Studying backyard birds in suburbia

Passion: After decades of devoted observation, Aelred Geis' delight in feeding birds is undiminished.

April 16, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

In 1966, the year James W. Rouse began developing Columbia, Aelred Geis began paying especially close attention to the birds.

He roamed the creeks and forests of what is now Columbia, counting birds by sight and song, recording on a clipboard the effects of suburban sprawl.

Geis, then an employee for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, discovered two things: that sprawl harms bird diversity, and that there's not much he can do about it.

So he switched his focus and began to cater to the suburban bird. Doing much of his research from his Clarksville study, which overlooks a bevy of feeders, Geis, 70, became -- and remains -- one of the world's leading experts on the feeding habits of birds.

For six decades, Geis has been captivated by all things avian, and a bad heart condition has not dampened his enthusiasm. If you call him in his study, he will interrupt the conversation at least a couple of times to update you on what he calls "the bird show": a cardinal catching the afternoon light, a goldfinch in full nuptial plumage, a Carolina wren emerging from a log with a mealworm in its mouth.

"That's the romance of bird-feeding," he says. "It's not the same old cast of characters."

Geis is the kind of man who gets involved in too many projects at once, doing a little work on one before being swept up by another, and so on. Mostly, these days, he focuses on helping bird lovers do a better job of attracting birds. He recently patented a self-cleaning feeder, has just finished a study on which feeders best discourage squirrels and has plans to patent a new bird-feed mix he says has proved wildly successful in his back yard.

But it was his study of Columbia birds more than 30 years ago that put him on the map.

When it became clear that the planned community was inevitable, Geis decided it would be a perfect opportunity to study the effect of sprawl on birds. His first study took place from 1966 -- when Columbia was mostly agricultural, studded with fields, woods and streams -- to 1971, by which time Columbia had more than 30,000 residents.

Geis found that birds that rely on farmland habitat -- the bobwhite, the mourning dove -- slowly declined as housing developments spread. So did birds that inhabit fields or woodlands: eastern meadowlarks, red-winged blackbirds, wood thrushes, indigo buntings.

But other birds thrived in the new suburban environment: chipping sparrows, song sparrows, house sparrows. These birds, Geis says, took advantage of suburban amenities such as unboxed eaves, air vents, birdhouses and fruit-bearing shrubs.

Overall, Geis says, the number of birds in Columbia probably increased, but diversity suffered.

Chandler Robbins, a wildlife biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey who works at the Patuxent Wildlife Refuge in Laurel, calls Geis' study of Columbia birds "a benchmark for what the population was at that time."

The research demonstrated the need to study urban wildlife, Geis says, and after it was complete he got a job running a new Urban Wildlife Research unit at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. His work focused on open-space management, bird populations and ways that homeowners can attract wildlife to their homes.

Geis has perfected the art of attracting wildlife in Clarksville, where he moved 44 years ago and bought 20 acres for less than $15,000. That was before Columbia existed, when Howard County was mostly farmland.

Columbia has since surrounded Geis' home, but plunge down his bumpy, dirt driveway, and it feels like the middle of the countryside. The property is largely overgrown -- perfect for birds -- and sports an old, sagging barn. It also has two houses. The bigger house, Geis shares with his wife, Shirley Geis, a retired microbiologist.

Geis uses the smaller one-story home as an office. That house is messy, crammed with papers, food containers, half-finished projects and a box of mealworms he likes to feed to the birds. The son of a Chicago streetcar motorman, Geis fell in love with birds as a boy. He indulged his passion hunting with his father and exploring the wildlife preserves outside Chicago. At 16, he discovered his life purpose: He wanted to be a wildlife biologist.

He received his bachelor's and master's degrees and his doctorate from Michigan State University. He began teaching large lecture courses at 22 and got his first job for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at age 26.

He did his first major study on the feeding habits of birds in the late 1970s, while at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. All the tens of thousands of birds included in the study were counted in Clarksville. After that study, in the late 1980s, Geis did a nationwide feeding study following hundreds of thousands of birds.

Both studies proved that birds prefer oil sunflower seeds to all other seeds -- disproving the then-widely held notion that birds preferred striped sunflower seeds. After Geis published his findings in 1980, the sale of oil sunflower seeds for bird feed skyrocketed.

Since leaving the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service some 15 years ago, Geis has spent much of his career working for companies that cater to the bird-loving public.

Lately, he has been studying an experimental feeder to attract pileated woodpeckers in Carroll County. And he has joined the Blandair Foundation in its fight to save the Smith farm in Columbia from development into tennis courts and soccer fields.

Geis is especially excited about the Smith farm, he says, because it will allow him to take his work to a new level. He will not only focus on birds -- doing studies on wild bird products -- but help establish the Blandair Research Center for the Management of Urban and Suburban Open Space.

"The whole subject of urban wildlife needs to be better understood," Geis says.

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