Will we soon see another wave of bird extinctions in the Americas?

by Alexander C. Lees, Cornell University and Jacob B. Socolar, Princeton University

In the shady recesses of unassuming forest patches in eastern Brazil, bird species are taking their final bows on the global evolutionary stage, and winking out.

These are obscure birds with quaint names: Alagoas Foliage-Gleaner, Pernambuco Pygmy-Owl, Cryptic Treehunter. But their disappearance portends a turning point in a global biodiversity crisis.

Bird extinctions are nothing new. Human activity has already wiped out over a thousand species. But the vast majority of these occurred on oceanic islands. Today, although island species remain disproportionately threatened, we are witnessing a historic shift towards the endangerment of continental species of birds. The Alagoas Foliage-Gleaner, last seen in 2011, looks increasingly like the tip of an iceberg.

This new wave of threats, driven primarily by habitat loss, is deeply troubling because South American forests are home to such a concentration of bird diversity, yet our conservation strategies are still a work in progress.

The trouble with the tropics

To appreciate the significance of today’s looming extinctions in the tropics, we must travel north to the great deciduous forests of the eastern United States, which are haunted by the ghosts of extinctions past. Here, the opportunity to experience the double raps of Ivory-billed Woodpeckers, sun-obscuring clouds of Passenger Pigeons, raucous flocks of Carolina Parakeets, and the monotone song of the Bachman’s Warbler is seemingly forever lost.

The blame for these four infamous extinctions has been laid firmly at the door of historic deforestation.

In the early 20th century, the last remaining old-growth fell to the sawmills, almost without exception. Given the ubiquity of the logging, perhaps the most noteworthy feature of this extinction episode is that it did not involve more species.

The European experience was even more striking. The wholesale clearing of Europe’s primeval forest apparently did not cause a single bird extinction. The logical conclusion is that it is very difficult to drive continental birds extinct.

Why then are forest birds beginning to go extinct on mainland South America, home of the largest and most intact tropical forests on Earth?

We must face two equally unsettling conclusions. The first is that forest destruction, particularly in Brazil’s Atlantic rainforest, has reached continental-scale proportions, with almost no nook or cranny spared. And the second is that it may not be nearly as difficult to drive extinct in the tropics as in the temperate zone.

Biologists Stuart Pimm and Robert Askins have argued that the eastern USA witnessed few avian extinctions simply because most of its birds have very large geographic ranges. In South America, the situation is dramatically different.

South America is both the evolutionary cradle and current champion of global bird biodiversity; the authoritative regional list totals 3,368 species – around one third of all the word’s birds. Many of these species have small ranges, restricted to particular countries or even to particular mountains or forest types.

Unique features of the life history of tropical birds led to an overly rosy assessment of their future. Author and academic Bjorn Lomborg, for example, claimed that the lack of extinctions following the destruction of Brazil’s Atlantic forest showed that the biodiversity crisis is overblown.

But extinctions may lag far behind forest loss, a phenomenon known as the “extinction debt” which may be paid over hundreds of years.

Tropical birds typically live for longer than their temperate counterparts. Thus, the last pairs of rare species may make their last stand in their fragmented forest redoubts for decades. Indeed, several species have paid this price, and more may already be committed to extinction.

The last known Alagoas Foliage-gleaner photographed in Pernambuco, Brazil in November 2010
Ciro Albano/NE Brazil Birding

Need to develop strategies

The situation in northeast Brazil is particularly dire.

A few dozen Alagoas Antwrens cling to survival in less than six tiny forest patches. The Alagoas Foliage-gleaner, presented to science along with the Antwren for the first time in the 1980s, was known from only two patches. The last known individual was photographed for the final time in November 2011. We can only guess how many more species will be lost from this region where new species are discovered and others are disappearing on a near-annual basis.

But what of Amazonia, the last great tropical forest wilderness and bastion of tropical biodiversity?

Although deforestation rates have fallen since 2004, there are still grounds for concern. Pressure on existing protected areas from dam-building and mining interests is increasing, and the existing reserve network poorly protects the hardest hit regions.

Arable fields in eastern Amazonia, former forest haunts of the endemic Belem Curassow, illustrated in the inset to the right of the similar Bare-faced Curassow. This former species was last documented in the wild decades ago.
both images Alexander Charles Lees, curassow specimens ©Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi

Furthermore, Amazonia is divided into different biogeographic regions known as ‘areas of endemism’ that each contain species found nowhere else. Even today, taxonomists continue to recognize new divisions in Amazonian birds, often elevating former subspecies to species status. The Belem Curassow was recently recognized as a species and occurs only in the most deforested part of the Amazon. The last documented record in the wild was over 35 years ago.

Unless a population is discovered in the embattled Gurupi reserve, this species may be the first recorded Amazonian bird extinction. Hot on its heels is the Iquitos Gnatcatcher, known only from a tiny and heavily deforested area of unique stunted forest in Peru. Only six pairs are known, and the bird has proven harder to find every year.

The Iquitos Gnatcatcher hangs by a thread in small patches of stunted forest near Iquitos, Peru. Only six pairs are known.
José Álvarez Alonso, used with permission

Some of these species need immediate and drastic conservation interventions, but their plight seems to be largely ignored by governments and international environmental groups. Restoring forest around these last fragments is crucial for long-term population viability.

However, for some species captive breeding with an eye to future reintroduction may be the only way forward. Such measures have already saved the Spix’s Macaw and Alagoas Curassow from global extinction – populations of these species exist only in captivity. However, while we have centuries of experience breeding parrots and gamebirds, we know far less about breeding small songbirds.

In fact, most of what we know about managing songbird populations comes from islands, and it is unclear how well this knowledge will translate to the mainland. Island species are adapted to maintain small populations and may be better able to recover from genetic bottlenecks. And, quick fixes such as controlling invasive predators have helped to restore populations. But mainland birds face a different suite of threats, dominated by habitat loss.

Clearly, we must not assume that tropical forest birds will prove as resilient to human activity as their temperate brethren. But though the situation is critical, we also see grounds for optimism.

In Peru, for instance, new endangered species legislation has convened a working group to develop a conservation strategy for the Iquitos Gnatcatcher. In the meantime, a small reserve has been created that protects the few remaining territories. Across the border in Brazil exciting plans are being drawn up to reintroduce the Alagoas Curassow back into the wild.

There is an immediate need to support and expand such actions. The next five to ten years will be critical for many species of South American birds teetering on the brink of extinction.

The Conversation

Alexander C. Lees, Postdoctoral Fellow at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Cornell University and Jacob B. Socolar, PhD Candidate in Ecology and Evolution, Princeton University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Journal Club 2015 Year-in-Review

Our UNM Ornithology Journal Club read 101 papers this year, ranging in year-of-publication from 1970-2016, and in impact-factor from below zero to 41. In addition to bird evolution & ecology, topics ranged from human genetics to geology, butterflies to malaria. Though we didn’t have time to discuss all 101, our consensus favorites were #’s 1, 12, 18, 20, 24, 25, 26, 30, 31, 40, 42, 48, 50, 52, 56, 64, 85, 88, 94, 101.

We originally intended to blog about each paper, but who has time to do that? Instead, here are our super-brief commentaries on each paper, in red text following each entry.

We welcome your opinions in the Comments section – particularly regarding ‘must-reads’ that we missed.

