Caitlin Menzies nails her 3-minute thesis!

Caitlin Menzies gave an excellent 3-minute thesis at Carleton’s annual 3MT competition.

Caitlin's 3MT slide

Fitting your entire MSc thesis into one slide

First paper from a lab member is out!

suet feeder with three birds

Birds at a suet feeder (Wikimedia commons)

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.

Winter field work with chickadees

In November, Emil and Ru flew off to wild rose country to snoop around the social lives of black-capped chickadees, in collaboration with Prof. Kim Mathot’s research group at the University of Alberta. This research is part of Ru’s MSc and Emil’s PhD projects.

Here’s a short account of their trip, written by Ru Ratnayake:

trees and snow

The University of Alberta Botanic Garden in winter

The forests surrounding the U of A botanic garden were magnificent in the winter. Most mornings we would spot blue jays, nuthatches, chickadees, woodpeckers, or waxwings the moment we stepped into the forest. In a few days, Kim and Jan had us fully trained on setting up mist nets, handling chickadees, and banding them. Captured chickadees were fitted with a unique passive-integrated transponder (PIT) that allows us to detect each tagged bird as it visits the seed feeders at the site.

Emil with a chickadee

PhD student Emil Isaksson

Holding the nearly 12 g birds was a magical feeling. Emil would go on to say, “I felt like a Disney princess”. Unfortunately, this moment was understandably less magical for the chickadees, who relentlessly pecked at our fingers as we took measurements and fitted bands.

setting up the video camera

Recording video at the feeders

Emil and I also set up cameras at each feeder so we could covertly observe social interactions. The cameras recorded over an hour of footage per feeder, despite the frigid temperatures drastically reducing their battery life. Each video was full of interactions, and it was fascinating to see the way chickadees lined up at the feeder for a seed. Rude nuthatches would cut said lines and we captured many chases between birds. My favourite moment? Whenever a plump chickadee (I call him Gus gus) refused to take a seed and leave, and would hold up the line while casually eating seeds before getting ousted.

group of researchers in the field

Emil and Ru (left) with Kim Mathot (right) and Jan Wijmenga (centre-right) from U of A

We are super grateful to Roz, Kim and Jan for this research trip and its experiences, the skills we developed, and the opportunity to see where the data in our projects come from. And we can’t wait to see what our data reveals about the learning and social behaviour of this chickadee community.

Photos by Ru Ratnayake

Visiting the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences

This month, lab members Ilias Berberi, Lauren Miner and I travelled to Baton Rouge, Louisiana for a research trip to the LSU Museum of Natural Sciences.

Ilias with hummingbirds

Ilias serves up a tray of hummingbird skins

LSU is renowned for its tremendous collection of tropical birds from South and Central America. We were there to collect measures of skeletal traits related to flight. This project will allow us to study the evolution of flight performance and how it is shaped by social behaviour.

Lauren with condor wing

Lauren with a California condor, a species with a 10-foot wingspan

Lauren, Ilias and I were an amazing team! We measured 589 hummingbirds in just a few days. Once we got up to speed, our record was churning through 167 hummingbird skeletons in a single day. This has to be a world record – I don’t think anyone else has measured that many hummingbird skeletons ever, let alone in a single day.

sword-billed hummingbird skull

A kkull of a sword-billed hummingbird, Ensifera ensifera. Their bills are 10-12 cm, longer than the rest of their body!

We easily reached our goal of measuring all of the hummingbird species in the collection, and had enough time to collect data from their manakin collection (Pipridae) as well.

Very excited about these projects! We are very grateful to Steve Cardiff and curator Nick Mason at LSU for their warm welcome and all of their help in the collection.

bee hummingbird

The bee hummingbird from Cuba is the smallest bird in the world

Photos by Lauren Miner, Ilias Berberi and Roz Dakin.

Animal Behavior Society 2020 virtual meeting

The Animal Behavior Society conference was this week, and we were thrilled to take part in this virtual meeting with talks by Ilias, Erin, Paisley, Roz and Sam!

Here’s Ilias on the question of what makes a hummingbird unpredictable:

Erin presented her research on bird collisions and why some bird species are especially prone to mortality:

Paisley and I talked about recent work on social networks in wire-tailed manakins with coauthor Brandt Ryder:

Thanks to the organizers who put together an online meeting on short notice. We really enjoyed it and I think the quality of the talks was better than any meeting I’ve been to before. We missed the real socializing but found the virtual format to even the playing field in some ways with more opportunity for questions & discussion.

#elxn42 Burnaby debate

My friend Terry Beech is running for parliament in the Burnaby North-Seymour riding. Charlie and I are helping with his campaign – Charlie is his campaign manager, and I’m part of his team of volunteers. It’s shaping up to be an exciting three-way race between Terry (the Liberal), Mike Little (Conservative), and Carol Baird-Ellan (NDP). The press has highlighted Burnaby North-Seymour as a “riding to watch”. Go Terry!

One of the highlights was attending a local candidates debate last week.

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Dennis Hlynsky’s small brains en masse

Dennis Hlynsky’s videos are among the best things I’ve seen online recently. Check ’em out:

Hlynsky uses frame-blending to great effect, to give you a sense of overall motion trajectories. When he turns his lens on animals, the results are both beautiful (see fruit flies paint a still life here), and an exciting way to visualize huge amounts of data. It’s got me thinking I could use this method to illustrate the 100s of hummingbird flights in our latest experiment here at UBC in a single animation.

Thanks to Suzanne Amador Kane for pointing these out to me!