AUTHOR BLOG: Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations

Kathryn Langin

Linked paper: Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations by K.M. Langin, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:2, May 2017.

At one point during last year’s North American Ornithological Conference, I found myself rushing down the hallways to catch a talk by a senior scientist whose research I have long admired. As I took my seat and he began speaking, I was immediately struck with the thought: “Darn, why did I make this mistake again?”

My mistake? Deciding to attend his talk and, in the process, failing to remember that I loathe his presentation style. The slides are always filled to the brim with volumes of text and a seemingly endless number of teeny-tiny figures. And despite going through them at a sprinter’s pace, he somehow fails to finish in the allotted fifteen minutes. It happens every time. The audience experience is akin to watching an action-packed commercial but, in the end, having only a vague sense of what was being advertised.

That incident and many others propelled me to write the Commentary “Tell me a story! A plea for more compelling conference presentations,” published this week in The Condor: Ornithological Applications. In it, I argue that scientists should spend less time trying to impress their audience with mountains of data and more time implementing principles of good storytelling. I know this probably elicits a negative reaction in some readers, but hear me out.

Stories aren’t a mode of communication restricted to fictional tales. They are the most effective way to package information so that others can process and remember it (which is really the whole point of communication, right?). It’s difficult to recall a series of random facts; it’s much easier to recall the details of an engaging story.

The nice thing about storytelling is that it is a natural fit for the scientific process. Dr. Randy Olson, author of the book Houston, We Have a Narrative: Why Science Needs Story, defines a story as “a series of events that happen along the way in the search for a solution to a problem.” Sound familiar? As scientists, we are always in hot pursuit of a solution to a problem, but unfortunately we don’t always present our research that way.

So how can we change that? For starters, it’s not sufficient to package information in a logical order with a beginning (introduction), middle (methods and results), and end (conclusions). That’s obviously helpful, but I argue in the paper that you need to go a step further and develop a compelling plot—something that compels your audience to follow along with your journey of discovery. That can be accomplished by clearly articulating a problem to be solved and spending time convincing the audience why they should care about the problem in the first place.

In his book, Dr. Olson outlines a strategy that I find particularly helpful. He suggests framing your story’s plot by proclaiming something that scientists know and something else that scientists know, but then pointing out a critical unsolved problem or point of debate that, therefore, highlights a need for your particular study. He calls this his “and, but, therefore” template, which contrasts with the template used by many scientists: one that strings along a series of facts with “and, and, and” statements. There’s no drama in “and, and, and” statements, but there is with the “and, but, therefore” framework.

A key advantage of Dr. Olson’s approach is that—by setting the stage in an informative and captivating manner—you can bring your entire audience with you on your journey, not just the people who already understand and appreciate your field and study system. And that should be the ultimate goal: to engage the widest fraction of your audience as possible.

The ornithological community is doing important and interesting science, but we don’t always do a great job communicating it, even amongst ourselves. In my paper, I argue for more storytelling, but I also discuss a greater range of strategies for giving effective presentations, including the benefits of visually-engaging slides. I don’t expect everyone to agree with me, but it is my hope that this opinion piece will generate thought and discussion about how to best communicate our science. We can’t afford to let important research be lost in a sea of ineffective communication.

AUTHOR BLOG: Common Murre Parenting 101: How to Negotiate for an Easier Job

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Researcher Linda Takahashi observes nesting murres. Photo credit: N. Oberlander

Linda Takahashi

Linked paper: Turn-taking ceremonies in a colonial seabird: Does behavioral variation signal individual condition? by L.S. Takahashi, A.E. Storey, S.I Wilhelm, and C.J. Walsh, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:3, July 2017.

When mates share parenting duties, conflict can arise over which one performs the hardest jobs. Common Murres are monogamous long-lived seabirds that raise only one chick each year. Extensive contributions from both parents are obligatory for successful chick fledging: Chicks are rarely abandoned, and murres are great parents. Throughout the three week chick-rearing period, one parent remains at the nest site, brooding and defending the chick, while the other is most often away from the colony foraging.  Murres have the highest wing loading of any flying bird, and so foraging far away from the colony, which is often necessary in years of reduced capelin availability, is energetically costly. Remaining in the colony with the chick is simply the easier job.

