PRESS RELEASE: Study Reveals Key Locations for Declining Songbird

PROW_fullsize_Joan_Eckhardt
Many of North America’s Prothonotary Warblers winter in the same small area of Colombia. Photo by Joan Eckhardt.

Many of North America’s migratory songbirds, which undertake awe-inspiring journeys twice a year, are declining at alarming rates. For conservation efforts to succeed, wildlife managers need to know where they go and what challenges they face during their annual migration to Latin America and back. For a new study published by The Condor: Ornithological Applications, researchers in six states assembled an unprecedented effort to track where Prothonotary Warblers that breed across the eastern U.S. go in winter—their “migratory connectivity”—and found that nearly the entire species depends on a relatively small area in Colombia threatened by deforestation and sociopolitical changes.

The Ohio State University’s Christopher Tonra and his colleagues coordinated the deployment of 149 geolocators, tiny devices that use the timing of dawn and dusk to estimate birds’ locations, on Prothonotary Warblers captured at sites across their breeding range. When the birds returned to their nesting sites the following year, the researchers were able to recover 34 devices that contained enough data for them to use. The geolocator data showed that regardless of where they bred, most of the warblers used the same two major Central American stopover sites during their migration and spent the winter in a relatively small area of northern Colombia. Additionally, many Prothonotary Warblers appeared to winter in inland areas, rather than in coastal mangrove habitat, which previous studies suggested they relied on most heavily.

These unexpected findings show that we may not understand the winter habitat needs of migratory songbirds as well as we thought. “The most surprising thing about the results was the overwhelming importance of Colombia to this species,” says Tonra. “We weren’t sure what to expect in terms of migratory connectivity, but we never expected that nearly every bird would use the same wintering region. This provided a clear conservation message and shows the power of geolocators in addressing gaps in our knowledge of migratory songbirds.” Colombia’s 50-year civil war accelerated deforestation in the region of the country where the warblers are concentrated, but the good news is that the convergence of birds in this single area means that conservation efforts targeted here could benefit breeding populations across North America.

Collecting data on birds across such a broad geographic area required close collaboration among the study’s thirteen coauthors. “This was very much a team effort, but it really started with Erik Johnson at Audubon Louisiana and Jared Wolfe with the Louisiana Bird Observatory,” says Tonra. “Erik founded and leads our Prothonotary Warbler Working Group, and he initiated the idea of deploying tags across their range. This was an extremely rewarding example of what you can accomplish through collaboration across the range of a species of concern. Everyone put in an enormous effort to gather data in their region, as well as contributing to the preparation of the paper.”

Concentration of a widespread breeding population in few critically important nonbreeding areas: Migratory connectivity in Prothonotary Warbler is available at https://academic.oup.com/condor/article-lookup/doi/10.1093/condor/duz019.

About the journal: The Condor: Ornithological Applications is a peer-reviewed, international journal of ornithology, published by the American Ornithological Society. For the past two years, The Condor has had the number one impact factor among 27 ornithology journals.

Announcing the New Wesley Lanyon Award

Dad recording avian vocalizations Fall 1968 (DD126)
Wesley “Bud” Lanyon.

The AOS Council is pleased to announce a new annual publication prize, the Wesley Lanyon Award. This new award will recognize the early-career ornithologist who authors the best synthesis/review paper on avian science to be published as an open-access article in either AOS journal (The Auk or The Condor). Members of AOS who are within or up to the end of their third year post-PhD are invited to compete for the award. Reviews encompassing basic and/or applied research subdisciplines in ornithology are eligible.

The Wesley Lanyon Award will provide a $1,000 honorarium to the winner, as well as a $1,000 travel stipend and gratis registration to attend the AOS annual conference, where the winner will organize a symposium on their winning review topic. Wesley “Bud” Lanyon served as the 37th President of the American Ornithologists’ Union. Bud was a steadfast and committed leader in the field of ornithology and was a respected mentor of many generations of scientists. He was particularly keen to support researchers in the midst of writing their dissertations and those who had recently completed their PhDs. Because they possess a thorough understanding of the current literature, he recognized, they are poised to provide novel insights into classic areas of ornithology and to elucidate emerging fields of study.  

The winner of the inaugural award will be announced in the spring of 2020, and the award will be presented at our 2020 annual meeting in Puerto Rico. The first step in competing for the award will be to submit an abstract for the proposed review by August 30, 2019; the journal Editors-in-Chief and the four Deputy Editors will review the abstracts and invite up to six competitors to submit their manuscripts to the appropriate journal.

“This award competition will highlight the excellent research of early career ornithologists, produce timely and valuable scholarship for our readers, and increase the scientific impact of AOS journals,” says Scott Sillett, Editor-in-Chief of The Auk. AOS editors are looking forward to reviewing your submissions, so get writing!

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