AUTHOR BLOG: Migrating Birds That Eat Northern Spicebush Berries Are Fat and Healthy Birds

Yushi Oguchi

Linked paper: Fruits and migrant health: Consequences of stopping over in exotic- vs. native-dominated shrublands on immune and antioxidant status of Swainson’s Thrushes and Gray Catbirds by Y. Oguchi, R.J. Smith, and J.C. Owen, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:4, November 2017.

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Collecting a small blood sample from a Gray Catbird to assess its health during stopover. Photo credit: Zak Pohlen

“We should not only conserve avian populations; we should conserve ‘healthy’ avian populations.”  – Dr. Jen C. Owen (my M.S. adviser, Michigan State University)

We investigated whether the health status of fall frugivorous Swainson’s Thrushes and the Gray Catbirds differed depending on their use of shrublands dominated by exotic versus native plants. In the process, we came to appreciate the value of one native fruit, northern spicebush (Lindera benzoin), a fruit we couldn’t even identify at first. Our story represents a unique insight that ecophysiology can bring to conservation science and habitat management.

Our prediction was that habitat may influence bird health through their frugivorous diet and that landbird migrants may be able to enhance their immune system by resting and refueling during stopover. In fall, many shrubs are loaded with fruit, and this fruit contains essential nutrients, including antioxidants, which help a bird neutralize reactive oxygen species produced during exercise (flight).

A question of conservation interest is whether birds that forage on exotic fruits and in exotic-dominated shrubland experience a deleterious effect on their health. Many exotic shrubs such as autumn olive and honeysuckle (introduced to the Midwestern U.S.A.) produce fruits that are generally lower in energy than native fruits such as northern spicebush, but some exotic fruits may have high antioxidants, including immunostimulatory carotenoids. We wouldn’t know unless we tested it!

A state-managed land in Michigan had the perfect habitat matrix—exotic-dominated shrubland and native-dominated shrubland occurring side by side, bisected by woodland. The exotic habitat was largely autumn olive, honeysuckle, and multiflora rose, and the native habitat was largely dogwood species, common winterberry, and northern spicebush. During fall migration in 2012 and 2013, we captured more than 800 individual birds, from which we collected blood samples for comprehensive health assessments.

Where Swainson’s Thrushes foraged during stopover had no impact on their health. On the other hand, Gray Catbirds using exotic shrubland experienced poor health; they lost mass and had reduced immune function and lower antioxidant capacity compared to catbirds using native shrubland. We also saw annual variation, with catbirds exhibiting more deleterious effects in 2013 compared to 2012. We further found that the pattern of habitat effect on catbird (but not thrush) health could be at least partly predicted based on the fruits they ate (math on fruit nutrition and bird fecal data).

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Fecal sample showing the remnants of northern spicebush. Photo credit: Jen Owen

It is through this nutritional analysis that we saw the value of northern spicebush. Spicebush fruit has very high energy and antioxidant capacity relative to other species. It was a preferred fruit by both bird species and likely contributed to the bulk of the nutrients they acquired in native shrubland. In exotic shrubland, thrushes consumed more exotic fruits like common buckthorn than catbirds did—so they got antioxidants from exotic fruits. Catbirds, apparently more “reluctant” than thrushes to eat exotic fruits, instead consumed other native fruits that were low in antioxidants. Not eating enough exotic fruits in exotic shrubland may be why catbirds experienced a dip in their health there.

To summarize, migrant health may be influenced by human alteration of habitat, and the effects may depends on the diet of the birds. And again, northern spicebush is a great fruit for birds if you are in eastern North America! In a future paper (accepted by The Condor), we will cover more on shrubland habitat use by the birds at our site.