All things being equal between the murre parents, we’d expect that they would take turns and share the harder job of chick provisioning. For the most part, this is indeed what they do. One mate returns to the colony with a fish, feeds the chick, and the takes over brooding duties while the former brooder leaves. We called this a regular nest relief. However, some nest reliefs are irregular, such as when the returner comes back without a fish or the brooder doesn’t give up the chick, causing the returner to leave again to forage. We wondered if variation in nest reliefs was related to the relative physiological condition of the partners and whether changes in specific behaviours that occur during the nest relief ceremony were indicators of the partners “negotiating” with each other for the easier parental job.

Until our study, little focus had been given to the often-subtle behaviours shown by murres during nest relief (turn-taking) ceremonies. We looked at 16 pairs of Common Murres breeding in Witless Bay, Newfoundland, Canada, in 2009, a year with particularly low availability of capelin, the preferred forage fish. Pairs were identified by colour bands and nest location on the cliff. From dawn to dusk, we sat in a tiny observation blind and recorded murre behaviors with either a camcorder or an event logger. Specifically, an interaction began when a returning bird arrived at the nest, typically with a fish, and joined its chick-brooding partner, and it ended when one of the pair departed. We noted whether the parents traded roles and recorded their patterns of allopreening and bill-fencing. We also examined the relationships between murre condition—specifically, body mass and lipid metabolite levels (as measured by beta-hydroxybuterate)—and behavioural variation during turn-taking.

We found that irregular turn-taking ceremonies took longer than regular ones and had either delayed or non-synchronous allopreening. When a returning partner came to the nest without a fish, it began allopreening sooner than both the brooding partner and birds that returned with a fish. These “no fish” irregular nest reliefs took the longest of all, and brooders appeared to resist or delay leaving the colony. In cases where there was no exchange of duties, i.e., the brooder remained in the colony, rates of allopreening by the brooder were significantly lower than they were in all other types of turn-taking ceremony. Birds with higher overall chick-feeding rates brought fish on more visits than other birds, suggesting that that they were higher-quality individuals. Furthermore, brooding birds in relatively better condition departed the colony sooner after their mate fed the chick compared to those in relatively worse condition. We suggest that variation in allopreening allows mates to communicate with each other regarding their own condition, and, if that condition is poor, to negotiate for the easier parental duty, i.e., brooding.

Why would murres benefit from responding to signals about their mates’ condition? Since murres typically retain their mates for several years, parental investment theory predicts that it is in an individual’s best interest to preserve their mate’s current and future body condition as well as their own. Deterioration of a mate’s condition could lead to nest abandonment or even compromised survival. This paper shows that variation in ceremonies is one way to make information available to mates. Thus, behavioural variation during the ceremony can signal individual condition and be a means to negotiate parental roles.

AUTHOR BLOG: How the ‘Mitey’ Have Fallen: Impacts of Burrowing Skin Mites on Reproduction of an Urban Raptor

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Black Sparrowhawks displaying symptoms of mite infection.

Julia L. van Velden

Linked paper: Negative effect of mite (Knemidokoptes) infection on reproductive output in an African raptor by J.L. van Velden, A. Koeslag, O. Curtis, T. Gous, and A. Amar, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:3, July 2017.

Parasites were once considered to be one of the less important factors that limit or regulate animal populations, with the impacts of predators and resource limitation previously receiving far more attention. This lack of attention probably stemmed from the mistaken belief that most parasites have evolved not to harm their hosts too much, because if their host dies, they lose the resource they depend on. We now know, however, that parasites can often strongly affect both a host’s reproduction and survival rates. Our new study published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances adds to this knowledge for a relatively understudied parasite in a wild raptor population.

Knemidokoptes mites are a genus of microscopic skin mites which burrow into the skin of birds and cause the “scaly leg” and “scaly face” conditions that are frequently seen in caged and domestic birds. They also occur in some wild species, particularly passerines. However, these parasites have rarely been recorded on raptors, except on captive birds. Additionally, almost no research has been carried out to investigate the impacts of these parasites on species’ fitness. Our study explored the symptoms of infection and the impact these mites have on the breeding performance of a wild population of Black Sparrowhawks in Cape Town, at the southernmost tip of South Africa.

