A conference, a love story

A conference, a brief vacation, and getting back into non-field-work have conspired to keep me away from the blog for far too long; humblest apologies!

Red-breasted Nuthatch scoffs derisively at your apology!

The conference was the North American Ornithological Conference, which combined the usually-separate annual meetings of many ornithological societies into one gigantic über-meeting with 1500+ attendees, almost all of whom were presenting their research as either a talk or a poster.

Generally speaking, a talk is more prestigious than a poster, and talks are reserved for research that is at least somewhat complete and has a coherent story. Since my research is still in early days, I presented a poster explaining what I’m doing and a few very-preliminary results. (I’ll tell you about them later.)

The talks and other posters I saw at the conference were, simply, awesome. I wish I could write about them here; but it’s every researcher’s right to get to publicly announce their interesting research to the world first, and I would never steal that from my colleagues. So I’ll keep an eye out for when my favorite studies get published, and then I’ll Featured-Paper them.

There is one little thing that I think I can ethically cover here, though, since it’s really just a tangential anecdote to the actual study. K. Wiebe presented a study on how young birds learn how to catch food. They studied two European species, the Great Tit and the Blue Tit, which are related to chickadees.

Blue Tits and Great Tits look a bit like this Mountain Chickadee, except more colorful

(And yes, we ornithologists regularly talk about Great Tits without sniggering. If you think that’s bad, you must have never heard of the Mouse-colored Penduline Tit.)

They cross-fostered Blue and Great Tits, meaning that they swapped their nestlings, so that Great Tits ended up raising Blue Tit babies and vice versa. This led to some neat findings on how the chicks learn to forage, but it also had the consequence of producing young birds who were attracted to the wrong species. Many birds, including these, learn what their future mates should look like from what their parents look like: so the cross-fostered Blue Tits, when they grew up, wanted to mate with Great Tits, and the cross-fostered Great Tits wanted to mate with Blue Tits.


Usually this is bad news for the confused birds. They spend their lives wooing members of the wrong species, who, understandably, aren’t at all interested.

But this story has a happy ending. In at least one case, one of the Great Tits who wanted to  mate with a Blue Tit and one of the Blue Tits who wanted to mate with a Great Tit found each other! They were, literally, perfect for each other.

And it worked out well for the researchers too, because those birds had hybrid chicks together, and now the researchers can study how those hybrids learn to forage too.

3 thoughts on “A conference, a love story

  1. Pingback: Jay and blue tit on the balcony | Dear Kitty. Some blog

  2. Pingback: Learn about speciation from that one weird duck at the park | Tough Little Birds

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