Monday, August 22, 2011

Birder Profile: Bridget Stutchbury

Bridget Stutchbury
Toronto, Ontario (academic, suburban home)
Cambridge, Springs PA (research and nature home)

How did you get into birding?

I got a summer job as a field assistant at the Queen’s University Biology Station in southern Ontario to study Tree Swallows. I was a junior at Queen’s University but had NO experience with birding. I started going on regular early morning birds walks – talk about a rookie!

How long have you been birding?

My first bird walk was in 1983 – so almost 30 years now.

How often do you go birding? And where do you regularly go birding?

Not as often as I would like to! Perhaps a dozen times per year, and either when traveling on business (scientific conference, birding festival) or locally (Ontario, Pennsylvania). Though I do extensive field research on birds, I find I don’t have much time for recreational birding (until I retire, that is!)

How would you describe yourself as a birder? A “watcher”, a “lister”, a “chaser”, “ticker”, “twitcher” all of the above, or something else?

“Watcher” – I do research on bird behaviour and am fascinated with seeing new, unfamiliar behaviours and/or wondering why the bird acts the way it does (what is the benefit, in terms of reproduction or survival). Bird social behaviour is amazingly complex and sophisticated, and I never tire of watching even common birds likely chickadees.

What kind of birding equipment do you use?

I have a 20 year old pair of 10x42 Leicas that are as good as new, viewing wise.

How do you keep track of your bird observations?

During research we often spend hours watching individual birds (or even radio-tracking them to really follow them around) and record our observations on paper, on GPS, on video (for nest watches) or even on a tape recorder.

What is your favorite bird sighting and what is the story behind it?

My favorite sighting was the first time I saw a male Scarlet Tanager “tend” to his demanding mate who was waiting high in the forest canopy. I was doing a research project on tanagers to look at movements off the territory within a continuous forest versus movements across fields between forest fragments (e.g. do fragments isolate the pair). This led to a neat observation and a new study. Male tanagers are tentative in approaching a decoy and playback (beside a mist net) and this male had been slowing descending from the canopy, getting almost down to net level and thus potentially “catchable”. It was agonizing to watch, waiting to see if he would suddenly dive at the decoy in a fit of aggression. Just when I thought he was about to make his move, I heard a soft sound from above “pew, pew, pew” and he immediately flew up to the canopy to join a female tanager. I had heard this sound once or twice before, but never realized it was a tanager. The female quivered her wings frantically, like a begging nestling, and within a minute the male had found a juicy caterpillar to feed her. He repeated his delivery of treats to her five times in the next ten minutes. We later did a whole study looking at mate feeding by male tanagers and used DNA testing to see if females cheat on their males (yes, though not as much as other migratory songbirds).

What is your favorite backyard bird story?

My favorite backyard bird story is about a feather, rather than a whole bird. We had been studying Acadian Flycatchers in the forest near our farmhouse. To keep track of how much the male versus female of a pair was feeding young at their nest, we put little colourful paint marks on the wing tips of the parents. That October, when we were cleaning out the bluebird box in the field by the house, we found a mouse nest that contained a feather with faded red paint on the tip. The feather came from a male Acadian that had nested about 300 m inside the forest! Did the mouse really go that far to get nesting material? Or, did the male Acadian molt his feather near the forest’s edge? We’ll never know!

Which birding publications do you read and recommend?

I have been getting Living Bird for years – lots of excellent photos and natural history.

Which is your favorite field guide and why?

Sibley – detail is awesome!

Which books from your personal birding library would you recommend to other birders?

Weidensaul – Living on the Wind is one of my favourites.

Do you have any formal bird-related education background?

Yes, I’m a professor at York University, Toronto. Though, after hearing about my field research and summers ‘chasing birds’, many of my friends and family do not consider that I have a “real” job!

If a fellow birder had a question about a bird, do you consider yourself an expert (or at least proficient) on any specific family of birds?

Songbirds are the focus on my research.

What future birding plans do you have?

Though I spend lots of time doing research on birds, I’d love to spend more time on recreational birding trips (birding for fun!).

Are you involved with any local or national birding organizations?

Cornell Lab of O, American Birding Conservancy, and scientific ornithological societies (AOU, Cooper, Wilson, AFO)

Any birding related pet-peeves you’d like to vent about here?

I wish birders were more outspoken about conservation issues.

Anything about your family you’d like to share with us?

My husband was an ornithologist at the Smithsonian Institution; our teenage daughter loves nature and is talking about going into biology.

Outside of birding, what are your other interests or hobbies?

I enjoy doing crewel embroidery, sewing detailed pictures of birds, for friends and family. My favourite works were on tree swallows, blackburnian warblers, ruby throated hummingbirds, and most recently bobolink. Very relaxing (and birdy!)

Come meet Bridget in person and listen to her presentation "The Bird Detective: Investigating the Private Lives of Birds" at the Midwest Birding Symposium, Sept 15-18 in Lakeside, Ohio.

Birder Profile is a weekly blog segment at "Birding is Fun!" spotlighting a fellow birder.  If you would be interested in sharing a little about yourself and your birding experiences, please send me an email.  Is there a birder you'd like to see featured?  Please nominate that person by sending me an e-mail too.  Enthusiasm for birding is the only prerequisite!


  1. She didn't mention them, but Stutchbury has also written a couple books. I enjoyed The Private Lives of Birds (my review), but haven't read Silence of the Songbirds yet.

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