Dr. Jen Owen continues to direct the Burke Lake Banding Station (BULA) where this research was conducted. She and her undergraduate researchers are doing more intensive monitoring of the fruit abundance and phenology at the site, particularly on the interannual variation in spicebush fruiting in relation to climate. BULA is now in its 7th year of operation, and it continues to provide research opportunities for many students as well as inspiring bird enthusiasts of all ages. Visitors are always welcome while they are open during fall and spring migration. Check them out on their website (burkelakebanding.com) or like them on Facebook (facebook.com/BULAbandingstation).

I’ve done a return migration to the University of Wisconsin–Madison for my Ph.D. this fall. Following my renewed interest in nutrient acquisition so key to health, I now study molecular mechanisms of digestive enzyme modulation in the avian gut.

AUTHOR BLOG: Citizen-Science Data and Capture-Mark-Recapture Models to Estimate Numbers of Rare Species

Andrew Dennhardt

Linked paper: Applying citizen-science data and mark–recapture models to estimate numbers of migrant Golden Eagles in an Important Bird Area in eastern North America by A.J. Dennhardt, A.E. Duerr, D. Brandes, and T.E. Katzner, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:4, November 2017.

Have you ever looked to the autumn sky above and wondered how many of your favorite feathered friends are out there, as they migrate southward each year? If so, then you are not alone. A common goal in ecology has been to estimate the abundance of wild populations. From basic counts to educated guesses, historically, people have tried it all. During and even before the work of Sir Ronald Fischer, the father of modern statistics, applied mathematics aided in population estimation—for humans and wild animals alike.

F.C. Lincoln (1930) is credited with one of the first modern attempts to approximate population abundance of wild animals based on a sample of marked individuals (Bailey 1952, Le Cren 1965). The premise of his approach, co-credited to C. G. Johannes Petersen (1894) and commonly called capture-mark-recapture (CMR), was simple: trap a random set of animals of the same species in an area, mark those you caught with a unique tag, release them back into the wild for a period of time, return to the same area once more and randomly trap individuals of that same species again, and record which previously tagged individuals, if any, came back to the area. In brief, when you know the proportion of individuals you recaptured the second time, you can assume that you trapped the same proportion of the total population when you trapped the first time. The math is straightforward, too: if you have an initial sample of animals captured, marked, and released back into the wild, M, and multiply that by the total number of animals sampled a second time, n, then you can divide that quantity by the number of marked animals in that second sample, m, and approximate true population size, N.

In our paper, we used modern statistical advancements in CMR to estimate abundance of Golden Eagles (Aquila chrysaetos), a species of conservation concern in the United States, using an unusual approach. In effect, we did not physically capture, mark, or recapture individual animals in the wild; rather, we did so virtually in a computing environment with the help of observational data collected by some savvy citizen-scientists.

Golden Eagles in eastern North America face lethal and sub-lethal threats, many of which are human caused. However, these eagles are rarely seen, broad-ranging, and difficult to capture in the wild because they often avoid areas of human activity. Despite this fact, citizen-scientists observe Golden Eagles frequently and regularly during their annual spring and autumn migrations in Pennsylvania, U.S.A. Moreover, Golden Eagle movements are highly stereotyped, especially in autumn, bringing them within a few hundred meters of hawk counters on ridgetops in the Appalachian Mountains. Better still, because of past telemetry studies, we know how fast Golden Eagles fly when they migrate. Hawk counters collect their data on Golden Eagles and other migrant species and archive their observations in an online database, hawkcount.org. With assistance from managers of the archive, our research team gained permission and access to download historic count data on migrating Golden Eagles observed using the Kittatinny Ridge during their peak migration period, November, over a 10 year period from 2002 to 2011.

Now, here’s where things get really exciting (well, they do for me, at least!). Because (a) historic hawk-count data included information on the timing of Golden Eagles migrating southward past monitoring sites along the Kittatinny, (b) telemetry data gave us an idea of how fast they fly while migrating in autumn, and (c) we could measure the distance between each of the monitoring sites they passed, we could then estimate how long it would take eagles to travel between pairs of sites. Using a customized computer program, we matched records of Golden Eagles together, from site to site, such that we could know when observers at one site counted a bird that had probably been counted at a previous site (i.e. eagles became “captured,” “marked,” and “recaptured”).

