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Research From The Auk and The Condor

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The official blog of ornithology journals The Auk and The Condor
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Could Condors Return to Northern California?

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 09:27

A study of lead exposure indicates condors could one day return to Northern California. Image credit: C. West

In 2003, Northern California’s Yurok Tribe initiated efforts to reintroduce California Condors on their lands. While wild condors have not existed in the region for more than a hundred years, a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications suggests that hunters transitioning from lead to non-lead ammunition may allow these apex scavengers to succeed there once again.

Lead, which condors consume when scavenging at carcasses of animals killed with lead ammunition, is the main factor limiting their recovery; lead toxicosis was responsible for 26% of juvenile condor deaths and 67% of adult condor deaths between 1992 and 2009. To assess condor’s prospects in Northern California, Chris West of the Yurok Tribe Wildlife Program and his colleagues trapped two other avian scavengers, Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens, at nine sites in the region between 2009 and 2013. Collecting blood samples from 137 vultures and 27 ravens, they found that lead levels in ravens were almost six times higher during hunting season, when they were exposed to animal remains tainted with lead ammunition, than the rest of the year. Vulture’s migratory movements meant they couldn’t be sampled across seasons, but older vultures tended to have higher concentrations of lead, suggesting that older, more dominant individuals exclude younger birds from foraging on carcasses.

While this may sound like bad news, it means little stands in the way of condor recovery if hunters shift away from using lead ammunition in the region. A statewide ban on lead ammunition in California takes effect in 2019, and West and his colleagues are optimistic that it may lower lead exposure to scavengers if it includes outreach programs to help the state’s hunting community through the transition. “Our hopes for condor reintroduction to our area and recovery overall is very high. We are currently going through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process to select release locations and assess and mitigate impacts to land owners and managers in the region,” says West. “The return of condors to the Pacific Northwest, after more than a century-long absence, will be a testament to the ability of federal, tribal, state, and private entities to come together to champion the cause of wildlife, ecosystem, and cultural recovery in our region.”

“Northern California still has viable habitat for free-flying California Condors, and these results suggest it is possible to succeed in this region, particularly as a broader switch from lead to non-lead ammunition use is realized,” adds to Kelly Sorenson, Executive Director of the Ventana Wildlife Society and an expert on condor recovery who was not involved in the study. “If we fix the lead problem, condors should survive in the wild again without the assistance of people, whether in Northern California or other suitable locations where they are being released.”

Feasibility of California Condor recovery in northern California, USA: Contaminants in surrogate Turkey Vultures and Common Ravens is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-17-48.1.

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. The Condor had the top impact factor among ornithology journals for 2016.


Social Environment Matters for Duck Penis Size

Wed, 09/20/2017 - 09:25

Penis size in Ruddy Ducks has a complex relationship with the birds’ social environment. Image credit: P. Brennan

Most birds lack genitalia, but male ducks are known for their long, spiraling penises, which have evolved through an ongoing cat-and-mouse game with females. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances looks at whether these impressive organs are affected by the social environment—that is, whether male ducks that face more competition grow bigger penises. While this appears to be true for some species, in others the relationship between social environment and penis growth is more complex.

Patricia Brennan of Mount Holyoke College and her colleagues tested their hypothesis in two species: Ruddy Ducks, which are very promiscuous, do not form pair bonds, and have relatively long penises, and Lesser Scaup, which form seasonal pair bonds and have relatively short penises. Keeping captive ducks in either pairs or groups during the breeding season over two years, they found that Lesser Scaup had longer penises on average when housed in groups with other males, as predicted. For Ruddy Ducks, the effects were more complicated—many males failed to reach sexual maturity until the second year of the experiment, and when they did, the smaller Ruddy Duck males housed in groups grew their penises faster than males housed in pairs, but grew out of sync with each other and stayed in reproductive condition for only short periods of time.

Small Ruddy Ducks males faced with intense competition may strategically offset their development from each other to reduce the costs of male–male aggression and make the best of a bad situation. Additionally, since Ruddy Ducks already have relatively long penises on average compared to other waterfowl species, their ability to grow even larger based on social cues may be limited. In any case, the study shows that the level of competition that individual male ducks experience can have a big effect on their genitals.

