The first complete day of the annual meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union (AOU) is in the books. As I’m sure you know, the AOU is convening this year at the University of Wyoming, in sunny, warm Laramie. I found the sign above taped near the elevator doors in my dorm.
It’s a treat to be here, and for many reasons.
One, surely, was having the opportunity to listen to Rosemary Grant describe 30 years of research on Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos. She and her husband Peter, who listened from the front row, were the subject of Jonathan Weiner’s wonderful 1995 book The Beak of the Finch. (If you haven’t read it, do yourself a favor.) Rosemary was the first speaker in this afternoon’s symposium on speciation.
Another reason was hearing Keith Barker, Kevin Burns, John Klicka, Irby Lovette, and Scott Lanyon describe how they and other scientists are using mtDNA and nuclear data to update our understanding of the relationship of the birds known as nine-primaried oscines. This was the subject of a symposium I enjoyed this morning (and of the lengthy, colorful poster below).
“Nine-primaried oscines” is a fancy name for some pretty familiar birds, currently classified in the families Thraupidae (tanagers), Cardinalidae (cardinals and grosbeaks), Emberizidae (New World sparrows), Icteridae (New World blackbirds), and Parulidae (wood-warblers). The data presented support five new major groupings that correspond roughly to these traditional families, but change, my friends, is clearly in the wind:
-- Tanagers, for example, a group thought to include 413 species and 104 genera, may be better defined to include only 365 species in 89 genera. Among the species to be shuffled off to Buffalo: Scarlet, Western, Hepatic, and Summer Tanagers. They’re not tanagers.
-- Five genera currently assigned to the New World sparrows (Old World buntings among them) are probably better placed elsewhere in the songbird tree, and two now placed among the tanagers appear to belong within the sparrows.
-- Chats don’t belong with the wood-warblers -- and neither does Olive Warbler, or Cuba’s Teretistris warblers (the Yellow-headed Warbler and Oriente Warbler), or the Wrenthrush of Costa Rica and Panama. And the next time you see an Ovenbird, tell your birding buddies you saw the sister to all wood-warblers.
News from tonight’s poster session:
The Jocotoco Antpitta (Grallaria ridgelyi), discovered in 1997 on the east slope of the Andes in southeastern Ecuador, likes to follow army ant swarms and eat the earthworms that the ants carry. One of the birds was also recently observed eating a land snail -- a giant land snail about the size of a ball-point pen.
Isotopes in feather and toenail samples taken from 51 male Kirtland’s Warblers in Mio, Michigan, have added three interesting facts to what we know about the endangered bird, now breeding in Wisconsin:
-- that males from wet winter habitats arrive on breeding grounds earlier than warblers from dry habitats
-- that Kirtland’s that eat insects in late winter arrive sooner than those that consume fruit
-- and that adults from more southerly latitudes in the Bahamas arrive in Michigan sooner than warblers from locations farther north
The talks about the Ivory-billed Woodpecker are scheduled to take place Saturday afternoon. The major players are in town: John Fitzpatrick and Ken Rosenberg from the Cornell Lab. Jerry Jackson from Florida Gulf Coast University. Mark Robbins from University of Kansas Museum of Natural History. Geoffrey Hill from Auburn University and Dan Mennill of the University of Windsor.
As far as I can tell, not a one has been playing on the elevators. -- C.H.