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Concept: Birds of the United States


For decades, ecologists have measured habitat attributes in the field to understand and predict patterns of animal distribution and abundance. However, the scale of inference possible from field measured data is typically limited because large-scale data collection is rarely feasible. This is problematic given that conservation and management typical require data that are fine grained yet broad in extent. Recent advances in remote sensing methodology offer alternative tools for efficiently characterizing wildlife habitat across broad areas. We explored the use of remotely sensed image texture, which is a surrogate for vegetation structure, calculated from both an air photo and from a Landsat TM satellite image, compared with field-measured vegetation structure, characterized by foliage-height diversity and horizontal vegetation structure, to predict avian density and species richness within grassland, savanna, and woodland habitats at Fort McCoy Military Installation, Wisconsin, USA. Image texture calculated from the air photo best predicted density of a grassland associated species, grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum), within grassland habitat (R(2)  = 0.52, p-value <0.001), and avian species richness among habitats (R(2)  = 0.54, p-value <0.001). Density of field sparrow (Spizella pusilla), a savanna associated species, was not particularly well captured by either field-measured or remotely sensed vegetation structure variables, but was best predicted by air photo image texture (R(2)  = 0.13, p-value = 0.002). Density of ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapillus), a woodland associated species, was best predicted by pixel-level satellite data (mean NDVI, R(2)  = 0.54, p-value <0.001). Surprisingly and interestingly, remotely sensed vegetation structure measures (i.e., image texture) were often better predictors of avian density and species richness than field-measured vegetation structure, and thus show promise as a valuable tool for mapping habitat quality and characterizing biodiversity across broad areas.

Concepts: Habitat, Prediction, Habitats, Grassland, Remote sensing, American sparrow, Birds of the United States, Spizella


Avian keratin disorder (AKD), characterized by debilitating overgrowth of the avian beak, was first documented in black-capped chickadees (Poecile atricapillus) in Alaska. Subsequently, similar deformities have appeared in numerous species across continents. Despite the widespread distribution of this emerging pathology, the cause of AKD remains elusive. As a result, it is unknown whether suspected cases of AKD in the afflicted species are causally linked, and the impacts of this pathology at the population and community levels are difficult to evaluate. We applied unbiased, metagenomic next-generation sequencing to search for candidate pathogens in birds affected with AKD. We identified and sequenced the complete coding region of a novel picornavirus, which we are calling poecivirus. Subsequent screening of 19 AKD-affected black-capped chickadees and 9 control individuals for the presence of poecivirus revealed that 19/19 (100%) AKD-affected individuals were positive, while only 2/9 (22%) control individuals were infected with poecivirus. Two northwestern crows (Corvus caurinus) and two red-breasted nuthatches (Sitta canadensis) with AKD-consistent pathology also tested positive for poecivirus. We suggest that poecivirus is a candidate etiological agent of AKD.

Concepts: Causality, Tit, Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile, Carolina Chickadee, Birds of the United States, Birds of Canada, Red-breasted Nuthatch


Mixed-species groups are common and are thought to provide benefits to group members via enhanced food finding and antipredator abilities. These benefits could accrue due to larger group sizes in general but also to the diverse species composition in the groups. We tested these possibilities using a novel feeder test in a wild songbird community containing three species that varied in their dominant-subordinate status and in their nuclear-satellite roles: Carolina chickadees (Poecile carolinensis), tufted titmice (Baeolophus bicolor), and white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis). We found that chickadees and titmice were more likely to obtain seed from the novel feeder with greater diversity of species composition in their mixed-species flocks. For successful chickadee flocks, furthermore, the latency to obtain seed from the novel feeder was shorter the more diverse their flocks were. These results in a natural setting indicate that diversity, per se, can benefit individuals in mixed-species groups in biologically meaningful contexts such as finding food in novel places.

Concepts: Tit, Black-capped Chickadee, Poecile, Carolina Chickadee, Birds of the United States, Tufted Titmouse, Black-crested Titmouse, Titmice