The biggest challenge during the study, says Brennan, wasn’t measuring the ducks—it was simply keeping them housed and fed. “Keeping ducks in captivity is expensive,” says Brennan. “We were lucky to partner with the Livingstone Ripley Waterfowl Conservancy in Litchfield, Connecticut, where their expert personnel kept the ducks healthy and in beautiful, naturalistic enclosures year-round.”

“This is an excellent experimental study of penis morphology, looking at the effects of social environment on penis size in two duck species that have different mating systems,” according to Queen’s University’s Bob Montgomerie, an expert on reproductive strategies who was not involved in the study. “The question now is whether the observed increase in penis size in Lesser Scaup under the threat of sperm competition actually gives males a competitive advantage. Like all good studies, this one will undoubtedly stimulate more research, as it provides both methodologies and a clear focus on interesting questions.”

Evidence of phenotypic plasticity of penis morphology and delayed reproductive maturation in response to male competition in waterfowl is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-114.1.

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.


Song Experiments Reveal 21 Possible New Tropical Bird Species

Wed, 09/13/2017 - 10:05

Playback studies indicate that two populations of Buff-throated Foliage-gleaners do not recognize each other’s songs. Photo credit: B. Freeman

Birds often choose their mates based on song, making it a key factor in separating species. However, analyzing spectrograms can only tell us so much—the characteristics that birds hone in on when identifying potential mates may not be the same ones scientists notice in audio recordings. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses field experiments to “ask the birds themselves” and uncovers as many as 21 previously unrecognized species.

Benjamin Freeman of the University of British Columbia and Graham Montgomery of Cornell University compared these two methods—analysis in the lab and experiments in the field—for 72 pairs of related but geographically separated bird populations in Costa Rica, Panama, and Ecuador. In addition to analyzing more than a thousand song recordings for seven variables, they used playback experiments to test birds’ real-world reactions to recordings of their relatives, observing whether or not they approached the speaker. Their results show that when the divergence between the characteristics of the recordings is high, birds consistently fail to recognize recordings of their relatives in the field, but when divergence is low, birds’ discrimination is much less consistent. In other words, analyzing recordings can’t accurately predict how birds will act when presented with songs just slightly different from their own.

Many pairs that failed to recognize each other are currently categorized as members of the same species, suggesting that current taxonomy does not reflect actual bird behavior when it comes to song. Freeman and Montgomery propose that 21 such pairs should be recognized as separate species based on song discrimination and that playback experiments should be the standard for assessing whether song divergence between populations is a barrier to interbreeding. “It is abundantly clear to anyone familiar with the amazing diversity of Neotropical birds that there are many cases where populations that sing very different songs are classified as the same species,” says Freeman. “These populations look the same—they have similar plumage and are similar in size and shape—but assuming that populations that sing differently tend not to interbreed, this means that species-level diversity in the Neotropics is underestimated.”

“Playback experiments between geographically isolated taxa provide key data on how populations might perceive each other in terms of ‘same’ or ‘different’ if they were in actual contact,” according to Louisiana State University’s J.V. Remsen, an expert on Neotropical birds who was not involved in the research. “Hopefully, this pioneering study will catalyze a wave of similar studies around the globe as a way to approach the always-thorny problem of species limits in these birds.”

Using song playback experiments to measure species recognition between geographically isolated populations: A comparison with acoustic trait analyses is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-63.1.

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, 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.


Will Mallards Hybridize Their Cousins out of Existence?

Wed, 09/06/2017 - 09:49

Mallards may threaten their relatives’ genetic distinctiveness through hybridization. Photo credit: Gary Kramer, USFWS (public domain)

Mallards—the familiar green-headed ducks of city parks—are one of a group of closely related waterfowl species, many of which are far less common. Interbreeding with Mallards can threaten the genetic distinctiveness of those other species and cause concern for their conservation. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications investigates hybridization between Mallards and Mottled Ducks, a species specially adapted for life in Gulf Coast marshes, and finds that while hybridization rates are currently low, human activity could cause them to rise in the future.

