The Hummingbird Festival in Sedona

I just got back from the Hummingbird Festival in Sedona, Arizona. It was an honour to be invited there to present our work on flight.

Sedona Hummingbird Festival, 2017.

Photo by Maria Mahar at www.hummingbirdpictures.net

The audience at the festival had a ton of great questions and I learned a lot. For example, the Anna’s hummingbirds are a fairly recent arrival in Sedona, just as they are in Vancouver, because urbanization has also allowed the species to gradually expand its range east into the desert (as well as north). I wonder how that has affected the hummingbird community there? I also learned that it is pretty easy to set up an outdoor Drosophila colony as a protein source for breeding hummingbirds.

We saw the Grand Canyon and more bats, hummingbirds, and aura photographers than ever before in one place. Arizona has great insects, too. My favourite? The “pleasing fungus beetle” we spotted at Starbucks.

View from the south rim of the Grand Canyon

Photo by Charlie Croskery.

Peacock Day

Saturday, March 25 was Peacock Day at the Los Angeles Arboretum. I was looking forward to giving a talk at this event for months because it was a chance to return to my stomping grounds at the best time of year.

The event had guided peacock walks, peacock-themed art activities, sitar music, and an Indian food truck (because the species is originally from India). It was a hit – when I arrived in the afternoon there was a huge lineup at the park gates. Total attendance was over 4,400, the biggest day of the year for the Arboretum. There was even a bump in attendance the following day (2,800), because of people who missed the peacocks on Saturday.

My talk was in Ayres Hall (the same building we used to trap many of the females 7 years ago), with 170 people in the audience. I suggested that if we want to give credit where credit is due, we should really call it Peahen Day, because peahens are responsible for the evolution of the peacock’s amazing display.

I also talked about why I think the species does so well in California (and other places). I think it’s because peafowl are social (they stick together as an effective defense against most predators), because they are quick learners, and because the chicks spend a long period of time following mom – around 9 months, actually. That’s a long time for a bird! It provides many opportunities for mom to transmit skills that allow her offspring to handle new environments, like what to eat, how to hide, and even how to cross the road.

I think the main thing we’ve learned from our research on peafowl is the importance of dynamic signals during mate choice. i.e., it’s not just what a peacock has that makes him beautiful, but also how he uses it. A major theme in evolution research today is whether sexual selection speeds or hinders adaptation. Although we don’t yet know whether sexual selection has promoted adaptation in peafowl, we can say that they have spread around the world because of their sexually-selected traits. We brought peacocks to California, Hawaii, Florida, New Zealand, and many other places, because they are beautiful in our eyes as well as those of the peahen.

SICB Portland

Here is the poster we presented at SICB Portland last week on the biomechanics of peacock displays (click to enlarge):

SICB poster

I think it turned out pretty well, although I’m not sure it could stand alone without an interpreter.

We had a constant stream of awesome visitors. My coauthor Suzanne brought feathers and a model peacock to demonstrate what we were talking about – brilliant! We also had a touchscreen mounted to the left of the poster to display the supplemental videos, but to my surprise we didn’t use it much. It was too slow to load for every new visitor, although it did come in handy for people who wanted an in-depth look. I realize now that videos should really be integrated spatially with the poster content. This could be done if whole display was a touchscreen, for example.

One of the highlights of the meeting was seeing how folks in Stacey Combes’ lab are tracking the movements of individual bees by gluing tiny QR codes onto the bees’ backs (the codes are automatically recognized on video of the bees entering and exiting their hives by tracking software). Another highlight was Ken Dial’s talk about the influence of predation on the development of flight in nestling birds. Portland had lots of good food and drink and exciting views of 1000s of crows roosting late at night downtown.

Thanks to Owen, Suzanne, Jim and Bob for such a fun project!

A bad year for birds

June 2013 was bad for tree swallows. At the Queen’s University Biological Station, over 90% of nests failed as a result of persistent cold, rainy weather.

This happened to be the same year we were conducting an experiment on the hormonal mechanisms of parental care in these birds. The bad weather made for a disastrous field season. Just a couple of weeks in, and we were turning up cold lifeless chicks in nearly every nest. The upside was that it led to some potential insights into the way stress hormones and tough weather conditions interact. My coauthors Jenny Ouyang and Ádám Lendvai were invited to write an excellent blog post about it here:

Terrible weather provides insight into a bird’s life

It was remarkable how closely the nest failure rates tracked the fluctuating air temperature. This could be caused by a couple of factors, with a major one being that tree swallows rely on flying insects to feed their young, and the ability of insects to fly depends on temperature. Persistent cold weather means that parent tree swallows cannot find enough food to support their offspring.

