Tag Archives: birds

Kicking off flight with a protein boost!

A new chapter of my research was just published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS)!

A Blackpoll Warbler flies in the dark wind tunnel. These are nocturnal migrants, so all of the flights occurred after sundown when they would typically take off for their long flights (and when you get peak levels of sleep-deprived graduate students).

This research shows that migratory warblers flown in a wind tunnel for up to a record-breaking 28 hours burn a lot more protein than we expect in the first few hours of flight. This is surprising because most animals use protein as a fuel of last resort, since it comes from vital organs and muscles (which, yes, are important if you’re flapping non-stop for days on end)! While we don’t know why these birds burn so much protein early in flight, this does help to parse some of the options. For example, maybe they’re just really stressed when they start flying? Or maybe they use this to lighten their load right away by burning up organs that they don’t need while they’re flying, like their gut?

These migratory birds, like the Blackpoll Warbler shown below, are built for this kind of ultra-endurance exercise. But migratory birds are some of the most vulnerable species as the climate changes, so understanding how they use fuel in flight can help us figure out what they really need on their migratory journeys!

One of our captive migratory Blackpoll Warblers flying in the wind tunnel (Image credit: Sherri & Brock Fenton).

You can read more about the research at this UMass Amherst press release or at this Kudos board!

Also, a special thanks to Sherri & Brock Fenton for the wonderful photos of our Blackpoll Warblers in flight in the wind tunnel at the Advanced Facility for Avian Research!

The bird doctor is in!

On December 15, I finally completed my Ph.D.!

 I wrapped up six years worth of research with my PhD defense to a full room of folks on campus and an equally impressive showing live via Zoom, and thankfully with a recording I have been able to share it even further with folks who weren’t able to make it to the 9am weekday kickoff!! I’ve been so elated and feel a huge weight has lifted, no doubt thanks to the overwhelming show of support from friends, family, and colleagues.

I’m not sure that it’s fully registered yet, but I’m happy to reach this milestone with so many people to thank along the way. All of the research and the ups and downs along the way have really brought truth to our unofficial lab motto: “I don’t know if it’s possible, but it’s not impossible!”

Day 12: Ready to fledge??

According to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of the World (https://birdsoftheworld.org/bow/species/grycat/cur/introduction), Gray Catbirds tend to leave the nest, or fledge, between 8 – 12 days. At this point they should be ~80% of their adult mass and you can see that their feathers already look much more complete than they did yesterday! Fledglings will usually leave the nest with developed flight feathers but clumsy flight, and they’re still reliant on parental care (for about 12 more days in catbirds). This is a very vulnerable stage in their lives.

They look ready to fledge, but they’re about to embark on a dangerous stage in their lives outside the nest!

Back in 2019, Rosenburg et al. published research in Science using decades of standardized bird surveys and weather radar to show that North America’s breeding bird numbers have shrunken by an estimated three billion since the 1970s. That means that more than 1 in 4 birds has disappeared in the past 50 years. While the biggest declines were in grassland birds, there are substantial losses everywhere and habitat loss is a huge reason. But cats are another.

A study of Gray Catbirds in a suburban area (much like this nest) found that predation accounts for almost 80% of fledgling mortality and 47% of the known predation came from domestic cats. Outdoor and feral cats are believed to kill about 2.4 billion birds annually (that’s four times more than collisions with windows and 10,000 times more than wind turbines). I know I’ve seen many outdoor cats wandering my neighborhood, so we can only hope that these birds go unnoticed. While we’ve watched these nestlings grow with the incredible care of the parents, the hardest may be yet to come.

Visit this link to see the 7 simple actions you can take to help birds! https://www.3billionbirds.org/7-simple-actions

Day 9: Look, new feathers!

At this point, the nestlings are at about 75% of their adult body mass and their rate of growth slows a bit as energy goes to the fun stuff: feathers!

As adults, birds don’t grow new feathers all at once. They have a programmed molt schedule to drop old feathers and grow new ones in an orderly fashion so they avoid the naked exposure we see in these nestlings. After all, they still need to fly to avoid predators! (Sea ducks, like eiders, molt all of their flight feathers at once and they look pretty awkward flap-running away along the surface of the water!)

Growing new feathers is exhausting, so these nestlings enjoy guilt-free meals

But growing feathers is also energetically expensive. Feathers are mostly protein (like keratin, the stuff of hair and fingernails) and make up about a quarter of a bird’s total protein. This makes molting a very demanding period of their lives, and even when they do it gradually it still takes raises their energy demand by 10% or more. And that’s when it’s a few feathers at a time…imagine all of them at once!

Gray Catbird nest!

In early July I noticed a Gray Catbird eyeing an existing nest right outside my front door. This was unexpected because the nest was left over from last year, and it was only uncovered with some shrub-trimming last fall. Interestingly, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology Birds of the World species account for the Gray Catbird mentions that a “new nest is usually built for each brood and for renests, but there is one observation of reuse of a Gray Catbird nest between years (Marshall et al. 2001).”

Catbird eggs are typically a nice shade of blue.

Because of this, I thought maybe she was just checking out the existing nest, especially since it was relatively late in the season and it would likely be a renest or second brood. But by July 12 she was incubating two beautiful blue eggs! I wasn’t sure how many eggs she’d lay, since clutch sizes vary from 1 – 6 eggs, but I wanted to keep an eye on her without disturbing the nest. I mounted a GoPro camera above the nest to remotely take videos and monitored her progress, but she stuck with just the two eggs. Stay tuned to see what happened!

A GoPro camera mounted above the nest will let me monitor their progress without disturbing the birds!