In Florida, hybridization between domesticated Mallards and Mottled Ducks is a cause for concern, but the degree of hybridization in the western Gulf Coast region is less well known. Louisiana State University’s Robert Ford and his colleagues took blood samples from Mottled Ducks captured on the coast of Louisiana in 2011–2014, supplementing them with samples from Mottled Ducks and Mallards from Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi. Analyzing the birds’ DNA, they found that the hybridization rate in the western Gulf Coast region is currently only 5–8%, a level lower than what’s been documented in Florida. However, that doesn’t mean the western Gulf population is completely in the clear.

Currently, the two species have little opportunity to interact in the region during the breeding season; Mottled Ducks nest in coastal marshes, while most Mallards are migratory and breed outside the region. However, the ongoing loss of marsh habitat could cause Mottled Ducks to move into urban and suburban areas, where they will be more likely to encounter resident Mallards. To prevent future problems, Ford and his colleagues recommend ongoing monitoring of hybridization in the region and better protection of coastal marsh habitat.

“The biggest challenge in collecting samples was finding molting Mottled Ducks, which we collected during bird banding operations in the summer. Identifying birds as either Mottled Ducks or Mallards in the summer can be difficult, but most of our banders had years of experience and we did not have many problems,” says Ford. “In the future, I would like to see improvements in the methods to identify hybrids, such as more precise techniques that could identify gene combinations unique to hybrids.”

“Hybridization between Mottled Ducks and Mallards is a significant conservation concern in the southern U.S.,” according to waterfowl expert and Auburn University emeritus professor Gary Hepp, who was not involved in the study. “Ford et al. recommend programs to monitor future changes in hybridization, and a proactive management approach similar to Florida’s that controls the number of non-migratory Mallards while prohibiting future releases of game farm Mallards may also be prudent.”

Hybridization between Mottled Ducks (Anas fulvigula maculosa) and Mallards (A. platyrhynchos) in the western Gulf Coast region is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-17-18.1.

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.


Some Birds Better Than Others at Adjusting to Habitat Degradation

Wed, 08/30/2017 - 09:44

Rufous-collared Sparrows are among the birds able to switch their diet between seed types as habitats change. Photo credit: M.C. Sagario

Before habitat degradation from impacts like grazing begins to cause population declines, the first response by wildlife usually comes in the form of behavioral changes—for example, switching their diets in response to changes in food availability. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications looks at the diets of seed-eating birds in a South American desert and finds that while some can switch between seed types when grazing alters local plant communities, others continue to stick to old favorites, limiting their options.

Luis Marone of the Argentine Arid Zones Research Institute (IADIZA-CONICET) and his colleagues collected soil samples at grazed and ungrazed sites in Argentina’s Monte Desert to assess the composition of the seed bank in each area, finding fewer of the large grass seeds that birds prefer in the grazed areas. Flushing the digestive tracts of captured birds revealed that two seed generalists, Common Diuca-Finch and Rufous-collared Sparrow, adjusted their diet accordingly and ate more forb seeds at grazed sites, while grass seed specialists Many-colored Chaco Finch and Ringed Warbling-Finch did not.

Studies like this one could enable us to predict which species will be most vulnerable to population declines due to habitat changes, as the inflexible specialist species are more likely to suffer when they can’t find enough of their preferred food. “Given that cattle breeders usually sow grass species as fodder, our results should be used for managing cattle stocks with bird conservation in mind by selecting the fodder species that are most consumed by the most specialized seed-eating birds,” says Marone. “This kind of management could help prevent reductions of bird abundance in grazed areas.”

“Although birds in this study were shown to compensate by switching to other seed types, the findings suggest that the capacity of grazed lands to support similar numbers of birds as ungrazed lands may be compromised,” according to the Vermont Center for Ecostudies’ Rosalind Renfrew, an expert on grassland bird conservation who was not involved in the study. “Grazed lands play a major, essential role in grassland bird conservation in South America, and this important research reveals that specialized birds may be limited by habitat quality. The findings underscore the need for a diverse approach to grassland bird conservation in Argentina that considers quality as well as area.”

Diet switching of seed-eating birds wintering in grazed habitats of the central Monte Desert, Argentina is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-17-61.1.