Using these virtual data on matched eagle observations, we developed what are commonly called encounter histories. In brief, encounter histories comprise a sequence of 1s and 0s unique to each eagle. In a given sequence, a 1 represents either the event of first “capture and marking” or a subsequent “recapture” after being previously marked and released back into the wild, and a 0 represents an event when an eagle was not “captured or recaptured” at a previous or subsequent migration monitoring site. For modern CMR approaches, extensions of Lincoln (1930) and Petersen’s (1894) early work, encounter histories are the necessary input data for a statistical model. Because we were interested in estimating eagle abundance in a particular area (i.e. the Kittatinny Ridge) over time, we chose the Population Analysis (POPAN) Jolly-Seber model—the right tool for the job.

Most exciting for us, our methodology worked. We produced population abundance estimates for Golden Eagles migrating along the Kittatinny Ridge each autumn. To boot, two sets of our estimates followed the necessary rules (e.g., statistical model goodness-of-fit tests) for us to consider them reliable by modern CMR standards. Together, our best models estimated that approximately 1,350 Golden Eagles migrated along the Kittatinny Ridge each November, 2002–2011.

In the end, we feel that we have produced a useful framework for evaluating other migratory bird populations based on similar data and known movement behaviors. Our proposed methodology not only builds upon the legacy of modern CMR work, but is also far more cost-effective than physical CMR and other costly survey techniques. In the case of fixed-wing aircraft surveys for Golden Eagles in the western United States alone, our work costs far less than the annual ~$320,000 necessary to implement such surveys. Most importantly, such an achievement was only made possible by the tireless work of numerous dedicated citizen-scientists, whose standardized and centrally managed data can provide wildlife researchers and managers with quality information useful in conservation decisions. To our friends at the Hawk Migration Association of North America, for all of their data collection and management year-in and year-out, our team is abundantly grateful—pun intended!

References

Bailey, N. T. J. 1952. Improvements in the interpretation of recapture data. Journal of Animal Ecology 21:120–127.

Le Cren, E. D. 1965. A note on the history of mark-recapture population estimates. Journal of Animal Ecology 34:453–454.

Lincoln, F. C. 1930. Calculating waterfowl abundance on the basis of banding returns. Circulation of the U.S. Department of Agriculture No. 118.

Petersen, C. G. J. 1894. On the biology of our flat-fishes and on the decrease of our flat-fish fisheries: with some observations showing to remedy the latter and promote the flat-fish fisheries in our seas east of the Skaw. Report of the Danish Biological Station No. IV (1893–94).

AUTHOR BLOG: How Canada Warblers Keep Up with the Joneses

Anjolene Hunt

Linked paper: Forestry and conspecifics influence Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis) habitat use and reproductive activity in boreal Alberta, Canada by A.R. Hunt, E.M. Bayne, and S. Haché, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:4, November 2017.

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Photo credit: Torin Heavyside

Could a behavioral phenomenon, like the tendency of birds to live near neighbors, change the way we think about the effects of habitat disturbance? Results from new paper in The Condor: Ornithological Applications suggest that for Canada Warblers, this may be the case.

These iconic, brightly colored boreal songbirds are declining in number. Habitat loss and degradation are likely the main culprits. While it is true that forestry changes the landscape across much of the Canada Warbler breeding range, it remains contentious whether this results in habitat loss or whether they will use and thrive in regenerating postharvest areas. We suspected this discrepancy in our understanding of forestry effects could be explained by social factors influencing how Canada Warblers choose where to live.

Just as you might choose a neighborhood based on criteria like access to green space, birds also assess their physical environment when choosing where to live. These species-habitat relationships help biologists understand which areas to protect.

