Endangered Ibises Benefit from Joining Egret Flocks

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A Little Egret (far left) forages with endangered Crested Ibises. Photo credit: N. Zhao

Birds benefit from flocking together—even when they’re not of a feather. According to a new study in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, China’s endangered Crested Ibises benefit from joining forces with other, more visually-oriented bird species while searching for food.

Joining mixed-species flocks can reduce birds’ risk of predation while boosting their foraging opportunities, but it can also expose them to competition and disease, and little research has been done on what this means for birds such as ibises that rely on their sense of touch to find food. Yuanxing Ye and Changqing Ding of the Beijing Forestry University and their colleagues studied the behavior of Crested Ibises foraging with and without Little Egrets in central China’s Shaanxi Province, recording the birds’ behavior with a digital video camera to determine whether they picked up on social cues from the other species. They found that ibises in mixed-species flocks became alert to threats sooner, suggesting they felt less at risk when mingling with the more visually-oriented egrets.

Crested Ibises were once believed to be extinct in the wild, until seven birds were discovered in a remote area of China in 1981. Ye and his colleagues believe this new information about their foraging behavior could benefit ibis conservation. “Developing habitat conditions that favor mixed-species flocks may reduce the perception of risk by ibises due to the early warning effects of egrets, particularly in habitats with high levels of predation or disturbance,” according to Ye.

“Mixed-species flocks are a common occurrence in birds, but little is known about the costs and benefits of joining such groups when species differ in their foraging tactics,” adds the University of Montreal’s Guy Beauchamp, an expert on group living in birds. “In this case, ibises benefitted from joining another more visually-oriented species in that they detected threats more quickly. This study shows how detailed behavioral observations can help us understand why species forage in groups and also join other species.”

What makes a tactile forager join mixed-species flocks? A case study with the endangered Crested Ibis (Nipponia nippon) is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-191.1.

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.

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How Reliable Are Traditional Wildlife Surveys?

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A Sandhill Crane from the Rocky Mountain population. Photo credit: T. Cacek

To effectively manage a wildlife species, one of the most basic things you need to know is how many of them are out there. However, it’s almost never feasible to count every single individual—so how do the results of wildlife surveys compare to true population size? A new study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications tests this using the results of more than thirty years of surveys of the Rocky Mountain population of Sandhill Cranes.

A three-year “moving average” is often used to smooth out year-to-year irregularities in survey results, but this approach has never been evaluated. Brian Gerber of Colorado State University and William Kendall of the U. S. Geological Survey assessed whether the annual population changes reported by these moving averages were realistic, based on what is known about crane demographics, and how they compared to the results of a more sophisticated statistical approach called a hierarchical Bayesian time series model. They found that while the moving average population estimates were reasonable, the more complex method performed better over a large number of scenarios.

Bayesian approaches offer a structured way to incorporate new information as it becomes available. “The model-based approach we looked at is very flexible and has some major advantages over other methods,” says Gerber. “By taking a Bayesian approach, we can include additional information about both the observation process and the true population to obtain more realistic estimates and predictions. Also, the model-based approach includes measures of uncertainty about our population estimates, which are not usually provided by more common approaches and are crucial for understanding the level of confidence we have about our estimates.”

Evidence suggests that management practices over the last twenty years have largely met the annual population objectives for the Rocky Mountain Sandhill Crane population. “Looking forward,” adds Gerber, “managers may still be interested in adopting our more robust modeling approach due to its flexible framework, which makes implementing any changes relevant to the survey easier.” The investment in collecting these long-term data may pay off not just for crane management, but for an advance in methods that can be applied to other species as well.

Evaluating and improving count-based population inference: A case study from 31 years of monitoring Sandhill Cranes is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-16-137.1.

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: 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.

Redefining “Species”: New Species Concept Based on Mitochondrial & Nuclear DNA Coadaptation

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A hybrid “Brewster’s” warbler. Photo credit: L. Spitalnik

What is a species? Biologists—and ornithologists in particular—have been debating the best definition for a very long time. A new commentary published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances proposes a novel concept: that species can be defined based on the unique coadaptations between their two genomes, one in the nuclei of their cells and the other in their mitochondria.

