Citizen scientists needed for new barn swallow study

Ithaca, N.Y. – We live in an incredibly well-lit world. All that wattage in heavily populated areas creates a halo glow that brightens the night sky.

Researchers at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Syracuse University and the Globe at Night project are seeking participants for a unique new study. Scientists want to know what impact all that extra night light might have on the circadian rhythms of life, using barn swallows as subjects.

Barn swallows have adapted to live near humans and nest almost exclusively on structures such as bridges, homes and, yes, barns.

Volunteers can sign up through the Cornell Lab’s free NestWatch citizen-science project.

“Specifically, we’re hoping to learn if the artificial light has an effect – good or bad – on what we call the ‘pace of life,’ ” Cornell Lab of Ornithology researcher Caren Cooper said. “It’s been established that creatures that live in areas where daytime is shorter during breeding, such as the tropics, have a lower metabolism and a longer life span.

“On the flip side, animals that breed where there is more daylight tend to have a faster metabolism and shorter life,” she added. “Is the pace of life for barn swallows increasing if they live in areas where the days seems even longer due to artificial lights?”

Cooper and Margaret Voss, of Syracuse University, are asking study participants to measure and report light levels near barn swallow nests after sundown. Instructions on ways to measure light levels will be provided to those who sign up.

“Previous studies have shown that birds living in areas with artificial light at night start singing well before dawn, start eating earlier, eat more during the day, and have more complex social interactions,” Voss said. “Expanding those activities takes its toll in energy use. We want to learn how that might play out when it comes to health and survival as the barn swallows build nests and raise their chicks.”