Illustrating internship research findings of trash use by birds

One person's trash is another bird's building material

During the fall of 2022, researchers at the St. Jones Reserve, a component of the Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve, observed trash in songbird nests around the reserve’s visitor center. This past summer, Hollings scholar Eleanor Meng studied whether this trash occurred more frequently in nests near the visitor center compared to nests further away.

Eleanor poses with a smile as she uses her hands to gently part a section of a large shrubby plant.

Eleanor Meng, a 2022 Hollings scholar, studied whether songbirds incorporated trash in their nests more often the closer they nested to the visitor's center of a nature reserve. Here, she is searching for bird nests in a shrub at the St. Jones Reserve, a region of Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve.  (Image credit: Abby Reed)

Eleanor spent three weeks searching for nests across the reserve. She documented whether the nests had trash present and their locations. She mapped and analyzed the data to determine whether the presence of trash in the nest was related to its distance from the reserve’s visitor center.  

Out of the 59 nests she found, 34% contained some type of trash, mostly plastic-based. She also discovered that nest distance from the visitor center did influence whether trash was present or not. Of the nests with trash, 70% were within 100 meters of the reserve’s visitor center. She also noticed that some birds used trash, while others never used it. For instance, gray catbirds appeared to favor using trash while red-winged blackbirds never used trash, even when close to the visitor center. The presence of trash in bird nests can be used as an environmental indicator to signal that despite the reserve’s large natural landscape, trash is still present in the environment.

As part of the education side to her internship, Eleanor created a tri-fold brochure to communicate the results of this study to the public. This brochure is currently available to the public at both Delaware National Estuarine Research Reserve visitor centers. After completing the brochure, she wanted to add an artistic touch by incorporating her illustrations of some of the nests she found. She was captivated by the bird nests she found this summer and the ingenious ways the birds were able to weave their nests together, either with natural material or trash. Eleanor plans to continue drawing nests from the reference photos she took and hopes to include these drawings in her biology senior capstone project which will focus around the work she did this summer.

Drawings of the birds nests and eggs of gray catbirds and red-winged blackbirds. The gray catbird nests are cup-like and look to be made with with twiggy materials, leaves, and pieces of plastic or paper trash. Their egg is bright blue. There are two types of red-winged blackbird nests: One is weaved around a bundle of reeds. The other is a cup-like nest made of twiggy material. The egg is off-white with irregular dark squiggly lines marking the lower third of the egg.
Using colored pencil, Eleanor Meng illustrated nests found throughout the summer during her internship for inclusion in an informational brochure for reserve visitors. (Image credit: Eleanor Meng)
A headshot of Eleanor Meng.
Eleanor Meng, 2022 Hollings scholar

Eleanor Meng is a 2022 Hollings scholar and biology major at Lawrence University.