But the physical environment is far from the only cue birds use to choose a place to live, nor is it the only cue we use to understand why they live where they do. Just as you might rely on friends’ opinions of a neighborhood to snatch up a good place before it’s off the market, birds may choose to live near members of their own species. If another bird picks an area, chances are it has high quality food, nesting areas, and mates. However, if everybody makes the same decision, problems can arise as they pack into the same location. When habitat is disturbed, choosing to live near neighbors can result in overcrowding in the remaining undisturbed areas and potentially force some birds into the outskirts of high-quality neighborhoods.

After returning from a long spring migration, Canada Warblers have limited time to find a breeding site (they have the shortest breeding season of wood warblers in Alberta!), and strangely, researchers always seem to find Canada Warblers clustered together in some areas while absent from others. Based on this information, we suspected that where Canada Warblers choose to breed might depend on where their neighbors chose to settle. If this is the case, it could explain why they will live in postharvest areas, and in turn, how we perceive the effects of forestry.

Taking quads down muddy trails and bushwhacking through dense shrubbery to our destination, we surveyed for Canada Warblers in boreal Alberta, Canada. We used a recorded song to mimic an intruding male and lure territory owners into our nets. Once captured, we attached color bands to their legs to distinguish between individuals and followed them throughout the breeding season. We documented their space use in and around postharvest areas, how close they were to neighbors, and whether they found a female mate and raised young. See what a day in the life of Canada Warbler biologist looks like here.

Our results showed that numbers of male Canada Warblers were much lower in postharvest areas compared to unharvested forest. The few males that did live partially in postharvest were typically at the edge of nearby unharvested forest. Males were also more likely to live nearer to neighbors rather than spacing out. Hence, Canada Warblers in the boreal forest may not prefer to live in postharvest areas, but may live there as a side effect of trying to be near neighbors in unharvested forest.

But are Canada Warblers reaping the benefits of living near neighbors, or are they feeling the pressure to keep up with the Joneses? We found males living in areas with more neighbors were more likely to be “single” (without a female mate) than males living in areas with fewer neighbors. Overcrowding may lead to increased male-male competition for limited females. These rivalries also mean that males have to spend more time and energy defending their territory, leaving less time and energy to court females.

Our results suggest that protecting large stretches of unharvested forest near sites occupied by Canada Warblers will be important to provide enough habitat and prevent crowding effects. It also goes to show that appearances can be deceiving when it comes to the use of disturbed habitat and that the influence of social behavior should not be underestimated.

Follow Anjolene on Twitter: twitter.com/AnjoleneHunt

AUTHOR BLOG: Geolocator Effects May Have More to Do with Marking Method Than Mass

Henry Streby

Linked paper: Comment on ‘‘Mixed effects of geolocators on reproduction and survival of Cerulean Warblers, a canopy-dwelling, long-distance migrant’’ by H.M. Streby and G.R. Kramer, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:4, November 2017.

Author Blog picUnprecedented numbers of species and individual birds have been marked with all sorts of tracking devices in recent years, and those numbers will continue to rise in the future. The data ornithologists are gathering by marking birds with tracking devices are providing a wealth of previously elusive knowledge about all stages of birds’ life cycles. The rapidity with which new tracking studies are being initiated places an ever-growing burden on the USGS Bird Banding Lab (BBL) and other agencies charged with assessing auxiliary marker requests and determining permission to mark birds on a case-by-case basis. In many cases, those agencies have little to no species-specific information on which to base their decisions, either because a species has never been marked before or because those who marked them did not study or did not report marker effects during the course of their research. We as research biologists have an ethical responsibility to objectively assess the potential effects of our research activities on the animals we study for the sake of minimizing harm to the animals and potential bias in our data caused by markers impacting animal behavior or survival.

