2019 AOS William Brewster Memorial Award Winners: Helen James & Craig Benkman

In the lead-up to our annual meeting in Anchorage, we’ll be highlighting the winners of this year’s AOS awards on the blog. This week, the 2019 Elliot Coues Award.

The William Brewster Memorial Award goes to the author or coauthors of an exceptional body of work on birds of the Western Hemisphere. Established in 1921, the award consists of a medal and an honorarium and is in honor of William Brewster, one of the founding members of the American Ornithologists’ Union. For the first time this year, AOS is awarding two separate Brewster Awards, one to Dr. Helen James and one to Dr. Craig Benkman.

Smithsonian Natural History Museum, Feather Indentification Lab and Collection PrepHelen is the Curator of Birds at the Smithsonian’s U.S. National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) in Washington, D.C.  Her paleontological research on extinct and extant Hawaiian avifauna, carried out with colleagues from numerous fields, has produced one of the most detailed bodies of work to date on avian evolutionary processes in island systems. In her quest to unlock the secrets of the rise and fall of Hawaiian avifauna, Helen has used techniques that include traditional morphological analyses, stable isotopes, molecular genetics, and more. Her integrative approach has produced more than 80 cited scientific publications and more than 4000 citations of her work.

Helen began her science career as a 16-year-old student in anthropology at the University of Arkansas, followed by her doctorate (D. Phil.) in Zoology at Oxford University. In addition to being recognized for her research on Hawaiian birds, Dr. James is known as an accomplished avian anatomist, functional morphologist, paleontologist and systematist. Currently, she curates over 600,000 bird specimens and 75,000 avian fossils at NMNH and serves on the faculty at the University of Maryland. Helen was selected as an AOS Fellow in 2005. Helen is also part of the first parent–offspring pair to receive senior professional awards from AOS; her mother, Frances James, received the Elliott Coues Award in 1992 and the Loye and Alden Miller Research Award in 2009.

Craig with Cassia CrossbillDr. Craig W. Benkman is the Robert B. Berry Distinguished Chair in Ecology at the University of Wyoming, is being recognized for his work on selection and adaptive radiation in crossbills, including coevolution between crossbills and lodgepole pine, the influence of fire and increasing climate variability on this relationship, and climatic limits of the current and future distributions of crossbills. In recent years, his research has focused on how interactions between crossbills and conifers influence crossbill diversification, as well as how and why reproductive isolation evolves between diverging lineages of crossbills. In 1996, Craig discovered the Cassia Crossbill in Idaho while on his way to an AOU/COS meeting. Subsequent research provided evidence that the population was reproductively isolated from the Red Crossbill, and it was formally recognized as a distinct species in the AOS Checklist of North and Middle American Birds in 2017.

Craig’s interest in crossbills dates back to his Ph.D., which he completed at State University of New York at Albany, writing his dissertation on the foraging ecology of crossbills in eastern North America. Before joining the University of Wyoming, he was on the faculty at New Mexico State University. He has authored or co-authored 100 scientific publications, and his work has been covered in popular media outlets including Wired and High Country News. He was selected as an AOS Fellow in 2002.

In recognition of their meritorious bodies of research on birds over long and distinguished careers, AOS is pleased to award Helen James and Craig Benkman the 2019 Brewster Awards.

Welcome to the New Members of the AOS Council!

We are excited to announce the winners of the recent AOS Council election! The Council is AOS’s governing body, made up of members who volunteer their time to oversee the Society’s strategic direction, policies, budget, and organizational planning. The four new Elective Councilors (below) will be joining eight Elective Councilors and four officers (President, President-Elect, Treasurer and Secretary) already serving terms. Andy Jones and Rebecca Kimball were also re-elected as Secretary and Treasurer, respectively, in the recent election, running unopposed. They will officially take office at the upcoming AOS meeting in Anchorage, Alaska. Continue reading “Welcome to the New Members of the AOS Council!”

Studying “song neighborhoods” within sabrewing leks

Juan Francisco Ornelas

Linked paper: Male relatedness, lekking behavior patterns, and the potential for kin selection in a Neotropical hummingbird by C. González and J.F. Ornelas, The Auk: Ornithological Advances.

A Wedge-tailed Sabrewing. Photo by Clementina González.

About 25 years ago, I started a research position at the Instituto de Ecología AC in Veracruz, Mexico. During my first explorations of the cloud forest there, I heard the marvelous sound that eventually became a key part of my work and that of my assistant Clementina González. After spending my graduate school years at the University of Arizona and learning the sounds of the Sonoran Desert, I decided to tape record the unfamiliar sound, a decision that resulted in a great journey.

When I was field hunting for the sound, holding my old tape recorder, I soon heard swooshing noises and the mystery sound coming from somewhere in the bushes and thickets of the understory, but at first I could not see what was making it. Suddenly, I spotted it: a Wedge-tailed Sabrewing! These birds are among the most common hummingbirds in the area, or at least the most belligerent. Males are polygamous and (like all male hummingbirds) do not participate in raising the young, but this species forms leks, which are areas where males sing to show off and females choose mates.

Years later, Clementina started recording songs from different groups, and she realized that they sounded different. Once we were familiar with the behavior of Wedge-tailed Sabrewings, we documented the structure and variation of their songs within and between singing groups in central Veracruz. What we found was very exciting. Locally known as fandanguero (because it sings all day long like local folks at the fandangos), the Wedge-tailed Sabrewing has a song that is complex and variable, composed of more than 20 different syllable types per individual. We found a total of 239 different syllable types among the eight singing groups we studied.