  1. Asghar, M., Hasselquist, D., Hansson, B., Zehtindjiev, P., Westerdahl, H., & Bensch, S. (2015). Chronic infection. Hidden costs of infection: chronic malaria accelerates telomere degradation and senescence in wild birds. Science, 347(6220), 436–438. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1261121
    This is the best paper we read all year. Novel empirical data convincingly showed that low-level chronic malaria infection leads to shortened telomeres and early death. This has profound implications for mechanisms of longevity and avian population biology in general (since avian malaria is everywhere).
  2. Assaf, Z. J., Petrov, D. A., & Blundell, J. R. (2015). Obstruction of adaptation in diploids by recessive, strongly deleterious alleles. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20), E2658–E2666. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1424949112
    A theoretical demonstration of a powerful idea that was completely new to us, but makes perfect sense — that deleterious recessive alleles that lurking in the genome pose an obstacle to rapid adaptation if they are linked to a beneficial allele. 
  3. Bacon, C. D., Silvestro, D., Jaramillo, C., Smith, B. T., Chakrabarty, P., & Antonelli, A. (2015). Biological evidence supports an early and complex emergence of the Isthmus of Panama. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(19), 6110–6115. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1423853112
    This is a huge claim for Neotropical biogeography, and that makes this a very important paper. The devil is in the “and complex” part. Molecular clocks are still a bitch though, just as mid-Cenozoic animal dispersal between continents is still a conundrum.
  4. Bailey, R. I., Tesaker, M. R., Trier, C. N., & Saetre, G. P. (2015). Strong selection on male plumage in a hybrid zone between a hybrid bird species and one of its parents. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 28(6), 1257–1269. http://doi.org/10.1111/jeb.12652A fascinating narrow cline between Italian Sparrow and House Sparrow, centered on a high ridge of the Alps, near the Italy-Switzerland border. Crown color is claimed to be under strong selection, reinforcing reproductive isolation… there’s probably a lot more to this story.
  5. Barker, F. K., Burns, K. J., Klicka, J., Lanyon, S. M., & Lovette, I. J. (2015). New insights into New World biogeography: An integrated view from the phylogeny of blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, warblers, and allies. The Auk, 132(2), 333–348. http://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-14-110.1
    We loved this paper, as the simple, rigorous description of the species-level phylogeny of the biggest New World songbird clade continues to illuminate how American bird communities came to be.
  6. Bhullar, B.-A. S., Morris, Z. S., Sefton, E. M., Tok, A., Tokita, M., Namkoong, B., et al. (2015). A molecular mechanism for the origin of a key evolutionary innovation, the bird beak and palate, revealed by an integrative approach to major transitions in vertebrate history. Evolution, 69(7), 1665–1677. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12684
    This is nifty evo-devo. The authors pinpoint a “gene expression region” unique to birds that probably is responsible for the development of the beak. Then they knock it out in chicken embryos and produce something more similar to a dinosaur.
  7. Bloch, N. I., Price, T. D., & Chang, B. S. W. (2015). Evolutionary dynamics of Rh2 opsins in birds demonstrate an episode of accelerated evolution in the New World warblers (Setophaga). Molecular Ecology, 24(10), 2449–2462. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13180We liked this paper, even though statistical support for central finding was modest.
  8. Borowiec, M. L., Lee, E. K., Chiu, J. C., & Plachetzki, D. C. (2015). Dissecting phylogenetic signal and accounting for bias in whole-genome data sets: a case study of the Metazoa (pp. 1–39). http://dx.doi.org/10.1101/013946Ctenophores and cnidarians are not sister taxa. Interesting. Our interest in this paper, however, was the proposed workflow for “minimizing systematic bias in whole genome-based phylogenetic analyses”.
  9. Brusatte, S. L., O’Connor, J. K., & Jarvis, E. D. (2015). The Origin and Diversification of Birds. Current Biology, 25(19), R888–R898. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.08.003
    Nice 3-page summary of state of knowledge.
  10. Campagna, L., Gronau, I., Silveira, L. F., Siepel, A., & Lovette, I. J. (2015). Distinguishing noise from signal in patterns of genomic divergence in a highly polymorphic avian radiation. Molecular Ecology, 24(16), 4238–4251. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13314
    Really nice empirical paper on a rapid radiation of seedeaters (little ground-dwelling tanagers). ddRad-Seq finds genes that can distinguish the species from one-another… but these skeptical authors then randomized the species-assignments for each individual and they found the same result — an important cautionary tale that highlights the seedeaters as a biological conundrum. A good reminder that it’s an exciting time to be studying bird speciation.
  11. Careau, V., & Garland, T., Jr. (2015). Energetics and behavior: many paths to understanding. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 30(7), 365–366. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.04.007
    A thought-provoking short commentary that points out that energy use does not necessarily reveal energy constraints. It concludes that correlative studies of links between energetics and personality (or other aspects of behavior) could be misleading. It’s always important to keep challenging the assumptions that prop up evolutionary claims of comparative studies.
  12. Claramunt, S., & Cracraft, J. (2015). A new time tree reveals Earth history’s imprint on the evolution of modern birds. Science Advances, 1(11), e1501005–e1501005. http://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.1501005
    This was a great paper. The link here between cold climate and fast bird diversification will become text-book paradigm, and the basis for a new module in Ornithology class at UNM.
  13. Clarkson, C. S., Weetman, D., Essandoh, J., Yawson, A. E., Maslen, G., Manske, M., et al. (1AD). Adaptive introgression between Anopheles sibling species eliminates a major genomic island but not reproductive isolation. Nature Communications, 5, 1–10. http://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms5248 Inter-species introgression is so hot right now.
  14. Cooper, N., Thomas, G. H., & Venditti, C. (2015). A cautionary note on the use of Ornstein Uhlenbeck models in macroevolutionary studies. Biological Journal of …http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/bij.12701/full. Important for anyone thinking of applying O-U models for comparative analyses. We’ve always suspected there was a bit of voodoo in applying a “mean-reverting” model. These three smarter minds have now begun to clarify that for us.
  15. Cracraft, J., Houde, P., Ho, S. Y. W., Mindell, D. P., Fjeldså, J., Lindow, B., et al. (2015). Response to Comment on “Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds”. Science, 349(6255), 1460–1460. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aab1578
    This blustery, hand-wavey argument is remarkably informative — a great read! Summary: yes, the Mitchell et al. criticism of our methods is correct, but our results are probably close to correct anyway.
  16. De-Silva, D. L., Elias, M., Willmott, K., Mallet, J., & Day, J. J. (2015). Diversification of clearwing butterflies with the rise of the Andes. Journal of Biogeography, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.12611
    This is a good demonstration of a really thorough biogeographic analysis of a diverse Neotropical groups. Of course we love it every time the Andes are implicated, fitting our confirmation bias, just as we expected!
  17. Dierickx, E. G., Shultz, A. J., Sato, F., Hiraoka, T., & Edwards, S. V. (2015). Morphological and genomic comparisons of Hawaiian and Japanese Black-footed Albatrosses ( Phoebastria nigripes) using double digest RADseq: implications for conservation. Evolutionary Applications, 8(7), 662–678. http://doi.org/10.1111/eva.12274
