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David Lank – Competition, cooperation, and deceit among three male morphs of ruffs and the females that choose to mate with them: is this the most complex avian mating system?

January 6, 2020


University Research Associate
Simon Fraser University

Ruffs (Philomachus [or Calidris, if you prefer] pugnax) have the most complex mating system of any bird in the world.  Three genetically distinct types of males, with different morphologies and mating strategies, attempt to mate at leks with as many females as possible.  Most highly ornamented males fight, but others are somewhat cooperative, and small unornamented males mimic female morphology and behaviour.  Nearly all ornamented males carry individually distinctive plumage coloration and patterns.  How and why did this hyperdiversity in behaviour and morphology evolve, and how does it persist?  A chance chromosomal mutation 4 million ago started this unique situation, but it persists through complex social interactions.  Uneasy alliances occur between certain males despite their fundamental competition for mates.  Although there is strong sexual selection, with many females choosing to mate with particular males and most males mating with none each year, all three morphs and the extensive plumage variation persists.  What has thwarted directional selection for one type of male in this case?  My talk will cover genetics, development, identity signals, mate choice, and the social behavior that maintains these complex polymorphisms.

David Lank started studying shorebirds during the summer of 1972, when he demonstrated the use of star compasses by migrant semipalmated sandpipers for his undergraduate thesis research at Marlboro College, Vermont.  Following a MSc at the University of Minnesota and PhD at Cornell on the behavioral ecology of sandpipers at migratory stopover sites, he joined Lew Oring to study polyandry in spotted sandpipers.  In 1984 he began fieldwork on the complex mating system of ruffs, which continues to this day, including work with a captive breeding flock since 1985.  Following a decade as a researcher at Queens University, Ontario, he is now at Simon Fraser University, Vancouver BC, Canada, where he has supervised research on the breeding biology of western sandpipers and phalaropes, migration and non-breeding season biology of shorebirds in British Columbia, Mexico and northern South America.  His more recent research has emphasized the role of the change in ‘danger landscapes’ brought about by resurgent raptor populations on the migratory and non-breeding biology of shorebirds.

Sarah Hird – Birds and Bacteria: The Avian Microbiome

February 3, 2020


Assistant Professor, Molecular and Cell Biology
University of Connecticut

Microorganisms have existed on this planet for billions of years. They have shaped our world in countless important ways. How have microorganisms affected animal evolution? Birds are a globally important clade of animals that are essential components to nearly all terrestrial and many aquatic ecosystems. Their morphological, ecological and phylogenetic diversity are immense. All birds have microbiomes - the communities of microorganisms that exist on and in birds. Microbiomes performs various functions for their hosts but can also have little or negative effects on host biology. The microbes within the microbiome benefit from their association with a host, but can also be negatively affected. The Hird Lab uses the genomic information of the microbiome and computational methods to address this question: What can the microbiome tell us about birds - and specifically, bird evolution?

Sarah Hird is an assistant professor in the Molecular and Cell Biology department at the University of Connecticut. She is an evolutionary biologist interested in how the microbes that live on and in birds (collectively, the “microbiome”) have affected bird biology and evolution. She received a Master’s degree from the University of Idaho, a PhD from Louisiana State University and was a UC Davis Chancellor’s Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California, Davis. Outside the lab, she is devoted to diversifying Academia and supporting women in science. Outside Academia, she enjoys playing Legos with her kids.

Jennie Duberstein – Working across borders to conserve birds and habitats in the southwest US and northwest Mexico

April 6, 2020

Sonoran Joint Venture Coordinator
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The southwest United States and northwest Mexico is a region of incredible biological diversity, as well as human diversity. Birds and habitats don't recognize international boundaries, and neither can our efforts to conserve then. Successful conservation requires cross-border collaboration that takes into account not just the biological needs, but also the social needs of the region. The Sonoran Joint Venture is a binational partnership the works to conserve the unique birds and habitats of the southwestern U.S. and northwestern Mexico. Join Dr. Jennie Duberstein, Sonoran Joint Venture Coordinator, to learn how the SJV brings together partners from both sides of the border to develop and implement innovative mechanisms to address the biggest conservation priorities of the region and ensure a healthy landscape for birds, other wildlife, and people.

Dr. Jennie Duberstein is a wildlife biologist and conservation social scientist who has spent her professional career working to build partnerships for bird and habitat conservation across the United States and northwest Mexico. She has directed environmental education programs, developed community-based conservation projects in the U.S.-Mexico border region, developed and taught courses and workshops on bird identification, ecotourism, and bird monitoring, and has studied species including Double-crested Cormorant and wading birds in Sonora and Yellow-billed Cuckoos in Arizona. Jennie has also worked with young birders for many years, directing field courses, summer camps, and conferences, and generally helping to connect young people with opportunities and each other. Jennie received her B.S. in Wildlife Biology from Virginia Tech and her M.S. and Ph.D. from the University of Arizona’s School of Natural Resources and the Environment.

