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The official blog of ornithology journals The Auk and The Condor
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Fracking Tied to Reduced Songbird Nesting Success

Wed, 02/14/2018 - 09:29

A researcher handles a Louisiana Waterthrush chick. Photo credit: M. Frantz

The central Appalachian region is experiencing the country’s most rapid growth in shale gas development, or “fracking,” but we’ve known almost nothing about how this is affecting the region’s songbird populations—until now. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications demonstrates that the nesting success of the Louisiana Waterthrush—a habitat specialist that nests along forested streams, where the potential for habitat degradation is high—is declining at sites impacted by shale gas development in northwestern West Virginia.

West Virginia University’s Mack Frantz and his colleagues mapped waterthrush territories and monitored nests along 14 streams from 2009 to 2011 and again from 2013 to 2015. They also mapped and measured disturbances to streams and to the forest canopy, using aerial photographs and satellite imagery as well as extensive ground-truthing, and classifying them according to whether they were related to shale gas development. Their results show that as shale gas development has expanded in the area, nest survival and productivity and riparian habitat quality have declined. At the same time, the size of individual waterthrush territories has increased, suggesting birds need to range farther to find sufficient resources. This study is one of the first to demonstrate that shale gas development can affect songbird reproductive success and productivity, both directly through the presence of fracking infrastructure and indirectly through effects on habitat quality.

“I hope our findings lead to robust protections of our forested headwater stream ecosystems, which are currently overlooked for regulation despite their critical role in providing nutrients and organic matter downstream, not to mention as an important source for drinking water,” says Frantz. “Waterthrushes are a modern-day ‘canary in the coal mine,’ and there are many more opportunities to study how anthropogenic disturbance affects and entangles food webs at the aquatic–terrestrial interface.”

“After twelve years of research conducted with this species, I have seen the numerous impacts hydraulic fracturing has had on waterthrush survival and the toll that the industry has had on our nation’s wild places and wildlife,” adds Louisiana State University-Alexandria’s Leesia Marshall, a waterthrush expert who was not involved in the Condor study. “This paper should serve as a call for all scientists to redouble efforts across all related disciplines to document the present impacts of shale gas extraction and to develop strategies for mitigation and avoidance of potential impacts in the future.”

Demographic response of Louisiana Waterthrush, a stream obligate songbird of conservation concern, to shale gas development is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-130.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

AUTHOR BLOG: Finding the Perfect Spot: Nest-Site Choice and Predator Avoidance in Asian Houbara

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 15:27

João L. Guilherme

Linked paper: Consistent nest-site selection across habitats increases fitness in Asian Houbara by J.L. Guilherme, R.J. Burnside, N.J. Collar, and P.M. Dolman, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:2, April 2018.

A female Asian Houbara runs away from the nest area.

For birds that nest on the ground, discretion is everything. As they are especially at risk from predators, choosing where to nest may carry life or death consequences for themselves, their eggs, and their progeny.

We study the ecology of the Asian Houbara (Chlamydotis macqueenii) in the semi-deserts of southern Uzbekistan, as part of a long-term effort to gain insight into the dynamics of this wild population. The landscape has extensive low-density shrub coverage and tends to all look the same on first glance, but a closer look reveals subtly distinct habitats with shrub communities that differ in not just species composition, but also in the size and number of shrubs. The Asian Houbara is a highly cryptic ground-nesting bird inextricably associated with these habitats, breeding throughout. For 23 long days, females have the sole responsibility of laying, incubating, and protecting the eggs, and themselves, from the freezing cold and the strong sun, and from the desert predators such as foxes and monitor lizards.

This behavior of nesting in structurally different habitats made us question if females were choosing similar vegetation structure for nest sites and whether these choices had an impact on their nest success.

A rare glimpse at a female Asian Houbara on her nest.

By following houbara tracks, we succeeded at finding 210 nests. Then we took it upon ourselves to identify and measure the height of the shrubs around all nests and at 194 random locations. Obviously, this was done after the nest was finished and the female and chicks had left the area. In the end, we identified 30 species and measured a total 35,853 shrubs! After running some statistical analysis we found that females were indeed choosing the same nest site features consistently across three structurally different habitats. Their selection was so fine-tuned that the optimal shrub height of about 30 centimeters had the greatest probability of being selected in all habitats. Furthermore, the scrape was consistently in the middle of shrubs that offered some degree of concealment, but enough visibility for the female to anticipate approaching predators.

So, females were choosing similar nest site across habitats, but we wondered if these features were helping them avoid nest predation.

To investigate this, we monitored the nests, placing temperature loggers inside the nest scrape and setting video cameras to collect information through the entire incubation so that we could classify if a nest was successful or if it had failed and, in that case, why (see video here). We found that nests in higher vegetation had a lower probability of being predated, with the likelihood being that the higher vegetation offered more concealment from predators. However, females would not nest in even higher vegetation, as this would eliminate their ability to see around and anticipate approaching predators. In fact, from more than 200 monitored nests, there was not a single time when a female was predated, which normally occurs in other ground nesting birds—females seem to value the old adage “run and hide, live to fight another day.” Nest camera footage showed us that females were eternally vigilant, with their heads extended so they could see just above the vegetation and surreptitiously leave the nest before a predator arrived. In this way, we found the connection between the choice of nest site and the chance of losing the nest to predation.

In a landscape where everything looks the same, there were in reality different habitats where nesting Asian Houbara had to find the “perfect spot” that maximized the chances of hatching while reducing the danger of being depredated. For a species of conservation concern, it is very important to maintain good productivity and minimize changes in vegetation structure away from the optimal choices, as these may lead to abandonment of previously suitable nesting areas, lower nest survival, or increased predation risk for the incubating female.

