Very proud to say that the first lab paper led by student Ilias Berberi is out now in the journal Proceedings B!
Some bird species flock in winter, whereas others are highly solitary. How does the evolution of flockiness in birds influence a bird’s ability to dominate others in the competition for food? Ilias investigated this along with our coauthor Dr. Eliot Miller.
We were able to look at this quesiton thanks to Project FeederWatch, a program led by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. FeederWatch participants are volunteers across North American who submit sightings from their backyard bird feeders. There are thousands of FeederWatch volunteers and millions of sightings, including hundreds of thousands of instances when one bird evicts another from the feeder. The tremendous scale of these observations made it possible for us to figure out who dominates whom in winter bird communities.
We expected to find that flockier bird species (those that group with their conspecifics) would have a competitive advantage.
To our surprise, we found the opposite – on average, more social bird species are wimpier when facing size-matched opponents. But their competitive ability is also sensitive to the immediate social environment. When more social bird species are in the presence of conspecifics, they tend to gain a boost in their dominance status.
This indicates that the evolution of sociality is associated with reduced dominance as individuals, but increased dominance in groups.
This research was covered in Audubon and BirdWatching magazines and Calgary QR 107.3 radio.