We applaud the authors of Raybuck et al. (2017) for honoring a request from the BBL to band additional birds as control groups during their geolocator study of Cerulean Warblers. We believe Raybuck et al. conducted their study and published their paper with ethical and admirable intentions and it was not our intention to criticize the integrity of their research. However, their conclusion of an overall geolocator effect on annual survival of Cerulean Warblers was overreaching in light of the modest sample-sizes and the confounding factors of year, site, and marking method. We believe our analysis and interpretation of their apparent annual survival data is more appropriate and clarifies some small but critical shortcomings in their assessment. Of primary concern, the negative geolocator effect on annual survival of Cerulean Warblers was driven by a strong negative effect associated with one marking method in one year, and there was no support for a negative effect of geolocators when they used a different marking method in the second year of their study. This difference was not driven by geolocator mass, because the reduced survival occurred in the year when a lighter geolocator was used.

In our opinion, there are two broad take-home messages from our paper. First, when marking a species for the first time, it is critical to use available knowledge and replicate methods known to work well in closely related species. When the smallest details are considered, there are almost as many methods for deploying a geolocator on a songbird as there are species that have been marked with geolocators. It should not be necessary for each research group to reinvent methods and relearn unfortunate lessons when simple, safe, and effective methods have been developed and made widely available. Second, there is only one control group that is relevant for comparison to a marked group of birds during a geolocator study or any other study of marked birds: a control group identified at the same site(s) during the same period of the same year. Parameters of interest, especially survival, can vary widely among years and populations. It is therefore not appropriate to compare parameters like survival of geolocator-marked birds with those of control birds from any other population or year or even long-term averages from the same population. Just as we have a responsibility to assess the potential effects of our research on the animals we mark, so too do we have a responsibility to design and present those assessments in a statistically rigorous and scientifically appropriate manner. It is then that we achieve our goal of providing accurate information that may be useful to other researchers and those in oversight positions who use this type of information to decide whether continued or new research is permissible.

AUTHOR BLOG: To the Grasshopper Sparrow, the Grass May Be Greener on the Other Side

Emily Williams

Linked paper: Patterns and correlates of within-season breeding dispersal: A common strategy in a declining grassland songbird by E.J. Williams and W.A. Boyle, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:1, January 2018.

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SY-GD, or silver-yellow, green-dark blue, is a male fiercely defending his territory on his favored signpost perch. Photo credit: D. Rintoul

Late in the summer of 2013, when Alice Boyle, a new faculty member at Kansas State University, was embarking on studies of grassland birds at the Konza Prairie Biological Station in northeastern Kansas, she noticed something really curious: Individual Grasshopper Sparrows she had color-banded earlier in the season were suddenly popping up in new places, singing their hearts out in locations far from where they were originally captured. Whether this was a weird one-off or a predictable and common behavior of grassland birds, Boyle didn’t know.

I started at Kansas State University as Alice’s first graduate student the next fall. She told me the story of the Grasshopper Sparrows and the strange things they did over the summer. With my fondness for movement ecology and a taste for novelty, I opted to base my master’s thesis on the rogue Grasshopper Sparrows seeking greener pastures.

To rewind a little bit, I should explain why this kind of behavior was surprising. The Grasshopper Sparrow is a small, grassland-obligate migratory songbird that spends its winters along the Gulf Coast and Northern Mexico and travels to the Great Plains to spend its summers. Migration is energetically costly, requiring a lot of time and preparation. Once birds arrive at breeding grounds, they have a relatively short window of time to set up a territory, find a mate, build a nest, raise young, and feed fledglings, and then undergo molt, feed, and prepare for the long journey back to the wintering grounds. All of this has to be accomplished in a span of a few short months. Given the constraints of time, resources, and energy, you’d think that they would stick pretty close to their original territory for the whole breeding season. That is what most migrant birds do, after all. The fact that Grasshopper Sparrows would switch territories, duplicating their efforts of setting up another territory, finding a potential new mate, and trying to nest again—it seems like it wouldn’t be worth it. The fact that Grasshopper Sparrows are indeed doing this—changing territories once, twice, maybe three times, even—makes them apparently unusual compared to their migratory counterparts and begs the question, why go to all that effort?!

