Live from Bird Cams Lab: Virtual Event Uncovers the Lives of Tropical Feeder Birds

September 16, 2020

Over 100 people tuned in to join the Bird Cams staff on September 10th in a free virtual event, “Panama Live: Uncovering The Lives Of Tropical Feeder Birds.” In the course of an hour, we watched video clips of six species that visit the Panama Fruit Feeder cam, learned about their natural history, shared new preliminary findings from the “Panama Live” Bird Cams Lab investigation, and engaged in a fun discussion about both the birds and the data.

Watch the recording above or read on for an account of what we covered and the answers to questions asked during the live event. If you have any questions, ideas, or feedback of your own, we’d love to read them! Please scroll to the bottom of the page to post in the forum.

Bird Cams Lab hosts Rachael, Renee, and Ben kicked things off by orienting everyone to different Zoom features and inviting attendees to introduce themselves in the chat. People were listening in from all over the world, including the United States, Canada, Panama, Germany, Hungary, and England. Our first poll revealed that we had people listening in with a range of experiences with the Panama Fruit Feeder cam from one quarter of attendees having never watched the cam before to 6% watching the cam multiple times a day.

To get everyone on the same page, we explained what Bird Cams Lab is and how the Panama Live investigation fits into this project. Bird Cams Lab is a Cornell Lab of Ornithology project inspired by cam viewers who came together to ask questions about birds on cam and collect data. Today, it is an online space for scientists and cam viewers to co-create scientific investigations and make new discoveries about the birds we see on cam. Participants can jump into investigations at any stage of the scientific process, from observations to collecting data to sharing out findings.

Panama Live is the third investigation out of the Bird Cams Lab and was created by scientists and cam viewers watching the Panama Fruit Feeder cam. After weeks of discussions and a final vote, the community decided on three questions to investigate about six species on the cam: (1) When do focal species arrive at the feeder? (2) How does this vary day to day? (3) Does the timing of food affect when birds arrive? We launched a poll and found out that about 7% of attendees listening in had helped us come up with these questions while 61% hadn’t and 31% wish they had.

Next, Renee highlighted the six species we studied in the Panama Live investigation (Clay-colored Thrush, Crimson-backed Tanager, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, Gray-headed Chachalaca, Rufous Motmot, Thick-billed Euphonias), sharing her favorite clips from the cam and natural history facts. She pointed out that while we know some things about these birds, there is still a lot that we don’t know, and that’s why investigations like Panama Live are really important for filling in the gaps. Attendees then weighed in on which species was their favorite. While all species received some love, the Rufous Motmot rose to the top, with 43% of the votes.

Once we all were on the same page with who the species were, we polled attendees to find out how many had helped us collect data about these species back in February of this year. About 8% of attendees collected data while 50% hadn’t and 38% wish they had. Since many people weren’t familiar with the data collection process, we played a quick one-minute video on how to collect data using our live data tagging tool.

Then we dug into the data and visualizations we created to explore the data together as a community. Over 60 people collected over 11,000 observations during the two weeks of data collection in February. We took those observations and turned them into several visualizations that would allow us to see how the data answered our questions.

We highlighted two visualizations before opening the floor for questions and discussion. The first showed that the Rufous Motmot and Gray-cowled Wood-rail had a higher percent chance of arriving at the feeder in the morning and in the evening than midday. Kaliopi, one of the participants, pointed out the birds might take midday “siestas” to avoid the midday heat. The second visualization showed how the Gray-cowled Wood-rail’s percent chance of arrival related to food being put out on the feeder (back in February the Canopy Lodge staff stocked the table with food every two hours). There seemed to be a delay, with the percent chance of arrival at zero until 20-35 minutes after food arrived.

Several attendees had ideas about what could be driving these patterns in the data. David proposed that the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail had a delayed arrival because they were avoiding other species, like the noisy Gray-headed Chachalacas. Kaliopi agreed and shared her observations that the wood-rails do seem to arrive after other species and act as the “clean-up crew.” Alternatively, James and Mary Ann thought that the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail might be using other species, like the Clay-colored Thrush, as indicators of when the food arrives but then don’t arrive until the activity has died down. Renee, one of the co-hosts, shared that in general rails are secretive birds. She added that the Gray-cowled Wood-Rails spend a lot of time stopping, listening, and giving “guilty looks” while at the feeder, perhaps to assess any potential dangers or threats nearby.

As we moved into the Discussion section of the event, the questions and ideas flooded the chat and the Q&A. Ben read the questions out loud for either Renee or Rachael to answer, but we were thrilled to have the attendees also answer the questions with their own ideas and observations.