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: Not Too Many Sperm, Not Too Few

Wed, 08/16/2017 - 10:03

Male Zebra Finch and Long-tailed Finch. Photo credit: L. Hurley

 

Laura Hurley

Linked paper: Variation in the number of sperm trapped on the perivitelline layer of the egg in three species of estrildid finch by L.L. Hurley, K.V. Fanson, and S.C. Griffith, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 119:4, October 2017.

When you crack open your morning egg, you see the familiar yolk with its little white circle staring at you. That little white circle, the germinal disk, is the target sperm are aiming for to fertilize the big yolky ovum, but in birds one sperm is not enough to turn the egg into a chick. Multiple sperm must fuse with the ovum for this to happen, so lots of sperm are present at fertilization, and those that don’t fuse can become trapped between the two delicate layers that surround the yolk.

Hope I didn’t ruin breakfast for you. However, too many sperm reaching the egg can cause the development of the chick to fail, so there’s a bit of a Goldilocks situation—just the just right number of sperm are needed. The size of bird eggs vary widely—from hummingbirds to emus—and so does the number of sperm that reach their ovum. In general, the number of sperm varies with body size, but there is a lot of unexplained variation between species of similar size, within species, and even within a clutch of eggs. In our current paper, we explore variation in three similarly sized birds from a family of Australian finches to help us better hypothesize about what could be influencing sperm numbers.

This is part of a larger body of avian ecology work looking at how genetic, social, and environmental factors influence and regulate reproduction, development, and population dynamics (https://griffithecology.com). This work involves a number of Australian species in both wild and captive settings, including Gouldian Finch, Zebra Finch, Long-tailed Finch, and Chestnut-crowned Babbler, as well as the invasive House Sparrow. We also use historical records to build models to help us understand the life history of birds across the whole of Australia—for example, opportunistic breeding (https://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-16-243.1) and nest structure (https://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2016.2708).


Prairie-Chicken Nests Appear Unaffected by Wind Energy Facility

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 14:22

Prairie chickens nests appear unaffected by the proximity of a small wind energy facility. Photo credit: L. Powell

Wind energy development in the Great Plains is increasing, spurring concern about its potential effects on grassland birds, the most rapidly declining avian group in North America. However, a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications suggests that for one grassland bird species of concern—the Greater Prairie-Chicken—wind energy infrastructure has little to no effect on nesting. Instead, roads and livestock grazing remain the most significant threats to its successful reproduction.

Prairie-chickens are thought to avoid tall structures such as wind turbines because they provide a perch from which raptors can hunt. To learn more, the University of Nebraska–Lincoln’s Jocelyn Olney Harrison and her colleagues gathered data on the effects of an existing small wind energy facility (36 turbines) in Nebraska. They captured 78 female prairie-chickens at breeding sites, or leks, ranging from less than a kilometer from the wind energy facility to more than twenty kilometers away, and fitted the birds with transmitters to track them to their nests. Monitoring their nesting success and collecting data on the habitat characteristics of each nest site, they found little evidence that the wind energy facility affected nest site selection or a nest’s chances of survival. Instead, vegetation characteristics, driven by land use practices such as grazing, had the greatest influence on prairie-chicken nests. Birds also avoided nesting near roads.

“When comparing previous studies to our own, it appears that the effects of wind energy facilities on prairie grouse are often site- and species-specific,” says Harrison. “Therefore, it’s important to consider the results of our study in the context of the size and location of the wind energy facility, as well as the prairie grouse species investigated. We suggest that livestock grazing and other grassland management practices still have the most important regional effects on Greater Prairie-Chickens, but we caution future planners to account for potential negative effects of roads on nest site placement.”

Private landowners were key to completing the study, Harrison adds. “Our radio- and satellite-tagged Greater Prairie-Chickens made larger than expected movements while we were tracking them, which led us to require permission from new land owners on almost a weekly basis during our field seasons. Landowners throughout our field study area were always extremely welcoming and helpful, and genuinely interested in our work. Our project was a success due to more than 50 landowners who granted us access to their private lands.”

Nest site selection and nest survival of Greater Prairie-Chickens near a wind energy facility is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-51.1.

