Ornithology & Social Media – A Perfect Partnership

This blog is one of the ways that the publications staff behind The Auk and The Condor connects with the journals’ readers (a.k.a. you!). Another? Social media.

Each journal has its own Twitter account (@AukJournal and @CondorJournal), where we share the latest ornithology research—from other publications as well as our own—and news that’s relevant to our community. The American Ornithological Society, our parent organization, also uses social media—in addition to Twitter, they’re on Facebook and Instagram. You don’t need an account on any of these sites to read the content posted there, and checking them out periodically will help you keep up with the latest developments in the American ornithology world.

If you’re interested in learning more about social media, whether you’re an avid user looking to get some new tips or you’re thinking of wading in for the first time, you should consider attending the social media symposium at American Ornithology 2017, the joint annual meeting of AOS and SCO (the Society of Canadian Ornithologists) that’s coming up in Michigan. The symposium begins at 10 a.m. on Wednesday, August 2, and will cover how using social media for science communication can benefit your research and your career. Hope to see you there!

Foraging Differences Let Closely Related Seabirds Coexist


A Great Frigatebird wearing a GPS tracking device. Photo credit: R. Clarke

How do seabirds share habitat when food is limited? In the case of frigatebirds, size differences drive them to seek different prey. A study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses new technology to explore how closely related Great and Lesser frigatebirds manage to coexist at shared breeding colonies where the need to stick close to their nests prevents them from traveling far in search of food.

Past studies have suggested that Great and Lesser frigatebirds have very similar foraging habits, but ecology’s “competitive exclusion principle” suggests that they must not be going after exactly the same food, or one would eventually outcompete the other. New advances in GPS tracking and chemical analysis of birds’ tissues allowed Rowan Mott of Australia’s Monash University and his colleagues to tease out some of the subtle differences that let these species coexist, and they found that the smaller Lesser Frigatebirds were eating prey items from lower on the food chain than their larger relatives, allowing the two species to subsist on the same resource base.

“As I began reading about frigatebirds, it seemed as if Great Frigatebirds and Lesser Frigatebirds share a remarkably similar foraging strategy. This didn’t sit well with my understanding of the competitive exclusion principle and niche partitioning theory,” says Mott. “It turns out that the two species of frigatebirds seem to have slight differences in their diet that are related to body size. The larger-bodied Great Frigatebird eats more prey from higher levels of the food chain than the smaller-bodied Lesser Frigatebird, and this relationship is particularly strong when comparing the diet of females with the male diet, because females are considerably larger than males.”

Mott and his colleagues carried out their research on an island in the Timor Sea, where they captured birds on their nests during the breeding season, fitting them with GPS devices and collecting feathers and blood for isotope analysis. By analyzing the ratios of nitrogen and carbon isotopes in the birds’ tissues, the researchers could glean insights into the types of food they had been eating—for example, predatory fish have higher proportion of a certain nitrogen isotope in their bodies, allowing the researchers to make inferences about prey type.

“Ecologists argue that coexistence of similar species can only persist if populations have more resources than they need or if they use different subsets of resources,” according to Acadia University’s Dave Shutler, a seabird ecologist not involved in the study. “In the latter case, identifying where and how species partition resources can be challenging for mobile species such as birds; using tracking devices and chemical signatures in tissues, Mott and his collaborators have evaluated differences in diets and spatial use of two species of frigatebirds.”

Resource partitioning between species and sexes in Great Frigatebirds and Lesser Frigatebirds is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-184.1.

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.

Invasive Plants Dye Woodpeckers Red


The reddish feathers on this flicker’s wing are due to pigments in invasive honeysuckle berries. Credit: C. Hansen

An ornithological mystery has been solved! Puzzling red feathers have been popping up in eastern North America’s “yellow-shafted” population of Northern Flickers, but they aren’t due to genes borrowed from their “red-shafted” cousins to the west, according to a new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances. Instead, the culprit is a pigment that the birds are ingesting in the berries of exotic honeysuckle plants.

The Northern Flicker comes in two varieties—the birds of the west have a salmon pink or orange tinge to the undersides of their wings, while the eastern birds are yellow. Where the two populations meet in the middle, they frequently hybridize, producing birds with a blend of both colors. For years, however, flickers far to the east of the hybrid zone have been popping up with red-orange wing feathers. The prevailing explanation has been that they must somehow have genes from the western population, but Jocelyn Hudon of the Royal Alberta Museum and his colleagues have determined that the eastern birds’ unusual color actually has a different source: a pigment called rhodoxanthin, which comes from the berries of two species of invasive honeysuckle plants.

Hudon and his colleagues used spectrophotometry and chromatography to show that rhodoxanthin, rather than the type of carotenoid pigment that colors western red-shafted birds, was present in the feathers of yellow-shafted flicker specimens with the aberrant red coloration. Data from a bird-banding station helped confirm that the birds acquire the red pigment during their fall molt about early August, which coincides with the availability of ripe honeysuckle berries. The honeysuckles have also been implicated as the source of unusual orange feathers in Cedar Waxwings.