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Knemidokoptes skin mites.

Black Sparrowhawks are a recent colonist to this mostly urban area, and urban living may come with associated changes in exposure to parasites and pathogens. Our study population has been closely monitored since 2001 and has grown steadily over the years, with the population now containing around 50 breeding pairs each year. In 2007, we started to notice birds in the population with strange symptoms, namely balding heads and scaly lesions on their legs. These birds appeared to be agitated and in poor condition. Post-mortem investigations revealed that, in all cases, birds with these symptoms were infected with the burrowing skin mite (Knemidokoptes spp.). We found that in some years, up to 5% of the Cape Peninsula population was infected, which represents a highly novel finding for a wild population of raptors.

Comparing between the sexes, we also found that mite infection was more frequent for males than females. Higher parasitic infection of males has been found for several other studies in different parasites and may be the result of fundamental biological and behavioural differences. In our population, we suspect that Black Sparrowhawks may become infected by these mites from their prey, possibly domestic chickens, which are known to frequently be infected by Knemidokoptes mites. Like most Accipiters, Black Sparrowhawks pluck their prey before consumption, which may mean they have greater exposure to this parasite than other raptor species, and the fact that males are responsible for hunting throughout the breeding season may explain the male bias in infection.

Most importantly, we found that Black Sparrowhawks that were infected with these mites had considerably reduced breeding success. We compared breeding performance between infected and non-infected birds and also between birds pre- and post-infection. These analyses showed that infection reduced breeding performance by over 50%. This could be because adults become too agitated to incubate or hunt effectively following infection.

We also investigated if this infection was present anywhere else in South Africa and found four hotspots of infection. Three of the infection sites were cities, and thus infection by this mite may be associated with urbanization levels and the additional stresses this may incur. Other research has, however, not yet detected any negative effect of urbanisation on this species’ health.

Our study, the first on Knemidokoptes mites within a wild population of raptors, therefore suggests that this parasite could play a role in limiting the breeding performance of infected populations. Although Black Sparrowhawks are not a species of conservation concern, this study provides important information on the negative role such parasites can play in their host’s reproductive success, which will be important if this infection is found to occur in an endangered raptor species.

AUTHOR BLOG: Tracking Semipalmated Sandpiper Migration

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Photo credit: B. Winn

Stephen Brown

Linked paper: Migratory connectivity of Semipalmated Sandpipers and implications for conservation by S. Brown, C. Gratto-Trevor, R. Porter, E.L. Weiser, D. Mizrahi, R. Bentzen, M. Boldenow, R. Clay, S. Freeman, M.-A. Giroux, E. Kwon, D.B. Lank, N. Lecomte, J. Liebezeit, V. Loverti, J. Rausch, B.K. Sandercock, S. Schulte, P. Smith, A. Taylor, B. Winn, S. Yezerinac, and R.B. Lanctot, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:2, May 2017.

The Semipalmated Sandpiper (Calidris pusilla) is a small shorebird, most commonly seen on migration along the coastlines of the eastern United States. It is historically one of the most widespread and numerous shorebird species in the Western Hemisphere, breeding across the North American Arctic tundra, but major population declines have been documented in the core of the nonbreeding range in northern South America. Breeding populations have also declined in the eastern North American Arctic, but appear to be stable or increasing in the central and western Arctic. To help understand what is causing the declines and work toward conservation of this species, we set out to track migration routes and stopover sites using light-level geolocators, a relatively new technology which determines the bird’s position on earth by measuring the length and timing of daylight throughout the year. The major challenge to using these tags is that you have to catch the bird once to put on the geolocator and then again the next year to retrieve it, which requires finding the same bird again in the vast arctic tundra. Luckily, they tend to return to the same breeding areas the next year.

Our large group of 18 partner organizations worked collaboratively to carry out the study across the entire North American Arctic from Nome, Alaska, to Hudson Bay, and we attached 250 geolocators to birds by mounting expeditions to 8 different field sites. Our field crews faced challenging conditions, working in the Arctic where the weather is always unpredictable and where both grizzly bears and polar bears regularly visit field sites. We repeated expeditions the next year to each site, and recovered 59 of the units by recapturing birds. The treasure trove of data showed migration routes and stopover sites from the entire year in the life of each bird, and showed that birds breeding in the eastern Arctic wintered in northeastern South America. Birds from eastern Alaska and far western Canada wintered from Venezuela to French Guiana. Central Alaskan breeders wintered across a very wide range from Ecuador to French Guiana. Birds that bred in western Alaska wintered mainly on the west coasts of Central America and northwestern South America, outside the nonbreeding region in which population declines have been observed.