Warming Temperatures May Cause Birds to Shrink

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:18

The size of adult House Sparrows is predicted by maximum temperatures during development. Photo credit: P. Deviche

Biologists have known for a long time that animals living in colder climates tend to have larger bodies, supposedly as an adaptation to reduce heat loss. However, understanding how temperature affects animals has gained new importance thanks to climate change. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances uses European House Sparrows, which have spread into a variety of climates in Australia and New Zealand since their introduction in the mid-19th century, to show that this trend in birds might actually be due to the effects of high temperatures during development—raising new alarms about how populations might be affected by global warming.

Macquarie University’s Samuel Andrew and his colleagues captured and measured approximately 40 adult House Sparrows at each of 30 locations across Australia and New Zealand. They found that maximum temperatures during the summer, when the birds breed, were a better predictor of adult body size at each location than winter minimum temperatures. This adds support to the idea that excessive heat during development may affect birds’ growth throughout their lives, raising concerns that increasing summer temperatures due to climate change could drive down the average adult body size, with potential effects on the birds’ fitness.

“If variation in body size is linked directly or indirectly to adapting to different climates, then body size could be useful for monitoring the extent to which bird populations are capable of adapting rapidly to changing climates,” says Andrew. “Our work on this common species helps us to understand the adaptive responses of birds to a changing climate and their constraints, and this fundamental knowledge will help future workers and managers focus their work on other species and potentially identify those species most at risk from climate change.”

“This paper is an important addition to a growing body of work that is changing our understanding of the relationships between climate and body size. The big question generated by these results is the extent to which the observed relationship is the outcome of adaptive evolutionary differences among sites as opposed to direct developmental responses to different temperatures. Interestingly, some of these same authors just published experimental evidence for a direct effect of temperature on growth in another bird species,” adds Whitman College’s Tim Parker, an expert who was not involved with the research. “This is not a new idea, but it has been largely ignored by those who have assumed that most morphological variation in birds is due to evolved adaptive variation. We need more work on the direct effects of temperature variation on development in endotherms.”

Clinal variation in avian body size is better explained by summer maximum temperatures during development than by cold winter temperatures is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-129.1.

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.

Endangered Woodpeckers Persist, but Still Struggle, on Private Land

Wed, 01/24/2018 - 12:15

Red-cockaded Woodpeckers nesting on private land continue to face challenges. Photo credit: B. Beck

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service started the Safe Harbor program in North Carolina in 1995 to reduce conflict between landowners and conservation officials and to encourage private landowners to take steps to benefit endangered Red-cockaded Woodpeckers on their land. The program has successfully reduced conflict over conservation and reduced the abandonment of nest clusters, but a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications shows that while the program may have raised landowners’ awareness of and tolerance for their feathered neighbors, it has largely failed to improve breeding success of birds on private lands.

Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University’s Jennifer Smith and her colleagues compared Red-cockaded Woodpeckers’ breeding success on Safe Harbor properties before and after enrollment with that on control properties, monitoring a total of 55 breeding clusters in the North Carolina Sandhills between 1980 and 2014. Nest cluster abandonment increased on control properties while remaining constant and negligible on Safe Harbor properties, but other measures of breeding success such as clutch size, nest failure rates, and fledging success were unaffected by Safe Harbor habitat management efforts. These results suggest that the Safe Harbor program often failed to maintain or increase high-quality foraging habitat for the birds.

Regular fires are essential for maintaining high-quality Red-cockaded Woodpecker habitat, and prescribed burns are not feasible on a large proportion of Safe Harbor properties in the Sandhills due to their proximity to residential areas. In addition, the researchers believe that inadequate funding may have limited the Safe Harbor program’s impact. However, they believe the program and the monitoring efforts that have accompanied it still have value. “The longevity of the research project combined with the initiation of Safe Harbor has had marked benefits because it has allowed us to build relationships with private landowners,” says Kerry Brust, co-author of the paper. “Exchanges with private landowners have presented an ideal opportunity to draw attention to the listed species and the management needed for the persistence of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers.”

“This study identifies the great value that Safe Harbor has brought to Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation but also highlights important and daunting limitations of the program,” according to U.S. Forest Service biologist John Kilgo, who works on Red-cockaded Woodpecker conservation and was not involved in the study. “As these are primarily related to funding constraints and less stringent habitat management requirements under the program, new and creative approaches will be required if the effectiveness of Safe Harbor is to be improved.”

How effective is the Safe Harbor program for the conservation of Red-cockaded Woodpeckers? is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-113.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

AUTHOR BLOG: Tracking the Japanese Bush-Warbler Invasion of Hawaii

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 15:15

Jeff Foster

Linked paper: Population genetics of an island invasion by Japanese Bush-Warblers in Hawaii, USA by J.T. Foster, F.M. Walker, B.D. Rannals, and D.E. Sanchez, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:2, April 2018.

A Japanese Bush-Warbler in Hawaii. Photo credit: J. Denny

Over the past several centuries, Hawaii’s native bird populations have been decimated due to an array of factors, including introduced diseases (avian malaria and pox), introduced rats, habitat change, and hunting. As a result, most live near the tops of the mountains and have small populations. Few birds and remote locations make studying many of these native populations incredibly challenging.

