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OSU Professor Discusses Ohio’s ‘Feathered Superhighway’ at Columbus Science Pub

Jesse Bethea Jesse Bethea OSU Professor Discusses Ohio’s ‘Feathered Superhighway’ at Columbus Science PubPhotos by Jesse Bethea.
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It was an unusually cool August day at COSI’s CityView Patio, a perfect reminder that the migratory birds of the Western Hemisphere will soon make their epic journey south for the winter. On their way to South America or the Caribbean, many of those birds will stop and recharge in Ohio, especially on the shores of Lake Erie.

“You get this big concentration, large diversity, very easy to see,” said Dr. Chris Tonra of the migratory birds. “I never realized this before I moved here but Ohio’s really diverse ecologically.”

Dr. Tonra, an assistant professor of avian wildlife ecology at the Ohio State University, appeared before a crowd of more than 40 to share his love of birds and explain why they migrate, how they migrate and where they go after passing over Ohio.

“Tonight I’m kind of just going to talk about why I think migratory birds are amazing,” said Dr. Tonra.

The migration of birds like warblers – a family of small, brightly colored birds found only in the Western Hemisphere – is an adventure with which no feat of human endurance can compare. According to Dr. Tonra, the flight of the warblers over Ohio is not unlike crossing an ocean.

“While it’s not crossing the Gulf of Mexico like a lot of migrants do,” said Dr. Tonra, “they’re crossing an ocean of corn and soybeans, and a migratory bird’s not going to be able to use that as habitat.”

Tonra’s bird talk,  titled “The Feathered Superhighway Over Our Heads,” also includes some information about threats and challenges faced by birds migrating over Ohio. Fragmentation of habitats by gas pipelines, loss of natural grasslands and tree cover all make the birds’ journey more difficult. Tonra hopes he can educate people on these environmental threats, but also empower them to do things like grow native plants in their yards, put up bird feeders and maintain pockets of forest to serve as migratory way stations.

“I think if we want people to get engaged in conservation, you’ve got to show them ways they can get engaged with really not a lot of effort because people have busy lives,” said Dr. Tonra. “But also make them realize that there is a lot of positive things happening and we can’t let those things get forgotten because otherwise you just feel like you’re helpless and you’re never going to stem the tides.”

Dr. Tonra’s presentation was part of Columbus Science Pub, a monthly event where people can gather in a casual space to learn more about a scientific topic from an expert. This was the first Columbus Science Pub hosted at COSI, and the second Science Pub this year to feature Dr. Tonra. He presented a talk at ShadowBox Live in April, right as the birds were migrating north over Ohio for the summer.

Encouraged by OSU, Dr. Tonra considers community engagement and public science talks like this to be one of the most important parts of his job.

“If you meet me at the pub I’ll chew your ear off about birds, but not everybody gets that opportunity,” said Dr. Tonra. “So this is my chance to really reach a lot of people and get them excited about birds and… realize that there’s so much that you don’t even see about them that’s more amazing than what you do see.”

For more information, visit the Columbus Science Pub’s Facebook page.

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