The corticosterone hormone implants made the treatment birds more susceptible to faster brood mortality, even during benign weather. It should be noted that the implants were deployed before the bad weather struck, and we would not have performed this experiment if we had known in advance that this would be such a tough year! Hopefully, though, the results provide some insight into the role of stress hormones as mediators of a sensitive period in the life history of these birds.

Read the study here:

Ouyang et al. 2015. Weathering the storm: parental effort and experimental manipulation of stress hormones predict brood survival

Life in LA

The Los Angeles Arboretum is one of the most beautiful places I have been. Where else can you see six species of hummingbird zooming from perch to flower, an Asian red-whiskered bulbul nesting beside a dancing peacock, with noisy flocks of parakeets commuting overhead? Even the introduced species (on this list, all but the hummingbirds) are beautiful.

So it was fitting right after I got back from LA to read the news that 30 new, never-before-seen species of flies were just discovered in the city. Read more about it here. And how did the discoverers identify these flies as unique? By the gnarly shapes and bristles of their genitalia. These traits can help define species in other groups too, like bats and primates.

Photo by Kelsey Bailey, LA Natural History Museum BioSCAN project.

Hipsters who hunt

An update on a previous post: my good friends Martin and Vanya are the official poster boys of a new movement.

Collecting oyster mushrooms north of Kingston. Photo by Charlie Croskery.

Read about it here, as told by Vanya’s sister-in-law, Emma Marris. It’s a great article. Charlie took the photos at the Croskery farm (more here). I helped with the shoot, including costume changes and strategic placement of my shadow to avoid lens flare. It was a lot of fun. The only problem is, hipster isn’t the right word for what these guys do. Not sure what would be.

Chicken of the trees

This month has been an eye-opener for me. Two weeks ago, I was rubbing shoulders with animal rights activists. One week later, I was hunting at the Croskery farm. And last night, we dined on the spoils – a fantastic squirrel stew that gave Thanksgiving dinner a run for its money.

How did it happen?

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Peacocking on Parliament Hill

Here’s my poster from the Evolution conference in Ottawa:

Evolution poster

The colours are a bit off in this shrunken version, but you can download a larger PDF version here. The poster covers some of my work on the lesser-known green peacock (a close relative of the familiar blue variety). Green and blue peafowl have markedly different body colours, and in the green species, the females are as colourful as the males. Interestingly, the two species have eyespot feathers that are nearly identical. Why are their eyespots so similar? I think it’s because these feathers are crucial for courtship, and females of the two species have similar taste.

One of the main results I’ve found is that despite appearances, there are subtle differences in the eyespot colours of the two species. These differences, while slight, might be readily apparent to birds since they have excellent colour vision. I think the differences are the result of adaptation to different light conditions. Blue peacocks live in India, and prefer bright, open habitat like riverbeds and agricultural fields. Green peacocks live in darker forested areas of Southeast Asia, and their eyespots may be slightly brighter and greener to take advantage of dim forest light.

It was my first Evolution conference, and I hope I can get to another. The talks were fantastic. Author David Quammen summed things up nicely in his public lecture: “Science is people.” This theme carried through the meeting, from Rosie Redfield’s tale of the pitfalls of falling in love with your hypothesis to a rally where scientists young and old marched together on Parliament Hill (see my pictures here). How often does that happen?

Innovative, naturally

bluegill sunfish field work

Chandra Rodgers sampling bluegill sunfish on Lake Opinicon.

This spring I had the opportunity to write a feature article on the Queen’s University Biological Station, a site just north of Kingston where researchers have a long history of major scientific breakthroughs involving modest Ontario wildlife. Several of these discoveries have proved to be as useful as they are compelling. The story was published in the Kingston Whig Standard, and on the web through the Queen’s Alumni Review and InnovationCanada.ca. Funding for photography was provided by the CFI’s 2011 Emerging Science Journalists Award.

Talking to scientists about their research was by far the best part of this project – much more fun than I expected! And even the toughest interviews were a gold mine of ideas. Thanks to everyone who participated. The full story is posted below…

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Life imitates [filmmaking] art

Congratulations to Myra Burrell – her peacockumentary has been short-listed for the Animal Behavior Society’s film festival!