In contrast, Hawaii is also home to many introduced birds that can be seen everywhere, from Brazilian Cardinals and Common Mynas on the beaches to Japanese White-eyes and various game birds at the mountaintops. Various organizations in Hawaii introduced these birds from elsewhere in the world to have birdsong fill the air again and occasionally to serve as pest control for crops. Over 170 species have been brought to Hawaii and released into the wild. Of these releases, at least 54 species now have breeding populations, and most seem destined to stay for the long haul. Many species, such as the Japanese White-eye, Northern Cardinal, Zebra Dove, and Common Myna, have robust populations and can be found in a variety of habitats.

One introduced species, the Japanese Bush-Warbler, is perhaps the coolest of them all. However, despite its prominent place as the iconic harbinger of spring in Japan, few people in Hawaii think much of this species—perhaps because it is often heard but rarely seen, or perhaps because when one does finally spy a bush-warbler, it is a drab olive-brown with few prominent markings. Whatever the reason for overlooking it, bush-warblers have successfully colonized most brushy habitats on all of the main Hawaiian Islands. They were released on the island of Oahu in the 1920s, and after decades of population growth on Oahu, they naturally spread to the remaining main Hawaiian Islands by 1997.

Birds on islands have provided some of the best historical examples of the evolutionary process—think Charles Darwin in the Galapagos and Alfred Russel Wallace in the Malay Archipelago. Capturing cases of evolution “in action” is difficult. However, introductions of non-native birds into the Hawaiian Islands provide numerous opportunities for research, particularly in assessing potential evolutionary changes over a relatively short time frame. In this study, we were afforded a unique opportunity to look at the evolution of the Japanese Bush-Warbler within the past several decades by combining population genetic analyses of this species with a detailed invasion timeline on each island. As a result, we were able to see how rapidly genetic changes can occur during an invasion. We found both expected patterns, such as a decline in genetic diversity on the most recently invaded island, and an unexpected pattern, potential assortative mating on each island. These findings suggesting substantial room for future work in a system and setting that is pretty hard to match.

Genetic Drift Caught in Action in Invasive Birds

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 14:41

Japanese Bush-Warblers have experienced genetic drift as they’ve invaded the Hawaiian islands. Photo credit: S. Price

Studies of island bird populations have taught us a lot about evolution, but it’s hard to catch birds in the act of naturally colonizing new islands. Instead, a new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances examines what’s happened by looking at the genetics of a species that arrived in Hawaii in the twentieth century through decidedly unnatural means—us.

Japanese Bush-Warblers were introduced to Oahu in 1929 and have since become established on all the main islands of Hawaii, providing a unique opportunity to follow post-invasion evolution on a known, recent timescale. Northern Arizona University’s Jeffrey Foster and his colleagues took blood and muscle samples from 147 bush-warblers living on five islands between 2003 and 2005. Their results indicate genetic drift is occurring—Oahu’s birds have higher genetic diversity than those on other islands, whose populations were founded by smaller groups of individuals, just as population genetic theory predicts. Kauai bush-warblers, however, appear to be on a distinct genetic trajectory from those on other islands. Kauai is three times as far from Oahu as the closest other islands, and appears to have received a unique subset of the overall genetic diversity found elsewhere, but it remains to be seen whether the trend on Kauai will continue in the future or if continued dispersal of birds among islands will blur these differences. “This study nicely showed genetic divergence for a very short period using the artificially introduced Japanese Bush-Warblers,” according to Shoji Hamao of Japan’s National Museum of Nature and Science, an expert on the species.

“I got the idea for bush-warblers as a study system due to the challenges associated with my previous work on native Hawaiian birds,” says Foster. “Most of the native bird species I had worked on were exceedingly rare—several of them were endangered species, in fact—so focusing a new project on species in decline or with low numbers was a risky proposition. However, many of the introduced birds are quite common and one species, the Japanese Bush-Warbler, caught my attention with its loud song.

“Bush-Warblers first arrived on the Big Island when I was living there in the 1990s. The idea that one could study this invasion in progress totally blew my mind. The genetic findings largely followed expectations, such as seeing the most genetic diversity on the island where the birds were introduced and less elsewhere. Birds on Kauai, the island just west of Oahu, appear to be more distinct than those birds on islands east of Oahu, suggesting that over time birds on the respective islands may continue to diverge genetically.” But, Foster adds, many questions remain to be answered. “How much are the birds still flying between islands and potentially mixing any genetic signals of differentiation? Why did it take 50 years for the bush-warblers to colonize other islands after Oahu? How have their vocalizations changed after colonization due to new environments or random chance? We still don’t know.”

Population genetics of an island invasion by Japanese Bush-Warblers in Hawaii, USA is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-120.1.

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.

Timing of Spring Birdsong Provides Climate Insights

Wed, 01/17/2018 - 14:25

Hermit Warblers are among the species monitored for a new study of the timing of spring birdsong. Photo credit: M. McGrann

Climate change has scientists worried that birds’ annual migration and reproduction will be thrown out of sync with the seasons. Because birds’ songs are correlated with their breeding behavior and are easily identifiable to species, monitoring birdsong can be a good way to keep tabs on this possibility, and a new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes advantage of this approach to provide new baseline data for the birds of northern California.

The California Department of Fish and Wildlife Brett Furnas and William Jessup University’s Michael McGrann analyzed data from two bird survey programs from California’s Klamath Mountains and Southern Cascades, both of which used automated recorders to monitor bird sounds between 2009 and 2011. In addition to providing the first comprehensive assessment of songbird occupancy over a 40,000 square kilometer region of northern California, they were able to identify the precise dates of peak vocal activity for eight songbird species, and their work shows that this will be a feasible method to track advances in the timing of vocal activity over the coming decades. Species characterized by strong single peaks in vocal activity already tended to reach those peaks later than other species, perhaps because birds with tightly constrained timing are less able to adapt to changing climatic conditions.