    Nice dataset showing that Black-footed Albatross have low evolutionary effective population size, and very recent divergence between Japan and Hawaii. So they have strong philopatry in real time — it does NOT mean that they can’t colonize new areas rapidly in evolutionary time.
  18. Duckworth, R. A., Belloni, V., & Anderson, S. R. (2015). Evolutionary ecology. Cycles of species replacement emerge from locally induced maternal effects on offspring behavior in a passerine bird. Science, 347(6224), 875–877. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1260154
    The connection between the maternal effects and the cycle of species replacement were a little fuzzy, but it didn’t matter — this paper was extremely interesting, and helped us understand the connections between post-fire regeneration and community composition in western US forest birds (specifically Mountain and Western Bluebirds).
  19. Duret, L., & Galtier, N. (2009). Biased Gene Conversion and the Evolution of Mammalian Genomic Landscapes. Annual Review of Genomics and Human Genetics, 10(1), 285–311. http://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-genom-082908-150001
    A 6-yr old paper, but describes a mechanism of increasing importance in comparative genomics: “This apparently unimportant feature of our molecular machinery, [GC-biased gene-conversion], has major evolutionary consequences.”
  20. Edwards, S. V., Xi, Z., Janke, A., Faircloth, B. C., McCormack, J. E., Glenn, T. C., et al. (2016). Implementing and testing the multispecies coalescent model: A valuable paradigm for phylogenomics. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 94(Part A), 447–462. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2015.10.027
    Must-read for phylogeneticists. A convincing response to the biting criticisms of species-tree methods that were launched by Springer and Gatesy (and were unfortunately vituperative).
  21. Enard, D., Messer, P. W., & Petrov, D. A. (2014). Genome-wide signals of positive selection in human evolution. Genome Research, 24(6), 885–895. http://doi.org/10.1101/gr.164822.113
    1000 genomes showed that adaptation was frequent during human evolution, and targeted mostly regulatory sequences.
  22. Engler, J. O., Secondi, J., Dawson, D. A., Elle, O., & Hochkirch, A. (2015). Range expansion and retraction along a moving contact zone has no effect on the genetic diversity of two passerine birds. Ecography, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.01520
    In mobile species such as Hippolais warblers, there’s no reason to expect differences in genetic diversity or structure between range edges and range center.
  23. Feduccia, A. (2014). Avian extinction at the end of the Cretaceous: Assessing the magnitude and subsequent explosive radiation. Cretaceous Research, 50, 1–15. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cretres.2014.03.009
    An essay that provides perspective from a knowledgeable paleo-ornithologist. Although he has many controversial ideas on other topics, his 1995 Science paper on the avian big bang has been corroborated by many subsequent studies of fossils and DNA. 
  24. Fitzpatrick, M. C., & Keller, S. R. (2014). Ecological genomics meets community-level modelling of biodiversity: mapping the genomic landscape of current and future environmental adaptation. Ecology Letters, 18(1), 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1111/ele.12376
    “We identify a threshold response to temperature in the circadian clock gene GIGANTEA-5 (GI5) [in balsam poplar].” That’s freaking cool!
  25. Foll, M., Gaggiotti, O. E., Daub, J. T., Vatsiou, A., & Excoffier, L. (2014). Widespread Signals of Convergent Adaptation to High Altitude in Asia and America. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 95(4), 394–407. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ajhg.2014.09.002
    This is an amazing demonstration of convergence on different continents — will definitely be core reading in our UNM High Altitude Biology Class.
  26. Fontaine, M. C., Pease, J. B., Steele, A., Waterhouse, R. M., Neafsey, D. E., Sharakhov, I. V., et al. (2015). Extensive introgression in a malaria vector species complex revealed by phylogenomics. Science, 347(6217), 1258524–1258524. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1258524
    A/The premier example of inter-species introgression.
  27. Frantz, L. A. F., Madsen, O., Megens, H.-J., Schraiber, J. G., Paudel, Y., Bosse, M., et al. (2015). Evolution of Tibetan wild boars. Nature Publishing Group, 47(3), 188–189. http://doi.org/10.1038/ng.3197
    A critique of boar genomics paper (Li et al.) previously published in Nature; it seems that genomics can’t get enough of these cautionary tales. Yes, some genomics is sleight-of-hand.
  28. Freeman, B. G. (2015). Competitive Interactions upon Secondary Contact Drive Elevational Divergence in Tropical Birds. The American Naturalist, 186(4), 470–479. http://doi.org/10.1086/682703
    We were initially critical of this — circular reasoning, sampling biases, etc. — but the patterns as illustrated are pretty cool, even if some of our group thought that they were only masquerading as novel, and Freeman’s interpretations are probably right — yeah, we’re going to cite this afterall. Recommended reading.
  29. Friedman, N. R., & Remeš, V. (2015). Global geographic patterns of sexual size dimorphism in birds: support for a latitudinal trend? Ecography, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.01531
    A respectable ‘negative-results’ paper.
  30. Galen, S. C., Natarajan, C., Moriyama, H., Weber, R. E., Fago, A., Benham, P. M., et al. (2015). Contribution of a mutational hot spot to hemoglobin adaptation in high-altitude Andean house wrens. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(45), 13958–13963. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1507300112
    OK, this is our paper — but hey, we love it.
  31. Giarla, T. C., & Esselstyn, J. A. (2015). The Challenges of Resolving a Rapid, Recent Radiation: Empirical and Simulated Phylogenomics of Philippine Shrews. Systematic Biology, 64(5), 727–740. http://doi.org/10.1093/sysbio/syv029
    This is an important paper because it showed that for a difficult phylogenetic problem, concatenation provided an answer, but species-tree analysis didn’t. The authors argued convincingly that concatenation was probably providing false high support.
  32. Gill, F. B. (2014). Species taxonomy of birds: Which null hypothesis? The Auk, 131(2), 150–161. http://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-13-206.1
    We disagree.
  33. Good, J. M., Vanderpool, D., Keeble, S., & Bi, K. (2015). Negligible nuclear introgression despite complete mitochondrial capture between two species of chipmunks. Evolution, 69(8), 1961–1972. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12712
    Two thumbs up — in many cases we have suspected that this is happening (mtDNA alone in jumping btwn taxa), but Good et al. show it convincingly. This is very important to keep in mind when interpreting phylogeographic datasets.
  34. Gossmann, T. I., Santure, A. W., Sheldon, B. C., Slate, J., & Zeng, K. (2014). Highly Variable Recombinational Landscape Modulates Efficacy of Natural Selection in Birds. Genome Biology and Evolution, 6(8), 2061–2075. http://doi.org/10.1093/gbe/evu157
    Recombination abets selection. Cool.
  35. Guillot, G., & Rousset, F. (2013). Dismantling the Mantel tests. Methods in Ecology and Evolution, 4(4), 336–344. http://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210x.12018
    Wow, this is important. We’ve seen some 2014 and 2015 papers whose authors should have read this before using partial Mantel tests (which are very likely biased!).
  36. Hartmann, S. A., Schaefer, H. M., & Segelbacher, G. (2014). Genetic depletion at adaptive but not neutral loci in an endangered bird species. Molecular Ecology, 23(23), 5712–5725. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.12975
    The Pale-headed Brushfinch has a 200-hectare range! It’s microsats indicate ample genetic diversity. But an immune gene complex, TLR, has very low diversity, and TLR diversity was inversely related to survival (!). This is intriguing, even though sample sizes were necessarily small.