Myra, a veteran of the natural history film program at the University of Otago in New Zealand, traveled to California with me in 2010. She helped with peacock field work, capturing more females than anyone thought possible. Somehow, in the meantime, she made a movie about the birds. It’s a short film that gives you an idea about what happens on a peacock lek, from the hen’s point of view.

It’s quite an honour to be among the 6 films selected for festival screening, since they must get on the order of ~100 applicants. If Myra wins, it would be oddly fitting: a wildlife film straight out of a park that moonlights as a real Hollywood set.

You can watch “Hen’s Quest” here.

The best parts? I love the music and Myra’s cinematography. I contributed writing (including the title!) and did the artwork; Brian McGirr turned my map drawing into a fantastic animation. Good luck, Myra!

How I learned to respect the peahen

Written for the Los Angeles Arboretum.

Meep meep? More like “Honk honk!”

Arboretum regulars will no doubt recognize the call of a startled peahen, but you may not be aware of the clever ways they use it. Not that they try to boast or taunt the enemy, necessarily, but I’m starting to think that the birds at the Arboretum owe a lot to their version of the Road Runner’s call.

How do I know? Some background is in order here: I’m the tall blond woman who has been hanging around the Arboretum morning and night for the past few years, overdressed and hauling a camera, a pair of binoculars, some peanuts and, if I was lucky, a peacock. Working at the park each spring, I often wished I had more time to chat with visitors. But I was preoccupied, and the life of an ornithologist can sometimes feel like that of Wile E. Coyote on a bad day.

For the past four years, I’ve been chasing peafowl across the continent – from Arcadia in February to Winnipeg, Toronto and New York in May and June. Incidentally, the Bronx Zoo is the only place in North America that even comes close to the Arboretum in sheer number of peafowl. Three years into my PhD in biology, and I’ve spent literally hundreds of hours watching these birds.

You may be wondering what got me into this mess.

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Furious about eyespots

I think I flubbed an interview this week. My supervisor Bob and I just published a paper that is getting some press, because it addresses a recent controversy about the peacock’s train1. Eager for the interview with Nature News, I wasn’t exactly prepared with good lines for the reporter to go on – and I wonder if that’s why he had to pump up our story as a “furious debate”2.

In truth, most of the “debate” played out in a flurry of news articles back in 2008. That was when Mariko Takahashi and her colleagues in Tokyo and Kanagawa published the fruits of their exhaustive 7-year study of the peafowl at the Izu Cactus Park in Shizuoka, Japan3. I’ve never met Takahashi, although I did meet her supervisor and one other player in this story at a conference back then, and all were quite friendly. But the title of Takahashi’s 2008 paper, “Peahens do not prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains” was a direct jab at an earlier one, “Peahens prefer peacocks with more elaborate trains”, by Marion Petrie in the UK4. Takahashi and her coauthors had the difficult task of proving a negative – and they did it pretty convincingly, with the aid of a much more extensive data set than anyone had gathered before with this species. The upshot? For a peacock in Japan, having a bigger train ornament doesn’t necessarily win you any favours with the ladies.

Bigger in terms of the number of eyespots visible in the ornament during courtship, that is; males have about 150 on average, each on the end of a single feather. The results of the Japanese study were in direct contradiction to Marion Petrie’s earlier work as well as some recent studies of peafowl in France suggesting that eyespot number is often correlated with male mating success4,5. What’s more, in the 1990s Petrie had confirmed the causal effect of eyespots by showing that you could alter a male’s fate just by removing about 20 of them6.

Peacock in flight

Taken at the Los Angeles Arboretum in 2009. Photo by Roslyn Dakin.

The Japanese team proposed a rather bold new hypothesis. Perhaps the cumbersome, ridiculous train ornament is obsolete – a relic of sexual selection past, no longer used by females in quite the same way as it was when it first evolved3.

This was taken up with gusto by the news media. Check out the headlines: “Peacock feathers: That’s so last year”, “Have peacock tails lost their sexual allure?”, “Peacock feathers fail to impress the ladies”. Amusingly, this last article was also published with the title, “Female peacocks not impressed by male feathers” by Discovery News7-10. Males could probably be forgiven for striking out with those elusive female peacocks, since they don’t actually exist.

Headlines aside, Takahashi’s interpretation is somewhat of a concern. Here’s why: creationists picked up on this story too11.

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A case of mistaken celebrity

They all look the same to us. Celebrities, that is. And by us, I mean academics.

The proof starts with peacocks. Last fall, I was working on some measurements I took of the crest ornament in these birds. Peafowl have this funky little fan of feathers on top of their heads, and though it’s not that small in the grand scheme of fancy bird plumage ornaments, the peacock’s five centimetre crest looks a bit ridiculous next to the metre-and-a-half long train.