“Climate change is disrupting songbird populations, distributions, and breeding behaviors in our mountain ecosystems. Mountains are particularly sensitive because temperature and precipitation interact in complex ways on mountains,” says McGrann. “If Neotropical migrants are unable to adjust their breeding behaviors, then there may be a mismatch in the timing of raising their young to the peak availability in food resources, namely insects. Our technique should allow us to track shifts in elevation, changes in the state of the population, and changes in breeding behaviors in response to climate change over the next ten to twenty years.”

“Furnas and McGrann provide a textbook example of how to detect differences in the timing of nesting among bird species using information on the peak date of singing derived from surveys and automated recorders,” according to UC Berkeley’s Steve Beissinger, an expert on avian phenology who was not involved in the study. “Their results support recent findings of a five to twelve day shift forward in the timing of peak singing by California birds in the nearby Sierra Nevada and coastal ranges in response to climate change.”

Using occupancy modeling to monitor dates of peak vocal activity for passerines in California is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-165.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

Engineered Sandbars Don’t Measure Up for Nesting Plovers

Wed, 01/10/2018 - 13:15

Piping Plovers were more successful nesting on natural sandbars than engineered ones. Photo credit: D. Borden

Dams alter rivers in ways that reduce the creation of natural sandbars, which is bad news for threatened Piping Plovers that depend on them for nesting habitat. Between 2004 and 2009, more than 200 hectares of engineered sandbars were built along the Missouri River to address the problem—but how does this engineered habitat compare to the real thing? A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications takes advantage of a natural experiment created by the region’s 2011 floods, demonstrating that the engineered habitat doesn’t provide the benefits of sandbars created by nature.

Kelsi Hunt of the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University and her colleagues collected data downstream of Gavins Point Dam from 2005 to 2014, monitoring more than 1,000 nests and banding almost 3,000 individual birds both before and after massive floods in 2011 created vast new areas of natural sandbar habitat. Nest success, chick survival, and total reproductive output all increased after the flood and remained high as flood-created sandbars began to age, even without the intensive predator management that had been done on the engineered sandbars. In contrast, Piping Plover populations nesting on engineered sandbars grew in the first year after the habitat’s construction, but there wasn’t enough space to go around—high population densities quickly led to high risk from predators and decreased reproductive rates.

“I realized just how interesting of a natural experiment the flood provided us with when my advisor and I boated the entirety of the Gavins Point Reach prior to the 2012 field season,” says Hunt. “The amount of sandbar habitat that the 2011 flood created was incredible to see. Where before there was just river, huge sandbars replaced it. Some of the sandbars it created were larger than city blocks and took hours to survey.” She hopes that managers can learn from this study to create better engineered habitat for sandbar-nesting birds, building more nesting space at one time and constructing new habitat close to existing sandbars so that young birds will have an easy time finding and colonizing it.

“This paper presents a clear contrast in demographic rates of Piping Plovers in naturally created and human-restored habitats that can be used to compare and refine conservation strategies,” adds Anne Hecht, Piping Plover recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “Although it focuses on Missouri River sandbars, it has important implications for conservation of Piping Plover habitat rangewide, as well as for other species experiencing disruption of habitat formation processes.”

Demographic response of Piping Plovers suggests that engineered habitat restoration is no match for natural riverine processes is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-93.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.


AUTHOR BLOG: Call Variation Suggests Roles for Natural History & Ecology in Marsh Bird Vocal Evolution

Wed, 12/27/2017 - 13:43

Sarah Luttrell

Linked paper: Geographic variation in call structure, likelihood, and call-song associations across subspecies boundaries, migratory patterns, and habitat types in the Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) by S.A.M. Luttrell and B. Lohr, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:1, January 2018.

Marsh Wrens’ calls vary across their geographic range. Photo credit: S. Luttrell

Many bird species have unique geographic signatures in their vocalizations similar to human “accents.” Most of what we know about geographic variation in bird sounds comes from studies of bird song. Song has been a rich subject for studying geographic variation because it is typically learned, allowing song to change more quickly across space and time than a purely genetic trait. Song, however, is only one type of signal in a bird’s vocal repertoire. We wanted to build a broader picture of how vocal behavior evolves and changes among populations by looking at a large repertoire of sounds at once. Most birds have multiple call types in addition to their songs. Each call or song type is an individual trait used under unique circumstances, and that means that each one may be under different selective pressures. As a result, looking at multiple vocalizations may reveal multiple patterns of geographic variation, or, if their geographic patterns are similar, it may suggest a general process of vocal evolution. There are many ways in which vocalizations might change over time or distance. For example, changes could be random—as long as the signal still sends the correct message, some aspects of its acoustic structure could drift among populations. Additionally, vocal signals may be under selection to reduce distortion caused by the habitat in which they are produced and heard. Think about how sounds are distorted differently in an open, bare hallway versus a musician’s sound booth and how the local acoustics might alter a listener’s ability to understand you. Furthermore, if some aspect of the sound is learned, then copy errors or innovations during learning can result in passing down cultural changes over time. These are just a few ways in which sounds might be altered, and no two vocalizations are necessarily influenced in the same way by the same set of selective pressures.