  37. Heers, A. M., & Dial, K. P. (2015). Wings versus legs in the avian bauplan: Development and evolution of alternative locomotor strategies. Evolution, 69(2), 305–320. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12576
    Ornithologists should read this. Great illustration of developmental and evolutionary tradeoffs.
  38. Ho, S. Y. W., & Duchêne, S. (2014). Molecular-clock methods for estimating evolutionary rates and timescales. Molecular Ecology, 23(24), 5947–5965. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.12953
    We try to keep up with Ho’s papers on time-dependency of molecular rate calibrations. Fascinating, and still emerging. More empirical data needed.
  39. Ho, S., Duchêne, S., Molak, M., & Shapiro, B. (2015). Time‐dependent estimates of molecular evolutionary rates: evidence and causes. Molecular Ecology.
    See above.
  40. Hooper, D. M., & Price, T. D. (2015). Rates of karyotypic evolution in Estrildid finches differ between island and continental clades. Evolution, 69(4), 890–903. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12633
    Highly recommended: “These results point to adaptation as the dominant mechanism driving fixation and suggest a role for gene flow in karyotype divergence.”
  41. Hosner, P. A., Braun, E. L., & Kimball, R. T. (2015). Land connectivity changes and global cooling shaped the colonization history and diversification of New World quail (Aves: Galliformes: Odontophoridae). Journal of Biogeography, 42(10), 1883–1895. http://doi.org/10.1111/jbi.12555
    This is the best example yet of Miocene avian colonization of the New World across the Bering landbridge.
  42. James, F. C. (1970). Geographic size variation in birds and its relationship to climate. Ecology.
    A classic, and still a great read. Wet-bulb Temperature. Dry-bulb Temperature. Gotta understand these to understand temperature effects on animal traits.
  43. Jehl, J. R., Jr, Henry, A. E., & Swanson, D. L. (2014). Ratios, adaptations, and the differential metabolic capability of avian flight muscles. Journal of Avian Biology, 46(2), 119–124. http://doi.org/10.1111/jav.00506
  44. Jetz, W., Thomas, G. H., Joy, J. B., Redding, D. W., Hartmann, K., & Mooers, A. O. (2014). Global Distribution and Conservation of Evolutionary Distinctness in Birds. Current Biology, 24(9), 919–930. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2014.03.011
    Data-rich. Put aside a full hour to stare at Figure 2’s global maps of evolutionary distinctness.
  45. Jones, M. R., & Good, J. M. (2015). Targeted capture in evolutionary and ecological genomics. Molecular Ecology, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13304
    Authors are alum & friend of UNM Ornithology, and the technique is one that we’re investing in heavily, so naturally, we recommend this highly!
  46. Jønsson, K. A., Lessard, J.-P., & Ricklefs, R. E. (2015). The evolution of morphological diversity in continental assemblages of passerine birds. Evolution, 69(4), 879–889. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12622
    A big analysis, with kind of a negative result (“idiosyncratic” patterns prevail. But we found this one bit of wisdom to be a gem: “…species within passerine clades are continuously replacing each other, which may lead to a more gradual filling of niche space over time, as opposed to rapid filling during an initial burst.”
  47. Kress, W. J. (2014). Valuing collections. Science, 346(6215), 1310–1310. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa4115
    Understated case, perhaps, but this pro-collecting editorial was a nice bonus to the Avian Phylogenomics burst of pubs in late 2014.
  48. Lamichhaney, S., Berglund, J., Almén, M. S., Maqbool, K., Grabherr, M., Martinez-Barrio, A., et al. (2015). Evolution of Darwin’s finches and their beaks revealed by genome sequencing. Nature, 1–16. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature14181
    Timed for Darwin Day, but influence will last. Recommended.
  49. Lavretsky, P., Engilis, A., Jr, Eadie, J. M., & Peters, J. L. (2015). Genetic admixture supports an ancient hybrid origin of the endangered Hawaiian duck. Journal of Evolutionary Biology, 28(5), 1005–1015. http://doi.org/10.1111/jeb.12637
    Very stimulating paper… not 100% convincing with respect to ‘ancient hybrid origin’, but debatable.
  50. Le Duc, D., Renaud, G., Krishnan, A., Almén, M. S., Huynen, L., Prohaska, S. J., et al. (2015). Kiwi genome provides insights into evolution of a nocturnal lifestyle. Genome Biology, 1–15. http://doi.org/10.1186/s13059-015-0711-4
    Typical of a genomics paper in that actual insights into biology were few, but we came away impressed with this paper anyway.
  51. Leisler, B., & Winkler, H. (2015). Evolution of island warblers: beyond bills and masses. Journal of Avian Biology, 46(3), 236–244. http://doi.org/10.1111/jav.00509
    This is a great paper — bunches of morphological traits examined over bunches of island populations. Robust analyses, insightful interpretations.
  52. Londoño, G. A., Chappell, M. A., Castañeda, M. D. R., Jankowski, J. E., & Robinson, S. K. (2014). Basal metabolism in tropical birds: latitude, altitude, and the “pace of life.” Functional Ecology, 29(3), 338–346. http://doi.org/10.1111/1365-2435.12348
    One of our favorite papers of the year. Kudos to our colleagues at UF, UBC, UCR, and Cali. We’re looking forward to the next paper from this project.
  53. Lowe, C. B., Clarke, J. A., Baker, A. J., Haussler, D., & Edwards, S. V. (2015). Feather development genes and associated regulatory innovation predate the origin of Dinosauria. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 32(1), 23–28. http://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msu309
    Textbook demo of how genomes can be used to pinpoint trait origins.
  54. Lumley, A. J., Michalczyk, Ł., Kitson, J. J. N., Spurgin, L. G., Morrison, C. A., Godwin, J. L., et al. (2015). Sexual selection protects against extinction. Nature, 522(7557), 470–473. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature14419
    No. No it doesn’t. Not our fav paper, but perhaps a good illustration of a different perspective and approach to evolutionary biology.
  55. Macías-Duarte, A., & Conway, C. J. (2015). Spatial patterns in hydrogen isotope ratios in feathers of Burrowing Owls from western North America. The Auk, 132(1), 25–36. http://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-13-061.1
    Deuterium is a low-resolution tool. Try something else.
  56. Mangano, V. D., & Modiano, D. (2014). ScienceDirect An evolutionary perspective of how infection drives human genome diversity: the case of malaria. Current Opinion in Immunology, 30, 39–47. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.coi.2014.06.004
    Pathogens drive diversity, this review summarizes the empirical evidence for the co-evolutionary arms race that is closest to home.
  57. Marki, P. Z., Fabre, P.-H., Jønsson, K. A., Rahbek, C., Fjeldså, J., & Kennedy, J. D. (2015). Breeding system evolution influenced the geographic expansion and diversification of the core Corvoidea (Aves: Passeriformes). Evolution, 69(7), 1874–1924. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12695
    Interesting to look at diversification and geography in light of breeding system. On the other hand, some dubious ancestral state estimation here, and I’m skeptical that the rate of cooperative breeding -> pair breeding transitions is much higher than the reverse, and that cooperative breeding is ancestral state for the clade.
  58. Mason, N. A., & Taylor, S. A. (2015). Differentially expressed genes match bill morphology and plumage despite largely undifferentiated genomes in a Holarctic songbird. Molecular Ecology, 24(12), 3009–3025. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13140
    This is one of our favorite papers on the year. The apparent genetic identity between redpolls despite gene expression differences is a conundrum that needs solving.
  59. McCormack, J. E., Tsai, W. L. E., & Faircloth, B. C. (2015). Sequence capture of ultraconserved elements from bird museum specimens. Molecular Ecology Resources, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/1755-0998.12466
