Every morning before sunrise, my roommate Derek gets up, mysteriously leaves the house and heads into the woods. He's usually napping when I get home, and a pair of his muddy pants hang from the back of the door - just like they would if he were, say, a Druid.

Every morning before sunrise, my roommate Derek gets up, mysteriously leaves the house and heads into the woods. He's usually napping when I get home, and a pair of his muddy pants hang from the back of the door - just like they would if he were, say, a Druid.

Looking for birds, he'd say when I would ask. This went on for some time. One day, I decided to go with him.

Our car windows were hazy with dew when we left Clintonville for Elk Run, a small forest in Groveport operated by the Columbus parks department. We were alone except for one other guest, Ohio State University researcher Laura Kearns.

She was kind and had a clipboard, two good signs that Derek had not been leading some illicit forest ritual for the past several months. Then why the early hours and forest walks?

Turns out, he'd been employed in what's informally known as the Columbus Riparian Project, an ongoing research series started in 2001 by Professor Amanda Rodewald. (For specifics, click to twel.osu.edu.)

Together, the loosely connected projects compose one of the world's longest and most comprehensive studies of urban birds. In all, workers have monitored more than 4,000 nests and logged thousands of hours at Elk Run, Three Creeks Metro Park and other forest fragments throughout Central Ohio.

Rodewald and her students have studied the role of changing forest habitat, predator-prey relationships and how development can damage protected spaces even when it occurs outside formal conservation boundaries.

"With my program in particular, it's really just to learn how we can better manage our urban parks for wildlife," Kearns said.

To do so, Kearns and company slog through wetlands, climb trees and track birds through the canopy for hours. Theirs is a business of scraped knees, poison ivy, boots wet for days. They hit the forest early and come back with their pants soaked and soiled.

"People tend to think, 'Oh, hard life! You get to walk around the woods all day,'" Rodewald said with a laugh. "Then you go out there and try to catch a bird or find a nest, and it's hours and hours of time investment."

And those pretty northern cardinals? Yeah, they bite.