Why bother having a crest when you also have a big train? And why do females wear crests too? In this species, the crest appears to be the only plumage ornament shared by both sexes. Here are some of my pictures from the field, taken on the cusp of the breeding season:

Crest ornaments of male and female peafowl

Crests of (a) male and (b-c) female peafowl. Scale bars are 10 cm. Photos by Roslyn Dakin.

Over the years, I’ve measured the crests of close to 150 birds. These data lend some support to the idea that the crest is a signal of health in both males and females, although it might work in slightly different ways for the two sexes1. As you can see from the picture above, there is a lot of variation in how the crests look – and it’s mostly on the female side of the equation. Almost all adult males have tidy looking crests like the one shown in (a), but females often have crests with a lot of new feathers growing in (c). It turns out that males in better condition tend to have fuller, wider crests. The healthiest females, on the other hand, have crests that look most like those of males, with all feathers grown out to the top level (b).

The extreme variability among females leads to an additional hypothesis, and it’s one that I can’t rule out at this time. Perhaps the crest is a signal of individual identity that the birds use to sort out who’s who in their social groups – just as faces do for us. A clue that this could potentially work for peahens is that my field assistants and I can do it. Once you spend enough time hanging around with these birds, you find yourself recognizing certain females that haven’t been captured yet (and that therefore lack identifying leg bands). Your first clue? Usually a unique pattern of crest feathers.

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Science fictions

Fakery is not just for Hollywood films anymore.

Nature documentaries are full of it, from elegant narratives to some downright dirty tricks. This tradition goes back a long way: the myth that lemmings commit mass suicide to save their brethren from overpopulation was spread widely as as result of the 1958 Disney film White Wilderness. This is not trivial. The film won an Oscar for Best Documentary. The lemming story made it as far as a philosophy course I took in university (Science and Society PHIL203), where the instructor used it as an example of why we should doubt evolutionary explanations of human behaviour. The myth just won’t die, even though CBC exposed the lemming scam back in 19821. Journalists on The Fifth Estate proved that the mass suicide scene was actually filmed in downtown Calgary, not in the Arctic as Disney had claimed. The Disney crew used a rotating platform to push captive lemmings into the Bow River.

More recently, the BBC has come under fire for using captive animals to film some of the scenes in the Blue Planet series1. This seems justifiable to me, but some truly ugly practices have also been exposed, like baiting corpses with M&Ms to get footage for an IMAX documentary on wolves2.

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Field biology goes to Hollywood

One of the weirder things about my field site is that it is also a Hollywood set. A number of movies, TV shows and commercials have been filmed at the LA Arboretum, going back to Tarzan Escapes in the 1930s.

The Arboretum had a regular appearance in the popular 1970s show Fantasy Island. In the opening credits, a midget rings the bell in the Queen Anne Cottage. This is a historic building on the Arboretum grounds that was built in the by the same wealthy California businessman who started the peafowl population in the area.

You can catch the Arboretum in many other films, since it provides a convenient stand in for the jungle a short drive away from downtown Los Angeles. Examples: The Lord of the Flies, Anaconda, The Lost World, Congo, Terminator 2, The African Queen, and too many campy horror flicks to count (Attack of the Giant Leeches?).

Several things were filmed during my three seasons there, leading me to realize that making a movie is a lot like doing field biology. Here’s how:

1. The hours. Field biologists often have to keep the same hours as their study species, working for as long as the animals are active. For some ornithologists, this can mean starting at 4 am. We were lucky with peafowl. They are late risers, coming down from their roosts around 7-8 am. They also tend to take a long siesta in the middle of the day. This meant that we had to work two shifts, coming in for several hours in the morning and returning after lunch until sunset. It made for some long days.

Film crews also seem to work long hours based on the amount of light, since our schedules would often coincide.

2. Tedium and futility. Most of the time spent watching animal behaviour is watching them do very little. Here’s an example: we saw about 20 mating events in 2010, in 500 man-hours of observation time. That’s over 24 hours of sitting quietly for each copulation.

Catching the beasts can be a little bit more active, but you still feel completely useless 90% of the time. Your main activities include: waiting for the animals to show up, looking for the ones you haven’t caught yet, waiting around for your traps to work, and worrying about all the reasons why they aren’t.