Before we could examine why Grasshopper Sparrows move around during the breeding season, we first needed to determine just how common this kind of behavior was. We also wanted to find out the distances over which they traveled, where were the new places they chose to settle, and how frequently they moved locations. Following that initial season in 2013, we set out to answer these questions and looked for this behavior in full force. In the next three seasons of field work, we banded 779 Grasshopper Sparrows, outfitted 19 individuals with radio-transmitters to follow their movements, and searched for color banded birds throughout our study area every week to keep track of territory holders and their whereabouts throughout the season.

What we found, we couldn’t have predicted: Within-season breeding dispersal behavior in Grasshopper Sparrows was way more common than we expected. Depending on which of the different metrics we calculated, between 33% and 75% of males disperse at least once within a single breeding season. The scale of movement between territory locations was also remarkable; one individual moved 9 km between breeding attempts—a movement considered pretty large to a bird that defends an average territory size of 43 meters in diameter! If we had not been systematically looking for this behavior, we might have easily missed it; in many areas, densities of Grasshopper Sparrows remained constant throughout the breeding season, but the identities of territory holders changed, sometimes more than once over the summer.

The fact that these birds are moving around a lot during the breeding season introduces its own list of new questions. Now that we detailed the patterns of this behavior, we could begin to answer the questions of why. Why do they do this? What determines why some leave, and some stay? And what determines where they settle next? Could this be a common strategy of other birds occupying similar habitats?  While trying to determine whether this movement was truly unusual by digging into the literature, I actually found quite a bit of evidence for such movements. While the terminology is not consistent, it seems that within-season breeding dispersal could be more common in grassland birds than elsewhere.

The answers to some of these questions formed the rest of my MS research, and some remain as ones we are still working on. But now that the first piece of the puzzle is in place, the next steps are to explore the evolutionary and ecological causes of within-season breeding dispersal in such an interesting little brown job.

To find out more regarding this Grasshopper Sparrow movement story, visit aliceboyle.net and follow us on social media.

Emily on Twitter: twitter.com/wayfaringwilly

Alice on Twitter: twitter.com/birdfiddler

Youtube channel: youtube.com/channel/UCiQiNb9syQ5F455XielMjDA

Flickr: flickr.com/photos/141805443@N08/

AUTHOR BLOG: Flooding, Predators, and an Imperiled Sparrow

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A banded adult Saltmarsh Sparrow female foraging in Scarborough, ME. Photo credit: D. Hitchcox

Kate Ruskin

Linked paper: Demographic analysis demonstrates systematic but independent spatial variation in abiotic and biotic stressors across 59 percent of a global species range by K.J. Ruskin, M.A. Etterson, T.P. Hodgman, A.C. Borowske, J.B. Cohen, C.S. Elphick, C.R. Field, R.A. Longenecker, E. King, A.R. Kocek, A.I. Kovach, K.M. O’Brien, N. Pau, W.G. Shriver, J. Walsh, and B.J. Olsen, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:4, October 2017.

Ecologists have long hypothesized that the factors that affect a species vary over its geographical range. For example, cold climates may limit survival at higher latitudes, while competition with other species may be more important at lower latitudes. Scientists have proposed that this sets up a tradeoff for each species, favoring individuals that are physiologically hearty to harsh abiotic conditions at higher latitudes and individuals that are good competitors at lower latitudes.

With the help of 14 coauthors scattered across the northeastern U.S., I collected demographic data on Saltmarsh Sparrows to test whether this pattern was supported. Our team, known as the Saltmarsh Habitat and Avian Research Program (SHARP), conducted coordinated demographic research on Saltmarsh Sparrows at 23 sites in 7 states from Maine to New Jersey. We searched for nests, revisited them every few days throughout the breeding season, and classified each as successful or failed due to various causes.

