Research Highlights from 2,000 Ornithologists at the NAOC 2016 Meeting
By Miyoko Chu, Gustave Axelson, Charles Eldermire, and Hugh Powell
August 18, 2016
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The final day of the conference kicked off with the somewhat checkered history of the study of sexual selection, summarized by plenary speaker Mike Webster of the Cornell Lab. Charles Darwin proposed the idea of sexual selection alongside natural selection, Webster said, but the prudish Victorian culture frowned on the idea of females having free will in selecting their mates, and the idea languished.
Social mores aside, Darwin was right, and so-called “female choice” is now recognized as a powerful force in evolution. Webster illustrated just a few of countless examples, showing how, over time, females’ decisions have affected the behavior and plumage of males. For example, male Black-throated Blue Warblers have become stay-at-home dads and Red-backed Fairywrens developed brilliantly scarlet display feathers as a sign of their aggressiveness. Each time a female chooses a male to mate with, his traits are passed along to the next generation—meaning that the beautiful, at times outlandish features we see in the natural world are the echoes of females’ choices in eons past.
After Webster closed his remarks, some 2,000 bipedal primates emerged into the hallways of the Hilton to attend one last day of talks and discussion. Here are just a few of the stories that caught our eye:
Hovering Hummingbirds Get Hot—Maybe Too Hot. Hovering is hard work, and as anyone with a down jacket knows, feathers are great insulation. So how does a hard-working hummingbird keep from boiling over? Infrared video shows most of the heat leaves via bare skin: around the eyes, under the wings, and in the feet, according to Don Powers of George Fox University. The catch: when the air warms above the hummingbird’s temperature, those areas start to absorb heat, making the hummer’s problems worse. In very hot regions, hummingbirds may have to take longer breaks during the heat of the day, possibly threatening their ability to feed.
Bird Cams Reveal Hard-Working Hawk Family: Big Red and Ezra, the Red-tailed Hawks whose nest is live-streamed on our Bird Cams, make up to 230 food deliveries each year, carrying roughly 88–100 pounds of food to their three nestlings. Prey varies over time, but chipmunks, Rock Pigeons, and squirrels top the menu. With millions of viewers to help log each and every prey delivery, this prey record is by far the most detailed and complete ever compiled for a wild raptor, reported Bird Cams leader Charles Eldermire.
How Do You Pack 2,000 Swifts Into a 3-Foot-Wide Chimney in 5 Minutes? To study a swirling mob of Chimney Swifts at dusk, Dennis Evangelista of the Naval Research Lab traced the path of every single swift. (It was fairly straightforward, he said, except you do need a supercomputer.) The resulting 3-D model showed that individual swifts often sync up with a few others, traveling in formation for a few revolutions of the circle as the overall flock changes shape. The model also allowed him to create a swift’s-eye view of the circling flock. (When the slide projector went on the blink, Evangelista got style points for inviting the audience to the front of the room and giving his entire talk on an iPad Mini.)
Good News for Feeder Birds: Each year, 50 million people in North America buy 1 million tons of bird food. After surveying data for 136 species, Project FeederWatch leader Emma Greig found that most feeder birds have strong populations. The flip side is that the species most in trouble—such as seabirds and shorebirds—don’t come to feeders and are declining because of other threats. Greig’s conclusion: Feeding birds may not help the hardest-hit species, but it may inspire people to support conservation, too.
Wish List for Conserving Migratory Birds: This conference celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, and today a panel of leaders looked ahead to the next century of conservation. Here are four main themes we should work toward, they said:
- Bring together social and natural sciences. So many of our conservation challenges hinge on human behavior, more so than bird behavior, said Ashley Dayer of Virginia Tech.
- Make conservation part of the entire landscape. Parks and other protected land will never be more than 15% of the landscape, said Charles Francis of Environment and Climate Change Canada. If we want to keep common birds common, we need make all types of land work for birds.
- Conserve them wherever they go. To conserve migratory birds means working with people in Central and South America, too, said Greg Butcher of the U.S. Forest Service. The bonus: bird conservation goes hand in hand with alleviating poverty for humans.
- Widen the reach of citizen science. Tapping the help and commitment of bird watchers creates data useful not just to scientists, but to the people themselves. They can use that data to guide public decisions in their communities, said Humberto Berlanga of Mexico’s CONABIO agency. Here are 9 examples of how eBird data helped make conservation happen.
One of the great things about a conference is the chance to spot your heroes. Yesterday, the great birder Kenn Kaufman stood at a podium (looking almost like a kingbird at a perch) where he was leading a symposium on birders and conservation. Today the gifted artist and field guide author David Sibley could be seen squeezing between rows of chairs on his way between talks, looking very much like the rest of us.
With so many bird experts around, it was only a matter of time before someone started birding. In fact, the hotel now boasts its own eBird Hotspot. After three days, (and without any checklists from Kaufman or Sibley yet) the total hotel list is up to 37 species including Bald Eagle, Double-crested Cormorant, and Indigo Bunting. Not bad for downtown Washington, D.C.
The Cornell Lab has four writers roving two floors of the Washington Hilton conference center and learning as much as we can possibly cram into our brains. Here are just a handful of the fascinating stories we ran across today:
Flycatchers May See in Slow Motion: One day while peering through a microscope at an Acadian Flycatcher’s eyes, Luke Tyrrell of Purdue University saw something he didn’t recognize: hefty (though tiny) orange triangles on the retina. They didn’t resemble anything ever described in the bird world, despite all that’s known about bird vision. After much searching, he found the structures likely help flycatchers filter distracting background colors to detect tiny motions (like buzzing insects). At the same time, the structures seem to shunt extra energy to retinal cells, possibly allowing them to see the action in fraction-of-a-second intervals.