Montanan - Volume 13, Number 3
Birds of a Featherby Marnie Prange
Slow-motion photographs of a magpie in a windtunnel by Ken Dial.
n a cramped room of the University of Montanas biology building a magpie is flying in a wind tunnel, going nowhere. As it flies, a video camera records its body adapting to changes in wind velocity; sensors on its wing muscles record energy expended at varying rates of speed; and a cineradiographic camera peers through feathers and skin to reveal a steady skull attached to an oscillating skeleton.
The flight is all in a days work for the magpie and for Associate Professor Ken Dial, who is using new technologies to unravel the mystery of how birds fly.
Less experienced birds, mostly juvenile pigeons, learn the vagaries of wind tunnel flight for a project run by Research Associate Professor Dona Boggs, Dial and Professor Delbert Kilgore. Midsummer, birds, wind tunnel and faculty will travel to Californias White Mountain Research Station, 12,500 feet above sea level, to study how birds tolerate an oxygen-depleted environment. On the edge of campus, lazuli buntings are setting up housekeeping. Not only have they returned to the same brushy hillsides they occupied in previous years, theyve returned to the same shrubs. Assistant Professor Erick Greene is there to welcome them home.
Thirty miles south, in an old-growth ponderosa pine forest in the Bitterroot Valley, Sallie Hejl of the U.S. Forest Service is directing a point count each of her field assistants stands in one spot and writes down everything he sees and hears to determine the number of woodpeckers and other cavity nesters. If shes lucky, shell find the nests that go with the various drums and calls of different species.
Professor Dick Hutto is getting ready to send twenty-five young ornithologists across western Montana to monitor the occurrence of species in a variety of habitats. He also monitors projects ranging from a study of flammulated owls in a ponderosa pine forest south of Darby to a study of cavity nesters, such as woodpeckers, in Glacier National Park.
This is just a sampling of the bird research at The University of Montana, for quietly, without fanfare, the University has turned itself into one of the worlds leading avian research centers. Faculty and research associates from the Division of Biological Sciences, the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit and the U.S. Forest Service work at the cutting edge of their disciplines, from the molecular to the biogeographic, creating a vast potential for collaboration. A unique characteristic of the group is that their disciplines cover both basic biology and applied conservation.
The facultys convergence at UM is partly by chance and partly by design, according to Hutto, a seventeen-year veteran of the biology division. Traditional slots had been filled by biologists who also happened to specialize in avian research until the faculty recognized their potential as "the bird group."
"We're more than a nucleus now, we're a mass," Dial says, noting that the faculty has attracted some of the most accomplished researchers in the nation. Members of the bird group are also compatible. "People get to be like the organisms they study, most of the time," says Joe Ball, leader of the Montana Wildlife Cooperative Unit. "We get along, as do birds generally."
Everyone in the bird group juggles the demands of their projects with those of graduate students, all the while publishing and bringing in large grants. Dials and Greenes research, in particular, has generated popular and professional interest. Greene has been featured on National Public Radio, in The Washington Post, The New York Times, and this summer a Japanese film crew will film him for a television documentary. Dial has appeared on "NOVA" and "Scientific American Frontier" and has given presentations before NASA and the entire worldwide aerospace community at the Paris Air Show.
Peer recognition is probably the best indicator of the bird groups national standing. In 1994, three venerable North American ornithological societies chose UM for a conference site. And last November, UM was selected as the new editorial headquarters for the Auk. Plain in appearance, inscrutable in contents, the Auk is to avian researchers what the Journal of American Medicine is to medical researchers the place to see and be seen. Tom Martin, assistant leader of the Montana Cooperative Wildlife Research Unit, is editor-in-chief; five faculty members serve as the editorial board. Martin says he brought the magazine to UM to raise the visibility of what I think is the best ornithological faculty in the world.
Spread across campus in offices tucked in corners of buildings, teaching in crowded classrooms using antiquated equipment, the bird groups research is conducted in laboratories suitable for confined work, such as dissection and surgery, and in the great outdoors. "We need something in between," Dial says, "where we can attempt to have outdoor behavior in a more controlled and observable habitat. If youre watching a bird and all of a sudden, BOOM, it blows a mile away, your day is finished."
