Band of Brothers
Not even a tragic accident could derail two young men's inspiring project to study one of North America's least-understood birds. Their groundbreaking research is helping ornithologists understand how to help these birds as a warming climate alters their mountain home.
Both boys credit Ryan's exuberance for their fascination with birds, rosy-finches in particular, and for giving them the confidence to pursue their passion. "He always had a great outlook on life. He taught me and Raymond not to care about what other people thought, to just be yourself," says Michael. "I know who I want to be, and I think I owe a lot of that to Ryan," says Raymond, who also sports a buzz cut and has two diamond-stud earrings.
Besides doing research, they serve on the board of directors of Central New Mexico Audubon, the same group that Ryan and Raymond presented to when they first started the project seven years ago. Ambassadors for their work, Raymond and Michael still give talks. They also collect data for Chris Witt, an ornithologist at the University of New Mexico, doing sandhill crane surveys in the Rio Grande Valley, where an energy company plans to install utility poles. "So many people in ornithology went through that stage, the awakening to the diversity that's out there that changed their lives and everything they do," says Witt.
The Sandia Mountains, encrusted with snow, glimmer in the New Mexico dawn. A road winds up through ponderosa pines and junipers until it reaches Sandia Crest, elevation 10,000 feet, ideal sky island habitat for wintering rosy-finches.
Raymond and Michael sit in chairs behind a glass door in the restaurant at the summit, anxiously waiting for a flock to come close to their seed-baited cages placed on the deck outside. A group lands in the fir tree boughs that reach over the wooden terrace, which has a view of Albuquerque. One, two, three rosy-finches fly into the cages. When another follows suit, Michael presses a button and the cage doors close. The boys hurry out and carefully take the birds from the enclosures, placing each one in an overturned bucket with a hole cut in the bottom, what they call "bird buckets." A pant leg is glued to the hole to prevent the birds from escaping, and mesh wiring covers the top, keeping them securely inside until someone can take their measurements.
In turn, Raymond or Michael or their volunteer helpers measure each bird's wing and tail, fanning the feathers to expose a spectrum of pink while announcing the numbers for another volunteer to record. They carefully take a feather, put it in a small manila envelope, and label it. Then they gently blow on the bodies, checking for lice and looking through the transparent skin to estimate how much of the birds' weight is fat versus muscle, a measure of how much they've been eating and the energy they're expending. They estimate each bird's age and determine its sex. Finally, if it doesn't already have one, they equip it with a numbered aluminum band. "Now it's got a new bracelet--some bling," says Raymond, holding up a black rosy-finch. Raymond and Michael typically catch 30 to 50 birds per day, but the most exciting ones are those that already have jewelry. When that happens, volunteers can look up when the bird was first caught and who took the measurements, comparing the past to the present--additional evidence that the finches return to the same place each year.
Blair Wolf, a University of New Mexico ornithologist who studies the impact of climate change on birds, is collaborating with the boys to analyze the 2,000 feathers they've collected as part of an isotope analysis project. Researchers cut out a tiny piece of each feather's hollow shaft with a knife. From that sample, they can determine the abundance of each hydrogen isotope, or form of that element, that was present in the environment where a particular bird grew its feathers. When birds breed they molt in the same place and incorporate the isotopes found in their food into their new feathers. Using a map of where hydrogen isotopes occur, biologists can deduce where, and at what altitude, the birds were breeding. So far Wolf's lab has processed the feathers from about 100 of the birds and found that the gray-crowned rosy-finches at Sandia Crest generally nest in Alaska and that the black rosy-finches generally nest in western Utah.
Climate change could already be transforming their sky island habitats. Although climate change will have an impact on most species, rosy-finches and other alpine animals are of particular concern, because of what scientists call the escalator effect, or, for the dark-humored, the stairway to heaven, says Cagan Sekercioglu, an ornithologist at Stanford University. As lower-elevation habitat warms, altering things like precipitation patterns and food sources, species move to higher ground in search of cooler temperatures. "A lot of species that we currently think are safe from extinction will be affected by climate change," Sekercioglu says. Larger areas of habitat often lead to larger populations, which are then more likely to go extinct as those areas shrink, he says. Less mobile animals will probably be affected faster than birds, which can fly to different locations, but Sekercioglu's research shows that the consequences of climate change and habitat loss could lead to the extinction of up to 550 bird species by 2100 if the earth warms five degrees Fahrenheit, which is within the expected range of increase, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.