All animals have two sets of genes, one in the cell nucleus and one in organelles called mitochondria, and these two sets of DNA work together to enable cellular respiration and energy production. If they’re mismatched, the result is reduced energy output and increased production of damaging free radicals. While the most commonly used species definition is based on the idea that isolated populations slowly accumulate changes in their nuclear genes that make interbreeding impossible, Auburn University’s Geoffrey Hill proposes a new twist on the species concept—that speciation is really the divergence of sets of coadapted mitochondrial and nuclear genes. Interspecies hybrids, his theory suggests, have reduced fitness due their mismatched genomes’ reduced ability to work together in the cell.

Past studies have shown that mitochondrial genotype tends to be very good at showing species boundaries between birds. This “mitonuclear compatibility species concept” helps explain the fact that the abrupt transitions between mitochondrial genotypes at species boundaries correspond with abrupt transitions in songs, plumage patterns, and female mating preferences. Interestingly, two closely related species that have recently been documented to have extensively intermingled nuclear genes—Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers—also show an abrupt transition in mitochondrial genes.

“Almost all ornithologists who write and think about avian speciation study phylogeography—the geographical distribution and genetic structure of bird populations,” says Hill. “In contrast, I study bird ornamentation and, particularly, bird coloration. It was the discovery that ornaments signal mitochondrial type that led to my sudden realization that mitochondrial type—or, more accurately, coadapted sets of mitochondrial and nuclear genes—define species boundaries. I don’t think I would have ever seen the pattern if I had come at the question from a phylogeographic perspective.”

“This is an intriguing and controversial idea—that mitonuclear incompatibilities could be so central to generating new avian species—and I see this as a call for more research into how these incompatibilities might manifest themselves in young species,” says avian evolutionary biologist David Toews of Cornell University. “The functional aspects of mitochondrial genes have, in particular, received little attention from the ornithological community, and it will be interesting to see how these ideas play with additional empirical studies going forward.”

The mitonuclear compatibility species concept is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-201.1.

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.

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Monitoring Birds by Drone

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Researchers test the bird monitoring drone. Photo credit: A. Wilson

Forget delivering packages or taking aerial photographs—drones can even count small birds! A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances tests this new approach to wildlife monitoring and concludes that despite some drawbacks, the method has the potential to become an important tool for ecologists and land managers.

Bird surveys provide crucial data for environmental management, but they have limitations—some areas are difficult to access, and surveyors vary in their skills at identifying birds. Using audio recordings made by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can help to combat both of these pitfalls, as hard-to-reach sites can be flown over and multiple people can review the resulting recordings. Andrew Wilson of Gettysburg College and his colleagues tested the feasibility of this approach by using fishing line to suspend an audio recorder from a simple “drone,” first in trial runs on college athletic fields and then in real bird surveys on Pennsylvania State Game Lands.

The experiments on state game lands directly compared UAV data with traditional ground-based surveys of the same areas. A few bird species were undercounted by the UAV technique, such as Mourning Doves, whose extremely low-frequency calls weren’t picked up by the recorder, and Gray Catbirds, which occurred at such high densities that counting individual birds in the recordings was difficult. Overall, however, there were few significant differences between the results produced by the two methods.

“The inspiration for the study came while I was surveying forests in the Appalachian Mountain in Pennsylvania for Cerulean Warblers,” says Wilson. “All of our survey work was done from roadsides or hiking trails, for logistical reasons and to maximize survey efficiency, but I was always aware that our sample locations were very biased and that we were missing key areas such as steep forested slopes.” He notes that the drone and audio recorder used in this experiment were inexpensive, commercially available models, making this technique within reach even for those with limited funding.