A lot of jobs in Hollywood might not be so far off. When AT&T filmed a commercial at the Arboretum last year, we met a guy whose sole responsibility was to keep the peacocks away from the set. His boss gave him a bag of bird seed. It was the cusp of the breeding season, and the crew had decided to place their set right in the middle of one particularly dedicated male’s territory. The poor guy was literally playing tag with that bird all day.

3. Costumes. Important in Hollywood, but also useful when trying to catch birds. After a few weeks in the field, most tend to settle in to a uniform, wearing the same thing nearly every day. If it works and you’ll just be getting dirty again tomorrow, why change?

Field clothes

Waterproof jackets come in handy when catching large birds. From left: Will Roberts, Myra Burrell and Roz Dakin. Photo by Bonny Chan.

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Deep archives: Lek perspective

Scene from a lek at the Bronx Zoo

Males display in the “Wild Asia” exhibit at the Bronx Zoo, which can only be seen by riding the zoo monorail. The structure behind the birds is the monorail track.

I’ve had some success on this trip after all. The weather was perfect for my model experiments yesterday (sunny, warm, not too much wind), and although I wasn’t able to fit in quite as many trials as I was hoping for, the ones that I was able to accomplish worked perfectly. Of 16 successful trials (i.e. ones where the male danced for the model), 6 ended in a copulation attempt. In California, 3 of 22 trials ended in such an attempt. This apparent geographical difference in Penelope’s popularity is a bit of a mystery (it could be because a number of my California trials were at the end of the breeding season, when males were somewhat less motivated and harder to trick). Nevertheless, it’s safe to say that overall she was a hit.

One reason I didn’t get as many trials as I could have was that the Bronx peacocks were the most skittish ones I’ve encountered so far. When I stepped into the nyala enclosure at 7 am yesterday, I had about 2 hours to collect as much data as I could (as many as 20 five-minute trials, I figured). But it took a long time for the males to get used to me being in there. I spent the first hour waiting quietly (and nervously) for one of them to make a move, while they did the same – watching me carefully and no doubt waiting for me to leave. This stand-off shouldn’t be too surprising, though, since the Bronx Zoo birds have enough space to live their entire lives away from people.

This morning, I moved across the Bronx River to work in “Wild Asia”, and the birds there were even more difficult. Happily, though, I was able to get a video of a male reacting positively to Penelope, which will be excellent for illustrating exactly how she worked.

I also made a trip to the “World of Birds” exhibit. They have some pretty amazing animals there – here is a picture of another lek-breeding bird, the lesser bird of paradise:

Juvenile male lesser bird of paradise

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Deep archives: New York on foot

I’m back at the Bronx Zoo now, with the model peahen, attempting some more behavioural experiments. My first day was both good and bad. I had no trouble finding my accommodations on the zoo grounds last night – I’m staying in the “Bat Cave”, so named because of the bats.

(Not really – the apartment is called the Bat Cave because it’s on the ground floor of the building pictured below, which also houses the families of three zoo staff members that live permanently on site…)

Accommodations for humans at the Bronx Zoo

If the fact that several staff members live on site doesn’t give you a sense of how well-equipped this zoo is, perhaps the contents of my apartment will. I have my own kitchen, washer and dryer for laundry, animal-themed blankets on the bed, and if bored I can read anything from The Iliad to Seabiscuit:

Reading selection in the Bat Cave

Books in the Bat Cave: no one can complain about the selection.

The zoo even has it’s own NYPD patrol.

In the future, all police will drive golf carts.

I managed to head out this morning at 6 am, beating the peafowl by at least an hour (since, for birds, they tend to roost until fairly late in the morning). It didn’t take long to find the main lek; males were roosting conspicuously in most of the surrounding trees. It was a spectacular one – at least 10 males displaying in view of one another, with another 5-6 quite close by. At first glance, this would seem ideal. I had an excellent view of a large number of birds. However, all of the display territories were nested within mammal enclosures that I couldn’t access. The birds were just out of my reach, and I needed males in accessible areas so that I could set Penelope up nearby.

I spent the rest of the day on foot, continuing to explore the peafowl haunts with Penelope in tow (I walked at least 15 km today all told – this zoo is huge!). People were startled, fascinated and amused by Penelope, and many of them tried to talk to me about her. Normally this would have been slightly annoying, but today it helped me stay positive despite the other frustrations. By afternoon, I had managed to get a few good peacock videos and permission to work in one of the mammal enclosures for tomorrow. I’ll be in and out with Penelope before the nyala (an African antelope) are released into the enclosure for the day, and again at the end of the day after they’re put inside for the night.