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Matching and hatching

Songbirds at the Botanical Garden spill their love secrets


By Rebecca Cohoe

The Botanical Garden on Mt. Scio Road in St. John’s is, arguably, one of the most romantic places at Memorial to take a date.

The same also applies if you’re a chickadee.

Master’s student Jeffrey Ethier bands a dark-eyed junco at the Botanical Garden.
Photo: Submitted

According to animal behaviour researcher Dr. David Wilson, Memorial’s Botanical Garden is proving to be an excellent spot to look at and, more importantly, listen to local birds like chickadees and dark-eyed juncos as they go about the business of matching and hatching.

These “backyard” birds don’t go in for the elaborate visual displays of their counterparts in the tropics.

For them, singing is key to all of the most important aspects of life — from courtship and mating to finding food and maintaining their territories.

According to Dr. Wilson, an assistant professor in Memorial’s departments of psychology and biology, Faculty of Science, there is no lack of birdsong at the Botanical Garden.

He’s been using it as a living laboratory for his research. He and his students have constructed an aviary across the street and have been using the many birds at the garden as a research population.

The first step has been banding as many birds as possible.

“They’ll always find the most sensitive part of your hand to bite onto,” laughed Dr. Wilson.

An illustration by contributor Rebecca Cohoe.

From there, the research team uses parabolic microphones, like what you might see in a spy movie, to amplify and then record the birds’ songs. The songs are then digitized and analyzed.

“We can identify the sorts of acoustic traits that are linked to females’ preferences or even a rival male’s likeliness of starting a counter attack,” Dr. Wilson explained.

The benefit of banding the birds, and working with established populations like the ones at the Botanical Garden, is that Dr. Wilson’s team is able to consider both the differences between individual birds and greater population trends.

“We can identify traits that are adaptive, giving us good insight into the evolutionary processes that shape the way the birds act.”

Long-term study site

Dr. David Wilson demonstrates banding technique for students.
Photo: Submitted

Using the Botanical Garden as a resource has made it possible for Dr. Wilson to involve his students, ranging from PhD students to an undergraduate honours student, in the research process in a way that would be impossible in most other locations.

“I think field work is instrumental,” said Dr. Wilson.

“If we want to introduce young people to biological research, they need to have hands-on experience handling animals and collecting data. It’s what gets them excited.”

Dr. Wilson is so optimistic about the potential of conducting research at the garden that he recently held an inter-departmental seminar about his experiences there.

“There are a number of benefits, including the convenience and the sense of security if offers as a longer-term study site,” he said. “A lot of people are starting to realize the value it has for conducting research.”

Deeper links

Kim Shipp, director of the Botanical Garden, agrees.

“We’re so happy to have this sort of research taking place here, and we’re always open to discussing new ways to support the university’s research mandate,” she said.

Researchers from a number of units at Memorial are currently undertaking work in the garden, including a group with a focus on cannabis, and an academic advisory committee with representatives from a broad range of disciplines, who have been meeting to discuss how to create deeper research links between the Botanical Garden and Memorial research.

“We’re quite eager to help researchers conduct their work and are interested in working on collaborative projects,” said Ms. Shipp.

Now, spring has — almost! — sprung in the garden and, along with more couples walking hand in hand, you can expect to see songbirds pairing off again after operating in larger flocks over the winter.

Love, and bird song, is in the air. Researchers will be listening.

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