Our results confirm that Semipalmated Sandpipers that breed in the eastern Arctic and use the Atlantic Flyway also use the areas in South America where population declines have been detected, suggesting that declines may be concentrated in populations along the Atlantic Flyway and in the eastern Arctic. However, because some birds from sites as far west as Barrow, Alaska, also used the areas in northeastern South America where declines have occurred, further work is needed to localize the geographic areas used by declining populations, and therefore the potential causes for the declines. We identified several new stopover and wintering areas, where implementing conservation actions to preserve the habitats used by Semipalmated Sandpipers could contribute to protecting the species. We measured a larger impact of geolocators on return rates than has been observed for larger shorebirds, indicating that caution should be used when working with small shorebirds, and that potential new information gains from additional geolocator studies should be weighed against expected impacts on individual survival. Our data also provided new insights about how long birds stay at migration stopover sites, which will be useful to studies that measure and monitor the total size of populations using these sites. Understanding the connections between breeding, migration, and wintering areas for these populations of a widespread yet declining shorebird can help future studies identify the causes of declines and ensure the effectiveness of targeted conservation efforts.

AUTHOR BLOG: A New Look at Altitudinal Migration

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Alice Boyle

Linked paper: Altitudinal bird migration in North America by W.A. Boyle, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:2, April 2017.

I became a birder in my early 20s when I moved to Costa Rica to play in the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional. I didn’t know many people at first, and my Spanish was, shall we say, a work in progress. When I left Canada, I was given a pair of binoculars and the (then) newly published “A Guide to the Birds of Costa Rica” by Stiles and Skutch. Armed with these tools, I would get on a bus headed in a different direction every time I had a day off from my music job. At first I managed to identify only a few of the dozens of species that would pass in riotous mixed flocks. Pretty soon I realized that I had to focus on looking and taking notes, only later to pore over the book to figure out what I had seen. While those evening book sessions were occasionally frustrating (“Dang… I should have checked if that flycatcher had one or TWO wing bars!”), I also enjoyed reading the eloquent descriptions of bird behavior and soon found myself engrossed in tropical natural history. One of the things that puzzled me from the start were descriptions of the seasonal migrations of birds within that tiny, lovely, benign country. I grew up in a place where bird migration seemed not only logical, but frankly the ONLY sensible thing to do in winter. But why would some birds move up and down mountains each year in a place where the weather is always warm and food hangs from the trees wherever you go?

This question ultimately became the topic of my PhD many years later, and I did get some satisfying answers (full details here). But one unsatisfactory aspect of my chosen topic was that few other researchers were asking similar questions in other parts of the world. What common themes from my tropical work might hold true for other regions? What about North American birds? How common are these altitudinal migrations in our mountains? What else is known about them? Finally, in this article, I have attempted to summarize that knowledge. It turns out that we have LOTS of birds in North America that make similar types of movements. In fact, roughly the same proportion of the North American avifauna migrate up and down mountains as does the Costa Rican avifauna—20% to 30% depending on how you count it. With the exception of the Himalayas, reports from other avifaunas seem consistent with this figure. The higher latitude of North America makes things interesting, creating varied combinations of seasonal movements along both elevational and latitudinal gradients, and several of the North American species make movements that stretch our tidy migration terminology in complex ways. There is a reason I had trouble as a grad student finding this literature, however. Much of the information, now summarized in the Birds of North America life history series, was originally reported in bird atlases, Masters theses, or dated natural history accounts. Furthermore, despite early naturalists’ interest in the topic, few authors have cared to document patterns or tried to understand causes of these movements in recent years.