Gabrielle Nevitt – Following the Scent of Avian Olfaction

May 4, 2020

Professor, Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior
University of California, Davis

When John James Audubon proclaimed that birds lacked a sense of smell, the study of avian olfaction was doomed to suffer ridicule by ornithology text books for years to come. In recent years, ornithologists have renewed their interest into the sense of smell in birds leading to a new appreciation of their chemical ecology. The tubenosed seabirds (petrels and albatrosses) of the order Procellariiformes have among the most impressive olfactory abilities of any animal on earth. Species within this order spend most of their lives flying over the world’s oceans, returning to land each year or every other year, to breed and rear a single offspring. They tend to partner for life and show strong nest-site fidelity between breeding seasons. Much of my research career has focused on elucidating how procellariform species use olfaction to perform behaviors ranging from foraging and navigation to mate choice and individual recognition. My presentation will touch on some of our recent findings and hopefully convince you that olfaction is a rich field of study, and that questions related to sensory ecology are both important and applicable to scientific inquiry into the biology and conservation.

Gabrielle Nevitt is a leader in the field of vertebrate Chemical Ecology and has conducted pioneering research in the sense of smell in birds, focussing on procellariform seabirds. She graduated from Stanford University, received her PhD in Zoology from the University of Washington, and did postdoctoral training in the Department of Neurobiology and Behavior at Cornell University. She has been a professor in the Department of Neurobiology, Physiology and Behavior at UC Davis for 24 years. She lives with her family on a rural property with various birds including emus.

Gail Patricelli – Robots, Telemetry, & the Sex Lives of Wild Birds Using technology to study & protect an enigmatic bird

June 1, 2020

Professor, Department of Evolution and Ecology
University of California, Davis

Animals use a dizzying array of sounds, smells, colors, dances, electrical fields and seismic vibrations to convince each other to mate. These elaborate courtship signals were a mystery until Darwin’s time—after proposing his theory of natural selection, Darwin was left with the question of how the flamboyant peacock could be shaped by the same process that makes the peahen so perfectly camouflaged. There is now strong support for Darwin’s answer to this question, the process he termed sexual selection, proposing that the courting sex must be elaborate because the courted sex demands it. But how can we study the conversations males and females in non-human animals have about mating? One way to do this is to participate, controlling one side of the conversation with a robot. Gail Patricelli will talk about using robotic females and other technology to study courtship behaviors in the greater sage-grouse, and how such research informs conservation of this iconic North American bird and its habitat.

Gail Patricelli is a professor in the Department of Evolution and Ecology at the University of California, Davis. Professor Patricelli and members of her lab study bioacoustics, the evolution of breeding behaviors, and the impacts of noise pollution on birds.

Past Programs

(NOC members, login to view and listen to presentations)

Dr. Joel Cracraft – How many “kinds” of birds are there on Earth: the intersection of science and conservation policy

October 2, 2017

Scientists have long debated the idea of species, and these different conceptions have impacted the way we understand how birds evolved.  These debates have also influenced people’s views of avian diversity as well as avian conservation policy. This talk will lay out these debates and show how they have real-world consequences for conserving global avian…

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Frank Gill – Bird Species Taxonomy: Then and Now

June 5, 2017

Major changes in world bird taxonomy are underway, driven by advances in speciation concepts and practices. World bird lists are challenged to keep up with the surge in the number of species recognized, together with their nomenclature and phylogeny. Birders are challenged to keep up with the lumps, splits, name changes, and sequences. This talk…

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Dr. Aevar Petersen – Icelandic birds, mainly seabird population changes

May 1, 2017

The talk will focus on three main issues; (1) introduction to the Icelandic bird fauna; (2) seabirds and factors influencing population changes; and (3) seabird monitoring as a conservation tool. The breeding bird fauna of Iceland has rather few species, about 80, but this is made up in numbers. The principal bird groups are anseriform…

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Dr. Leonardo Campagna – The genetic basis of plumage differences in the rapid capuchino seedeater radiation

April 3, 2017

As an evolutionary biologist I seek to understand how biological diversity is generated at the molecular level. I study a group of South American birds known as capuchino seedeaters, which may still be in the process of becoming species. Capuchinos are sexually dimorphic, and males from different species differ in secondary sexual characters such as…

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Lorna J. Gibson – Built to Peck: How Woodpeckers Avoid Brain Injury

March 6, 2017

Woodpeckers peck on trees to feed on insects and sap, to build cavity nests and to drum during courtship. Measurements by a group of neurologists in the 1970s, using high speed video, indicate that woodpeckers can tolerate remarkably high decelerations on impact: up to 1500g, much higher than the level of 100g that causes brain…

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Michael D. Sorenson – Contrasting Patterns of Genetic Divergence in Obligate Brood Parasites: Implications for the Genetics of Host-Specific Adaptation

February 6, 2017

Avian brood parasites and their hosts have served as important models of coevolution and have produced a spectacular diversity of behavioral, morphological and physiological adaptations and counter-adaptations, our knowledge of which has expanded as additional species in Asia and the southern hemisphere have received intensive study. Until recently, essentially nothing was known about the genetic…

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Tom Sayers – Rebuilding Local Populations of the American Kestrel – One Box at a Time

January 9, 2017

This presentation focuses on Tom’s energetic crusade to rebuild the American Kestrel population in northeast Connecticut, from 2009 when he began, up through the 2016 breeding season. Presented on January 9, 2017.