“I recall my vocal reaction upon hearing their oral presentation during a session I chaired on emerging technologies to study birds at the 2016 North American Ornithology Conference last August, where I exclaimed, ‘What an amazingly simplistic but useful application of a drone for bird research—I wish I had thought of it!’” says McGill University’s David Bird, founding editor of the Journal of Unmanned Vehicle Systems. “This unique study provides a significant first step toward the inevitable common use of unmanned vehicle systems for monitoring songbird populations both during the breeding season and on migration.”

The feasibility of counting songbirds using unmanned aerial vehicles is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-16-216.1.

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.

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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.

AUTHOR BLOG: Population-Specific Migration Patterns of Golden-Winged Warblers

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Gunnar Kramer

Linked paper: Nonbreeding isolation and population-specific migration patterns among three populations of Golden-winged Warblers by G.B. Kramer, H.M. Streby, Sean M. Peterson, J.A. Lehman, D.A. Buehler, P.B. Wood, D.J. McNeil, J.L. Larkin, and D.E. Andersen, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:1, February 2017.

Our study in The Condor: Ornithological Applications follows decades of research on the population dynamics of a declining songbird species, the Golden-winged Warbler.

Golden-winged Warblers have long been the focus of research and conservation interest due in part to sensationalized range-wide declines on the order of -2.5% per year; however, the true nature of these declines is more nuanced and complicated. When geographic populations are considered, Golden-winged Warblers demonstrate two very different stories. On one hand, the Appalachian population, breeding from Ontario through North Carolina and Georgia, experienced severe declines (up to -7% per year) over the past 50 years resulting in local extirpations and noticeable declines in the abundance and distributions of Golden-winged Warblers in the region. On the other hand, the western Great Lakes population, breeding largely in Minnesota, is home to ~50% of the global breeding population of Golden-winged Warblers and is maintaining historic population levels or possibly increasing over the past 50 years. When combined, these two very different stories blend into a general picture of overall population decline, spawning intensive efforts to identify breeding-grounds factors that might explain this decline, such as the loss of nesting habitat, poor nesting success, and competition with other closely related species (i.e., Blue-winged Warblers). Despite all the extensive research, no single breeding-grounds factor or combination of factors provides a parsimonious and consistent explanation for the differential population trends that exist in this species.

This is where our research comes in. Compared to the amount of research carried out in breeding populations of Golden-winged Warblers, relatively little has been done to link breeding populations to nonbreeding sites and identify migration routes in geographically isolated populations of Golden-winged Warblers. We developed a study to attach the smallest geolocators available (at the time in 2013 this was just under 0.50 g) to 9-10 g Golden-winged Warblers at multiple sites throughout their breeding distribution where they were experiencing variable population trends. Our main goal was simply to find out where these different populations went after they left the breeding grounds in North America and determine if the populations overlapped or occurred together in Central and South America during the nonbreeding period. If the declining Appalachian populations spent the winter in a region that was isolated from the stable western Great Lakes population, it is logical that the breeding-grounds population trends we observe might be caused at least in part by nonbreeding factors.

After all the hard work of redesigning the marking methods, getting the geolocators deployed, stressing over whether it would work, and then retrieving the geolocators, it was exciting to analyze the data and see entire year-long tracks of individual Golden-winged Warblers and to think about the distances these birds traveled and the places they spent their time when away from our study sites. We found that Golden-winged Warblers from Appalachian breeding populations spent the nonbreeding period in South America, mostly in a relatively small region on the border of Columbia and Venezuela. In contrast, Golden-winged Warblers from the western Great Lakes breeding population occurred throughout northern Central America in countries like Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Belize, and Mexico.

In the end, this geolocator study demonstrates a clear difference in nonbreeding locations and migration strategies among these different populations of Golden-winged Warblers. These differences are urgently meaningful from a conservation and management standpoint as they highlight a potential cause for regional differences in population trends observed across the breeding distribution. If nonbreeding factors are limiting Golden-winged Warbler population growth in the Appalachians, perhaps the most important implication of our work is to provide information that might help conservationists revise and refocus current strategies to better and target declining populations that spend the nonbreeding period in northern Colombia and Venezuela.

Read more at henrystreby.com.