    Two thumbs up — more justification for the extensive time and effort we spend on collecting, specimen prep, and curation. Kudos to McCormack et al.
  60. McLean, B. S., Bell, K. C., Dunnum, J. L., Abrahamson, B., Colella, J. P., Deardorff, E. R., et al. (2015). Natural history collections-based research: progress, promise, and best practices. Journal of Mammalogy, gyv178–12. http://doi.org/10.1093/jmammal/gyv178
    Our sister collection at MSB produced a damn good review. As useful for ornithologists as mammalogists (continuing the long-term convergence among the vertebrate-ologies).
  61. Merckx, V. S. F. T., Hendriks, K. P., Beentjes, K. K., Mennes, C. B., Becking, L. E., Peijnenburg, K. T. C. A., et al. (2015). Evolution of endemism on a young tropical mountain. Nature, 524(7565), 347–350. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature14949
    Kinabalu is awesome. This paper is futuristic in its comprehensive phylo treatment of a tropical biota. Impressive.
  62. Mitchell, K. J., Cooper, A., & Phillips, M. J. (2015). Comment on “Whole-genome analyses resolve early branches in the tree of life of modern birds.” Science, 349(6255), 1460–1460. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aab1062
    A must read. We agree (but we don’t think it undercuts the importance of Jarvis et al. 2014).
  63. Montes, C., Cardona, A., Jaramillo, C., Pardo, A., Silva, J. C., Valencia, V., et al. (2015). Middle Miocene closure of the Central American Seaway. Science, 348(6231), 226–229. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.aaa2815Important in light of Bacon et al., 2015, above.
  64. Natarajan, C., Hoffmann, F. G., Lanier, H. C., Wolf, C. J., Cheviron, Z. A., Spangler, M. L., et al. (2015). Intraspecific Polymorphism, Interspecific Divergence, and the Origins of Function-Altering Mutations in Deer Mouse Hemoglobin. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 32(4), 978–997. http://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msu403
    Outstanding integrative evolutionary genetics.
  65. Norris, L. C., Main, B. J., Lee, Y., Collier, T. C., Fofana, A., Cornel, A. J., & Lanzaro, G. C. (2015). Adaptive introgression in an African malaria mosquito coincident with the increased usage of insecticide-treated bed nets. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(3), 815–820. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1418892112
    Awesome illustration of introgression as well as human-driven evolution.
  66. Ocampo-Peñuela, N., & Pimm, S. L. (2015). Elevational Ranges of Montane Birds and Deforestation in the Western Andes of Colombia. PloS One, 10(12), e0143311–15. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0143311
    “…as expected, [elevational] ranges were larger in forested transects.” Simple but profound.
  67. Pardo-Diaz, C., Salazar, C., Baxter, S. W., Merot, C., Figueiredo-Ready, W., Joron, M., et al. (2012). Adaptive Introgression across Species Boundaries in Heliconius Butterflies. PLoS Genetics, 8(6), e1002752–13. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pgen.1002752
    Repeated adaptive introgression from one species to another — awesome.
  68. Patterson, N., Moorjani, P., Luo, Y., & Mallick, S. (2012). Ancient admixture in human history. . http://doi.org/10.1534/genetics.112.145037/-/DC1
    Yes, there was a lot of admixture — a highly recommended analysis by the gurus in the field.
  69. Persons, W. S., IV, & Currie, P. J. (2015). Bristles before down: A new perspective on the functional origin of feathers. Evolution, 69(4), 857–862. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12634
    This paper was popular among our undergrad evolution students. Very simple, clear evolutionary logic; as a result, it’s convincing that the first function of feathers was unlikely to have been insulation.
  70. Polechová, J., & Barton, N. H. (2015). Limits to adaptation along environmental gradients. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(20), 6401–6406. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1421515112
    OK, this was too heavily theoretical for many of us… but we’re convinced of it’s importance, e.g.: “The theory predicts sharp range margins even in the absence of abrupt changes in the environment.” That’s pretty freaking cool. As is this: “gradual worsening of conditions across a species’ habitat may lead to a sudden range fragmentation, when adaptation to a wide span of conditions within a single species becomes impossible.”
  71. Prum, R. O., Berv, J. S., Dornburg, A., Field, D. J., Townsend, J. P., Lemmon, E. M., & Lemmon, A. R. (2015). A comprehensive phylogeny of birds (Aves) using targeted next-generation DNA sequencing. Nature, 526(7574), 569–573. http://doi.org/10.1038/nature15697
    Ok, this is an undeniably excellent study. But in light of its hype we feel justified in being critical — this is no big advance over Jarvis et al. 2014. Possibly taxon-sampling effects on topology might have been over-played, but the next few years of progress in genomics will tell us whether or not that’s the case. The topological conflicts with Jarvis’ Figure 1 tree highlight the challenges that remain in deep Neoavian phylogeny.  I don’t think it would be going out on a limb to say that the exaBayes tree of Prum’s Fig. 1 has inflated node support values (nonetheless, it’s a spectacular figure). 
  72. Pyle, P., Engilis, A., Jr, & Kelt, D. A. (2015). Manual for Ageing and Sexing Birds of Bosque Fray Jorge National Park and Northcentral Chile, with Notes on Range and Breeding Seasonality, 1–156.
    Yeah, we bet this one went under your radar, but it is a trove of natural history for west slope Andean birds of northern Chile (and, by extension, sw Peru).
  73. Pyron, R. A. (2015). Post-molecular systematics and the future of phylogenetics. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 30(7), 384–389. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.04.016
    Useful, concise perspective on recent development in the field, but insufficiently nuanced. Appropriately skeptical of diversification analyses (but probably too harsh on comparative methods in general, by extension). Definitely worth a read, must-read for students.
  74. Qu, Y., Tian, S., Han, N., Zhao, H., Bin Gao, Fu, J., et al. (2015). Genetic responses to seasonal variation in altitudinal stress: whole-genome resequencing of great tit in eastern Himalayas. Nature Publishing Group, 1–10. http://doi.org/10.1038/srep14256
    Outstanding advance in high-altitude biology & ornithology.
  75. Rabosky, D. L., Title, P. O., & Huang, H. (2015). Minimal effects of latitude on present-day speciation rates in New World birds. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1809), 20142889–8. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2014.2889
    Great ‘negative-result’ paper.
  76. Reeve, A. H., Borregaard, M. K., & Fjeldså, J. (2015). Negative range size-abundance relationships in Indo-Pacific bird communities. Ecography, n/a–n/a. http://doi.org/10.1111/ecog.01622
    Very curious & counterintuitive findings, demands followup.
  77. Robbins, M. B., & Nyári, Á. S. (2014). Canada to Tierra del Fuego: species limits and historical biogeography of the Sedge Wren (Cistothorus platensis). The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, 126(4), 649–662. http://doi.org/10.1676/13-162.1
    Widespread clade with lots of local adaptation and under-appreciated diversity — this is a super-valuable first-pass at its range-wide phylogeography.
  78. Robin, V. V., Vishnudas, C. K., Gupta, P., & Ramakrishnan, U. (2015). Deep and wide valleys drive nested phylogeographic patterns across a montane bird community. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B: Biological Sciences, 282(1810), 20150861–8. http://doi.org/10.1098/rspb.2015.0861
    Himalayan bird phylogeography emerging.
  79. Sánchez-González, L. A., Navarro-Sigüenza, A. G., Krabbe, N. K., Fjeldså, J., & García-Moreno, J. (2014). Diversification in the Andes: the Atlapetes brush-finches. Zoologica Scripta, 44(2), 135–152. http://doi.org/10.1111/zsc.12088
    Recommended only for fans of this clade.
  80. Schluter, D. (2016). Speciation, Ecological Opportunity, and Latitude. The American Naturalist, 187(1), 1–18. http://doi.org/10.1086/684193
