Appalachian Laboratory

Student Research Project- Claire Nemes

Those Extraordinary Birds!

I love birds.  I love everything about birds.  They are amazing organisms that, despite their small sizes, can do extraordinary things like migrating thousands of miles each year.  We humans don’t always make things easy for them, though. 

Birds face a number of threats to their survival and many of these are the result of human activity.  Free-roaming domestic cats pose a tremendous threat, killing billions of birds in the United States each year. That’s more than are killed by colliding with windows, automobiles, or wind turbines.

While we know something about the threat cats pose to birds in the United States, we don’t know much about their possible impacts in the Neotropics (parts of Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean), where many migrating songbirds spend their winters.  To better understand the possible impact of cats on bird populations in this region, we first need to determine how many cats there are.

This is where my research comes in.  Starting in the winter of 2018/2019, I’ll be using trail cameras and other observation techniques to survey for cats and birds in urban areas of  the Neotropics.  This work will be the basis of my dissertation and will contribute to our understanding of the threat cats may pose to migratory birds on their wintering grounds.

Thank You for My First Field Season!

Thanks to generous donors, I was able to spend six weeks in San Juan, Puerto Rico this past January and February conducting research for my dissertation. To assess how densities of free-roaming domestic cats might differ along a gradient of urbanization, I established 16 different camera trapping arrays throughout San Juan municipality, from the densely populated downtown area along the coast through the less-developed suburbs and exurbs on the southern outskirts of the city. I was lucky to be able to hire two fantastic field technicians, Emilio Font and Noraisha Bonilla, to assist with camera setup and bird surveys; both are biology students at the Universidad Ana G. Mendez in Puerto Rico. We baited the motion-activated cameras with cat food, which attracted not only free-roaming cats, but dogs, chickens, wild birds (especially grackles and doves), and more.

By the end of the short field season, I had over a hundred thousand photos! Now comes the tricky part: reviewing each photo one-by-one, determining if there is a cat in the photo, and identifying each individual to determine his/her history of being "captured" (photographed) at each camera trap to estimate the distribution and activity patterns of cats in the area and to model their densities. This process will take a long time, but I'm excited to see what the data tell me about cats in Puerto Rico!

Thank you so much for making my first field season possible - I couldn't have done it without you.

Below are some photos from the 2019 field season:

Claire in the Field: Puerto Rico, January 2019

I quickly discovered that cats aren't the only animals that enjoy eating cat food!
Injured male cat in downtown San Juan. Many of the free-roaming cats caught on camera had injuries like this, or worse.
Free-roaming cat in exurban site.
We were lucky enough to visit El Yunque National Forest one day after fieldwork.
There are even free-roaming cats in the middle of El Yunque!
Field technicians Nora Bonilla (middle) and Emilio Font (right) with me.
Example of a typical camera trap set up.
Three cats captured on camera in a suburban neighborhood.
Unneutered male cat in a suburban neighborhood.
Another injured cat in downtown San Juan. In addition to their negative impacts on wildlife, free-roaming cats often experience injury, disease and starvation on the streets.

How You Can Help

This work will continue to require travel, purchase of cameras and other equipment, and cat food. Lots of cat food.  If you’d like to help, you can contribute by clicking the donate button above or by sending a check, made payable to the UMCES Foundation, Inc., to the Appalachian Laboratory, 301 Braddock Road, Frostburg, MD 21532.  Just write “Claire Nemes research project” on the memo line. 
If you have any questions about your gift, please contact Rhonda Schwinabart at 301-689-7102 or 

Thank you for helping me in the pursuit of my degree and for helping birds, too!

This project is an activity of the University System of Maryland Foundation, Inc. (USM Foundation) and the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  Funds earned or contributed will be managed by the USM Foundation for the benefit of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.  ​


Want to learn more? See below for links to recent articles I've published in popular newsletters and online blogs: 

Protecting birds and catsFeatured article for the Maryland Ornithological Society's May/June 2019 newsletter 

Apocalypse meow: how you and your cat can help save the planet - online article on Boston Hassle website 

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