Movement Ecology of Animals

Homepage of Dr. Emily A. McKinnon

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Year of the (female) Bird Biologists

I am so excited that Audubon, BirdLife International, Cornell Lab of O, and National Geographic have banded together and decided that 2018 is the ‘Year of the Bird’. This means extra special birdy events going on all year, and extra special attention to the organisms that have fascinated me for the last 10+ years (ahem, every year is year of the bird for this family of ornithologists).

This kind of publicity is what birds need right now; they are the proverbial canaries warning of problems with our planet. Altering their timing of migration in response to climate change, singing a different song to be heard over city noise, accumulating toxic chemicals while breeding in the seemingly pristine Arctic

Birds are telling us that we are impacting our planet with our fossil fuel addiction, rapidly increasing urbanization, and rampant use of chemicals. But birds also tell us about resilience, about facing an entire ocean with no land in sight and launching into the air, landing days later at a tropical destination.

We all need to pay more attention to birds.

As a subscriber of National Geographic I was excited for the special Year of the Bird feature articles. And for March, a whole article on bird migration! My own personal research subject and, in my mind, one of the most mind-blowing behaviours that birds pull off, season after season. The issue even came with a migration poster! Score!

The article describes the epic migrations of godwits, amazing work on migration timing by postdoc Dr. Jesse Conklin and colleagues. The author speaks with Dr. Ben Winger, expert in biogeography and evolution of migration, about the origins of migratory behaviour. Peter Berthold, who has literally written the book on controls of migration is also interviewed to describe how migration might have evolved as climate in sub-saharan Africa changed over millennia. Henrik Mouritsen, Martin Wikelski, Pete Marra– all ornithologists whose work I have studied over the years.

However, the more I read this article, the more I had the nagging feeling that something was missing.

Where are all the female bird biologists?

I know there is a bias in Science where females are still underrepresented. But I always felt that in my field, behavioural ecology of birds, the problem wasn’t as bad, as say, in Math and Engineering (in Canada, anyway, there were actually more women university graduates in general sciences than men). So my impression was (and still is) that there are plenty of amazing female scientists studying birds and migration behaviour.

Therefore I was surprised that out of all the researchers (both early career postdocs and senior scientists) mentioned in this Nat Geo article (n = 18, not including Andrew Farnsworth who consulted on the infographic figure), only 2 are women, and both were mentioned in the context of a team (Bob Gill & Lee Tibbetts of USGS, and Wolfgang & Roswitha Wiltschko of Goethe University in Frankfurt).

Anyway, I thought I would flesh out the article with some of the amazing work by female ornithologists that I know of who have taken the field of migration ecology forward.

Two caveats: 1) This is not an exhaustive list – just a few names that would have fit nicely into the theme of Nat Geo’s original article, and 2) This is not to detract at all from the work of the amazing ornithologists interviewed/featured in the article already. Male ornithologists are awesome too. I should know, I’m married to one (Kevin Fraser).

Click the names to see webpages and links to papers by these folks:

Susanne Åkesson

It’s pretty nutty that godwits can fly from Alaska all the way to New Zealand – 8 days of non-stop flapping! Makes me tired just thinking about it. But Dr. Susanne Åkesson’s Common Swifts are possibly even more amazing – her team has shown, by using tracking devices equipped with accelerometers – that the swifts don’t land for the entire winter while they are in Africa. If that doesn’t blow your socks off, I don’t know what will. She has done an incredible amount of work on migration for the last 20+ years, looking at proximate drivers of navigation and orientation in songbirds and shorebirds.

Debra Arlt

Wheatears have some of the most amazing migrations of all songbirds. From Canadian Arctic eastward to Africa? No problem. From Alaska to Africa (the long way – westward) – also no problem. Debra Arlt has been using the differential migrations of populations of wheatears to explore stopover biology as well as the effects of tags on fitness of the birds.