Why might this be so? Part of the reason might have to do with geography; there are more ornithologists in the flatter and more populated eastern portion of the continent compared to the topographically complex west, and this fact may have steered our collective research interest in some way. Part might have to do with the perception that these are not “real” migrations. Certainly the short distances many altitudinal migrants traverse are not the jaw-dropping feats of athleticism displayed by Red Knots, Arctic Terns, or Blackpoll Warblers. But I argue that they are real in many important respects: they involve seasonal return movements between breeding and non-breeding areas on predictable schedules. The fact that such movements are often partial (not all birds migrate), facultative (not genetically hard-wired), and short-distance actually makes them more attractive subjects for many types of migration research. We have far better chances of determining what ecological conditions tip the cost-benefit balance toward migrating in species that have built-in control groups in the form of resident individuals. Furthermore, the more “messy” movements are undeniably a part of the rich diversity of strategies that animals use to cope with a constantly shifting environment. If we are to protect our avifauna for future generations, understanding these movements will be as important as understanding the marathon flights of the migration poster children. Perhaps this review will inspire a blossoming of interest in the birds who make mountains their home.

Find out more:
www.aliceboyle.net
On Twitter: @birdfiddler
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AUTHOR BLOG: Bringing Mitochondria into Species Concepts

Geoffrey Hill

Linked paper: The mitonuclear compatibility species concept by G.E. Hill, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:2, April 2017.

A couple of years ago I was at the Bentsen State Park hawk watch tower with a dozen other birders when the topic of species boundaries came up. No one knew me or that I was a professional ornithologist—I was deep undercover as a mediocre birder—so I just listened to the conversation. Someone suggested that the “experts” changed species boundaries periodically so that new field guides would have to be printed and bought. The not-so-subtle suggestion was that the checklist committee was in the pockets of powerful publishers. Then it was suggested that researcher elites manipulated the system to get government money. Everyone quickly reached consensus that both of these views were correct. From that conversation, it would seem that scientists have not been very effective at conveying to the public the rationale for changes to the checklist. But maybe a skeptical public is not surprising given that some professional ornithologists are also not enamored with how species boundaries of birds are demarcated. This uncertainty regarding what is or is not a species could simply reflect the reality that at the tips of the branches of the tree of life, species boundaries are nebulous. But I don’t think that is correct. I agree with Ernst Mayr’s conclusions that species are real and fundamental biological entities. I’m convinced that the problem with the current approach to assessing species boundaries lies in a poor understanding of the process of speciation leading to an incomplete and confused species concept.

I lived the first fifty years of my life without offering any opinion about the process of speciation or species boundaries, and I had no plans to ever wade into the morass. It was therefore quite unexpected when I fell head first into the deep end of the speciation controversy by proposing a new definition for how to define an avian species, published as an opinion piece in The Auk. This new speciation concept arose not from phylogeographic studies—the genesis of all previous species concepts—but from the study of mating patterns in relation to colorful feathers (see Hill and Johnson 2012). Sexual selection and speciation have always been closely associated topics in evolutionary biology, but what I realized about five years ago is that both of these fundamental evolutionary processes emerge as a necessary outcome of the critical need for coadaptation between mitochondrial and nuclear genes and that mitonuclear coadaptation is the foundation of any comprehensive species concept. Before I explain what I mean by “mitonuclear coadaptation,” however, I need explain current dogma for recognizing species.

Whether it is explicitly stated or not, decisions regarding species boundaries are based on a species concept, and the Biological Species Concept currently being followed by the American Ornithological Society checklist committee was proposed by Ernst Mayr about 75 years ago, long before the age of modern genomics. As a matter of fact, the current species concept was written before biologists even knew that mitochondria have DNA that is inherited independently from the nuclear DNA.

It turns out the knowing about mitochondrial DNA is very important because mitochondrial DNA codes for components of the electron transport system, which is the biochemical machine that generates most of the energy for birds, mammals, and other complex life. But mitochondria only carry a few genes—not nearly enough to code for the entire electron-transport system—so much of the system is encoded by nuclear DNA, with the products moving over to the mitochondria to co-function with the products of mitochondrial genes. Having two distinct genomes coding for components that have to work together in a fully coordinated manner means that these genomes have to be coadapted; put another way, the genes in the mitochondria and nucleus have to coevolve so that their products are matched in physical shape and complementary of function. When populations become isolated, their mitochondrial and nuclear genes can coevolve to be different than the coevolved mitochondrial and nuclear genes of any other population such that they cannot be mixed without incompatibilities and fitness loss. What I propose in my opinion paper is that it is uniquely coadapted sets of mitochondrial and nuclear genes that define a species and that make hybrid offspring resulting from pairings between species less viable, thereby maintaining species boundaries.

