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Washington Birds Breeding Phenology Project

What is a breeding phenology?

When birds breed, their behavior and nesting success is affected by a number of environmental variables, including geography, elevation, weather, and other conditions that may change with the seasons. For example, average clutch size is known to change through the season in many species, with later broods tending to be smaller. This is probably because later-fledged young are less competitive, thus forcing parents that raise late broods to invest more in each fledgling to increase its chances of competing successfully with those hatched earlier in the breeding season.

The study of how such seasonal environmental changes influence regularly occurring biological phenomena is called Phenology. For birds, this study encompasses at its most fundamental level when birds breed and how many eggs they lay. In an area as large and with as many diverse landscapes as Washington, the timing of breeding may be affected by geography and elevation, and at particular localities by yearly variation in weather and other environmental conditions.

Nest of Swainson's Thrush
Nest of Swainson's Thrush (Catharus ustulatus).
Photo by Scott Wilson

Egg of Common Loon
Egg of Common Loon (Gavia immer).
Photo by Scott Wilson

A brief history of the Washington Breeding Phenology Project

We have constructed a preliminary picture of the phenology of bird species that breed in Washington using three principal sources of information: the Northwest Nest Record Program, museum egg collections, and field notes. Since 1955, the University of Washington Burke Museum (UWBM) has maintained a collection of Nest Record Cards contributed by students, professionals, and amateurs. Nest Record Cards contain basic information about nest site and construction, egg and nestling numbers, and parental behavior. Our files now contain over 12,000 of these cards, principally from Washington but also from Idaho, Oregon, British Columbia, and other areas.

In addition, we have extracted breeding records from field notes from as early as 1889, and from many egg sets collected in Washington and now housed at either UWBM, the University of Puget Sound (UPS), the Washington State University Connor Museum (WSU), or the Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology (WFVZ). For a few species we have also included data extracted from adult birds collected as museum specimens, provided that the measurements associated with these specimens included accurate estimates of first-egg dates or of clutch size.

The Breeding Phenology Project got its start in 1983, when UW undergraduate Peter Wimberger began computerizing information from the Burke Museum nest record cards and from various egg collections and field notes. In the mid 1990's, Darwin Wood spent three years adding to and updating the computer records, generating graphic analyses, and writing summary accounts. Sievert Rohwer coordinated the project, and did the final writing, editing and analyses. Throughout the project Chris Wood and Sievert Rohwer supervised the maintenance of the database and the organization of the records and data files.