This became the basis of Clementina’s doctoral thesis. She started to record songs from leks across their geographic distribution and showed that their song varies throughout eastern Mexico, where populations of three subspecies (curvipennis, excellens, and pampa) are disconnected. When she looked at their DNA, lek members clustered into the three subspecies and could also be distinguished by their songs. We wondered, what caused the genetic and behavioral differences? Genetic drift (the accumulation of random mutations in a population) could partially explain their genetic and behavioral differences, because the members of populations of one subspecies don’t mate with the others. But the genetic drift alone is not enough to fully explain the observed song variation within and among leks of each of the subspecies. Some sort of selection might be occurring.

We wanted to explore more deeply what was happening inside the leks. Clementina realized that males within a lek also sang differently and that males with different songs were clustered spatially, with an introductory syllable in their songs as the signature of a song neighborhood. It is not clear at this point in our research how and why these unique and variable complex acoustic signals have evolved in some but not all lekking species of hummingbirds, but we’re working on figuring it out.

For our newest study, published in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, we asked whether lek formation and the existence of song neighborhoods within leks are due to kin selection. In this system, kin selection would occur when a member of a song neighborhood engages in self-sacrificial behavior that benefits the genetic fitness of its relatives in the neighborhood. To address this, we genotyped males in leks located across the distribution of Wedge-tailed Sabrewings as well as in a focal lek composed of song neighborhoods and estimated their relatedness — not an easy task! Most males within leks were unrelated, and song neighborhoods were not composed of related individuals. This means that kin selection is not acting on the formation of leks or song neighborhoods in this species, suggesting that membership in song neighborhoods is achieved by learning the song of the neighborhood, regardless of kinship.

Clementina González website

Juan Francisco Ornelas website

2019 Elliott Coues Award Winners: Linda Whittingham & Peter Dunn

In the lead-up to our annual meeting in Anchorage, we’ll be highlighting the winners of this year’s AOS awards on the blog. This week, the 2019 Elliot Coues Award.

The Elliott Coues Award recognizes outstanding and innovative contributions to ornithological research, regardless of the geographic location of the work. The American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) established this award in honor of Elliott Coues, a pioneering ornithologist of the western United States and a founding member of the AOU. The award consists of a medal and an honorarium provided through the society’s Elliott Coues Achievement Award Fund. The 2018 Elliott Coues Award goes to Dr. Linda Whittingham and Dr. Peter Dunn.

Dr. Linda Whittingham is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Linda’s research program has been at the interface of behavioral ecology and molecular biology. She has pioneered the use of microsatellites, DNA sequencing, MHC genes, and other genetic techniques to study the reproductive behavior of birds, including mating systems, patterns of mate choice, sex ratio variation, and investment in parental care. Linda has studied the evolution and maintenance of reproductive traits both from a phylogenetic perspective and with field studies of common birds. She was selected as an AOS Fellow in 2006.

Dr. Peter Dunn is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee. Peter’s work has been complementary to Linda’s, as they have both conducted field studies and molecular lab work on Tree Swallows and Common Yellowthroats in North America and cooperatively breeding birds in Australia. Peter has also pioneered large-scale studies of the impact of climate change on avian reproduction. He also became an AOS Fellow in 2006.

Linda Whittingham and Peter Dunn are well known for their collaborative work, having published together as a team for over 25 years. They published their first joint publication in 1993, and since then over 80% of their publications have been jointly co-authored with their students and co-authors. Their joint record includes 153 peer-reviewed publications, including highly cited work in Animal Behavior, Evolution, Molecular Ecology, and Proceedings of the Royal Society London B. Combined, they have trained 18 M.Sc. and Ph.D. students and 4 postdoctoral researchers at the University of Wisconsin.

In recognition of these contributions to ornithology, AOS is pleased to name Linda Whittingham and Peter Dunn as the 2018 Elliott Coues Award recipients.

2019 Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award Winner: José Maria Cardoso da Silva

In the lead-up to our annual meeting in Anchorage, we’ll be highlighting the winners of this year’s AOS awards on the blog. This week, the 2019 Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award.

The Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award, established in 2005, recognizes extraordinary scientific contributions to the conservation, restoration, or preservation of birds and/or their habitats by an individual or small team. The award honors Ralph Schreiber, a prominent figure in the American Ornithologists’ Union known for his enthusiasm, energy, and dedication to research and conservation. The award consists of a framed certificate and an honorarium provided by the society’s endowed Ralph W. Schreiber Fund. This year, the Schreiber Award goes to Dr. José Maria Cardoso da Silva.

A native of Belém in the Brazilian Amazon, José is a leading conservation scientist who has achieved prominence on the international stage. His many achievements include contributions to science-based conservation initiatives for endemic birds in Brazil’s Cerrado, Caatinga, Atlantic Forest, and Amazon regions. His efforts at translating ornithological information into conservation policies have led to the creation of at least 80,000 square kilometers of protected areas in Brazil.

José is a Professor in the Department of Geography and Regional Studies at the University of Miami, where his teaching and research focus on biogeography, conservation science, and sustainable development. He has published more than 130 peer-reviewed articles and book chapters in three languages as well as co-editing nine books. His most recent book is on Caatinga, the largest tropical dry forest region in the Americas. His papers cover a range of subjects, from avian systematics to sustainable development, and have been published in several prestigious ornithological and multidisciplinary journals. During his career, José has mentored more than 28 graduate students, most of whom are currently leading avian research and conservation efforts in Brazil.

In recognition of these contributions to avian conservation, AOS is pleased to name José Maria Cardoso da Silva as the 2019 recipient of the Ralph W. Schreiber Conservation Award.