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: Tracking the Preen Gland Over Time

Wed, 08/09/2017 - 10:19

Researchers tracked changes in Zebra Finches’ preen glands during breeding to glean new insights about the gland’s function.

 

Sarah Golüke

Linked paper: Sex-specific differences in preen gland size of Zebra Finches during the course of breeding by S. Golüke and B.A. Caspers, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 119:4, October 2017.

Almost all birds possess a preen gland that produces a waxy secretion used by birds for feather maintenance. Several studies have found that the preen gland is enlarged during breeding, but it is currently not clear why.

We investigated the temporal pattern of gland size changes during breeding in a captive population of domesticated zebra finches. Zebra finches are small passerines, only weighing 13 grams on average, and the gland is therefore quite small. Additionally, the gland itself is really flexible, and measuring the gland manually with a caliper is therefore quite challenging and error-prone. So, how to measure precisely this flexible, heart-shaped gland in such small birds?

We took pictures of preen glands and calculated the gland surface area using digital picture analysis. This method worked out well, and we started to investigate gland size changes over the breeding period. We measured preen gland sizes of breeding pairs at key points that are relevant during the reproductive period, such as pre-mating, egg laying, hatching, rearing and independence of the chicks.

We found that gland sized increased in both parents—that is, they produced more secretion—during breeding. The maximum size of the gland was reached around the time the chicks hatch. We assume that the need for secretions is highest at this point. After breeding, the gland size was similar to what it was before the reproductive season, indicating that the size increase is due to breeding. Similarly, at the same time, non-reproducing birds showed no size increase.

More specifically, our results show that the temporal pattern of gland size increase differs for males and females, with males already enlarging the gland around the time of egg-laying, while females start increasing the gland size later.

Knowing the temporal pattern of preen gland size enlargement of males and females allows us to think about different factors that might explain the enlargement pattern we observed. First, an investment in gland secretions might reduce the odor of the birds inside the nest, which is advantageous against olfactory-hunting predators. Second, in a breeding-related context, the ingredients of preen gland secretions might be necessary for self-protection and/or to protect offspring against harmful microbes. The nest is an ideal environment for microbial growth, which could reduce plumage condition and health and could further impact egg viability and hatching success. There is evidence that transferring gland secretions to the plumage and onto eggs or offspring might reduce harmful microbes. Third, there might be a different need for chemical communication during breeding. As the gland secretions are spread on the plumage during preening, they might be an essential contribution to a bird’s body odor. In our group, we are especially interested in the role of odors for social communication.


Fifty Years On, the Breeding Bird Survey Continues to Produce New Insights

Wed, 07/26/2017 - 09:39

Special Collection of Research Papers Highlights Latest Findings

Prothonotary Warblers (Protonotaria citrea) inspect a possible nest site at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center, Laurel, Maryland. Prothonotary Warblers are one of more than 500 species monitored by the North American Breeding Bird Survey. Photo credit: W.A. Link

In 1966, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist named Chan Robbins launched an international program designed to measure changes in bird populations using volunteers recruited to count birds on pre-set routes along country roads. The result, the North American Breeding Bird Survey or BBS, is still going strong more than five decades later. This month The Condor: Ornithological Applications is publishing a special set of research papers to honor the program’s fiftieth anniversary.

Unassuming but visionary, Robbins had studied DDT’s effects on birds—his reports were edited by Rachel Carson—and he wanted to devise a way of monitoring the health of the continent’s bird populations on a large scale. The simple field protocols he developed, able to be carried out by volunteer birdwatchers, have remained largely the same since the program’s inception. Today, there are more than 4100 survey routes spanning North America from Alaska to Newfoundland, Florida, and northern Mexico.

The BBS provides long-term data for 424 species, with more limited data for an additional 122. Since data collection began in the 1960s, significantly more species have been declining than increasing. Looking at patterns of change in groups of birds sharing common attributes can be especially useful; for example, only 8 of 24 grassland bird species have seen increases. However, in the short term the picture is slightly rosier—since the survey area was expanded in 1993, 56% of the species surveyed have showed positive trends. Today, modern statistical techniques are letting ornithologists glean more insight from BBS data than ever before.