  81. Serrano, D. A., & Hickerson, M. J. (2015). Model misspecification confounds the estimation of rates and exaggerates their time dependency. Molecular ….
    Critical accompaniment to the Ho papers.
  82. Slater, G. J. (2015). Iterative adaptive radiations of fossil canids show no evidence for diversity-dependent trait evolution. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(16), 4897–4902. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1403666111. This is a tremendous paleo dataset; eye-opening regarding canid-diversity during the Cenozoic (though we thought the power of the diversity-dependence thing was probably overplayed). Recommened.
  83. Smith, N. A., Chiappe, L. M., Clarke, J. A., Edwards, S. V., Nesbitt, S. J., Norell, M. A., et al. (2015). Rhetoric vs. reality: A commentary on “Bird Origins Anew” by A. Feduccia. The Auk, 132(2), 467–480. http://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-14-203.1
    Originally, we flippantly wrote “‘Big Dino’ punishes non-conformity,” but it’s been pointed out to us that that is an unfair characterization. Hey, it’s a heavy-hitting author line — have a read for yourself.
  84. Springer, M. S., & Gatesy, J. (2016). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution. Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, 94(Part A), 1–33. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.ympev.2015.07.018
    Second in a series of though-provoking but overly aggressive attacks on species-tree methods. One one hand, the discussion of recombination effects on species-trees is fascinating. On the other hand, it’s written in a take-no-prisoners, combative style (a rarity for MPE, but another sign that the journal may have lost its edge).
  85. Steadman, D. W., Albury, N. A., Kakuk, B., Mead, J. I., Soto-Centeno, J. A., Singleton, H. M., & Franklin, J. (2015). Vertebrate community on an ice-age Caribbean island. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 201516490–9. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516490112
    One of the coolest papers of the year if you’re interested in global change. Utterly shocking to see how much the Bahamas avifauna has changed (for the worse!) over the past few thousand years.
  86. Stoltzfus, A., & McCandlish, D. M. (2015). Mutation-biased adaptation in Andean house wrens. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 112(45), 13753–13754. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1518490112Outstanding persepective piece on mutational influences on adaptation.
  87. Storz, J. F., Bridgham, J. T., Kelly, S. A., & Garland, T., Jr. (2015). Genetic approaches in comparative and evolutionary physiology. American Journal of Physiology – Regulatory, Integrative and Comparative Physiology, 309(3), R197–R214. http://doi.org/10.1152/ajpregu.00100.2015
    Important review on evolutionary genetics and physiology from a UNM Ornithology collaborator.
  88. Suh, A., Smeds, L., & Ellegren, H. (2015). The Dynamics of Incomplete Lineage Sorting across the Ancient Adaptive Radiation of Neoavian Birds. PLOS Biology, 13(8), e1002224–18. http://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pbio.1002224
    Figure 1 went viral on Twitter, for good reason. This is an outstanding followup to Jarvis et al. 2014, an enlightening analysis of the intractable nodes at the base of Neoaves.
  89. Toews, D. P. L. (2015). Biological species and taxonomic species: Will a new null hypothesis help? (A comment on Gill 2014). The Auk, 132(1), 78–81. http://doi.org/10.1642/AUK-14-138.1
    We agree.
  90. Tufts, D. M., Natarajan, C., Revsbech, I. G., Projecto-Garcia, J., Hoffmann, F. G., Weber, R. E., et al. (2015). Epistasis Constrains Mutational Pathways of Hemoglobin Adaptation in High-Altitude Pikas. Molecular Biology and Evolution, 32(2), 287–298. http://doi.org/10.1093/molbev/msu311
    Outstanding study of hemoglobin adaptation, demonstrating  interactions among different mutations (epistasis).
  91. Villegas, M., & Garitano-Zavala, Á. (2010). Bird community responses to different urban conditions in La Paz, Bolivia. Urban Ecosystems, 13(3), 375–391. http://doi.org/10.1007/s11252-010-0126-7
    You probably missed this one, but we think that an analysis of the avifauna of the world’s highest-altitude capital is fascinating for what’s on it and what’s not. Urban ornithology is emerging and La Paz’s unique bird list is pretty freaking cool.
  92. Violle, C., Reich, P. B., Pacala, S. W., Enquist, B. J., & Kattge, J. (2014). The emergence and promise of functional biogeography. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 111(38), 13690–13696. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1415442111
    Yeah, we buy in bigtime – functional biogeography is the future.
  93. Wang, I. J., & Bradburd, G. S. (2014). Isolation by environment. Molecular Ecology, 23(23), 5649–5662. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.12938
    IBE. A must read.
  94. Warren, D. L., Cardillo, M., Rosauer, D. F., & Bolnick, D. I. (2014). Mistaking geography for biology: inferring processes from species distributions. Trends in Ecology & Evolution, 29(10), 572–580. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2014.08.003
    Although inferring processes from species distributions is one of our fav things to do, it should not be attempted at home. Seriously, we applaud this much-needed critique. Macroecologists take note of this, please!
  95. Weir, J. T., Faccio, M. S., Pulido-Santacruz, P., Barrera-Guzmán, A. O., & Aleixo, A. (2015). Hybridization in headwater regions, and the role of rivers as drivers of speciation in Amazonian birds. Evolution, 69(7), 1823–1834. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12696
    We liked this paper a lot, but we don’t think it was a story about headwaters, but rather one about environmental gradients causing the confluence of multiple hybrid zones in one small area. The conceptual framework, while elegant, was simplified in a way that probably missed the mark. Nonetheless, highly recommended for those interested in Amazonian biogeography.
  96. Wiersma, P., Nowak, B., & Williams, J. B. (2012). Small organ size contributes to the slow pace of life in tropical birds. Journal of Experimental Biology, 215(10), 1662–1669. http://doi.org/10.1242/jeb.065144
    We missed this when it came out, but now think that organ size holds many more secrets. Great paper with nice data.
  97. Willis, C. G., & Davis, C. C. (2015). Rethinking migration. Science, 348(6236), 766–766. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.348.6236.766-a
    Important background in light of Bacon et al. 2015, above.
  98. Winger, B. M., & Bates, J. M. (2015). The tempo of trait divergence in geographic isolation: Avian speciation across the Marañon Valley of Peru. Evolution, 69(3), 772–787. http://doi.org/10.1111/evo.12607
    Plumage divergence and mtDNA divergence are linked. This is a very convincing demonstration of that link.
  99. Winger, B. M., Hosner, P. A., Bravo, G. A., Cuervo, A. M., Aristizábal, N., Cueto, L. E., & Bates, J. M. (2015). Inferring speciation history in the Andes with reduced-representation sequence data: an example in the bay-backed antpittas (Aves; Grallariidae; Grallaria hypoleucas. l.). Molecular Ecology, 24(24), 6256–6277. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.13477
    Elegant phylogeography study of a charasmatic Andean taxon. Recommended.
  100. Zancolli, G., Rödel, M.-O., Steffan-Dewenter, I., & Storfer, A. (2014). Comparative landscape genetics of two river frog species occurring at different elevations on Mount Kilimanjaro. Molecular Ecology, 23(20), 4989–5002. http://doi.org/10.1111/mec.12921
    Nice study of African frog landscape genetics — effects of elevation (high species more fragmented), and human settlements (on low elev species).
  101. Zhang, G., Li, C., Li, Q., Li, B., Larkin, D. M., Lee, C., et al. (2014). Comparative genomics reveals insights into avian genome evolution and adaptation. Science, 346(6215), 1311–1320. http://doi.org/10.1126/science.1251385. Undeniably a landmark paper, even if not a fine work of literature.  Rather, it’s a loosely connected series of vignettes, suffering from writing-by-committee (factual mistakes and frustrating omissions of key citations). Nonetheless important and pioneering in several ways. A must-read.

