Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Merry & Bright: W&M Researchers Help Enduring Holiday Symbols Thrive

Cedar Waxwing in Holly. (Photo by Elena Calderone/W&M ’21)

WILLIAMSBURG — Depictions of lively chickadees and brightly-colored cardinals on holiday cards and decorations can often coax a smile out of even the most cranky recipients and observers.

“There’s a reason for that,” Dan Cristol, Chancellor Professor of Biology at William & Mary said in a recent W&M News article.

Cristol, an avid ornithologist, cited a 2021 study from King’s College London which indicated that seeing or hearing birds was the dominant factor in mood-lifting nature encounters, and that the cheering effects of bird observations can last as long as six hours after the experience, even among those suffering from depression.

“So, it’s notable that Christmas cards and other greetings have birds on them as symbols of home, happiness and celebration,” said Cristol.

Birds benefit humans in numerous ways, but they’re in trouble.

Eastern Bluebird. (Photo by Elena Calderone/W&M ’21)

According to the W&M News article, avian populations in the United States and Canada have declined by almost 3 billion individuals over the past 50 years. That’s a population decline of more than 25% in less than an average human lifetime.

Habitat loss, window strikes and environmental contaminants are a few of the top reasons for declining bird populations, but faculty and students at W&M are determined to address these challenges, it added. A key factor in this ongoing endeavor is W&M’s personal approach to education, which provides undergraduates with an unusual opportunity to participate in applied research in numerous fields, including bird conservation.

“Some students apply to W&M specifically because they want to do undergraduate bird research with faculty,” said Cristol, “And a lot of graduate students also choose W&M because they want to study birds.”

One of the biggest challenges birds face is loss of habitat, so creating habitat with an emphasis on native plants is a powerful move that gives birds food to eat, water for drinking and bathing and locations to shelter and nest, according to W&M News.

Common Yellowthroat. (Photo by Elena Calderone/W&M ’21)

Native plants host native bugs, which are the best food for native birds, it noted. Even small yards make a difference, and that difference is amplified when neighbors join the effort, creating larger patches of uninterrupted habitat.

Homeowners can also add decals, dangling cords and other treatments to windows to decrease the likelihood of window collisions, according to the report.

Additionally, light pollution interferes with bird navigation and migration, so installing shielded light fixtures and turning off outdoor lights or using motion sensors are more bird-friendly options.

Catios are another thing to consider, it added, as domestic cats kill a whopping 2.4 billion birds each year. Catios are the next best thing to roaming free, allowing cats to breathe fresh air and experience the outdoors without killing birds or being exposed to outside dangers.

“Small steps can make a huge difference, especially when people work together,” said Cristol. “Researchers here at W&M and around the world are determined that birds will brighten human lives for generations. The efforts of the general public can play a huge role. Maybe this year, when people send that holiday card adorned with cheerful birds, they can also head out into the yard to plant a native shrub and spread a little cheer for the birds as well.”

Read the full article at W&M News.

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