“The BBS is the only source of long-term, multi-scale population change information for more than 500 species of North American birds,” according to the USGS’s John Sauer, who has worked with the BBS since 1986 and was one of the co-editors for the special section along with Keith Pardieck and Colleen Handel, also with the USGS. “BBS results have allowed conservationists to identify bird species and regions undergoing population declines, alerting the public and scientists to population changes and facilitating the development of initiatives to better understand declines.”

The papers that make up the special section in The Condor include:

  • Prioritizing areas for conservation by combining six years of BBS data with remotely sensed environmental data to model the predicted distribution of seven grassland bird species in the Northern Great Plains based on their habitat needs.
  • Statistical approaches for model selection in BBS analyses.
  • Combining BBS with off-road surveys to estimate population changes for birds that breed in Alaska, where habitats are being rapidly altered due to climate change.
  • Using long-term BBS data to rank the vulnerability of more than 460 landbird species, set population objectives, and track progress toward meeting conservation goals.
  • Analyzing how well road-based BBS routes represent larger landscapes, using data from 2011 National Land Cover Database, with the conclusion that any land-cover–based roadside bias in BBS data is likely minimal.
  • Combining BBS data with separate demographic data to estimate the size of the Atlantic Flyway’s Wood Duck population.
  • Plus, a review of how the BBS has informed North American bird conservation since its inception.

The papers grew out of a research symposium held at last summer’s North American Ornithological Conference in Washington, DC, to commemorate 50 years of the BBS. “The BBS provides a fundamental tool for understanding breeding bird distribution and abundance. We’re pleased to publish these papers that celebrate Chan Robbins’s vision and the hard work of thousands of volunteers through the latest results and analyses,” said Philip Stouffer, Editor-in-Chief of The Condor: Ornithological Applications.

The special section on the Breeding Bird Survey is available at http://www.bioone.org/toc/cond/119/3.

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.


Nesting in Cavities Protects Birds from Predators—to a Point

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 12:00

A Marsh Tit brings nesting material to a cavity. Photo credit: M. Arndt

Nesting in cavities provides birds with some protection from predators—but it isn’t foolproof. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances explores how Poland’s cavity-nesting Marsh Tits deal with predator attacks and finds that while tactics such as small entrances and solid walls do help, adaptations like this can only take the birds so far.

Wrocław University’s Tomasz Wesołowski has spent nearly thirty years monitoring Marsh Tit nest cavities in Poland’s Białowieża Forest, comparing nests that are destroyed with nests that are attacked but survive. He has found that a nest’s chance of survival depends on the predator’s technique—broods are least likely to survive (10%) when the predator manages to get into the cavity through the existing entrance, more likely (29%) when the predator uses its paws or beak to pluck out the nest contents, and most likely to survive (39%) when the predator tries to enlarge the opening or make a new one. Tits’ antipredator tactics vary in their effectiveness depending on the predator; attacks by Great Spotted Woodpeckers were successful only 60% of the time, while forest dormice were 100% successful.

The results show that despite the constant pressure of natural selection, Marsh Tits can only improve their antipredator tactics so much—there are limits to adaptation. Small, narrow entrances don’t work against small predators and are only effective when combined with cavity walls made of solid (not decomposing) wood; nests that were deep in a cavity, out of reach of the entrance, are safest, but birds seldom place their nests that way, suggesting that cavities that are too deep may cause other problems for Marsh Tit parents.

The Białowieża Forest, one of the last remaining tracts of old-growth forest in Europe, is an ideal place to study cavity-nesting birds, full of cavities of every size and shape for Marsh Tits to choose from. However, the fieldwork was not without its difficulties. “The Białowieża Forest still contains fragments of primeval origin,” says Wesołowski. “The work is challenging, as the old-growth stands are very tall. Marsh Tits breed at very low densities, and on average one has to search five to seven hectares of this forest to find a single breeding cavity. It requires much patience and determination.”

