Feeling slightly terrified of the city of Chicago but exhilarated nonetheless, I entered the lobby of the Palmer House Hilton. This ridiculously huge hotel was the site of the 2013 American Ornithologists’ Union/Cooper Ornithological Society (AOU/COS) conference. Having figured the conference was off-limits to high school students, it hadn’t even been on my radar until I learned that three other Michigan Young Birders – fellow Eyrie contributors Sarah Toner, Nathan Martineau, and Aspen Ellis – were attending through a special high school student program. Determined to attend, I cobbled together an application, missing the official deadline by over a month. Luckily, the coordinator of the high schooler program, Nicholas Block, gave me the good news that a few spots were still open. I was going to attend my first ornithological conference.
Sarah was waiting for me in the lobby, and we soon met up with Aspen and Mary Margaret Ferraro, a Cornell undergraduate. Our plan was to coordinate which of the hundreds of fifteen-minute talks we’d attend. We assigned certain talks to certain people – there were five talks at any given time – so that in our breaks we could frantically recount summaries and interesting points. Over an hour passed before my dad wisely decided I should get some sleep before an early start the next day.
Outside the grand ballroom, the young birders began to assemble. Six of us met for breakfast bright and early while the others opted to sleep in. We met Nick Block and he took us to breakfast. I met three new young birders over breakfast, one of whom we were able to recruit to the Michigan Young Birders’ Club.
While I was at breakfast with other young birders, I learned some things. I learned that banana muffins in Chicago cafés break and fall onto the floor. But more importantly, I learned about the natural camaraderie among all young birders. I felt comfortable and at ease with people I’d known for a grand total of twenty minutes. We all shared a common passion; I felt included despite being over a year younger than everybody else. We left breakfast excited for the impending presentations.
We assembled into the Grand Ballroom for the two plenaries. The members of the conference would be splitting up for the rest of the day, but six hundred ornithologists crowded into the same room to hear the findings of two selected early-career ornithological researchers. These plenaries were fascinating and ended up being among my favorite presentations of the day.
First up was “Measuring Productivity in Songbirds,” by Henry M. Streby of University of California-Berkeley. Streby put transmitters on a couple hundred female Golden-winged Warblers that arrived at an excellent nesting site. Nest success is higher in shrubland, but forest nesters see better fledgling survival. Therefore, the optimal nest site is on the border – right where Golden-wings actually nest.
But it was more complicated than that: the speaker found that Golden-wings tended to nest in forests earlier in the season – high risk, high reward. If their brood was unsuccessful, they would move to the shrubland to try and salvage some nesting success. It was interesting to see how much research had to go into this project in order to fully understand the nesting practices of the Golden-winged Warblers.
The second plenary was titled “Communal Nesting in Greater Anis,” by Christina Riehl of Harvard University. The Greater Ani is a large, South American ani. They nest communally in groups of two or three pairs. The social bonds are very strong; all the anis lay their eggs in the same nest and work together, feeding all the nestlings.
Working with another couple isn’t always smooth sailing, however. The first egg to be laid is ejected from the nest – 100% of the time. If Female A lays an egg, Female B knows it is not her egg and pushes it out. Female B will continue to push out Female A’s eggs until she lays an egg. At this point, the anis do not know whose egg is whose and do not eject any more eggs. The early-laying females tend to lose more eggs, although they also tend to produce more eggs.
Some anis are also nest parasites. About eight percent of all eggs are from females not in the group. Parasites are very poor at their job, however. Ani eggs change color from white to blue after a couple of days, and parasites time their egg-laying poorly. Consequently, one white egg among many blue eggs signifies a parasite and will be ejected.
Still fascinated with the ani talk, we took a tour of the building to learn how to get from room to room. The building is complicated, with few rooms on the same floor. My plan was to bounce around, sneaking out during the end-of-session Q&As. The Palmer House is a maze, with certain elevators only going to certain floors, and virtually no access to the fifth floor. I promptly forgot all instructions as I excitedly entered the first fifteen-minute presentation, making for an interesting rest of the day.