Species distribution models (SDM) link species occurrence with a suite of environmental predictors and provide an estimate of habitat quality when the variable set captures the biological requirements of the species. SDMs are inherently more complex when they include components of a species' ecology such as conspecific attraction and behavioral flexibility to exploit resources that vary across time and space. Wading birds are highly mobile, demonstrate flexible habitat selection, and respond quickly to changes in habitat quality; thus serving as important indicator species for wetland systems. We developed a spatio-temporal, multi-SDM framework using Great Egret (Ardea alba), White Ibis (Eudocimus albus), and Wood Stork (Mycteria Americana) distributions over a decadal gradient of environmental conditions to predict species-specific abundance across space and locations used on the landscape over time. In models of temporal dynamics, species demonstrated conditional preferences for resources based on resource levels linked to differing temporal scales. Wading bird abundance was highest when prey production from optimal periods of inundation was concentrated in shallow depths. Similar responses were observed in models predicting locations used over time, accounting for spatial autocorrelation. Species clustered in response to differing habitat conditions, indicating that social attraction can co-vary with foraging strategy, water-level changes, and habitat quality. This modeling framework can be applied to evaluate the multi-annual resource pulses occurring in real-time, climate change scenarios, or restorative hydrological regimes by tracking changing seasonal and annual distribution and abundance of high quality foraging patches.

Concepts: Bird, Stork, Threskiornithidae, Ibis, American White Ibis, Birds of the United States, Great Egret, Eudocimus


Rothstein (Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, 11, 1982, 229) was one of the first comprehensive studies to examine how different egg features influence egg rejection behaviors of avian brood parasite-hosts. The methods and conclusions of Rothstein (1982) laid the foundation for subsequent experimental brood parasitism studies over the past thirty years, but its results have never been evaluated with replication. Here, we partially replicated Rothstein’s (1982) experiments using parallel artificial model egg treatments to simulate cowbird (Molothrus ater) parasitism in American robin (Turdus migratorius) nests. We compared our data with those of Rothstein (1982) and confirmed most of its original findings: (1) robins reject model eggs that differ from the appearance of a natural robin egg toward that of a natural cowbird egg in background color, size, and maculation; (2) rejection responses were best predicted by model egg background color; and (3) model eggs differing by two or more features from natural robin eggs were more likely to be rejected than model eggs differing by one feature alone. In contrast with Rothstein’s (1982) conclusion that American robin egg recognition is not specifically tuned toward rejection of brown-headed cowbird eggs, we argue that our results and those of other recent studies of robin egg rejection suggest a discrimination bias toward rejection of cowbird eggs. Future work on egg recognition will benefit from utilizing a range of model eggs varying continuously in background color, maculation patterning, and size in combination with avian visual modeling, rather than using model eggs which vary only discretely.

Concepts: American Robin, Brood parasite, Brown-headed Cowbird, Birds of the United States, Robin egg blue


Lisovski et al.[1] describe the widely recognized limitations of light-level geolocator data for identifying short-distance latitudinal movements, recommend that caution be used when interpreting such data, intimated that we did not use such caution and argued that environmental shading likely explained the Golden-winged Warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera) movements described in our 2015 report [2]. Lisovski et al.[1] conclude that the bird movements we reported could not be disentangled from estimation error in stationary animals caused by environmental shading. We argue that, to the contrary, these hypotheses can easily be disentangled because the premise that environmental shading caused synchronous and parallel error among geolocators is false. With their assertion that our location estimates could be biased by >3,500 km on a day with no observable local sources of shading, Lisovski et al.[1] have taken a position of incredulity toward all geolocator-based animal movement data published to date.

Concepts: Scientific method, Critical thinking, Argument, Birds of the United States, New World warbler, Golden-winged Warbler, Vermivora, Blue-winged Warbler


From 2015 to 2016 we determined the husbandry protocols involved in the captive rearing of the Band-tailed Pigeon (BTPI), Patagioenas fascinate albilinea, for use as a tool in the future management of like extant and extinct avian taxa. Current and historical ex-situ conservation management of BTPIs and the closely related Passenger Pigeon, Ectopistes migratorius, is limited in scope and required further examination. Focus on the BTPI within zoos and private aviculture facilities is currently lacking. New pressures on the wild populations and future examination of the parameters involved in the possible restoration of the Passenger Pigeon may rely on a complete understanding of these conservation management techniques. Here we report on the establishment of a colony of BTPIs, at the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), and detail the progress attained. A confiscated group of BTPIs was presented to WCS and allowed us to set up the colony, document the husbandry involved, and monitor neonatal development and the factors that influence that development. The information has provided a better understanding of the BTPI and has implications for the future conservation management of this and like species.

