Envisioning campus as ‘living lab’ to improve bird habitat

Landscape planner Chloe Cerwinka is using scientific rigor to make campus a safe haven for the area’s feathered friends

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A white-throated sparrow finds a perch on campus. Penn's landscape planner Chloe Cerwinka is embarking on a study of birds that take advantage of the University's green spaces. (Photo: Joe Durrance)

Just after sunrise near the Penn Park parking lot, three people with binoculars around their necks make their way to a shaggy patch of grass. Just a stone’s throw from the drone of cars on the Schuylkill Expressway, and the occasional rumble of a passing train, another sound carries through the site’s hazy air: the dawn chorus.

This early-morning meeting is an attempt to count and categorize avian maestros using the scientific tool known as a point count. Chloe Cerwinka, the University of Pennsylvania’s landscape planner and a student in the Master of Environmental Studies (MES) program, is leading a series of bird surveys on campus, acquiring a robust dataset she intends to use as the basis of her master’s capstone. With a background in urban farming, architecture, photography, and environmental design, a degree in design of the environment from Penn’s School of Design, and a strong interest in sustainability, Cerwinka’s vision is to integrate the information she gleans from her academic research to make Penn’s campus a more welcoming and ecologically rich habitat for birds and other creatures.  

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Cerwinka (left) developed the idea for conducting bird surveys on campus after taking a course with wildlife biologist Mike McGraw (right) in Penn's Master of Environmental Studies program.

“My goal is to determine what birds we have here, what we do not have here, and what it would take to get those birds here,” Cerwinka says. “Could we do simple things, like creating more hedgerows in edge spaces where now it’s just lawn, or putting in a meadow? Because I do a lot of planting design for the campus, that’s something I can have an impact on in my job.”

Ever since starting the MES program back in 2015, Cerwinka hoped to utilize Penn’s campus for her capstone project, a perfect complement to her day-job with Facilities and Real Estate Services (FRES). 

“I’ve been trying to partner with more people to use the campus as a living lab,” she says, “and I knew I wanted to do that for my capstone but I hadn’t been able to come up with an idea that made sense or seemed interesting or scientifically rigorous enough.”

Then, in the spring 2018 semester, she signed up for wildlife biologist Mike McGraw’s course“Studying Ornithological Principles and Behaviors to Indicate Ecosystem Health.” Essentially, it’s a course all about birds.

“I signed up for the course because I knew of Mike and I thought it sounded interesting, but to be honest I didn’t think I would be that into birds,” Cerwinka admits. “But then I took the course, and I learned so much. It introduced me to this whole other world related to landscape and ecology that I hadn’t really considered before.”

One of the major concepts McGraw introduced to his students was that birds can be used as ecological indicators. If birds in a given ecosystem are healthy, it’s likely that the ecosystem itself—its plants, soil, insects, and other wildlife—are healthy as well.

Cerwinka found this idea “hugely inspirational.” The course gave her practical skills, too. Along with her fellow students, she was tasked with memorizing more than 50 bird species by sight, song, and ecological attributes. During field trips to sites including the John Heinz National Wildlife Refuge and to Cape May, N.J., she enhanced that knowledge by birding for hours, viewing and hearing more than 100 species during the spring migration. 

A northern parula was one of the more exciting sightings Cerwinka and her colleagues have experienced so far. They spotted the small songbird in a tree on College Green. (Photo: Joe Durrance)

With this budding knowledge of birds, along with conversations with McGraw outside of class, Cerwinka’s project took shape. To collect data, she mapped out 10 points across four areas of campus she believed would be the best for finding birds: Penn Park, which, at 24 acres, contains the largest meadow on the main campus as well as multiple bio-swales and a “food forest”—the campus orchard; Shoemaker Green, a two-acre site with a rain garden, native plantings, and mature London plane trees; College Green (officially Blanche P. Levy Park), an iconic site that is also home to the Penn treaty elm, believed to be the oldest tree on campus; and James G. Kaskey Memorial Park, well known as the BioPond and a birding hotspot with records of bird sightings going back 40 years.

