A community science project studying the elusive, snow-loving pink insect

Pink sparrows are elusive birds that live high up in the snowy mountains of the western United States. Researchers are tracking these birds to understand how their populations are doing in the face of climate change, and how to protect pink sparrows in the future.

I’m standing at the entrance to an inn at Powder Mountain Ski Resort, staring out the window at a lattice box sitting in the snow. Flocks of small brown and pink birds flock in and out of the box, feeding on sunflower seeds scattered inside. These snow-loving birds are pink sparrows, a handful of species about which scientists know very little. The box is a trap designed to capture these colorful birds so that we can learn more about them.

Courtney Cheek, a graduate student at Utah State University and pink research volunteer, explained that they are very tough birds.

“There’s like ten feet of snow here. There’s nothing around. And you know, you look at them and they’re really healthy, they’re full of fat. It’s amazing they’re able to survive in such a harsh environment like this,” Cech said.

While their strength is impressive, their love of harsh environments makes the study of pink sparrows particularly difficult.

“They hang out on thin mountaintops on steep slopes, and they are really hard to reach. Rock climbers are some of the few people who have ever found a pink nest,” explained Janis Gardner, ecologist at the Sageland Collaborative.

Many bird groups are struggling as the effects of climate change worsen. Recently, the Sageland Collaborative and a number of other organizations gathered across the western United States to study pink finches in an effort to protect them from climate change and habitat degradation.

Studying the three pink-finned species that occur in Utah is critical to their survival, Cooper Farr, director of conservation at Tracy Aviary.

“All three of these species are really some of the least studied birds in North America, so we have large data gaps that limit our understanding, and therefore, we are interested in trying to fill in these data gaps in the hope that we can help these species survive.”

Back in Powder Mountain, a volunteer quickly pulled the string, slamming a door on the side of the mesh box, safely trapping a handful of sparrows inside for some quick measurements and attaching identification bands.

Adam Brewerton, a wildlife conservation biologist with the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, described one of the pink species caught during my visit.

“It’s a gray-crowned pink. It’s called a ‘Crown Gray’ because it has a very beautiful gray crown on the top of its head. Pink-crowned goldfinch is mostly brown, hence it has this type of pink feather all over its wing and across its wing. And then, based on that feather pattern, we can tell he was born only last summer,” Breurton said.

Taking measurements and tying birds of this small size is a delicate procedure.

“You kind of hold them firmly in one hand, while on the other hand, you know, you tie the tape and take the measurements. There are all kinds of special fasteners that can be used, and there’s something special to open and secure the bands… which is a delicate process. And so, especially when you Bring it up close, you can really appreciate how beautiful it is,” Cech explained.

Ranged birds are time-consuming, but researchers can learn valuable information about where the birds come from or how long they survive when someone spot them in the wild. Many researchers around the world link birds, but Gardner said the Rosy-finch project is special because researchers link bands of finches to the RFID chips embedded in them, giving us important insight into the bird populations.

“So this is kind of the same thing as if you were using a microchip for your pets. We put a little bracelet on the birds. And then some of our research bird feeders have antennas that record bird visits so we can track that the bird yes, in fact, is still there.” It survives through the winter and from year to year.

Special RFID feeders are placed at ski resorts like Powder Mountain and Alta, which are preferred feeding sites for pink sparrows. Kristen Purdy, a volunteer with Powder Mountain, shared the huge amount of data these feeders can record from tagged birds.

“The first year, the Alta had 4900 hits when this guy had 13,000. Last year, the Alta had 9000. This guy had 33,000. Know know! So I mean, the amount of data we get from this feeder is really great. “.

The Rosy-finch project relies on volunteers like Purdy to collect data from RFID bird feeders and to conduct bird censuses at regular feeders. Farr believes that engaging volunteers was a great way to empower the public to take an interest in the conservation of these birds.

“We have about 200 volunteers who have participated over the past few years, and they go out and they go to the bird feeding sites, either in their homes, or you know, ski areas or other places where you might see pink sparrows. And they go out and they count 20 minutes to see if any of the Those three species go into feeders. And that really gives us a lot of new information about where these birds are, how they’re distributed, and some of when they’re in certain places,” Farr said.

As the Rosy-finch project draws to a close for this year, there are summer volunteer opportunities related to the Rosy-Finch Habitat through the Sageland Collaborative, or keep an eye out for volunteer information on the Pink Feeder Count this fall. Learn more at https://sagelandcollaborative.org/.

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