In order to compare vocal repertoires among populations, we looked at several subspecies of the Marsh Wren. Marsh Wrens provide a natural experiment in vocal variation due to ecological and natural history differences among the subspecies. The five eastern North America subspecies we focused on are found in two distinct habitats (freshwater marshes and saltmarshes), and they exhibit three migratory patterns (resident, partially migratory, and fully migratory). Our first challenge was to describe and classify the call repertoire for Marsh Wrens. We identified seven discrete call types. Three of the seven calls varied in acoustic properties that were consistent with differences in either migratory pattern or habitat type. Surprisingly, we also found that four calls were more common in some subspecies than others and that the differences were greatest between habitat types. This variation in call production may indicate differences in behavior or timing of breeding among the subspecies with different ecologies. Our results suggest that while not all vocal signals are changing at the same rate or in the same way, differences in habitat type and migratory behavior may be related to the biggest differences in vocal behavior. Interestingly, the calls that showed the greatest differences were calls used in mate attraction and territory defense, while calls related to alarm or distress were similar across subspecies, natural history, and habitat type. This result suggests that sexual selection could be driving or reinforcing changes between populations with different ecologies.

In the future, we are excited to explore another unusual phenomenon that we report in this paper: the use of calls as embedded elements in song. Like most songbirds, Marsh Wren males sing during the breeding season to attract mates and defend territories. Unlike those of most songbirds, we found that, depending on the subspecies, 73-93% of male Marsh Wren songs contained embedded calls. Do embedded calls confer some additional message to the song? Does this behavior vary across the breeding season? Are there specific structural rules regarding the embedded call pattern within song? Stay tuned as we untangle the structural complexity and geographic variation in songs with embedded call elements in Marsh Wrens across the rest of their range. Does your study species use calls in a song-related context? If so, contact us at luttrell.sa@gmail.com—we would be excited hear about it!


Wrens’ Calls Reveal Subtle Differences Between Subspecies

Wed, 12/27/2017 - 13:43

Biologist Sarah Luttrell records the calls of a Marsh Wren. Photo credit: S. Luttrell

Birds’ songs and the ways they vary between places have been well studied–but what can the simpler vocalizations known as calls tell us about bird biology? A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances provides the first detailed description of how Marsh Wren calls vary across eastern North America and hints at the evolutionary processes playing out between wren subspecies.

The University of Maryland Baltimore County’s Sarah Luttrell and Bernard Lohr recorded the calls of five Marsh Wren subspecies at nineteen different sites, encompassing the Gulf Coast, Atlantic Coast, and Great Lakes regions and including migratory, nonmigratory, freshwater marsh, and saltwater marsh populations. Categorizing the recordings into seven different call types, they analyzed how calls differed between subspecies. While some calls were associated with territory patrol, nest building, and courtship, others were used mainly during aggressive encounters with predators or other wrens. Both the acoustic characteristics of some calls and how frequently they were used differed from place to place.

“It was certainly a lot of work to compile data on multiple vocalizations and compare the results, but in the end, it makes for a more nuanced understanding of how various evolutionary processes shape animal behavior as a whole,” says Luttrell. “Twitter” calls differed between migratory and nonmigratory subspecies, for example, while “buzz” and “trill” calls differed between birds that lived in freshwater and saltwater marshes; while differences in habitat can’t directly explain this, all of these call types could be shaped by sexual selection that reinforces the boundaries between subspecies. Atlantic Coast populations produced the “chuck” alarm call more often than others, which suggests they may experience more threats from predators or nest at higher densities that lead to more antagonistic encounters between birds.

Could these differences eventually prompt Marsh Wren populations to diverge into fully separate species? “That’s impossible to say for sure—it all depends on the course that evolution takes!” says Luttrell. “We were excited that the patterns of call variation we observed seemed to coincide with differences ecology and life history, which suggests the possibility that these subspecies are evolving in different directions. In the future, we’re hoping to do some behavioral tests that might help us understand how much the acoustic differences matter to the birds’ behavior in the wild. If we do find that individuals respond less strongly to the vocalizations of another subspecies than to their own, then that would be additional evidence that at least some subspecies are on a trajectory of divergence.”

“This study highlights the diversity of calls that can be found in a single avian repertoire, and nicely illustrates how different elements of those repertoires can evolve independently,” according to the University of Northern Colorado’s Lauryn Benedict, an expert on communication in wrens and other songbirds. “The demonstrated patterns of call use in relation to behavioral context, caller sex, habitat, and migratory behavior raise many future avenues of inquiry. Avian calls are a generally understudied vocalization, and this paper demonstrates how and why we all should pay them more attention.”

Geographic variation in call structure, likelihood, and call-song associations across subspecies boundaries, migratory patterns, and habitat types in the Marsh Wren (Cistothorus palustris) is available at http://americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-110.1.

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: Understanding How Management Affects a Flagship Reed Bed Bird Species

Wed, 12/20/2017 - 10:51

Thomas Oliver Mérő

Linked paper: Reed management influences philopatry to reed habitats in the Great Reed-Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) by T.O. Mérő, A. Žuljević, K. Varga, and S. Lengyel, The Condor: Ornithological Applications 120:1, February 2018.

A color-banded singing Great Reed Warbler male, April 2015.

Wetlands are inhabited by disproportionately large number of plants and animals and yet are among the most endangered habitats worldwide due to human-caused habitat loss and fragmentation. Ecologists and conservation biologists work hard on saving wetlands by using various techniques such as vegetation management (e.g. breaking up homogeneous reed beds), water regulation (e.g. maintaining a flood/drought cycle), or reintroduction of extinct species (e.g. cranes in the U.K.). Several recent studies have shown that the management of wetlands such as reed beds by controlling the water level and removing the vegetation by mowing, burning, or grazing can increase species richness and diversity; however, we know less about whether such management provides better conditions for survival and reproduction of single species whose presence is important to other species.

