Birds’ Feathers Reveal Their Winter Diet

CONDOR-16-162 RM Jensen

A freshly molted Bobolink. Photo credit: R.M. Jensen

Influences outside the breeding season can matter a lot for the population health of migratory birds, but it’s tough to track what happens once species scatter across South America for the winter months. A study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications tries a new approach for determining what declining migratory grassland birds called Bobolinks eat after they head south for the winter—analyzing the carbon compounds in their plumage, which are determined by the types of plants the birds consume while growing their feathers during their winter molt.

Thanks to a quirk of photosynthesis, rice contains a different ratio of carbon isotopes than most of the native grasses in South America where Bobolinks winter. Rosalind Renfrew of the Vermont Center for Ecostudies and her colleagues took advantage of this, collecting feather samples from wintering Bobolinks in a rice-producing region and a grassland region and from breeding Bobolinks in North America. When they analyzed the feathers’ isotopes ratios, the results from South America confirmed that isotopes in Bobolinks’ feathers reflected the differences in their diets between regions with and without rice production. The samples taken in North America showed that the winter diet of most individuals was weighted more toward non-rice material, but that rice consumption was highest late in the winter, when rice is nearing harvest and the birds are preparing for their northbound migration.

Rice could be beneficial by providing the birds with needed calories as they prepare for their journey north, but it could also increase Bobolinks’ exposure to pesticides and threats from farmers who see them as pests. According to Renfrew and her colleagues, maintaining native grasslands, encouraging integrated pest management programs to reduce toxic pesticide applications, and compensating farmers for crops lost to feeding birds all would be helpful.

“The time spent coordinating the field work for this study may well have been greater than the time spent collecting the data,” says Renfrew. “It was truly a team effort, and the assistance we received from our partners was absolutely essential, especially in South America. Aves Argentinas and the Museo de Historia Natural de Noel Kempff Mercado provided priceless logistical support, and this study could not have happened without them. Some of the same partners have provided input on a Bobolink Conservation Plan that lays out actions to address threats to grassland birds in North and South America, based on results from this and other studies.”

“As Bobolink populations continue to decline, Renfrew and her colleagues use state-of-the-art isotope analysis techniques to assess the Bobolink’s diet on its South American wintering grounds,” according to John McCracken of Bird Studies Canada, an expert on grassland bird conservation who was not involved with the study. “The authors conclude that rice may have negative effects on Bobolinks, owing to its relatively low nutritional quality and from exposure to insecticides.”

Winter diet of Bobolink, a long-distance migratory grassland bird, inferred from feather isotopes is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-16-162.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Muscle Fibers Alone Can’t Explain Sex Differences in Bird Song

Male birds tend to be better singers than females—but does the basis for this difference lie in the brain or in the syrinx, the bird equivalent of our larynx? The researchers behind a new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances analyzed the muscle fibers in the syrinxes of male and female birds from a range of species and found, to their surprise, that the amount of “superfast” muscle wasn’t typically related to differences in vocal ability between the sexes.

Most muscle fibers are one of two types—fast, specialized for short, intense bursts of activity, or slow, specialized for endurance. However, some animals, including birds, have a third type called superfast muscle that can contract around 200 times per second. Ron Meyers of Weber State University and his colleagues hypothesized that superfast muscle fibers in the syrinx might explain the greater singing ability of male birds, but when they analyzed the syringeal muscles of male and female birds from a range of species, they found that the amount of superfast muscle fiber didn’t differ between the sexes in most species. Instead, their results suggest that the role of superfast muscle is more complicated than they expected and may be related to the entire range of vocalizations of a species rather than song alone. Even though females of some species don’t sing, their superfast muscle fibers appear likely to play a role in the calls they use for other types of communication.

The researchers collected syringeal tissue from a total of ten bird species, some wild-caught and some from a University of Utah aviary. All species had both fast muscle and superfast muscle fiber in their syrinxes, but there was a clear sex difference in fiber type composition in only two species studied, Bengalese Finches and Zebra Finches. Based on this, the researchers speculate that the need for superfast muscle may be related to the entire vocal repertoire of each sex, not just singing behavior. Calls made by Zebra Finch females don’t have acoustic features that would require rapid muscle control, but in other species females may produce calls that require the muscle control provided by superfast fibers even if they don’t sing.