“To understand the evolution of nesting behaviors, many ornithologists attempt to quantify the trade-offs that birds face in warding off nest predators. Usually we do this by comparing nests that fail versus nests that succeed, but that approach is limited because we can’t tease apart the multiple factors, including chance, that contributed to making a nest successful,” according to Kristina Cockle of the National Scientific and Technical Research Council of Argentina (CONICET), an ornithologist not involved with the study who has worked extensively on nest cavities. “The new study by Wesołowski compares, instead, nests that were depredated to nests that were attacked but survived. With this approach, the author was able to identify the physical attributes of tree cavities that foiled a suite of nest attackers from woodpeckers to dormice.”

Failed predator attacks: A study of tree cavities used by nesting Marsh Tits (Poecile palustris) for security is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-51.1.

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.


Seaside Sparrows Caught Between Predators and Rising Seas

Thu, 07/13/2017 - 12:00

Fledgling Seaside Sparrows. Photo credit: E. Hunter

Sea-level rise may be a big problem for salt marsh birds, but so is predation, and birds sometimes find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place: They can place their nests lower in the vegetation to avoid predators, putting them at greater risk of flooding, or move them up to keep them dry but risk getting eaten. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications finds that greater pressure from predators increases the risk of flooding for Seaside Sparrow nests—but the upside is that protecting them from predators could also mitigate the worst effects of climate change.

The University of Georgia’s Elizabeth Hunter (now at the University of Nevada–Reno) created a mathematical model to simulate Seaside Sparrow’s nesting behavior and success rates, based on nesting data collected on the coast of Georgia.  Her model shows that predation risk has had a much greater effect than flooding risk on nest survival rates. While flooding risk had essentially no effect on predation rates over this time period, predation risk did affect flooding rates—that is, because birds moved their nests down to avoid predators, they increased their risk of flooding. Under future sea level rise scenarios, flooding risk increases, but predation risk is still almost seven times as important for determining nest survival rates.

“Nest predation rates are so high right now that even under extreme sea level rise conditions, more nests are likely to be eaten than flooded,” says Hunter. “However, predation and flooding threats act synergistically, meaning that any estimates of the negative effects of sea level rise on the nesting success of Seaside Sparrow or other species are likely underestimates if they do not also consider the negative effects of predation on flooding risk. The flip side of this is that management actions to reduce nest predation could also reduce the risk of nest failures from flooding.” If measures such as fencing nest sites to exclude predators are taken, birds may place their nests higher in the salt-marsh vegetation, avoiding flooding from extreme high tides.

“Elizabeth Hunter’s research highlights both the risks that sea-level rise poses for coastal wildlife and the complexity of understanding those risks in light of other threats to their survival,” according Chris Elphick of the University of Connecticut, an expert on tidal marsh birds who was not involved with the study. “The study nicely illustrates the importance of understanding the behavior of individual birds when trying to devise strategies to mitigate threats such as predation and tidal flooding. Regardless of the threat, it is increasingly clear that tidal marsh birds and their habitats are in trouble, and that we need to explore a range of potential solutions to find ways to help them persist in light of the many ways that humans are changing coastal habitats.”

How will sea-level rise affect threats to nesting success for Seaside Sparrows? is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/abs/10.1650/CONDOR-17-11.1.

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.


Ornithology & Social Media – A Perfect Partnership

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 09:44

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!


Birds’ Feathers Reveal Their Winter Diet

Wed, 06/21/2017 - 10:45

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.


2016 Journal Impact Factors Released

Tue, 06/20/2017 - 16:19

The 2016 impact factors for peer-reviewed journals were released last week, and both journals published by the American Ornithological Society saw a boost in their numbers—The Condor is up to 2.654 from 1.427 and is now #1 of the 24 ornithology journals ranked, and The Auk is up to 2.096 from 1.871 (ranking #4). This means that the American Ornithological Society now publishes half of the top four ornithology journals in the world.

Impact factors are calculated based on the number of citations received in a year by articles published in a journal during the two preceding years and are considered to be an important measure of a journal’s prominence in its field. The AOS publications team wants to thank all of our Associate Editors, authors, and reviewers, as well as everyone who reads and cites The Auk and The Condor!


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

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 12:56

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

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 16:53

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.


Which Extinct Ducks Could Fly?

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 16:47

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.


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