The Great Reed Warbler (Acrocephalus arundinaceus) is an Old World, long-distance migrant bird that breeds in reed habitats of the Western Palearctic and winters in sub-Saharan Africa. In central Europe, the Great Reed Warbler is a widespread breeder inhabiting almost all types of reed habitats (ponds, marshes, canals etc.). Great Reed Warblers arrive in mid-April from their wintering grounds and stay until the end of breeding season in late July.

We have studied the breeding ecology of Great Reed Warblers in northern Serbia for eight years. The region hosts a nice array of wetland habitat types, ranging from oxbows of the Danube to small and large canals, and from sand and clay mining ponds to marshes in natural depressions. For our work, we distinguished six types of reed habitats based on our own observations and information from local water management companies. The six types, which differ in their shape, size, vegetation cover, and water regime, are mining ponds, marshes, large canals, and three classes of small canals.

These wetlands are managed by reed mowing and burning, which led us to wonder how reed management influences the birds and other wetland animals. Specifically, we were interested in whether and how management influences the survival and reproduction of Great Reed Warblers, a flagship species of lowland wetlands in central Europe. Reed management by burning and mowing offered a good opportunity to study the responses of Great Reed Warblers in each of the reed habitat types. For example, we recognized early on that larger-winged, presumably higher-quality, males tend to occupy reed habitats with little management and deep, stable water, which are typically found along large canals.

We color-banded all individuals (both adults and hatch-year birds) from the beginning of our study and regularly checked all reed beds every year during the nesting season to explore potential differences in survival and reproduction of birds in the six reed habitats. We were also curious to find out how reed management and water availability influence survival and reproduction. We first analyzed data on survival and encounter probability that were collected over seven breeding seasons (2009-2015).

We found that the encounter probability of birds banded as hatch-year birds was higher in reed habitats with shallower water, while that of those banded as adults was higher in reed habitats with deeper water. These opposite relationships between hatch-year birds and adults may indicate that experienced adults occupy qualitatively better habitats, similarly to large-winged males (mentioned above). When data were analyzed separately for the sexes, we found that the encounter probability of males depended on variation in reed management and in water depth. In contrast, for females, encounter probability depended only on water depth, i.e. encounter probability increased with water depth. Furthermore, most of the adults and hatch-year birds returned to the reed habitat that they had been occupying initially, indicating that Great Reed Warblers display unexpectedly high fidelity to the reed habitat type they hatched in or bred in before.

How do these results translate to management recommendations? We all want the best possible management for the birds we admire and study. Evidence found in our study showed that reed management by mowing and/or burning influences return rates of juveniles and adult males and females in different ways. These results suggest that in practice, spatially variable reed management should be applied and water with varying depths should be maintained to maximize the return rates of Great Reed Warblers. This is often easier said than done. However, the multitude of reed habitats in our study and the good working relationships we developed with water management authorities and other stakeholders will allow more detailed, experimental studies of the influence of management and the allocation of optimal combinations of management for the benefit of wetland birds.


AUTHOR BLOG: A New Species of Antbird

Thu, 12/14/2017 - 13:13

Andre Moncrieff

Linked paper: A new species of antbird (Passeriformes: Thamnophilidae) from the Cordillera Azul, San Martín, Peru by A.E. Moncrieff, O. Johnson, D.F. Lane, J.R. Beck, F. Angulo, and J. Fagan, The Auk: Ornithological Advances 135:1, January 2018.

A male Cordillera Azul Antbird. Photo credit: A. Spencer

It was July 10, 2016, when Dan Lane, Fernando Angulo, Jesse Fagan, and I rolled into the coffee-growing town of Flor de Café in north-central Peru. This town lies in the Cordillera Azul—a picturesque series of outlying Andean ridges hardly explored by ornithologists. In fact, the first ornithological inventory in the region was only in 1996, when a team of researchers from the Louisiana State University Museum of Natural Science (LSUMNS) bushwhacked into the extremely remote eastern Cordillera Azul. It was on this expedition that Dan, then a beginning graduate student at LSU, discovered the distinctive Scarlet-banded Barbet (Capito wallacei) on “Peak 1538.” Now, twenty years later, we were back to see this iconic species, which graces the cover of the Birds of Peru field guide.

Flor de Café, in the somewhat more accessible western Cordillera Azul, has become the hub for barbet-chasers since LSUMNS associates Todd Mark and Walter Vargas confirmed its presence here in 2011. Thus, we were not surprised to run into another birdwatcher, Josh Beck, as we moved our gear into the single guest house in town. Within moments of meeting, Josh began telling us of a strange, ground-walking antbird he had encountered the previous day and documented with a sound recording. We quickly realized that his bird was a species new to science.

Fast forward a year and a half. This month, December 2017, The Auk is publishing the formal description of the Cordillera Azul Antbird (Myrmoderus eowilsoni). Based on our initial visit and a follow-up expedition led by LSU graduate student Oscar Johnson, we’ve learned a few things about this new species: its closest relative is the Ferruginous-backed Antbird (of which the nearest populations are about 1,500 km to the east in lowland forests of Brazil), it eats insects, the males and females sing different songs, it lives in pristine understory of humid forest, and its future near Flor de Café is very grim.