Birds in the Anthropocene: Scientific evidence of rapid change

The world is changing at an unprecedented pace. Warming of two to four degrees Celsius appears to be inevitable by the end of this century, at which time the human population will exceed 10 billion. This is the Anthropocene, a new geological epoch in which humans are the dominant ecological force. Emerging scientific evidence shows that our impacts are dramatically affecting birds.

We need not look further than Albuquerque backyards to see that bird populations respond quickly to environmental change. Before the post-war expansion of the city, most of it was desert grassland, with Horned Larks aplenty. Now the larks have been replaced by species that subsist wholly on urban subsidies: water, trees, and birdseed. The birdseed feeds White-winged Doves and House Sparrows, which are then eaten by Cooper’s Hawks and Greater Roadrunners, respectively. Native species such as Bullock’s Orioles, Black-headed Grosbeaks, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds have expanded their populations into the mulberries and Chinese elms that line the streets.

Consistent with our local experience, ornithologists measuring bird populations are reporting evidence of rapid change throughout the world. Here are four striking examples:

  1. Humans are directly eliminating one of the world’s most intelligent bird species, the African Gray Parrot, from its wild habitats in west Africa. A new study has shown that populations have declined by 90-99% in Ghana over the past two decades (Annorbah, Collar, & Marsden, 2015). The primary cause is trapping for the pet trade. Like wild elephants, wild African Gray Parrots cannot withstand unfettered market forces.
  2. Indirect human impacts are also contributing to bird population declines. In a pristine Amazonian rainforest, the entire avifauna has declined in abundance by 40-50% since 2008 (Blake & Loiselle, 2015). The study site in northeastern Ecuador has been monitored since 2001 by Bette Loiselle and John Blake of the University of Florida. The leading hypothesis for the decline, according to Loiselle and Blake, is climate change.
  3. Long-term declines in survival rates of North American birds seem to have both direct and indirect anthropogenic causes. A recent study of data from breeding-season banding stations revealed persistently reduced survival rates following the invasion of West Nile Virus, ~15 years ago (George et al., 2015). Particularly hard-hit species include Purple Finch, Swainson’s Thrush, Wrentit, and White-crowned Sparrow. The authors found significant declines in survival rates for about half of the North American species that they examined (23 out of 49). They argued that disease effects could be magnified by habitat destruction and climate warming.
  4. Climate change may help some bird populations, at least temporarily. A new study showed that understory forest birds are thriving in high-altitude forests on Kilimanjaro, where both low and high elevation species increased in abundance over a 20-year period (Dulle et al., 2015). Even this news could be seen as ominous, however, as anyone can see that the cone-shaped Kilimanjaro gets smaller towards the top. Other recent studies have shown that bird species are moving upslope in New Guinea, Costa Rica, and Peru. The ‘climate escalator’ seems to be a global phenomenon.

Figure for Bosque Tracks 2015 Anthropocene articleWhat can we do to help bird populations survive the Anthropocene?

First, we can think globally. Our leading climate scientist, Dr. James Hansen, argues that preventing catastrophic global warming is only possible if we put a price on fossil fuel consumption that accounts for its true cost. This suggests that those of us who abhor the prospect of avian mass extinction should advocate a carbon tax, an idea that has support from both the left (Bernie Sanders) and right (Gregory Mankiw) sides of the political spectrum.

Second, we can act locally. It is possible to reduce bird mortality by our direct actions. For example, we can keep our cats inside. The outdoor cats that we feed and the feral cats that our communities tolerate are major sources of mortality for birds. A 2013 study scientifically estimated the impacts of domestic cats on birds (Loss, Will, & Marra, 2013). Out of ~84 million pet cats in the contiguous United States, about half are allowed outside, and these kill ~1 billion birds per year; feral (unowned) domestic cats kill another ~1.8 billion. This year, Australia launched an effort to cull ~2 million feral cats to reduce stress on its native wildlife populations. In the United States, public awareness of the wildlife carnage inflicted by free-ranging domestic cats is relatively low. Compared to rising carbon dioxide and melting icecaps, lack of awareness seems eminently solvable.

Annorbah, N. N. D., Collar, N. J., & Marsden, S. J. (2015). Trade and habitat change virtually eliminate the Grey Parrot Psittacus erithacus from Ghana. Ibis, in press. http://doi.org/10.1111/ibi.12332

Blake, J. G., & Loiselle, B. A. (2015). Enigmatic declines in bird numbers in lowland forest of eastern Ecuador may be a consequence of climate change. PeerJ, 3, e1177. http://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.1177

Dulle, H. I., Ferger, S. W., Cordeiro, N. J., Howell, K. M., Schleuning, M., Böhning-Gaese, K., & Hof, C. (2015). Changes in abundances of forest understorey birds on Africa’s highest mountain suggest subtle effects of climate change. Diversity and Distributions, in press. http://doi.org/10.1111/ddi.12405

George, T. L., Harrigan, R. J., LaManna, J. A., DeSante, D. F., Saracco, J. F., & Smith, T. B. (2015). Persistent impacts of West Nile virus on North American bird populations. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(46), 14290–14294. http://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1507747112

Loss, S. R., Will, T., & Marra, P. P. (2013). The impact of free-ranging domestic cats on wildlife of the United States. Nature Communications, 4, 1396. http://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms2380

Best Clade Ever? The New World nine-primaried songbirds.

They’re ~811 species of songbirds that share a common ancestor. They’re small to medium-sized, handsome to gaudy, fast-moving, abundant to rare, temperate to tropical, highly migratory to completely sedentary. From the North Slope of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego, the New World avifauna wouldn’t be the same without them. They are the New World nine-primaried oscines (also known as superfamily Emberizoidea), and they included the warblers, blackbirds, sparrows, cardinals, tanagers, and a grab-bag of less notable groups.

A recent phylogenetic study by Keith Barker, and with collaborators John Klicka, Irby Lovette, Kevin Burns, and Scott Lanyon, has provided a near complete, time-calibrated species-level phylogeny of this group (Barker et al. 2013, Barker et al. 2015). This has finally given us a firm basis for a revision of the family and genus-level classification of this group. Inspired by the species-level phylogeny and proposed new phylogenetic classification of this major group, our journal-club group at UNM set out to [re-]learn the families and their characteristics. We teamed up to build an informal Powerpoint ‘guide’ to the families and genera, including the basics of their diversity and distribution. We included images of nearly all of the 201 genera, in 90 slides. We share it with you here on Slideshare.

Images from allaboutbirds blogpost on gaudiest tanagers, clockwise from upper left: Golden-hooded Tanager by Raúl Vega, Opal-rumped Tanager by Joao Quental, Paradise Tanager by Joao Quental, Blue-winged Mountain-Tanager by Bryan Hix, Grass-green Tanager by chris.w.birder, Black-chinned Mountain-Tanager by Ian Billenness, via Neotropical Birds.

One of the coolest things resulting from the Barker et al. studies was a robust description of the history of dispersal between North and South America with the group, summarized in Figure 2 from Barker et al. (2015):

barker et al 15-fig-backbonejpg

The figure shows how the North American ancestor of the nine-primaried oscines colonized South America several times as it diversified, starting way before the closure of the Isthmus of Panama. Overall, there are a surprisingly small number of dispersal events between the continents, and huge variation in diversity and distributional extent among subclades. Most interestingly, it appears that a common ancestor of tanagers and cardinals lived in South America ~13 million years ago. Other groups of nine-primaried oscines that made it to South America (blackbirds, warblers, sparrows) are recent arrivals in comparison.

These papers are a joy to peruse. They allow an ornithologist or birder to organize their existing knowledge of bird traits and distributions according to evolutionary descent. A couple of things that jump out as truly surprising are the deep phylogenetic distinctness of several Caribbean lineages and the extensive inter-continental dispersal that occurred before the closure of the Isthmus of Panama, in both directions. Sometimes the purest and most elegant scientific advances come from improving our description of diversity in the form of a robust, informative phylogeny — we now have that for the nine-primaried oscines songbirds.

Literature cited:

Barker, F. K., K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon, and I. J. Lovette. 2013. Going to extremes: Contrasting rates of diversification in a recent radiation of New World passerine birds. Systematic Biology 62:298-320.

Barker, F. K., K. J. Burns, J. Klicka, S. M. Lanyon, and I. J. Lovette. 2015. New insights into New World biogeography: An integrated view from the phylogeny of blackbirds, cardinals, sparrows, tanagers, warblers, and allies. The Auk: 132(2):333-348.

The exhilarating potential of a new accession

When a new batch of specimens arrive from the field, the museum is abuzz with activity. Students, staff, and curators flock around, picking over the specimens, organizing, identifying, classifying, straightening tags, and making research plans. The potential seems limitless. This is how thousands of hours of work become a permanent resource that will contribute to human knowledge for centuries or millennia to come. Watch the unpacking of this recent accession at the Museum of Southwestern Biology Division of Birds in this time-lapsed video (starring Matt Baumann, Andy Johnson, C. Jonathan Schmitt, Andrea Chavez, Matt Segura, and Chauncey Gadek).