“The data really surprised us,” says Meyers. “Based on our first species studied, starlings and Zebra Finches, we went into this thinking that superfast fibers were related to singing in males. Zebra Finch males sing and females don’t, and males have 85% of the syrinx muscles made up of superfast fibers. In starlings, both male and females sing, and they both had about a 65% make-up of superfast fibers. But as the number of species we looked at grew, we had to totally change our perception of the role of superfast fibers in singing and the role they actually play in vocalizing.”

“Most of the research investigating the mechanisms of bird song focuses on the brain. However, research has begun to suggest that peripheral structures like the syrinx influence song divergence, which of course is an important factor that contributes to avian biodiversity,” according to Wake Forest University’s Matthew Fuxjager, an expert on superfast muscle. “This study therefore provides an exciting starting point to address this issue from a physiological perspective, and it shows that muscle fiber content in the syrinx might not be a strong predictor of avian vocal diversity. But then what is? I would argue that we’re still working this out, and that this study will provide an intriguing framework from which more work in this area can be conducted.”

Is sexual dimorphism in singing behavior related to syringeal muscle composition? is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-3.1.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology that began in 1884 as the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

Radar Reveals Steep Declines in Kauai’s Seabird Populations

CONDOR-16-223 A Raine

A Newell’s Shearwater chick in a burrow. Photo credit: A. Raine

The island of Kauai is home to two endangered seabirds, the Hawaiian Petrel and the Newell’s Shearwater. Monitoring these birds, which are nocturnal and nest in hard-to-access areas, is challenging, but observing the movements of birds via radar offers a solution. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes a fresh look at two decades of radar data—and comes to worrying conclusions about the status of both species.

To assess the population trends and distribution of the birds in recent decades, André Raine of the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project and his colleagues examined past and contemporary radar surveys as well as data on the numbers of shearwater fledglings rescued after being attracted to artificial lights. Their results shows continuing population declines in both species over the last twenty years—a 78% reduction in radar detections for Hawaiian Petrels and a 94% reduction for Newell’s Shearwaters, with the shearwater decline mirrored in decreasing numbers of recovered fledglings over time.

For shearwaters, this is consistent with previously published work, but past analyses of petrel radar data suggested their population was stable or potentially increasing. The researchers attribute the difference to the fact that for this new study, they carefully standardized the data based on sunset times, which ensured that the time periods (and thus bird movement periods) under consideration remained constant from the beginning to the end of the survey period. They believe that the steep declines may have commenced in earnest in the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki in 1992, which led to permanent ecological changes such as the opening of new routes for invasion by exotic predators and plants, as well as significant infrastructure changes across the island.

“These seabirds face a wide range of threats,” says Raine. “Conservation effort needs to be focused on reducing power line collisions, fall-out related to artificial lights, the control of introduced predators, and the overall protection of their breeding habitats. Many of these efforts are now underway on Kauai, and I am hopeful that these will continue and expand over the next few years. Ultimately, the conservation of the breeding grounds of endangered seabirds on Kauai is actually the conservation of our native forests and watersheds, with far-reaching benefits for other native plants and birds that rely on these habitats, as well as—ultimately—ourselves.”

“It is important to publish this information so that everyone can better understand the severity of the declines in these species and the threats they face,” agrees Pacific Rim Conservation’s Eric VanderWerf, an expert on Hawaiian seabirds. “We need to consider these data in order to make informed decisions about the best conservation measures.”

Declining population trends of Hawaiian Petrel and Newell’s Shearwater on the island of Kaua’i, Hawaii, USA is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-16-223.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Read More

Which Extinct Ducks Could Fly?

AUK-17-23 J Watanabe

Fossils of extinct ducks and geese provide new clues about flightlessness. Photo credit: J. Watanabe

We’re all familiar with flightless birds: ostriches, emus, penguins—and ducks? Ducks and geese, part of a bird family called the anatids, have been especially prone to becoming flightless over the course of evolutionary history. However, it can be difficult to determine from fossils whether an extinct anatid species could fly or not. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances takes a fresh approach, classifying species as flightless or not based on how far their skeletal proportions deviate from the expected anatomy of a flying bird and offering a glimpse into the lives of these extinct waterfowl.

