Recordings Powering New Research

By Kathi Borgmann
Yellow-breasted Chat

Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens

  • Alabama, Barbour, United States

Movie stars have the Oscars and ornithologists, well, they have the North American Ornithological Conference (NAOC). While not quite as extravagant as the Oscars, for ornithologists, NAOC is the biggest event of the year. This year the event took place in August and looked a little different. Instead of thousands of ornithologists meeting in person to discuss the latest research, nearly 3,000 ornithologists met online for the first virtual NAOC.

The fast-paced virtual event featured new and innovative research in progress and hot off the press. And just like the Oscars there were awards too. Students who communicated their science clearly and with zest received the coveted Presentation Award. Nicholas Mason, Jennifer Walsh, and Sara Kaiser from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology also took home the Ned K. Johnson Early Investigator Award and the James G. Cooper Early Professional Award, for outstanding research achievements by early-career professionals in ornithology.

During the conference I heard many excellent talks from researchers using recordings shared by eBirders from around the world that are archived in the Macaulay Library. Recordings from the community power some seriously cool science. Here’s a round-up of a few presentations from the NAOC powered by recordings the Macaulay Library.

Eastern Meadowlark (Lilian's)

Eastern Meadowlark (Lilian's) Sturnella magna [lilianae Group]

  • New Mexico, Hidalgo, United States

Johanna Beam, a recent graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder, used recordings in the Macaulay Library to assess vocal differences among Western and Eastern Meadowlarks throughout Canada, the United States, and Mexico. Previous work identified plumage and vocal differences between the Lilian’s subspecies that occurs in the arid southwest including Arizona, Texas, New Mexico, and northern Mexico states of Sonora and Chihuahua and Eastern and Western Meadowlarks, but additional research was needed to determine if the Lilian’s subspecies is distinct enough to warrant species status. Beam used recordings shared by birders in the U.S. and Mexico and found that the Lilian subspecies is vocally distinct from Eastern and Western Meadowlarks.

Eastern Meadowlark (Lilian's) Sturnella magna [lilianae Group]

  • Arizona, United States

Beam says “Lilian’s song is quite different from Eastern and Western. It usually starts with a high-pitched note and then has 2-3 descending whistles.” Genetic analysis conducted by Beam and her team also shows distinct differences. Beam has more work to do, but she hopes her work will help elevate the Lilian’s subspecies to species status to help assess the population and provide additional conservation protections. Be on the lookout for official results and analysis in the future—maybe we’ll have a new species soon.

Juan Camilo Ríos-Orjuela, a master’s student at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, is sorting out the taxonomy of the Rusty-margined Flycatcher. Ríos-Orjuela started his work by examining vocal differences among the four subspecies of Rusty-margined Flycatchers using recordings from the Macaulay Library, Xeno-Canto, Wikiaves.com.br, and the Colección de Sonidos Ambientales from the Instituto Alexander von Humboldt (now housed at the Macaulay Library).

Rusty-margined Flycatcher

Rusty-margined Flycatcher Myiozetetes cayanensis

  • Mato Grosso, Brazil

He found that one subspecies in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest seemed to be missing a note, sparking him to dig deeper to determine if these subspecies differ in other characteristics too. Ríos-Orjuela examined how plumage characteristics and body size differ among the four established subspecies of the Rusty-margined Flycatcher. He found that the four subspecies differ based on plumage and body size. One subspecies found in dry areas of SE Brazilian Atlantic Forest was different from all the rest in terms of plumage and body size suggesting that this subspecies could be a candidate to elevate to species status. Ríos-Orjuela is still working on his project and plans to continue to investigate how voice and plumage characteristics differ among Rusty-margined Flycatchers. Keep an ear open for a new species of Rusty-margined Flycatcher.

Bird songs and calls are key for territorial defense, mate attraction, and communication with mates and young. Vocal communication is also how birds themselves figure out who’s who. Marie Chappell, an undergraduate at Cornell University, used recordings from the Macaulay Library to help understand if variation in vocalizations across the Yellow-breasted Chat’s range affect the ability of chats to recognize each other. Chappell played the songs of Yellow-breasted Chats from Kentucky to Yellow-breasted chats in Arizona and vice versa. If the songs differed enough Chappell expected the chats might react differently when they heard a song not from their local population. Chappell found that chats moved closer to the speaker when the speaker was playing a local chat song than when a non-local chat song was played. But the number of flights and calls in response to both local and foreign songs played by the speaker were similar suggesting that despite differences in vocalizations from Kentucky to Arizona, chats still recognize each other. Chappell says “using songs in an experiment like this one is sort of like talking to and getting to know the birds yourself. By using the wealth of location-specific information stored in the Macaulay Library, I was able to better understand how birds would interact with another bird from across the country.”

Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens

  • Kentucky, Pulaski, United States

Yellow-breasted Chat Icteria virens

  • Arizona, Santa Cruz, United States

The research highlighted here only touches the surface of the fascinating studies I heard about that are taking advantage of songs and calls shared by community scientists around the world to answer a myriad of questions. Recordings shared by eBirders really do power cool science. Thank you for sharing your recordings.

If you have research to share, please contact klb274 AT cornell.edu