've noticed more and more raptors lately along the I72 corridor. Where would be a good place to setup and observe them? Falcons, hawks, owls doesn't matter. I just like watching them soar.

Thanks for any ideas!


What you're seeing along I-72 are red-tailed hawks perching on signs, looking for small rodents. Get off of I-72. At the right time of day,you can see red-tailed hawks soaring over open fields. Unfortunately, they get hit frequently by cars and trucks.

Hi Dr. Brawn, I'm a PhD student at the University of Florida who is researching collaboration challenges in scientific research. Would you be willing to be interviewed to discuss your experiences with collaborative research?


Yes, sure. Just find me in the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Sciences at the University of Illinois.

Brown-Headed Cowbirds. Birds that take advantage of the nests of other native birds, and supposedly do harm to birds that have knocked the alien egg out of its nest. Aren't cowbirds outcompeting other birds for resources, as they are having multiple eggs every summer but not engaging in the work to care for them? How big of a problem is this?


Cowbirds can be a conservation problem. But they are native and their behavior is fascinating. There's little doubt that they can decrease breeding success in other birds. In Texas, there is an endangered species of birds that increased after cowbirds were removed.

Hi there from Texas! I'm an undergraduate student doing research with the Texas Parks and wildlife department studying bird populations on the gulf coast, and we've been noticing birds migrating a lot earlier in the last year or so, and we've also been seeing some species that are not really known in the southern range of the country. Do you think this has to do with climate change? Also we're studying the effects of man-made Marshes on Bird populations here in Texas and we seen a pretty consistent positive correlation between species abundance and species diversity with the number of man-made habitats. So I guess my follow-up question would be do you think if climate change is affecting the bird population negatively would man-made habitats be the key to helping mediate the crisis?


Another complicated, but interesting question. There's little doubt that birds are tending to migrate earlier in the last 50 years. We can't blame everything on climate change but this has been shown repeatedly.

Habitat restoration is always helpful. Let's hope climate change allows these man-made habitats to be sustainable.

Hi doc! I'm nearby, living in the country. I've already identified red tailed hawks, canada geese, mallards, starlings, chickadees, wood thrushes, downy woodpeckers, cardinals, red-winged black birds, robins, pheasants, crows and turkey vultures.

There are two birds I have trouble identifying : I've noticed every time I mow the lawn, these forked-tail birds swoop down all around me.

They're brown on top and orange on the bottom. I don't think they're robins, because they look too small.

And there are these birds that walk on the roads. They're white with a brown stripe along the bottom of their swept-wing.


Barn swallows have the forked tail and a lot of white on the belly, but an orange throat. Fluffy-the-cat has a good answer. The walking bird is likely a killdeer. HowlSkank nailed it.

Thank you for doing this AMA, Dr. Brawn. I am an undergrad, interested in Neotropical conservation and ornithology. This summer I am headed to the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon for a two month field research internship. My question: Is there a bird that you find to be particularly interesting in that region that I may want to consider researching? Thank you for your time and expertise.


You will have a fantastic time in Peru! There will be no shortage of species to study and interesting questions. I am envious. A common but interesting question to look at is macaws and parrots visiting clay licks. Have a great trip!

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