Melissa Bowlin

I love the story of Bill Cochran and Martin Wikelski chasing down their radio-tagged Swainson’s Thrushes (pre-geolocators, pre-Motus) all night, trying to figure out the proximate rules for songbird migration. Dr. Melissa Bowlin has continued this amazing work, and shown how wing shape in thrushes affects aerodynamics of flight, among other things. She continues to use the chase-car strategy to look at flight patterns in migrating thrushes, and has discovered some crazy patterns in flight altitude that are still a mystery.

Kira Delmore

It’s really interesting to think about how long-distance migration might have evolved, and Ben Winger has done some really neat stuff looking at origins of migration (i.e. the southern vs. northern home theories). One researcher I think of when it comes to evolution of migration patterns is Dr. Kira Delmore (postdoc at Max Planck). She did a great study using geolocators on Swainson’s Thrushes in a hybrid zone between western and eastern subspecies, and she found that the hybrid individuals had a sub-optimal migration route compared to both parental types. Migration as a post-zygotic barrier to (sub)species fusion! How awesome is that. She continues to explore genetics (and epigenetics!) and migration behaviour in a search for the genetic basis for migration.


Camila Gomez

While working on her PhD in Colombia at the University of the Andes, Ms. Gomez has produced some rock-solid research on stopover biology of thrushes. Along with colleagues working at a stopover site in northern Colombia, she has shown that thrushes have the fuel to make it all the way to their breeding sites in a single mega-flight. To me, her work is starting to tip the scales in terms of how we think about songbird migration – we thought most used a short-hop strategy, stopping frequently to refuel – however, Ms. Gomez’s work and others is starting to point to a more shorebird-like long-jump strategy. I suspect there will be more amazing discoveries in the future that will add to this picture.

Elizabeth Gow

A Stutchbury alumna (see Bridget below), Dr. Gow has studied the differential migrations of male and female woodpeckers. That is, after she figured out how to get them to stop ripping off the light stalks from the geolocators! #woodpeckerfieldworkproblems She is now working on a huge migration dataset for tree swallows as a postdoc in the Norris lab.

Yolanda Morbey

Dr. Morbey has done some nice work on timing of migration, especially protandry – the idea that males arrive at breeding sites before females- with both theoretical and field-based studies.

Rachel Muheim

Another female ornithologist who has really explored bird navigation systems is Dr. Rachel Muheim. Both in the field and the lab, in well-designed experiments, she has studied the magnetic compass systems that birds use to figure out where to go when they migrate.

Janne Owehand

Dr. Owehand is an up-and-coming bird biologist who I first met in Latvia at the EOU in 2011. Her PhD work resulted in some amazing papers exploring constraints on long-distance migrations of Pied Flycatchers. I will forgive her early papers on earthworms and bats because her PhD work is just so cool. J If you want to know more, check out her TEDx talk:

Bridget Stutchbury

Full disclosure, Bridget was my PhD advisor, but the reason I wanted to work with her was the game-changing Science paper showing the first geolocator-based migration tracks from Wood Thrushes and Purple Martins. Bridget didn’t really start off as a migration ecologist but her behavioural ecology background and strong interest in conservation of songbirds led her directly to the tracking work that caught my eye. She has been exploring migration as it relates to conservation of songbirds for the past 10 years, and is now doing some really interesting work with another rockstar bird biologist, Dr. Christy Morrissey, on how pesticides affect songbird migration.



These are just a few of the amazing researchers that I know of whose work would have fit well into the Nat Geo article. There are lots more awesome bird biologists (who just happen to be female) that are studying aspects of bird migration more generally, e.g. Emily Cohen, Hanna Kokko, Jen Owen, Kristina Paxton, Jill Deppe, Kristen Covino, okay somebody stop me!  In the ornithology textbooks of the future, I’m sure you will see their work highlighted for the important contributions they and many others are making to the field. In fact, I just might have to go write that textbook myself to make sure it’s done right!