Starting in April of this year, Cerwinka began early-morning point counts at each of these sites. Conducting this type of survey entails recording the time, temperature, wind, cloud cover, and people participating in the count. “Then you mark down any bird that you see or hear from that one particular point within the next 10 minutes,” Cerwinka says, including recording the bird’s distance and direction from the counting point and documenting what it is doing: for example, foraging, carrying nesting material, singing, or defending territory.

Because it’s hard to record data and look for birds simultaneously, McGraw has assisted with two of the surveys, as has Joe Durrance, a Penn staffer and MES graduate whose capstone project prevented bird strikes with campus buildings. Brad Gibson, a student in McGraw’s class and May MES graduate, has also helped with bird scouting.

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As part of each survey she conducts, Cerwinka records each bird heard or seen as well as other details about the weather and environmental conditions.

Just three surveys in, Cerwinka has recorded 36 species. Adding in incidental sightings around campus, reported by birders such as Durrance, that number of documented species has reached 50. Among the more notable species are several warblers—small, often colorful birds, many of which were likely en route to northerly breeding sites—and a handful of raptor species. Perhaps the most dramatic encounter was a pair of peregrine falcons, seen from Penn Park. The group watched in amazement as the falcons swiftly flew to a perch on the top of the 49-story FMC Tower, 730 feet up.

Another behavior that surprised Cerwinka during an early spring survey was a flock of goldfinches plucking and then eating dandelions in Penn Park.

“Dandelions get a bad reputation: They’re very aggressive, they have deep roots and are hard to manage,” she says. “However, dandelions also provide food early in the season for birds and other animals when there isn’t much else available. It was interesting to get that perspective that weeds aren’t all bad and think that, maybe, in certain areas, they could be considered acceptable because they are filling important ecological gaps.”

Also during an April survey, Cerwinka and her fellow bird enthusiasts witnessed a house finch make use of another type of flower on College Green.

“The cherry blossoms were blooming at the time,” she says. “At first we couldn’t tell what the finch was doing. Then we saw that it was ripping off individual blossoms and drinking the nectar from the base of the flower. It was such an incredible thing to see happening, that this native finch has figured out a way to use this Japanese cherry tree.”

Cerwinka went into her study thinking that she’d get her most diverse list of bird species within the BioPond, a site birders have frequented for decades, but she’s been impressed by the bird diversity spotted at College Green, including a black and white warbler, a sharp-shinned hawk, a golden-winged warbler, and a ruby-crowned kinglet.

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For this house finch, the campus cherry blossoms are more than a pretty sight, they're an important source of nutrition. (Photo: Joe Durrance)

Another initial takeaway is the presence of noise pollution. 

“Some of it is expected,” she notes. “We’re in a city, there’s a lot of highway noise, especially at Penn Park; you’re surrounded by three different train lines, and that’s all kind of out of our control. But there’s a lot of other noise pollution too.” 

Cerwinka has been struck by the contribution of noise from landscape-maintenance activities, such as lawnmowers and leaf blowers. Generator noise is another contributor that she hadn’t considered prior to embarking on the surveys.

“You’ve got to wonder, How does that impact the birds we’re seeing here?” she says. With the new Ecological Landscape Stewardship Plan, a study focused on alternative management initiatives, along with other efforts, Cerwinka is hopeful she and her FRES colleagues may be able to influence how much loud, gas-powered equipment is used.

Cerwinka will continue leading surveys through the summer and fall and hopes to repeat them again in 2019 to obtain data on as many birds as possible that either reside on campus or visit at one point in their life cycles. Her goal is to compile a robust picture of the birds on campus, both to provide a foundation on which to make her own decisions about how to care for Penn’s landscape and also to serve as a baseline on which future studies might build.

“I’d like to store this data so maybe in a couple of years—hopefully by then I’ll have implemented some of the ideas about plantings and maybe helped create new guidelines around noise pollution—another student would want to follow up and see if we, as campus planners, could have an impact in changing the birds we see on campus.”