Chainsaws were an overwhelming component of the soundscape around town. We even asked some locals to delay cutting activities so that we could get better voice recordings of the antbird. Sun-coffee farming, which necessitates clear-cutting, is the main source of income for the residents of Flor de Café. By contrast, birding ecotourism benefits only a few residents, leading to some unfortunate and ongoing tensions within the town. There is clearly a great need for environmental education and conservation work in the region.

What I haven’t yet mentioned is that Flor de Café is located very near the Cordillera Azul National Park, which was created in 2001 and contains over 13,500 km2 of pristine habitat. We are very optimistic that future exploration within the park will produce new localities for the antbird and barbet, both presently facing severe habitat loss around Flor de Café.

From an ornithological perspective, the Cordillera Azul remains mysterious and tantalizing. Perhaps it holds a new hummingbird or tody-tyrant? Regardless of any future discoveries to be made in the Cordillera Azul, I hope that the new antbird brings attention to the incredibly biodiverse and distinctive avifauna of the region. I also hope that this discovery serves as a potent reminder of how far we still have to go in cataloging the diversity of life on this planet!


Urban Cooper’s Hawks Outcompete Their Rural Neighbors

Wed, 12/13/2017 - 10:16

An urban-dwelling Cooper’s Hawk. Photo credit: B. Millsap

Depending on whether a species flourishes in a city environment, urban wildlife populations can be “sources” or “sinks,” either reproducing so quickly that individuals leave to colonize the surrounding area or needing constant immigration from outside to stay viable. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications examines the population dynamics of Cooper’s Hawks in urban Albuquerque, New Mexico, and finds that city-born birds aren’t just thriving—they’re actually forcing their rural neighbors out of their nest sites.

New Mexico State University’s Brian Millsap collected data on Cooper’s Hawks living in a 72 square kilometer area of northeast Albuquerque from 2011 to 2015, monitoring each year’s nests and tracking newly fledged females with radio transmitters. He found that 30 times more hawks emigrated out of the urban area than immigrated into it, suggesting it was a source population for the surrounding region. However, the details didn’t fit neatly with the traditional source–sink model. While the surrounding exurban hawk populations were breeding and surviving well enough to sustain themselves without immigration, females moving out of the urban area were able to beat them to their nesting sites—unlike their exurban neighbors, they didn’t migrate south for the winter.

White-winged Doves, which first became established in the area in the 1980s, provide an abundant food source for city-dwelling hawks. “Individuals living in urban Albuquerque actually have a fitness advantage over their neighbors living in natural habitats. This advantage comes from the higher prey populations in urban areas, which allow urban female Cooper’s Hawks to spend the winter near their eventual breeding sites, as opposed to rural females that migrate south in winter,” explains Millsap. “The urban female hawks begin searching out and claiming nesting territories before the rural hawks return in spring and thus obtain nesting sites without direct competition from migrants. Because of this advantage, the urban Albuquerque Cooper’s Hawk population not only supports itself but also serves as a substantial source of immigrant females for surrounding native habitats.”

Changes in migratory behavior that lead to segregation between different groups can have profound effects on populations, altering how they interact both with each other and with other species in a community. According to the Peregrine Fund’s Chris McClure, an expert on raptor ecology, “This study is a great example of how solid field work and sophisticated modeling can yield new insights in basic and applied ecology.”

Demography and metapopulation dynamics of an urban Cooper’s Hawk subpopulation is available at http://www.americanornithologypubs.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-124.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.


Timing of Migration Is Changing for Songbirds on the Pacific Coast

Thu, 12/07/2017 - 09:20

Volunteers collect data on captured songbirds. Photo credit: San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory

Changes in the timing of birds’ migration can have serious negative effects if, for example, they throw the birds out of sync with the food resources they depend on. A new study from The Condor: Ornithological Applications uses a long-term dataset from the Pacific coast and shows that the timing of bird migration in the region has shifted by more than two days in both spring and fall over the past two decades.

Gina Barton and Brett Sandercock of Kansas State University used 22 years of data from the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory in northern California, where researchers captured and marked migrants as they passed through each year. Examining how migration timing was related to three indices of climate variation, including El Niño, they focused on five species—the Pacific-slope Flycatcher, Orange-crowned Warbler, and Wilson’s Warbler, which are short-distance migrants, and the Swainson’s Thrush and Yellow Warbler, which are long-distance migrants. They found that, over time, birds had been migrating earlier in spring and later in fall. About one third of this change in timing was explained by variation in climate indices, suggesting that some western songbirds can respond flexibly to changing environmental conditions. However, the two long-distance migrants had smaller changes in timing that were not as closely linked to climate indices.

The study of the timing of cyclic natural phenomena such as migration is known as phenology. “Long-term studies are valuable for understanding changes in the seasonal phenology of migratory birds and other organisms,” says Sandercock. “Our results join growing evidence that long-distance migrants may be less able to cope with rapid environmental change. However, the potential impacts of changing phenology on songbird population dynamics are difficult to predict, in part because our understanding of the migratory behavior of western songbirds remains incomplete.”

Sandercock adds that long-term projects like this one wouldn’t be possible without the commitment of many funders, technicians, and volunteers. “Our project was made possible by the dedicated efforts of many volunteers who assisted the staff of the San Francisco Bay Bird Observatory with systematic mist netting at the Coyote Creek Riparian Station. The long-term continuity could not have been maintained without stable financial support from funding by the Santa Clara Valley Water District, and the Pacific Gas and Electric Company.”

Long-term changes in the seasonal timing of songbird migration on the Pacific Flyway is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-88.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.