Currently, it is not possible to assess the mitonuclear compatibility of any two populations of birds, although by simple extrapolation of advancing technology we will soon have such capability. What we currently have is information on the mitochondrial genotype of many species of birds, including many populations that are potentially distinct species. I propose that uniquely co-adapted mitonuclear genotypes necessarily involve unique mitochondrial genotypes. Thus, mitochondrial genotype becomes an excellent and available proxy for species boundaries.

Many biologists already look to mitochondrial genotypes when assessing species status.  My theory simply provides stronger justification for placing more emphasis on mitochondrial genotypes and less emphasis on nuclear genotypes. Indeed, advocates of DNA barcoding assert that most species can be unambiguously diagnosed by mitochondrial gene sequence, and my theory potentially explains why.

As with any new idea, this hypothesis for the process of speciation and nature of species boundaries must be tested. Whether the mitochondrial compatibility species concept proves to be accurate or an overstatement, ornithology will benefit by considering mitonuclear interactions when they ponder species boundaries.

AUTHOR BLOG: How Will an Arctic-Breeding Songbird Respond to Taller Shrubs and Warmer Temperatures?

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A female Smith’s Longspur solicits a mate. Photo credit: J. Hughey

Heather McFarland

Linked paper: Nest-site selection and nest success of an Arctic-breeding passerine, Smith’s Longspurs, in a changing climate by H.R. McFarland, S. Kendall, and A.N. Powell, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:1, February 2017.

How will songbirds that nest in tundra respond as the Arctic transforms into a warmer and shrubbier environment? This is the question that drove us to study a small songbird known as the Smith’s Longspur. Endemic to North America, this songbird breeds in only a few remote mountain valleys in Canada and Alaska, making it particularly susceptible to changes at northern latitudes. Smith’s Longspur’s are also unique in that they are polygynandrous. This is a rare mating strategy where both sexes are polygamous, and birds of either sex may mate with up to three individuals each breeding season. Rather than a single male and female establishing a territory, Smith’s Longspurs usually form larger groups called neighborhoods which contain many inter-mated individuals. Since this mating strategy is poorly understood and so different from other tundra nesting songbirds, it is difficult to predict how breeding Smith’s Longspurs may respond to climate change. Therefore, prior to further change, baseline information about breeding requirements is needed.

To fill this void, we monitored more than 250 Smith’s Longspur nests between 2007 and 2013 in the Brooks Range of Alaska. All of the nests were found in open tundra areas, and females never placed their nests in tall vegetation. Aside from a lack of tall shrubs, no specific habitat features that we measured influenced where females placed their nests. This finding is contrary to patterns commonly observed in monogamous ground-nesting birds where females tend to nest near a specific habitat feature. We believe that Smith’s Longspurs may deviate from this pattern because of their unique breeding strategy. Females may benefit more by nesting near other females where the chance of “hooking up” with additional males is greater. If this is the case, nest site selection may occur at a larger neighborhood scale. Considering these findings, we are concerned that future shrub growth in the Arctic could limit the amount of open tundra areas available for breeding neighborhoods of Smith’s Longspurs.

Although there may be fewer available nest sites in the future, warmer temperatures could benefit breeding Smith’s Longspurs. In this study, nests survived best when there were more warm days during the nesting period. Cold temperatures appeared to have no impact on nest success, possibly because females were able to delay nesting until weather conditions were favorable. During these years, females usually began nesting within a few days of one another, compared to years with good conditions early in the season when egg laying was spread out over several weeks. Considering that Smith’s Longspurs breed in the Arctic, it is not surprising that they have adapted strategies to withstand harsh conditions. Because of this adaptive ability, as well as the predicted increase in temperature throughout the Arctic, we believe that breeding Smith’s Longspurs could become more productive in the future. Even so, the combined outcome of reduced suitable habitat but potentially higher breeding productivity is still unknown. Continued monitoring of Smith’s Longspurs is needed as northern regions continue to change.