Carnegie Museums of Pittsburgh





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Ornathologists Bob Mulvihill (left) and Bob Leberman on a research expedition in Costa Rica, 1999.  Many of the species banded at Powdermill migrate to Central America.


Half a Million Birds                             


Bird-banding at Powdermill Nature Reserve reaches a milestone     



By R. Jay Gangewere           


After banding half a million birds in 40 years, the avian research program at Powdermill Nature Reserve has a secure reputation as one of the nation's most durable and productive bird-banding operations.  The 2,200-acre field station south of Ligonier, next to Forbes State Forest, has one of the most extensive

databases of its kind for wild bird populations.


At Powdermill, birds in flight are captured in finely threaded mist nets spread along the birds' flight paths among areas of low shrubs and trees.  Soon disentangled from the fine netting by the bird-banders who regularly walk the paths, the birds are each collected in a paper bag. Every bird is taken to a small laboratory building nearby where it is recorded in a computer database by species, weight, age, sex, wing length, and fat deposits.  After a tiny aluminum bracelet with a code number and the telephone number of the U.S Fish and Wildlife Commission is painlessly attached to its leg, the bird is quickly released back into the wild through a small door in the wall of the lab.


"Powdermill is quite literally a national treasure."

Dr. C. J. Ralph,

U.S. Forest Service Research Ecologist


Unusual among North America's small number of high-volume landbird banding stations, Powdermill is inland, away from classical migratory "flyways" along lake shores, coasts, and major river valleys.  Also unusual, it operates year-round, not just during spring or fall migration seasons, with the long-term scientific staff of Robert Leberman and Robert Mulvihill, and a small corps of dedicated seasonal volunteers and interns catching and banding birds some 250 days each year. Migratory birds banded at Powdermill have been discovered as far away as Cuba, Costa Rica, and Columbia. 


Powdermill's extensive databases provide vital information on the biology of a wide assortment of the many breeding, wintering, permanent resident, and migratory birds throughout western Pennsylvania.  Nearly 200 species are represented in the banding data base, which feeds into global studies about bird migration patterns, and the effects of global warming.


In 1961 field ornithologist Robert Leberman started the songbird migration studies under the late director of Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Graham Netting, who pioneered in studying the differential timing of migration by age and sex classes within species. Leberman continues as the program's principal bander, and is proud of the contributions that Powdermill banding have made to the science of ornithology. But he believes the public aspects of the program have been just as important.  Thousands of people of all ages have visited this banding program to learn about ornithology, and the museum has gained immeasurable good will as a result. 


Among the dozens of young people who have served as interns and eventually chose careers in ecology and natural science is Robert Mulvihill, who became fascinated at the age of 12 by seeing Leberman band birds, and went on to become a field ornithologist himself.  Mulvihill began banding as a regular volunteer in 1978, while an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, and in 1983 became a full-time bander.  Later he continued with environmental studies in the graduate program at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. He thus represents that group of young people, local as well as from distant places, whose academic choices and careers were strongly influenced by Powdermill's bird-banding program in, he says, "Pittsburgh's own backyard."



Research Results


The collective effort of Carnegie ornithologists for more than a century has produced a wealth of data on local avian biodiversity and population dynamics.  There have been  scores of scientific publications, and several popular works widely considered to be among the very best of their kind.  An undisputed classic is W.E. Clyde Todd's monumental Birds of Western Pennsylvania, published in 1940 but based on fieldwork begun by the museum's first curator of birds in 1893.


Others were produced by curator emeritus Dr. Kenneth C. Parkes-- Field List of the Birds of the Pittsburgh Region (1956); and Robert C. Leberman-- Birds of the Ligonier Valley (1976), and The Birds of Western Pennsylvania and Adjacent Regions (1988).  This last is  a full revision and updating of Dr. Parkes' earlier field list.  Another is The Atlas of Breeding Birds in Pennsylvania (1992), edited by Daniel Brauning,  and containing over 40 species accounts authored by Robert C. Leberman and Robert S. Mulvihill. 



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