Concepts: Conservation biology, Extinction, Ex-situ conservation, Columbidae, Birds of the United States, Zoo, Passenger Pigeon, Band-tailed Pigeon


Grazing on natural rangelands, which are areas dominated by native vegetation that are used for livestock grazing, can achieve desired vegetation outcomes, preserve native habitat, and economically benefit multiple stakeholders. It is a powerful tool that can be manipulated to reduce wildlife declines and benefit ecosystems. However, the benefits of conservation grazing systems on many wildlife communities remain relatively unexplored. We compared songbird communities between two grazing systems in eastern Montana: rest-rotation, which is a conservation grazing system, and season-long. We measured differences in abundance of eight songbird species over a two year period using dependent double-observer transect surveys and a multispecies dependent double-observer abundance model. The species were chosen to be representative of the sagebrush grassland community: a sagebrush obligate, Brewer’s sparrow (Spizella breweri); a faculatative grassland species, brown-headed cowbird (Molothrus ater); grassland obligate species, chestnut-collared longspur (Calcarius ornatus), horned lark (Eremophila alpestris), lark bunting (Calamospiza melanocorys), McCown’s longspur (Rhynchophanes mccownii), and western meadowlark (Sturnella neglecta); and a generalist, vesper sparrow (Pooecetes gramineus). Our results show that these species exhibit mixed responses to these two grazing systems. The sagebrush obligate (Brewer’s sparrow), generalist (vesper sparrow), and two grassland associated species (horned lark and chestnut-collared longspur) were equally abundant on both grazing systems, suggesting grazing system had no effect on their abundance. However, the remainder of the grassland associated species showed a response to grazing: three (brown-headed cowbird, lark bunting, and western meadowlark) were more abundant in season-long than rest-rotation, whereas one (McCown’s longspur) was more abundant in rest-rotation. These results suggest that differences in grazing management affect a subset of grassland obligate species and that only one species, McCown’s longspur, preferred conservation grazing. Our findings provide useful information for assessing the suitability of grazing as a conservation tool for songbirds.

Concepts: American sparrow, Birds of the United States, Birds of Canada, Birds of North America, Birds of Mexico


We examined thermoregulatory performance in seven Sonoran Desert passerine bird species varying in body mass from 10 to 70g - Lesser Goldfinch, House Finch, Pyrrhuloxia, Cactus Wren, Northern Cardinal, Abert’s Towhee and Curve-billed Thrasher. Using flow-through respirometry we measured daytime resting metabolism, evaporative water loss and body temperature at air temperatures (Tair) between 30° and 52°C. We found marked increases in resting metabolism above the upper critical temperature (Tuc), which for six of the seven species fell within a relatively narrow range (36.2° - 39.7°C), but which was considerably higher in the largest species, the Curve-billed Thrasher (42.6°C). Resting metabolism and evaporative water loss were minimal below the Tuc and increased with Tair and body mass to maximum values among species of 0.38 - 1.62 W and 0.87 - 4.02 g H2O hr(-1) Body temperature reached maximum values ranging from 43.5° to 45.3°C. Evaporative cooling capacity, the ratio of evaporative heat loss to metabolic heat production, reached maximum values ranging from 1.39-2.06, consistent with known values for passeriforms and much lower than values in taxa such as columbiforms and caprimulgiforms. These maximum values occurred at heat tolerance limits (HTL) that did not scale with body mass among species, but were ∼50°C for all species except the Pyrrhuloxia and Abert’s Towhee (HTL=48°C). High metabolic costs associated with respiratory evaporation appeared to drive the limited heat tolerance in these desert passeriforms, compared to larger desert columbiforms and galliforms that use metabolically more efficient mechanisms of evaporative heat loss.

Concepts: Metabolism, Energy, Bird, Finch, Emberizidae, Birds of the United States, Birds of Mexico, Fauna of the Sonoran Desert


Obligate avian brood parasitic species impose the costs of incubating foreign eggs and raising young upon their unrelated hosts. The most common host defence is the rejection of parasitic eggs from the nest. Both egg colours and spot patterns influence egg rejection decisions in many host species, yet no studies have explicitly examined the role of variation in spot coloration. We studied the American robin Turdus migratorius, a blue-green unspotted egg-laying host of the brown-headed cowbird Molothrus ater, a brood parasite that lays non-mimetic spotted eggs. We examined host responses to model eggs with variable spot coloration against a constant robin-mimetic ground colour to identify patterns of rejection associated with perceived contrast between spot and ground colours. By using avian visual modelling, we found that robins were more likely to reject eggs whose spots had greater chromatic (hue) but not achromatic (brightness) contrast. Therefore, egg rejection decision rules in the American robin may depend on the colour contrast between parasite eggshell spot and host ground coloration. Our study also suggests that egg recognition in relation to spot coloration, like ground colour recognition, is tuned to the natural variation of avian eggshell spot colours but not to unnatural spot colours.

Concepts: Color, Hue, American Robin, Brood parasite, Brood parasites, Molothrus, Brown-headed Cowbird, Birds of the United States