Using a shotgun microphone, Assistant Professor Erick Greene (top) records lazuli bunting songs. To the right are sonograms of Red; N-93, a Red pretender; and Red's altered song. "Around Red there developed a song neighborhood," Greene explains, "and the acoustic space was getting crowded with all these Red wannabes. So Red changed his song...and left others In the dust."
Imagine a state-of-the-art aviary located on the edge of UMs golf course, with indoor chambers such as the wind tunnel and flight corridor Dial needs in his research and the dive tank and water flume Boggs needs in hers. Imagine outdoor facilities, partitioned and netted, where their colleagues can simulate native environments. It would be a place where researchers work alone and as a unit, exploring the uncharted territory that lies at the interface between disciplines. "We are in a position to draw new research with this facility that will make a significant difference in how we understand bird biology," Dial says of the proposed Center for Excellence in Avian Studies that he will co-direct with Martin. "When we collaborate, we can do more sophisticated experiments in a way that will bring new science, not just to ornithology, but to biology."
"Each persons perspective helps broaden the project," says Sallie Hejl, who is collaborating with the biology faculty to oversee the research projects of two graduate students. "It helps you think about all the different reasons a bird might or might not be there, whats happening to it or not happening to it. The more peoples opinions you have, the better the knowledge."
The bird group has submitted a funding proposal for the center to The University of Montana Foundation and the Montana legislature. If the aviary becomes a reality, it will not only become a destination for faculty research, it will enable UM to enroll more of the nations top graduate students. Currently, half of the 200 graduate applications for the biology program are from students hoping to work with the bird group, and only five or six are accepted. Program graduates find careers in academia as well as with conservation organizations, the Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society among them.
The Center of Excellence in Avian Studies would go a long way toward providing researchers the time and means to carry on research, but Dial is not optimistic about its chances because the bird group is too busy writing grants to keep their research afloat to beg for alms. "If its dependent on us panhandling and having to go around the country, it will not happen," Dial says. For those who think bird biology is a narrow avenue of inquiry, Dial emphasizes that birds are models for understanding other organisms, focal points of conservation and indicators of environmental health; if birds are in trouble, other species are in trouble too. And for those who think bird research is a luxury Montana cannot afford, Hutto asks them to think again. Because of our geographic isolation, he says, researchers in Montana often undertake locally oriented projects. And if Montana doesnt gather information on its own well-being, he warns, no one else is going to do it for us.
Its a Bird, Its a PlaneKen Dial loves almost anything to do with flight. Dial grew up watching planes at the Los Angeles airport and is himself a pilot. His consuming interest in flight has evolved into his "own little research arena" exploring the function of the central nervous system in flight control, the coordination of flight and breath, and communication during flight-as a skein of geese flies, the way one goose tips its wings may convey particular information to the other geese.
Creating excitement outside the field of avian research is Dials examination of avian flight mechanics and its application to aeronautics. Dial says this avenue of research is a "tremendous resource" for engineers who are looking again at birds as models for aircraft designs. This hasnt happened since the earliest aircraft designers ceased imitating the flap of birds wings in favor of the unbirdlike wings of todays airplanes.
While rigid wings create stability, Dial says they forfeit maneuverability. This is demonstrated dramatically on Dials videotape as the wing-flapping magpie compensates for changes in wind velocity: becoming streamlined and horizontal for rapid flight, increasing its body angle and lowering its feet in slow flight. Likewise, Dials pigeons reveal incredible mobility, negotiating 120 degree banked turns in a wing beat, and righting themselves in the next.
Bird flight as it pertains to aircraft engineering "has nothing to do with my biology directly," Dial says. "Its just that I love it." The aeronautical community at the Paris Air Show was equally enthralled. "Some of these people were just loving it," he said. "And while [our discussion] was fun and cute and aesthetically pleasing, at the same time it had some science behind it that described things of function and design and control that affect future aircraft modeling."
"Mamas, dont let your babies grow up to be cowbirds"Turn the lights off and the slide projector on, and Erick Greene is a very funny guy about the mating rituals of a charming species. "Its a Peyton Place," he deadpans, referring to Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel, where over the past five years he and his students have banded entire populations of lazuli buntings, following birds with personalities and habits as quirky as soap stars.