Panting from my sprint up three flights of stairs, I entered “Cowbirds ‘Farm’ Their Hosts” just on time. Cowbirds parasitize (lay their eggs in other birds’ nests), I learned, but they also often destroy the eggs of nests. In fact, cowbirds are the number one egg killer. The rest of the species on the list of egg killers – cats, rats, snakes – were fairly predictable (though what was Virginia Rail doing on the list?). Most cowbirds parasitize early in the breeding season, and destroy eggs later on.
Cowbirds almost always puncture one egg when deciding to parasitize or not, to see if it is in the early or late stages of development. If they deem the egg early-stage, they leave the other eggs intact and parasitize. If not, they destroy all the other eggs. I wanted to learn more, but the fifteen minute presentation soon ended.
“Collisions with Communication Towers” was among the most jolting of presentations. Between four to fifty million birds are struck down by communication towers annually. The speaker concluded that taller communication towers have more fatalities, and that flashing lights on buildings lower deaths. She insisted that facts cannot explain themselves, and that, as scientists, we must make a connection with the public to change these towers. The speaker had already persuaded the operators of ninety-one towers to switch to flashing lights from steady-burning lights. Along with the other young birders, I felt riveted and determined to make a change after this presentation.
More and more presentations went by. I learned about surrogate species in tall grass prairies, and how working to protect one species can benefit others and save money. I learned about a project trying to save Great Plains Piping Plovers. I learned about cowbird begging displays, and how host parents treat the cowbirds as “foreigners.” By lunch, I had scribbled over a dozen pages of notes and was eager to share my new knowledge with other young birders.
One of the presentations I was most excited about was on migration patterns of hybrid songbirds. Migratory patterns differ among subspecies; the speaker’s hypothesis was that hybrids would employ intermediate routes. The researches used geolocators to track Swainson’s Thrush hybrids. What they learned was that the Swainson’s Thrushes took the eastern route to South America in the fall, and the western Pacific route back to their nesting grounds. This implied that there may be different genes governing spring and fall migration.
Speakers continued to present interesting findings. Winter ranges are moving north with climate change. Many trans-Gulf fall migrants do not even stop flying when they reach Yucatan. It even turns out that the banded Yellow-eyed Juncos of one study were seen by the young birders who attended the 2012 Camp Chiracahua. I was learning more and more, and even figured out how to get to the fifth floor for once!
I took tons of notes on a study about fragmentation and predation. The focus bird was the Chestnut-backed Antbird, a ground-dwelling insectivore that lives in Costa Rica. Despite habitat loss and the fact that it is a ground-dweller, it is not declining. The researchers theorized that habitat fragmentation reduced nest predation, and explored which predators were problematic in non-fragmented areas (cue video of an ocelot eating out of the antbird nest like a food bowl). I found it surprising to learn the possible benefits of forest fragmentation.
It wouldn’t be an AOU conference without an ornithology quiz bowl, and Sarah and I were determined to participate. We created a four-person team with fellow young birders Nathan Goldberg and Max Witynski. Predictably, once Nick Block started reading the questions, we realized we were hopelessly outclassed, but we had fun anyway. Only student groups could advance to the final round, which was a series of Jeopardy-style questions in which only three groups participated. The top two groups (The Variable Sapsuckers and the Crown Royals) were graduate students, but Aspen and Mary Margaret’s group (The Northern Beardless-Tyrannulets) came in third. My group did not come close, but we amused ourselves by seeing which answers we knew.
The Variable Sapsuckers started strong, with one group member providing answers from “What is a Timberdoodle?” to “What is a Rufous-necked Wood-Rail?” But the Crown Royals caught up in the second round. It all came down to the final jeopardy question (“The name of the bone supporting a bird’s eye.”), and the Crown Royals had a lead of a couple thousand points. The Sapsuckers correctly answered the final question, putting them slightly ahead. Lo and behold, the Crown Royals had the correct answer (“What is a sclerotic ring?”), but they had only bet one hundred points. It was a quiz bowl for the ages!
The conference ended with the quiz bowl. I was disappointed that it was over, but I couldn’t believe how much I took from the conference. I had gotten a sense of what professional ornithologists studied, and began considering what I might do myself when the time came. But most importantly, I had an amazing bonding experience with the other Midwestern young birders. Thank you to everyone who made the high school program of the 2013 AOU/COS Conference possible!