Gina is now a Director for Cheesemans’ Ecology Safaris, an ecotourism company in Los Gatos, California. Brett is now a Senior Research Scientist with the Norwegian Institute of Nature Research in Trondheim, Norway.


Invasive Frogs Give Invasive Birds a Boost in Hawaii

Wed, 11/29/2017 - 16:02

Invasive coqui frogs are affecting nonnative bird populations in Hawaii. Photo credit: R. Choi

Puerto Rican coqui frogs were accidentally introduced to Hawaii in the 1980s, and today there are as many as 91,000 frogs per hectare in some locations. What does that mean for native wildlife? Concerns that ravenous coquis could reduce the food available for the islands’ native insect-eating birds, many of which are already declining, spurred researchers to examine the relationship between frog and bird populations—but their results, published in The Condor: Ornithological Applications, weren’t what they expected.

Working at fifteen sites on the island of Hawaii in 2014, Utah State University’s Robyn Smith, Karen Beard, and David Koons determined whether coquis were present at each site by listening for their calls at night and then estimated coqui density in invaded plots through a visual search.  Bird surveys at all sites recorded 20 species, of which only 5 were native. To the researchers’ surprise, native birds showed no response to coqui density or presence, but three of the nonnative species were more abundant in plots with coqui. The overall abundance of nonnative birds ranged from an average of 57 birds in coqui-free plots up to 97 where coqui density was highest.

Coquis forage mostly in leaf litter, while Hawaii’s native insect-eating birds forage mostly in canopy and understory, so perhaps they aren’t in direct competition for insects. Nonnative birds may be getting a boost directly by eating adult or juvenile coquis, or indirectly through coqui’s effects on the ecosystem—coquis may alter nutrient cycling and even increase fly populations thanks to the extra biomass their excrement and carcasses create. “I was very surprised with the results for birds. It had been hypothesized before our study that coquis would compete with birds, particularly natives, because we know that coquis reduce insects where they invade,” says Beard. “In retrospect, I guess it’s not too surprising that predation is a more important interaction than competition—that is a common finding in invaded systems—but it was definitely not what we went in to test. The response that we see for Common Mynas and Red-billed Leiothrix is pretty convincing. We’re pretty sure that some of this increase is due to these species eating live or dead coquis, and we’re suggesting that some non-native birds are likely consuming coquis and this novel resource appears to be increasing their populations.”

“The findings presented in the study by Smith, Beard, and Koons, where abundances of some species of non-native birds in Hawaii are correlated with invasive coqui frogs, are very intriguing,” according to the USDA’s Aaron Shiels, an expert on invasive species in island ecosystems. “Furthermore, their interesting findings beg for future experimental manipulations that would uncover the causal factors that explain the patterns that they have observed.”

Invasive coqui frogs are associated with greater abundances of nonnative birds in Hawaii, USA is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1650/CONDOR-17-109.1.

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. In 2016, The Condor had the number one impact factor among 24 ornithology journals.


Penguins’ Calls Are Influenced by Their Habitat

Wed, 11/01/2017 - 13:32

Variation in Little Penguins’ agonistic calls appears to be driven by the habitats where they live. Photo credit: D. Colombelli-Négrel

Birds use vocalizations to attract mates, defend territories, and recognize fellow members of their species. But while we know a lot about how variations in vocalizations play out between populations of songbirds, it’s far less clear how this variation affects birds such as penguins in which calls are inherited. A new study from The Auk: Ornithological Advances examines differences in the calls of Little Penguins from four colonies in Australia—nocturnal birds for whom vocalizations are more important that visual signals—and finds that disparities in habitat, rather than geographic isolation or other factors, seem to be the key driver of variation in the sounds these birds use to communicate.

Diane Colombelli-Négrel and Rachel Smale of Australia’s Flinders University recorded calls from four Little Penguin populations across a small area of South Australia, one of which had previously been shown to have subtle genetic differences from the other three, and used playback experiments to test penguins’ ability to distinguish between calls from different colonies. They found that agonistic calls, which are used in pair displays and aggressive situations, varied among the four populations, and that the calls’ characteristics appeared to depend on small-scale differences in the habitat where the penguins lived. However, birds did not discriminate between calls originating from different colonies, which suggests that agonistic calls don’t seem to play a role in isolating the two different genetic groups.

Penguins breeding in open habitats produced lower-frequency calls than those breeding in habitats with denser vegetation—the opposite of the trend typically observed in songbirds. The authors speculate that agonistic calls may be subject to different selective pressures because they’re used in close encounters with other birds rather than to communicate across distances, and could also be influenced by variation in the noise level of wind and surf. “I was excited to find that calls were influenced by habitat, as this hasn’t been investigated much in seabirds and most of our knowledge in this area comes from studies on songbirds,” says Colombelli-Négrel. “This new research suggests that many factors influence call variation in birds, which also depends on the function of the calls. This study highlights that many questions remain and that studies need to investigate more than one factor in conjunction with the function of the calls to fully understand call variation in seabirds.”

“This work tells an interesting story of vocal diversification in Little Penguins, and gives insight into how individual and micro-scale variation effects behavior,” according to Stony Brook University’s Heather Lynch, an expert on penguin calls who was not involved in the study. “Non-vocal-learning birds are relatively understudied in terms of vocalizations, and it is great to see penguin vocalizations being studied in such a way.”

Habitat explained microgeographic variation in Little Penguin agonistic calls is available at http://www.bioone.org/doi/full/10.1642/AUK-17-75.1.

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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