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Christopher Elphick – Canaries in the Salt Marsh: The Conservation of Saltmarsh Sparrows and other Tidal Marsh Birds

December 5, 2016

This talk describes the status of tidal marsh birds throughout the northeast, and focuses on the specific threats faced by Saltmarsh Sparrows. Presented on December 5, 2016.

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José Antonio Balderrama Torrico – Endemic and Endangered Birds of Bolivia

November 7, 2016

Endemic and Endangered Birds of Bolivia. Presented November 7, 2016.

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Sundev Gombobaatar – Bird Research, Conservation and Birding in Mongolia

October 3, 2016

Dr. Gombobaatar’s presentation covers a brief introduction to Mongolia and bird distribution in different natural habitats, species status and richness, bird research and conservation works, including Regional bird red list and conservation action plans, migration pattern, population threats, birds in wind farms, raptor breeding ecology survey, birding activities, and future actions for Mongolian bird research and conservation. Presented on October 3, 2016.

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Scott Edwards, PhD – Research and Teaching Ornithology at Harvard: Explorations in the New World

June 6, 2016

Research and Teaching Ornithology at Harvard: Explorations in the New World. Presented on June 6, 2016.

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Vincent Spagnuolo – Restore the call: Recent advancements in Common Loon conservation through translocation and health research

May 2, 2016

Recent advancements in Common Loon conservation through translocation and health research. Presented on May 2, 2016.

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Ken Meyer – Seasonal Movements of Rare Florida Raptors: Ecological Intrigue and Conservation Challenges

March 7, 2016

Seasonal movements and ecology of rare Florida raptors: needs and opportunities for protecting Crested Caracaras, Snail Kites, Short-tailed Hawks, and Swallow-tailed Kites. Presented on March 7, 2016.

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John Bates – The Wonders and Tribulations of Africa’s Albertine Rift: Biodiversity, Science and People in a War Zone

February 1, 2016

The Wonders and Tribulations of Africa’s Albertine Rift: Biodiversity, Science and People in a War Zone. Presented on February 1, 2016.

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Tom French – 30 Years Following Peregrine Falcons to Recovery and Beyond

January 4, 2016

Tom discusses his work with Peregrine Falcons in the state, including the impact of raptor photography on knowledge of movements of banded birds. Tom chronicles the loss of nesting Peregrines in the state in 1955 through their current recovery to 32 nesting pairs. Presented on January 4, 2016.

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Steve Hilty – Colombia: Then and Now

December 7, 2015

The focus of this presentation is a look at Colombia and its remarkable biological diversity through the eyes of a young ornithologist, and his wife, as they struggled to carry out fieldwork in the early 1970s. This is followed by a look at Colombia’s unique ornithological history, and its fledgling ecotourism of the late 1970s…

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Tom Stephenson – The Warbler Guide: A New Approach to ID

November 2, 2015

Identifying the warblers and other species singing in the field is one of the most enjoyable and satisfying aspects of birding. However learning and remembering the important ID points of difficult and similar vocalizations can be challenging. This lecture will cover many new techniques that make it easier to identify singing warblers and other species.…

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Tim Laman – Ornithological Adventures in Australia’s Cape York Peninsula

October 5, 2015

In the last couple years, Tim has made several expeditions to the Cape York Peninsula, Australia, photographing, filming, and doing biodiversity survey expeditions, focusing a lot around birds.  It is an area the size of Florida with less than 2000 people (compared to 20 million in FL). His longest expedition was a six-week trip by…

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Mario Cohn-Haft – Birds of the Amazon Revisited: Haffer’s Legacy 40 years Later

June 1, 2015

Nuttall Ornithological Club’s publication number 14 elaborated, in 1974, the most complete and carefully thought-out explanation for the marvelous patterns of distribution of Amazonian birds that has been proposed to this day. Its author, Jurgen Haffer, made a brilliant contribution to the field of South American biogeography that continues to be a powerful influence. But…

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Peter Pyle – Discovering and Conserving Bryan’s Shearwater

May 4, 2015

Bryan’s Shearwater (Puffinus bryani), was described as new to science by Pyle, A. J. Welch, and R. C. Fleischer in 2011, based on a specimen collected in February 1963 on Midway Atoll, Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Peter will recount discovery of the new species and it’s etymology (named after his grandfather, long-time curator at the Bishop…

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