Chris W.

Turning tragedy to treasure: Preserving dead birds teaches us about live ones

When a songbird is plucked out of the air by a speeding Peregrine Falcon, we celebrate its role in the food chain. But millions of birds die less heroically as a result of cars, house cats, or plate-glass windows. Whenever possible, we try to salvage those casualties and put them to good use. If their skins and tissues are preserved in a natural history collection, scientists can use them to study changes in populations over time and space. One recent study of specimens showed that several Australian bird species have evolved smaller body sizes over the past century (Gardner et al. 2009). Systematic salvage efforts will help us to discover whether the same phenomenon may be happening in North American birds.

The Museum of Southwestern Biology (MSB) of the University of New Mexico has been opportunistically salvaging dead birds for over 25 years, and those efforts are beginning to pay scientific dividends. In one study, we used road-killed Short-eared Owls to show that females winter farther south and migrate later in spring than males (Dickerman & Witt 2012). In another study, we used hunter-killed Sandhill Cranes to show how their exceptionally long windpipes evolved (Jones & Witt 2014) and how they can be used to distinguish subspecies based on subtle acoustic differences (Jones & Witt 2012).

Bob Dickerman skinning a salvaged Marabou Stork
Bob Dickerman skinning a salvaged Marabou Stork

One of the most exciting emerging areas in ornithology is the study of migratory connectivity among populations. In 2015, we still don’t know with precision where most birds that winter in New Mexico breed, nor do we know where most birds that breed in New Mexico spend the winter. Current studies by MSB students and staff are studying these questions in the Hermit Thrush and the Yellow-rumped Warbler, two commonly salvaged species for which migratory connectivity is poorly known. Ultimately, genomic and stable isotope analyses of museum specimens will allow us to establish these connections for every species, providing critical information for conservation.

Donna Schmitt skinning a salvaged Tufted Puffin (her 9000th specimen prepared).
Donna Schmitt skinning a salvaged Tufted Puffin (her 9000th specimen prepared).

The most abundant species are also the most commonly salvaged. Although we can’t save every Mourning Dove and House Finch carcass for posterity, we try to save enough to allow future scientists to study change over time. Surprisingly often, salvaged carcasses produce exciting discoveries. Recently, salvaged birds arriving at the MSB have included the state’s first Sooty Tern (Johnson et al. 2011), Long-billed Murrelet (Witt et al. 2010), and “Dusky” Great-horned Owl (Dickerman et al. 2013), respectively. In a recent study, we serendipitously discovered that a specimen salvaged in Chicago and assumed to be Yellow-bellied Flycatcher was in fact the first Illinois record of a Western Flycatcher (Baumann et al. 2014). That bird had been salvaged by a volunteer citizen-science project focused on migrating birds that collide with buildings in Chicago (Chicago Bird Collision Monitors of the Chicago Audubon Society).

Andy Johnson prepares a Trumpeter Swan that was salvaged at Bosque del Apache NWR
Andy Johnson prepares a Trumpeter Swan that was salvaged at Bosque del Apache NWR

Salvaging dead birds is tricky due to the strict laws that protect bird populations. Federal and state laws prohibit possession of wild birds without permits. Current law doesn’t allow for citizen-salvage, but an important workaround is that educational and scientific institutions are allowed to obtain and possess wild birds, even if they don’t have permits1. At the MSB, we maintain state and federal permits for salvage of wild birds, and we also work with other institutions that can legally salvage and transfer birds to us. By coordinating with institutions to safely and legally conduct salvage, citizens can help to prevent dead birds from going to waste. MSB has many institutional partners that provide salvaged birds. Among our partners, Wildlife Rescue, Inc. (Albuquerque), The Wildlife Center (Española), and Desert Willow Rehabilitation Center (Carlsbad) have provided a tremendous number. These and other wildlife rehabilitators in New Mexico work hard to care for sick and injured wildlife and to make the most out of birds that can’t be saved.

Dead birds can be biological hazards. There are bacteria, viruses, and fungi that can be carried by wild birds and are capable of making humans sick. Avian influenza is a well known example, although the highy pathogenic strains that have infected humans are not yet known from the New World (but see this December 2014 discovery from WA!). West Nile Virus is commonly found in New Mexico birds, though transmission occurs via mosquito. The risk of getting sick from a bird carcass is small but definite, so dead birds should always be treated with caution.

When salvage can be accomplished safely and legally, we use an inverted plastic bag to pick up the carcass. We write a note with the exact location, date, finder’s name and contact information, and the context or suspected cause of death (e.g. “found dead below window”). We seal the bird with the note in plastic (ideally double ziplock-bags with the air squeezed out) and freeze it. As soon as possible, we transfer the specimen to a non-frost-free chest freezer at the MSB. At that point, the Collections Manager and student assistants will assess the identity and condition of the bird. The more valuable the bird is for research, the more parts we will attempt to preserve and archive. Eventually, all of the bird’s information will go to our online database, where it will be accessible to everyone. Learn more about the MSB and read what we have been publishing at our website.

References and footnotes

Baumann, M. J., N. D. Pederson, S. C. Galen, & C. C. Witt. 2014. Simple technique for distinguishing Yellow-bellied Flycatchers from Cordilleran and Pacific-slope flycatchers. Journal of Field Ornithology 85:391-396.

Dickerman, R. W., S. M. McNew, & C. C. Witt. 2013. Long-distance movement in the “Dusky” Great Horned Owl and current limits to phylogeography for establishing provenance. Western North American Naturalist 73(4):401-408.

Gardner, J. L., R. Heinsohn, L. Joseph. 2009. Shifting latitudinal clines in avian body size correlate with global warming in Australian passerines. Proceedings of the Royal Society of London B 276:3845-3852.

Johnson, A. B., S. M. McNew, M. S. Graus, and C. C. Witt. 2011. Mitochondrial DNA and meteorological data suggest a Caribbean origin for New Mexico’s first Sooty Tern (Onychoprion fuscatus). Western Birds, 42:233-242.

Jones, M. R., and C. C. Witt. 2012. Vocal formant spacing reveals subspecies composition of non-breeding Sandhill Crane populations. Wildlife Society Bulletin36:47–53.

Jones, M. R., & C. C. Witt. 2014. Migrate small, sound big: Functional constraints on body size promote tracheal elongation in cranes. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 27:1256–1264.

Witt, C. C., M. S. Graus, and H. A. Walker. 2010. Molecular data confirm the first record of Long-billed Murrelet (Brachyramphus perdix) for New Mexico. Western Birds, 41:160-167.

Witt, C. C., and R. W. Dickerman. 2012. Differential migration by sex in North American Short-eared Owls (Asio flammeus). Western Birds, 43:36-47.

1 From 50 CFR § 21.12: “State game departments, municipal game farms or parks, and public museums, public zoological parks, accredited institutional members of the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA) and public scientific or educational institutions may acquire by gift or purchase, possess, transport, and by gift or sale dispose of lawfully acquired migratory birds or their progeny, parts, nests, or eggs without a permit…[provided that certain conditions are met].”

Adapted from a similar article that I wrote for Bosque Tracks Newsletter — special thanks to Jean Mason.

The Ornithology Blog switches from blogger to wordpress.

Blogger is an inflexible format that makes it difficult for readers to comment.

We’re switching to wordpress so that our comments section can get a little spicier (after all, we want authors to be able to respond when we roast their papers).

To see older posts (pre-2015), check our Blogger site:


We hope you enjoy the new site. Contact me if you want to write a guest post.


Christopher C. Witt, Curator

MSB Division of Birds, University of New Mexico