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Our Research

My research has evolved gradually from studies of the behavioral ecology of insects and birds to a program that incorporates elements of conservation science, public education, and human cooperation within the contexts of citizen science and sustainable practices. Currently, our work includes citizen science research on climate change effects on winter bird distributions, continuing studies of cooperation and population ecology of western bluebirds, and pursuit of understanding of the human dimensions of sustainability, including human denial of climate change. Viewing citizen science as a collective action, we are interested in how the internet can best be used to support science-based conservation communities enacting and sharing residential habitat improvement strategies and energy conservation practices. Taking this further, can we mobilize the highly educated aging population to bring their talents to the table with new solutions and inventions? While my background is in evolutionary ecology, my interests in human behavior have come to incorporate psychological bases of behavior and proximate decision rules with emphasis on how we might use the internet to support cooperative endeavors around shared meaning. Our newest citizen science project, The YardMap Network, will pursue these ideas.

The FeederWatch Climate Project : Changing winter distributions in North American Birds


Ben Zuckerberg, Geospatial Ecologist

David Bonter, Assistant Director of Citizen Science

Art DeGaetano, Associate Professor of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences

Climate change and habitat loss are two of the most pressing environmental concerns of the 21st century and there is a growing scientific consensus that they exert influences on bird populations at multiple scales, from local changes in population persistence to range-wide shifts in species distributions. Citizen Science data allow us to document exactly how species respond to these environmental changes throughout multiple regions and for many years. Ben Zuckerberg is currently taking the lead on this project, analyzing data contributed by Project FeederWatch participants to study the effects of climate and land use change on wintering bird populations. With over 20 years of data, we can study how the habitat loss and shifting winter weather affect the persistence of wintering birds at both local and regional scales. In collaboration with the Northeast Regional Climate Center, we are combining Project FeederWatch data with sophisticated temperature models to capture the dynamic relationship between winter weather and bird population dynamics at scales ranging from weekly changes in feeder behavior to long-term changes in patterns of extinction and colonization.

Western Bluebird Project: Long term behavioral ecology research

In studying the behavioral ecology of western bluebirds, I have focused primarily on the evolution of social behavior, including mating systems, parental care, and cooperative breeding.  The theoretical underpinnings of this research are derived from ideas proposed by Charles Darwin, W.D. Hamilton, and R.L. Trivers.  The synthesis of these ideas is that behavioral traits evolve because they increase the ability of individuals to propagate copies of their genes, either by increasing the number and quality of offspring they, themselves, produce or by enhancing the number and quality of offspring produced by relatives (via kin selection).  This body of theory predicts both cooperation and conflict within individuals, families, within and between the sexes, and within animal societies.  I am most interested in the nature of these cooperative and competitive behaviors, the diversity of behavioral and morphological adaptations they produce, the tradeoffs they involve, and how these tradeoffs shape the behavioral choices animals make throughout their lives.

The bluebird project is ideal for involving students in research, because the population is ripe for new questions that can benefit from a combination of novel experimental studies, use of molecular techniques, and access to long-term demographic data. Elise Ferree, postdoctoral associate, is currently completing her study of the genetic and fitness consequences of extrapair mating and extrapair paternity. Caitlin Stern, graduate student in Neurobiology and Behavior, is studying how benefits of delayed dispersal may be extended to cryptic, helpful interactions among dispersed kin. Caglar Ackay, postdoctoral associate, is studying vocal behavior of western bluebirds within the context of kin and individual recognition.

Recently, I have become interested in how the behavioral decision rules animals use influence species responses to environmental disturbance (Dickinson & McGowan 2005).  This becomes a key conservation issue, because where animals have decision rules that are adaptive within the context of the habitat and social milieu they evolved in, these same rules may prove maladaptive in altered ecological and social landscapes.  For example, an animal that uses a simple rule to assess habitat, such as assessing the degree of openness or edge, may find itself preferring agricultural fields over forest gaps. This could result in habitat preferences that reduce survival and reproductive success of the population by drawing them into “attractive sinks” or “ecological traps”.  The interface between behavioral decision rules and species conservation issues has been little explored, but has significant potential for discovery of rather simple practices to ameliorate negative impacts of land use changes.

Taxonomically, I have worked with birds, butterflies, and beetles and despite my strong ornithological commitment, in J.B.S. Haldane’s words, I maintain an “inordinate fondness” for leaf beetles (family Chrysomelidae).

Current Field Research in Behavioral Ecology: Western Bluebird Project

The bluebird project has contributed to understanding of:

  • Helping at the nest/cooperative breeding
  • Delayed dispersal
  • Parental care
  • Mate guarding and extrapair fertilizations
  • Sex ratio manipulation
  • Population viability and life history evolution
  • Plumage variation
  • Begging behavior and chick recognition
  • Behavioral plasticity and decision rules

The western bluebird study began in 1983-1985 on 700 ha of oak woodland/chaparral in upper Carmel Valley, California, and expanded to include a second study area in 2001. While we have lost access to a portion of the original 700 ha, the project is ongoing and has become one of the few truly long-term studies of color-banded birds. I have used it as a model system for testing several key questions in the field of behavioral ecology, including sex ratio evolution, parental care, female choice, male competition, sperm competition, cooperative breeding, dispersal, and winter reproductive ecology.

In 2001-2007 the NSF-funded research has focused on the evolution of delayed dispersal and the relative importance of resources and nepotism as reasons why sons stay home with their parents. This work involved extensive GIS mapping and we are now analyzing dispersal and habitat use as a function of landscape features, including winter food supplies.

The western bluebird project is a fantastic training ground for undergraduates and recent post-graduate interns, and has sent more than 80% of its 75 interns on to graduate school over the years. Several now hold professorships or lectureships at colleges or universities.

Graduate Teaching:

BIOEE 758 - ORNITHOLOGY SEMINAR  - 1.0 hours, S/U only
This one-hour seminar is taught each semester.  The course format is mostly comprised of student presentations and discussions.  This is an excellent forum for vetting your own ornithological research and for learning about research design and hypothesis testing within evolutionary ecology and conservation frameworks.

5:00-6:00, The Fuertes Auditorium, Cornell Lab of Ornithology
Co-Instructors André Dhondt, Janis Dickinson, Irby Lovette, and David Winkler

I usually give an additional special topics seminar in the fall of each year.

Photo Credit

Pictures of the Hastings Reserve and California by David Gubernick