Saltmarsh Sparrows breed exclusively in high marsh habitat, which is the zone of tidal marshes that typically floods monthly during the astronomical high tides. Saltmarsh Sparrows build their nests in the short grasses of the tidal marsh, just a few inches above the ground. As a result, nests often fail due to flooding during the high monthly tides. Most nest failure in Saltmarsh Sparrows is caused either by this nest flooding, or by depredation.

Footage captured by University of Connecticut graduate student Samantha Apgar.

Using monitoring records from 837 nests collected across our study sites, we observed patterns in the factors that limit nest survival that varied predictably across hundreds of kilometers. We found that the biotic stressor, nest depredation, increased toward lower latitudes, which is consistent with the Asymmetric Abiotic Stress Limitation (AASL) hypothesis. AASL proposes that populations are limited by biotic stressors like nest depredation at the lower latitudes of their range, while abiotic stressors such as climate limit populations at higher latitudes. Conversely, we observed that the abiotic stressor, nest flooding, did not vary with latitude. Instead, nest flooding was best predicted by indicators for regular monthly flooding as well as irregular flooding events, which varied independent of latitude. Our results suggest that stressors to Saltmarsh Sparrow reproductive success vary systematically across its range, but independently from each other. Therefore, we did not observe the tradeoff between physiological heartiness at higher latitudes and competitiveness at lower latitudes that is predicted by the AASL hypothesis.

In addition to the insight this example provides into how different stressors limit species across their ranges, the patterns of biotic and abiotic stress that we observed provide information relevant to conservation of the Saltmarsh Sparrow. The Saltmarsh Sparrow is considered threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, and SHARP researchers have found that the Saltmarsh Sparrow population is small, declining, and expected to go extinct this century. For example, our results suggest that predator control may be an effective method for improving Saltmarsh Sparrow fecundity toward the low latitudes of its range, but not farther north.

This new article in Auk: Ornithological Advances is the latest in a series we have written about the Saltmarsh Sparrow and other tidal marsh birds found in northeastern North America, many of which are facing population declines and habitat change. Learn more about tidal marsh birds and SHARP’s research at our website (www.tidalmarshbirds.org) and Facebook page (www.facebook.com/tidalmarshbirds).

AUTHOR BLOG: Not Too Many Sperm, Not Too Few

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Male Zebra Finch and Long-tailed Finch. Photo credit: L. Hurley

 

Laura Hurley

Linked paper: Variation in the number of sperm trapped on the perivitelline layer of the egg in three species of estrildid finch by L.L. Hurley, K.V. Fanson, and S.C. Griffith, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 119:4, October 2017.

When you crack open your morning egg, you see the familiar yolk with its little white circle staring at you. That little white circle, the germinal disk, is the target sperm are aiming for to fertilize the big yolky ovum, but in birds one sperm is not enough to turn the egg into a chick. Multiple sperm must fuse with the ovum for this to happen, so lots of sperm are present at fertilization, and those that don’t fuse can become trapped between the two delicate layers that surround the yolk.

Hope I didn’t ruin breakfast for you. However, too many sperm reaching the egg can cause the development of the chick to fail, so there’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation—just the just right number of sperm are needed. The size of bird eggs vary widely—from hummingbirds to emus—and so does the number of sperm that reach their ovum. In general, the number of sperm varies with body size, but there is a lot of unexplained variation between species of similar size, within species, and even within a clutch of eggs. In our current paper, we explore variation in three similarly sized birds from a family of Australian finches to help us better hypothesize about what could be influencing sperm numbers.

This is part of a larger body of avian ecology work looking at how genetic, social, and environmental factors influence and regulate reproduction, development, and population dynamics (https://griffithecology.com). This work involves a number of Australian species in both wild and captive settings, including Gouldian Finch, Zebra Finch, Long-tailed Finch, and Chestnut-crowned Babbler, as well as the invasive House Sparrow. We also use historical records to build models to help us understand the life history of birds across the whole of Australia—for example, opportunistic breeding (https://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-16-243.1) and nest structure (https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2708).