"When you get to know individual birds and watch their behavior, it gets really interesting," Greene says. "Females paired with dull yearling males will tend to sneak off-Hey, Im bowling with the girls, dear-and actively seek copulations from bright males." Or the females will flirt with mountain bluebirds, three times their size. Brightly colored males are not exactly models of fidelity either, he says, as they spend a lot of time "mucking around in others territory" or "seeking extra-pair copulations."
Every male bird, Greene has determined, sings his own private song, his warblings servings as his acoustic fingerprint. Birds within range of one another speak in a shared dialect that develops as young birds attempt to imitate the "crystalized," or fully developed, songs of reproductively successful older males. Extremely attractive to the females, one such elder, "Red," suffered numerous pretenders until he changed his song.
The ripple effect has led Greene from lazuli buntings to a study of brown-headed cowbirds in remote wilderness areas. The connection is parasitism, the phenomenon of one bird species laying its eggs in anothers nest. For some birds, its not a problem. Red-winged blackbirds, for example, are larger than cowbirds and are able to raise their young, plus the invaders chicks.
For the tiny buntings, however, cowbird parasitism is catastrophic. The larger cowbird chicks starve out the baby buntings, squashing them or pecking them to death. In some years, every one of the 100 nest sites in Greenes study has been parasitized.
Greene was perplexed by the high incidence of parasitism until he discovered a communal cowbird roost on Jacobs Island on the edge of campus. "You wont see cowbirds on Jacobs Island unless youre there about ten minutes before dark, and then flocks of ten, twenty, fifty, maybe up to 100 cowbirds come zooming in very fast, very low. We estimate there may be up to 5,000 cowbirds that come in to roost at night."
Having expanded to western Montana in the past two decades, cowbird numbers are increasing exponentially, "a worrying thing," Greene says. Cowbirds lay eggs large for their body size, one a day, for forty days-comparable to a human producing a twelve pound baby every day for forty days.
Despite the cowbirds parasitism, lazuli buntings are widespread and abundant, according to the monitoring group Partners in Flight. What theyre not detecting, Greene says, is massive reproductive failure in breeding grounds. "Here we have this paradox: an extremely common species in this habitat and yet theyre not replacing themselves."
Undoubtedly, the hillsides of Mt. Jumbo and Mt. Sentinel are being restocked from other "source sites," where bunting fledglings are successfully hatched. But nothing is known about these sites, Greene says. "If there are only a few critically important sites for an entire species," Greene says, "we may inadvertently knock out some of those source areas and bingo, the whole population may crash."
Phoenix Rising: Black-backed Woodpeckers in Burned-Over ForestsDick Huttos earliest memory of birds is of sitting in the chaparral country of southern California and blasting them with his BB gun. Then, in a college biology class, Hutto says, "Ecology just hit. We would walk out and talk about fire and succession in the chaparral and it was Wow! I was starting to understand things Id lived with my whole life.",
These days hes traded in his firearm for binoculars and mist nets, but that enthusiasm persists as he talks about his penchant for fire ecology. Taking advantage of the number of forest fires of 1988, Hutto studied bird life on thirty-four burn sites in western Montana and northern Wyoming on a two-year grant funded by the National Geographic Society. "When you go in [to a burned forest] part of the interesting thing is that theres tons of birds in there," Hutto says. "Its not a desert. Thats the first misconception, that a burned forest is useless. If you ask the birds, theyre not saying the same thing."
Bird species, such as the black-backed woodpecker, depend on standing, fire-killed trees, which result from the infrequent, intense forest fires and not the frequent, low-intensity understory burns that current land management policies dictate. Hutto is convinced the woodpecker evolved to fill an ecological niche in the blackened forests. "The black-backed woodpecker matches the tree so well it blows your mind. Its every bit as impressive as a ptarmigan in snow," he says. The ramifications for land management are clear: If we prevent fires, if we rush to salvage burned stands, we will harm these species. Or, as Hutto puts it, if you take out all the trees, youre not going to have any fire-dependent bird species. Why should anyone care about black-backed woodpeckers?
"Thats the major question for the conservation of wildlife," Hutto says, acknowledging all the utilitarian reasons for saving wildlife, such as the interdependency of species. "But I think more than anything its an ethic, period," Hutto says. "Why do you want certain things? Why do you want anything? Because it provides variety in life. This variety is the source of it all. If you throw it all away, you have a pretty boring world."