“At one point considered valuable wildlife habitat and widely disseminated, the naturalized Asian bush honeysuckles are now considered invasive and undesirable in many states. This is clearly not the last we have heard of aberrantly colored birds,” says Hudon. “The ready availability of a pigment that can alter the coloration of birds with carotenoids in their plumages could have major implications for mate selection if plumage coloration no longer signaled a bird’s body condition.”

“This is the pinnacle of a lengthy series of papers on the pigments deposited in primary feathers. Hudon et al. make use of the most up-to-date spectrometric and biochemical analyses to identify and quantify the pigments,” according to Alan Brush, an expert on feather color and retired University of Connecticut professor who was not involved with the study. “In addition to demonstrating that the red pigments in the molting yellow-shafted feathers are derived from their diets, not the result of interbreeding with the red-shafted form, they illuminate the dynamic nature of pigment deposition during molt, an accomplishment in itself.”

Diet explains red flight feathers in Yellow-shafted Flickers in eastern North America is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-63.1.

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. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

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Migrating Birds Speed Up in Spring


Migratory birds like Baltimore Orioles travel faster in spring than in fall. Photo credit: K. Horton

It turns out being the early bird really does have its advantages. A new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances shows that migrating birds fly faster and put more effort into staying on course in spring than in fall, racing to arrive to their breeding grounds as soon as possible to get an edge in raising the next generation.

Migrating birds travel faster in spring than in fall because arriving late to their breeding grounds can affect their reproductive success. Past studies have shown that migrants take shorter breaks in spring, but it’s harder to tell whether they also move faster in the air. When they used high-tech weather surveillance radars operated by NOAA and the Department of Defense on migrating birds, Kyle Horton of the University of Oklahoma and his colleagues found that birds did indeed fly faster in spring and compensated more for crosswinds that could blow them off course.

“Many migration studies look at a few individuals, maybe on the scale of hundreds, but with radar, we’re now documenting the behaviors of millions of individuals on a given night. That’s a lot of data, and when you do see flight behavior results that are regionally or seasonally different, it’s quite compelling,” says Horton. He hopes birds’ ability to adjust their migratory behavior for different conditions will buffer them against the effects climate change, which may cause large-scale shifts in wind intensity.

This study made use of recent upgrades to government radar stations. “In 2013 an additional plane of polarization was added to the radars, giving us another dimension to look at migratory birds, among other things,” explains Horton. “This allowed us to measure the orientation of birds directly for the first time.”

“Horton et al. have tapped the great potential of large-scale surveillance radars to advance our understanding of migration ecology,” adds the University of Delaware’s Jeff Buler, a radar ecology expert who was not involved in the study. “Their novel analysis reveals macroscale patterns in the aggregate behaviors of migrating birds that support existing literature on flight strategies of migrants. In addition, their analysis makes new discoveries about greater overall wind compensation during spring and new hypotheses about the processes underlying these patterns.”

Seasonal differences in landbird migration strategies is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/abs/10.1642/AUK-16-105.1.

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. In 2009, The Auk was honored as one of the 100 most influential journals of biology and medicine over the past 100 years.

New book examines ecology of threatened prairie-chickens

9781482240221A new volume in the Cooper Ornithological Society’s Studies in Avian Biology series highlights the ecology of Lesser Prairie-Chickens.

Ecology and Conservation of Lesser Prairie-Chickens, edited by David A. Haukos of Kansas State University and Clint Boal of Texas Tech University, is now available through CRC press. The book is divided into sections focusing on the history and legal status of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken, its ecology, the impact of emerging issues such as climate change and energy development, and its conservation and management. It includes a complete description of the landscapes inhabited by four distinct Lesser Prairie-Chicken populations.

“Publication of this volume was the culmination of nearly five years of effort by 31 contributors and Series Editor Brett Sandercock,” say Haukos and Boal. “Given the perilous status of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken and impending decisions regarding listing the species as threatened or endangered under the Endangered Species Act, there was a desperate need for a compilation of available information on the species’ ecology to guide status assessments, listing decisions, and conservation planning. Our goal was to provide land managers, policy makers, and conservation planners with an easy-to-use guide to all known information regarding the ecology of the Lesser Prairie-Chicken.”

For more details on the book, including ordering information, visit https://www.crcpress.com/Ecology-and-Conservation-of-Lesser-Prairie-Chickens/Haukos-Boal/9781482240221.

New Auk & Condor Joint Collections

Two (two!) new joint collections of content from The Auk: Ornithological Advances and The Condor: Ornithological Applications have gone live on our website within the last week.

The first is a list of over 400 open-access book reviews from 2000 to the present, collected in one place for the first time. A downloadable Excel file makes it easy to sort them by the book’s author, title, etc. to find exactly what you’re looking for.

The second is on the subject of invasion biology, bringing together a curated collection of research from both journals assessing the impact of invasive species on avian populations.

Both are definitely worth a look – watch for more Joint Special Collections in the future!