New Details on Nest Preferences of a Declining Sparrow

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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.

AUTHOR BLOG: ‘Bare Parts’ are an Important but Underappreciated Avian Signal

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Two female American Goldfinches in an antagonistic interaction. Bill-color, derived from carotenoids, is a signal of dominance among female goldfinches but not among males. Image credit: K. Tarvin

Erik Iverson

Linked paper: The role of bare parts in avian signaling by E.K. Iverson and J. Karubian, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 134:3, July 2017.

Birds are well-known for being among the most colorful of all animals, with many species displaying striking, brightly-colored feathers. Scientists have long wondered why color is so important to fitness, and hundreds of studies have been published on the relationships between plumage and traits such as age, physiological condition, reproductive success, and attractiveness to mates. However, there is a growing awareness that plumage is not the only important site of coloration among birds; there is also considerable variation within and between species in the color of bills and in bare skin such as legs, feet, ceres, or wattles. Yet compared to plumage, these ‘bare part’ ornaments have received relatively little attention; a 2006 review of carotenoid coloration in birds, for instance, identified only 14 studies of bare parts versus 130 studies of plumage.

Unlike plumage, bare part color has the potential to be highly flexible. For example, carotenoid-based bare parts can lose their color within days of food deprivation or within hours of stress. Amidst growing suggestions that changes in bare part color could have important implications for signaling, one of the authors, Jordan Karubian, was studying Red-Backed Fairywrens (Malurus melanocephalus) in Australia. In this species, males either acquire a territory and display black breeding plumage and bills, or stay dull and serve as helpers at the nest. Jordan noticed that when a breeding male died and a dull male took over its vacancy, the dull male’s bill would darken within several weeks. Experiments confirmed this effect and showed that dull males with newly black bills also had testosterone levels comparable to birds with black plumage. I joined Jordan’s lab as an undergraduate and studied fairywrens as well, and when I was looking for a topic for an honors thesis Jordan suggested that bare parts were an expanding area in need of a review. That thesis grew and grew, eventually becoming my master’s work and encompassing 321 published studies of bare-part coloration and signaling.

Our review shows that despite the research focus on plumage, bare part signals might be more common than plumage-based ones and are an important visual signal in many species that lack bright plumage altogether. Carotenoids, melanin, and structural colors are all flexible in bare parts, and rapid blood flushing through skin can change color even more rapidly. Bare part color provides up-to-date information about a signaler, allowing competitors, mates, and offspring to adjust their strategies and maximize their fitness. Carotenoid-signaling with bare parts may also be less costly than with plumage, allowing signaling by females and non-breeding males. In species where both plumage and bare parts of the same color exist, the two are likely to be ‘multiple messages,’ conveying different aspects of condition or targeting different audiences. We believe that more careful and extensive characterization of bare part coloration will contribute greatly to our understanding of this underappreciated dynamic signal, and help inform a more inclusive theory of animal communication.

Song Diversity Hints at Thrushes’ Evolutionary Past

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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.

Male Birds Adjust Courtship Behavior Based on Social Context

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A male junco reacts to a caged female. Photo credit: J. Welklin

Male birds that have already paired up with a female aren’t above looking for a little action on the side. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances explores how male juncos adjust their courtship behavior to their social landscape, finding that while both paired and unpaired males will try to get the attention of a new female on their turf, they go about it in different ways.

A male bird’s courtship behavior can be affected by factors like his size and hormone levels, but ornithologists are increasingly realizing that social context—whether or not the male already has a mate, and what other birds are around to witness his exploits—also plays a role. Dustin Reichard of Ohio Wesleyan University (formerly Indiana University) and his colleagues set out to tease apart the roles these different issues play in the courtship of Dark-eyed Juncos, comparing how unpaired males, paired males whose mates were present, and paired males whose mates were elsewhere behaved when presented with a new female.

They found that paired males approached females more rapidly, spent more time close to the females, were more active, and spent more time with their body feathers erect than unpaired males. Paired males also sang fewer long-range songs than their single counterparts, perhaps not wanting other birds to overhear, although the actual presence or absence of their mates didn’t affect their behavior.

Reichard had noticed variation in male juncos’ behavior during previous work to record their courtship songs, which led him to start developing hypotheses about what might underlie those differences. “Our results highlight the importance of considering both intrinsic and extrinsic factors when investigating the causes of variation in male courtship behavior,” says Reichard. “The focus of the field has generally been intrinsic factors, such as male condition or circulating hormone levels, but our results suggest a potential role for eavesdroppers and social context in addition to condition-dependent factors.”

Reichard and his colleagues conducted their experiments at Mountain Lake Biological Station in Virginia, placing caged female juncos in front of free-living males and observing the males’ reactions. After each trial, the researchers captured the male to record his size and weight and take a blood sample. “Often the male’s mate would respond aggressively to the caged female, diving at the cage while pausing occasionally to chase her mate away from the area. The males were usually shameless during this process and continued to approach while singing and displaying, but to our knowledge none of the pairs in our study divorced as a result of this brief infidelity,” says Reichard. “People called me a ‘junco homewrecker’ during these experiments, but there’s little evidence to support that accusation.”