  • Renee mentioned that the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail spread their wings to help with mite control. How does that work? Research on other species suggests that by sunning their wings, birds can get their wings just hot enough to kill the mites and/or cause the mites to move to other parts of the wing that are easier for the bird to reach for removal. 
  • How did you control for variation in observations over time? We used the “End Data Collection” button to ensure that we knew when people were and were not actively watching the cam for data collection. Otherwise, people were able to watch whenever they could.
  • How did you control for overlap in the observations and did you assess accuracy? When exploring the data in relation to the arrival of food, we “binned” or combined observations that were close together (within five minutes). We haven’t assessed accuracy of observations, but that is something that is potentially really important in understanding what the data can tell us about the birds. We still aren’t sure what the best way to assess accuracy would be. 
  • Have we calculated any correlations? Is time of day correlated with visits? That’s a great suggestion and one we should consider as we move from this exploratory phase to the statistical analysis phase. 
  • What’s the effect of rain on the data? Great to hear that weather is still something that interests the community. This came up during the question generation phase of the investigation. For this investigation, there wasn’t much rain because we collected data during the dry season. However, collecting data during the rainy season would be really fun and interesting. If we do that, James suggested that we collect this data by adding a question to the tool that asks, “Is it raining?”
  • How could we monitor the effects of food quality and preference on arrival? This is a great question and one bird feeding researchers have studied in other parts of the world. We didn’t look at this in Panama Live, but it is something we could investigate in the future. Raul, the owner of Canopy Lodge (where the feeder is located), was listening in and shared his expertise in the chat, pointing out that in general bananas and papayas are the most popular and that the cooked rice attracts the rails and jays. 
  • Are the Gray-headed Chachalacas or other birds that visit the feeders predators of other bird species? No, not the Chachalacas, but Black-chested Jays may depredate the nests/eggs of other species. Also, Renee pointed out that there still seems to be a hierarchy going on that she and other viewers observe. For example, the Clay-colored Thrushes can clear the feeder of birds their size or smaller. 
  • What about the mammals that visit the feeder? There are 10 species of mammals that have been seen on the feeder and they don’t seem to prevent other birds from accessing the food. Raul shared that he did see a rail attack a squirrel once. This is in contrast to the dynamics of squirrels and birds at North American feeders, where squirrels tend to exclude other birds from the food. 
  • Do any raptors take advantage of the congregation of birds on the feeder? We haven’t noticed this at the Panama Fruit Feeder cam site, which is different from what we see in North America. 
  • Could the data collection be more interactive? Could we watch the data accumulate and see when the most people are watching so we can spread our effort better? Right now the tool doesn’t have that interactive capability, but we are always interested in building on tools we already have. Hopefully we could do that in the future! In the meantime, we could share out to the participants when the cam is being watched by manually looking at the data being stored. We could also follow Kaliopi’s suggestion to provide a sign-up sheet for participants to select a time slot that they agree to collect data for. 
  • Has the time people watched been visualized? I want to see that graph! We have that data, but haven’t made visualizations of that for Panama Live. We certainly can, so stay tuned. 
  • What was the most interesting or surprising result? The variation between species and the delay in the arrival of some species in relation to food being put on the feeding table. 
  • Will we be collecting data in the future? Can we do so long term to monitor species decline or during the rainy season? Bird Cams Lab is just the space for that to happen. We would love to continue doing investigations with the cams to better understand the birds we see on them.
  • Are there any upcoming projects? Yes, stay tuned as we will be collecting data from archived Panama Fruit Feeder cam footage soon.

There were so many great ideas and questions, but not enough time to answer them all. For those questions we didn’t have time to answer live, we’ve answered them below: 

  • Do ornithologists use sequential analysis (e.g., given the presence of bird type A, is there a greater than chance of probability that bird type B will occur within an x-min interval)? We hadn’t yet considered the type of analysis we’d use for this data. Sequential analysis as mentioned might be the way to go to uncover really interesting relationships between the different species and could help us better understand if, for instance, Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, is using other species as indicators of food availability. 
  • Would the delay in arrival pattern for the evening potentially (for the Gray-cowled Wood-Rail) be because they feed closer to the time they will roost for energy through the night and, in the morning they need to fuel up sooner so to speak? That’s a great idea to potentially explain the pattern we are seeing, and we aren’t sure how foraging time relates to roosting time. This warrants looking further into the literature to see if there is anything known about rail foraging and roosting behavior.
  • At my home feeders the guans (chachalaca relatives) come around in the morning and the evening to eat – they almost knock on my door, and have entered my house. During the rest of the day, they seem to forage for better options. Could that explain the chachalacas there? Neat to hear what goes on at your feeders because that could inform what is going on at the Panama Fruit Feeder Cam feeders. The birds could potentially have another better option (food quality, location) and prefer to use those resources midday. Alternatively, they may decrease foraging activity midday altogether. 
  • During one month, the feeding patterns over time would be tough to measure, but, if we did this over the entire year, by showing how feeding changes over the season would answer the question about food quality. Collecting data over longer periods of time would be really interesting. The more data there is, the easier it can be to see what is going on. Collecting data across the entire year could also help us better understand how the behavior of the birds changes seasonally due to differences in natural food availability or even potentially rainfall. 
  • Is the program open to more cameras becoming part of the project and how do you select cam locations? We would love to do more investigations with more bird cams. The Bird Cams team routinely considers new partnerships and looks at how to expand the current collection of cams that are available.

Thank you to everyone who is a part of Panama Live and to those who attended the live webinar! Bird Cams Lab and investigations like Panama Live simply wouldn’t be possible without your passion and curiosity for the birds.

Do you have a question about the Panama Fruit Feeder cam birds? Or the data from the Panama Live investigation? Do you have any ideas for more visualizations or for what type of analysis we should do? Help us explore the data and better understand these birds we know and love! Share in the forum below and follow the links below to become more involved.