Songbird student pilots delay departure and make frequent stopovers during first migration

 A close-up of a wood thrush. Credit: Kevin Fraser

A close-up of a wood thrush. Credit: Kevin Fraser

Juvenile songbirds on spring migration travel from overwintering sites in the tropics to breeding destinations thousands of kilometres away with no prior experience to guide them. Now, a new study out of York University has tracked these “student pilots” on their first long-haul flight and found significant differences between the timing of juvenile migration and that of experienced adults.

“Juveniles departed later from their overwinter sites in Belize and Costa Rica relative to adults, and they became progressively later as they moved northwards because they stopped for more days,” says York U researcher Emily McKinnon, the study’s lead author. “By the time they arrived at breeding sites they were almost 2 weeks behind the adults, and overall their migration took 50 per cent longer in terms of days spent traveling.” Continue reading

Study traces evolutionary origins of migration in New World birds

 The Baltimore Oriole is one of many songbirds featured in The Field Museum's latest study. Credit: Arlene Koziol (c)2014 The Field Museum Read more at:

The Baltimore Oriole is one of many songbirds featured in The Field Museum’s latest study. Credit: Arlene Koziol (c)2014 The Field Museum

Every year, millions of birds make the journey from North America to Central and South America for the winter. But the evolutionary origins of this long-distance migration have remained opaque due to the complex geographic distributions of modern and ancient bird ranges.

Now, a team of scientists from the University of Chicago have developed a new method to reveal the ancestral ranges of New World birds, and discovered that bird migration in the Americas evolved in species that resided in North America. Their work also offers evidence that many tropical bird species descended from migratory ancestors that lost migration. The study was published Aug 4 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Continue reading

Cornell: Songbirds find own migratory routes, rather than following bigger birds’ flyways


The Clay-colored Sparrow is a common breeding bird in the Great Plains and uses the Central flyway identified in the study. (Laura Erickson)

Scientists have long assumed that songbirds follow the same well-traveled paths that geese, ducks and other birds fly across the United States to reach their winter vacation spots in the South and to return when spring breaks in the North.

Just like human snowbirds who flee the North on interstate highways or on a flight of their favorite airline, these migrating birds use specific flyways: one on the West coast, one on the East, one up the Mississippi River valley and one down the center of the continent, according to Cornell University ornithologists. Continue reading

Zebra Finch Songs Impacted by the Environment: Nurture, Not Nature


What behaviors are learned and what behaviors are genetic? That’s a question that scientists have long sought to tackle. Now, they may have an answer to this question–at least as far as zebra finches are concerned. They’ve found that these birds’ brains and song structures are strongly influenced by the environment rather than just by genetics. Continue reading

Block Island as a migratory stopover site for birds

Source: Courtesy photo

Source: Courtesy photo

The Nature Conservancy and the Block Island Club invite the island community to come hear Scott McWilliams on Monday, Aug. 5 at 6 p.m. at the Block Island Club. McWilliams and his students have studied birds on the island for years. He is a Professor of Wildlife Ecology and Physiology in the Department of Natural Resources Science at the University of Rhode Island.

Migratory birds are incredible endurance athletes. They can fly for days without eating or drinking, as they travel from their northern breeding grounds to southern wintering areas. They exercise more intensely and longer than the best of Tour de France bicycle racers. Yet, almost all birds during migration stop over during their travels, and their ecology and physiology at these stopover sites largely determine the success or failure of migration. Research on migrating songbirds at stopover sites in coastal New England, including many studies on Block Island, have provided key insights into their ecology and physiology during migration that have important implications for land conservation and management.

McWilliams’ research focuses primarily on the nutrition, physiology, and ecology of wild vertebrates, with an emphasis on migratory birds of conservation interest.


Photog Documents the Illegal Hunting of Songbirds Along the Mediterranean

P Photographer David Guttenfelder is a conflict photographer. He’s spent much of his photographic career capturing war through the lens of his camera. One thing he certainly never considered himself was a bird photographer.

But when he was sent on an assignment to illustrate a National Geographic piece on the illegal hunting of songbirds, he became one. And it slowly dawned on him that he wasn’t just doing a documentary, environmental, or conservation piece — this was simply another form of conflict photography.

The video above is a short interview in which he explains how this assignment changed him. His photography illustrates an article in the July 2013 issue of NatGeo that goes into detail regarding the illegal slaughter of song birds and migratory birds for whom government intervention is nearly non-existent.


All along the Mediterranean — in countries like Italy, Cyprus, Egypt and Albania — bird populations are dropping sharply as the creatures are mercilessly cut down. In some cases, they’re hunted with guns. In others, they’re trapped using adhesive “lime sticks” disguised as perches.

Fortunately, for the latter, Guttenfelder himself was able to do a little bit of good alongside the activist he was working with. They would suck on the sap-coated feathers and feet of the trapped birds once they had been freed to remove the rest of the sticky stuff without injuring the bird any further.

t’s a tragic story, but those birds they saved act as a bit of a silver lining. You can read the full article by novelist Jonathan Franzen here, or see a gallery of heart-breaking photos taken by Guttenfelder over the course of their travels here.

Last Song for Migrating Birds [National Geographic]