In the future, Reichard hopes to explore the possibility that males use different strategies to target potential social mates—females they’ll raise chicks with—versus “extrapair” mates. According to Auburn University’s Geoffrey Hill, an expert on mate choice in birds who was not involved in the research, “This study shows the potential for extremely complex behavioral interactions in birds that were long thought to be bland monogamists.”

Condition- and context-dependent factors are related to courtship behavior of paired and unpaired males in a socially monogamous songbird is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-214.1.

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.

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.

Tracking Devices Reduce Warblers’ Chances of Returning from Migration

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Geolocators like this one provide valuable data on bird migration but can also impact the birds that carry them. Photo credit: T. Boves

The tools ornithologists use to track the journeys of migrating birds provide invaluable insights that can help halt the declines of vulnerable species. However, a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that these data come at a cost—in some cases, these tracking devices reduce the chances that the birds carrying them will ever make it back to their breeding grounds.

Geolocators are small devices attached to birds that record light levels over time, which can be used to determine location. They’re widely used to study migration patterns, but studies have suggested that some species may be negatively affected by carrying them. Douglas Raybuck of Arkansas State University and his colleagues monitored male Cerulean Warblers with and without geolocators to see how they fared, and they found that while geolocators had no effect on the birds’ nesting success in the same season following their capture, birds with geolocators were less likely to reappear on their territories after migration the next year—16% of geolocator-tagged birds returned from migration, versus 35% of the birds in the control group.

The data gained from geolocator studies are enormously useful for bird conservation, and on a global scale those benefits are likely to outweigh potential the costs. The results from this study suggest that the potential impacts of individual research projects need to be carefully evaluated, but we should remember that only a small number of birds are ever tagged relative to the total size of the population under study.

The researchers captured Cerulean Warblers in Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Arkansas by luring them into nets using call recordings and wooden decoys. Outfitting some with geolocators but others with only identifying color bands, they monitored the birds’ nests and then searched for them the following year to determine whether they’d returned. “Re-sighting males and identifying their unique color-band combinations as they moved about in the canopy was not always easy, but our dedicated and skilled field crew did a fantastic job of overcoming these obstacles, which were compounded by inclement weather and the rugged topography of the sites,” says Raybuck.

“New technologies such as geolocators and automated radiotracking arrays have led to a surge in new tagging studies of migratory songbirds,” according to York University’s Bridget Stutchbury, an expert on geolocators and the conservation biology of North America’s migratory songbirds. “Finding that tagged birds were far less likely to return the next year compared with un-tagged birds puts researchers in a serious dilemma, because despite the potential costs of tagging small birds, long-distance tracking is essential to find out which wintering and migratory stopover sites should be highest priority for conservation.”

Mixed effects of geolocators on reproduction and survival of Cerulean Warblers, a canopy-dwelling, long-distance migrant is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-16-180.1.

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.

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Review Highlights Challenges Faced by Birds in the Gulf of Mexico

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More research is needed on the challenges faced by birds migrating through the Gulf of Mexico. Image credit: A. McBride

The Gulf of Mexico is hugely important to birds that migrate between North America and the Neotropics—almost all migrants have to go around it or across it. Coastal habitats around the Gulf of Mexico are critical for these migrating birds, but these habitats face more and more threats from human activity. A new Review in The Condor: Ornithological Applications brings together what we know—and don’t know—about the state of the region’s ecosystems and the birds that pass through them.

Understanding the population impacts of events during migration requires knowing which species are using what coastal habitats, how good those habitats are, where the birds are coming from, and where they’re going. Birds use a variety of coastal habitats, from vast tracts of hardwood forests to patches of vegetation embedded in agricultural or urban areas. The amount of food present in these areas, the intensity of competition for that food, and the danger from predators all shape how well a certain spot can meet a migrating bird’s needs. Threats to birds passing through the Gulf of Mexico include coastal habitat loss from forest clearing, wetland filling and dredging, and shoreline hardening; tall structures like cell phone towers and wind turbines; and, of course, climate change.

More data is needed in all of these subjects. Today the Gulf of Mexico Avian Monitoring Network is taking on the enormous task of coordinating monitoring across the region by integrating the efforts of multiple organizations and agencies. Doing this well will require close cooperation between the United States, Mexico, and Caribbean countries.

“Many migratory bird species are declining, including the species that breed in our backyards every summer, and we’re trying to understand if events that occur during migration might impact birds here on the breeding grounds. Our focus is the Gulf of Mexico region because it’s a bottleneck for migratory land birds—a place they have to move through every spring and fall,” says the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute’s Emily Cohen, the lead author of the Review. “Birds use these coastal habitats twice a year to eat and rest before and after their spectacular non-stop flight across the Gulf, which can take up to twenty hours! What’s going on during these migratory journeys is the final frontier for bird biology, and many new tools are making it possible to solve the mysteries of migration that previously limited our ability to develop conservation priorities.”

“This Review highlights the tremendous importance of the Gulf of Mexico to migratory birds, not only from an ecological and conservation perspective, but also as an opportunity to understand mechanisms that drive the evolution of migration across dozens of families,” according to Erik Johnson of Audubon Louisiana, an expert on bird conservation in the region. “As this paper makes clear, preserving this landscape is a tremendous responsibility shared across multiple countries, and our collective success has implications for how our descendants across North America will experience the amazing phenomenon of bird migration.”

How do en route events around the Gulf of Mexico influence migratory landbird populations? is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-20.1.

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.