Kyoto University’s Junya Watanabe painstakingly measured 787 individual birds representing 103 modern duck and goose species. From this data, he developed a mathematical model that was able to separate flightless and flying species based on their wing and leg bones—flightless species, the math confirmed, have relatively small wings and relatively large legs. Applying the model to fossil specimens from 16 extinct species identified 5 of the species as flightless, ranging from a land-dwelling duck from New Zealand to a South American duck that propelled itself underwater with its feet.

“I really enjoyed measuring bones in museums and appreciate the hospitality given to me by museum staff. One of the most exciting things was to find interesting fossils that were previously unidentified in museum drawers,” says Watanabe. “What is interesting in fossil flightless anatids is their great diversity; they inhabited remote islands and continental margins, some of them were specialized for underwater diving and others for grazing, and some were rather gigantic while others were diminutive.”

“Dr. Watanabe has developed a valuable statistical tool for evaluating whether a bird was capable of powered flight or not, based on measurements of the lengths of only four different long bones. His method at present applies to waterfowl, but it could be extended to other bird groups like the rails,” according to Helen James, Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History. “Other researchers will appreciate that he offers a way to assess limb proportions even in fossil species where the bones of individual birds have become disassociated from each other. Disassociation of skeletons in fossil sites has been a persistent barrier to these types of sophisticated statistical analyses, and Dr. Watanabe has taken an important step towards overcoming that problem.”

Quantitative discrimination of flightlessness in fossil Anatidae from skeletal proportions is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-23.1.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology that began in 1884 as the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

Read More

Spotted Owls Benefit from Forest Fire Mosaic

CONDOR-16-184 S Eyes

California Spotted Owls use a mosaic of fire-created habitat. Photo credit: S. Eyes

Fire is a crucial part of the forest ecosystem on which threatened Spotted Owls rely, but climate change and decades of fire suppression are changing the dynamics of these forests. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications examines California Spotted Owl habitat use in Yosemite National Park and shows that while owls avoid the badly burned areas left behind by massive stand-replacing fires, they benefit from habitat that includes a mosaic of burned patches of different sizes and degrees of severity.

The National Park Service’s Stephanie Eyes (formerly of Humboldt State University) and her colleagues wanted to know how Spotted Owl foraging patterns are influenced by fire severity and fire-created edges, with the goal of informing future fuels reduction efforts and prescribed burning programs. They used radio-transmitters to track movements of 13 owls on eight territories in Yosemite National Park between 2010 and 2012 and found that overall, owls foraged near their roosts and along the edges of patches of burned forest, preferring these edge habitats. Owls selected larger burned patches than the average available size but avoided the interiors of severely burned patches.

“Maintaining a complex mosaic of forest patches with smaller patches of high severity fire can help sustain California Spotted Owls in the greater landscape,” says Eyes. “What’s unique about our study is that we investigated fires that burned within the natural range of variation, so it paints a picture of how owls used a burned landscape before the onset of today’s large stand-replacing fires.” Despite the owls’ preference for edges, there may be a threshold over which edges have a negative effect on habitat quality, and more research is needed to find the right balance between beneficial edge habitat and potentially harmful habitat fragmentation.

“This paper provides new radio telemetry data on how owls use home ranges that have had recent wildfires,” according to the University of Minnesota’s R.J. Gutiérrez, an expert on Spotted Owl habitat use. “Eyes and her colleagues provide a new piece of the puzzle about how owls respond, and they show that this response can be complex. More importantly, because their work occurred within a national park, it will serve as a ‘natural control’ that can be compared with other owl–fire studies occurring on managed forests.”

California Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis occidentalis) habitat use patterns in a burned landscape is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-16-184.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Read More

New Details on Nest Preferences of a Declining Sparrow

Version 3

A Bachman’s Sparrow. Photo credit: J. Winiarski

Theory says that birds should choose nest sites that minimize their risk of predation, but studies often fail to show a connection between nest site selection and nest survival. Understanding these relationships can be key for managing declining species, and a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications explores the nest site preferences of Bachman’s Sparrow, a vulnerable songbird dependent on regularly burned longleaf pine forests in the southeastern U.S.

Jason Winiarski of North Carolina State University and his colleagues monitored a total of 132 Bachman’s Sparrow nests in two regions of North Carolina, the Coastal Plain and the Sandhills, measuring a variety of vegetation characteristics. They found several differences between the two regions in what sparrows looked for in a nest site—in the Coastal Plain, they favored low grass density and greater woody vegetation density, while birds in the Sandhills selected intermediate grass density and greater tree basal area. However, none of these features turned out to be related to nest survival.

According to the researchers, the differences between the two regions are likely due to differences in the available plant communities. Bachman’s Sparrows also could be selecting nest sites that allow easy access to nests or maximize the survival of fledglings once they leave, and these aspects may warrant further investigation. Regardless, Winiarski and his colleagues believe their results show the importance of management that mimics historical fire regimes in longleaf pine ecosystems, in order to maintain the diverse groundcover types used by the birds.

The most challenging part of the study was locating sparrow nests to monitor. “Bachman’s Sparrows are notoriously secretive and don’t easily give up the location of their well-hidden nests,” says Winiarski. “Eventually, we stumbled upon a technique of patiently watching adult sparrows at a distance that allowed the birds to behave normally, while being close enough for us to just barely see where they landed with food or nest material. That let us narrow down where the nest site was to within a few meters, and luck and thorough searching led us the rest of the way.”

“It is really remarkable that the authors were able to track the large number of Bachman’s Sparrow nests that they were able to find. As someone who has searched and searched for nests of this species, it is really hard,” according to Purdue University’s John Dunning, an expert on Bachman’s Sparrow ecology who was not involved with the research. “The study shows how consistent management of vegetation structure through the use of prescribed fire remains the most important management and conservation strategy to support breeding populations of Bachman’s Sparrow.”

Nest-site selection and nest survival of Bachman’s Sparrows in two longleaf pine communities is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-16-220.1.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology. It began in 1899 as the journal of the Cooper Ornithological Club, a group of ornithologists in California that became the Cooper Ornithological Society, which merged with the American Ornithologists’ Union in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society.

Song Diversity Hints at Thrushes’ Evolutionary Past

AUK-16-222 Figure 1

A spectrogram of a Hermit Thrush song shows the introductory note (at left) and the more complex song that follows.

The Hermit Thrush is famous for its melodiously undulating song, but we know very little about whether—and if so, how—its songs vary across the large swath of North America that it calls home in the summer. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances provides the first thorough overview of geographic variation in Hermit Thrush song structure and hints at how isolation and adaptation shape differences in the tunes of a learned song within a species.

Sean Roach and Leslie Phillmore of Nova Scotia’s Dalhousie University gathered recordings of Hermit Thrush songs from a number of databases, accumulating a sample of 100 individuals recorded across North America between 1951 and 2015. Spectrographic analysis revealed significant differences in song structure across the three major populations—Northern, Western Mountain, and Western Lowland—as well as within them. The most striking differences were in the pitch of the introductory notes that preface the birds’ songs, with Western Lowland thrushes producing higher, more variable introductory notes than their relatives elsewhere.

“Though Hermit Thrushes have a beautiful, well-known song, relatively little is known about their singing behavior,” says Roach. “Knowing how the species varies with respect to genetics and morphology, I became interested in how their song varies, as song can play an important role in processes like speciation.” Some of the variation the researchers found likely dates back to isolation of different Hermit Thrushes populations by ice sheets during the Pleistocene era, while differences between the two western groups may relate to body size, with larger birds producing lower-frequency songs. One group of high-altitude birds in the Canadian Rockies sang songs that stood out other members of their subspecies, which Roach and Phillmore believe is an adaptation to how sound carries in their open, shrubby habitat.

“Genetic studies of Hermit Thrushes in North America have defined three different groups of subspecies, with major splits most likely occurring as a consequence of two glaciation events. Roach and Phillmore show convincingly that these three major groups of Hermit Thrushes can also be defined by the introductory whistle note of their songs,” according to Williams College’s Heather Williams, an expert on song diversity who was not involved in the study. “The whistle note’s relative consistency across large geographical distances may be due to its role in long-distance communication of species or subspecies identity, while the remainder of the song could be under fewer constraints and its variability may carry more information about individual singers.”

Geographic variation in song structure in the Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus) is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-222.1.

About the journal: The Auk: Ornithological Advances is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology that began in 1884 as the official publication of the American Ornithologists’ Union, which merged with the Cooper Ornithological Society in 2016 to become the American Ornithological Society. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.