East Coast island draws birds and researchers alike

UWindsor biology associate professor Dan Mennill records the acoustic communication of a Savannah Sparrow on Kent Island.UWindsor biology associate professor Dan Mennill records the acoustic communication of a Savannah Sparrow on Kent Island.

Just as a population of savannah sparrows is drawn to return to the small island off the coast of New Brunswick each year, so too is a pair of UWindsor researchers.

Biology associate professors Dan Mennill and Stéphanie Doucet have been conducting research on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy along with their graduate students, research technicians and undergraduate helpers since 2013.

Their research focuses on the migratory population of savannah sparrows on the 100-hectare island.

“This population of savannah sparrows exhibits unusually high natal philopatry. In other words, birds that are born on this island tend to return here to breed as adults,” Dr. Mennill said, adding this unique attribute is something that has attracted him to the island. “What is so interesting to me is the ability to study the early acoustic environment of a bird, and then follow this through to the vocal behaviours that the particular animal exhibits as an adult.”

A Savannah Sparrow is pictured on Kent Island.

Mennill’s research focuses on the savannah sparrows’ acoustic communication and requires him and his graduate students to go out every morning armed with specialized recording equipment.

“On a daily basis, we go out at dawn and use parabolic microphones to sample the vocal behaviours of each bird,” Mennill said. “We capture and mark each bird early in the year so that we can distinguish between each individual.

“We find each bird’s nest, and measure their territory features, so that we can connect the vocal behaviour of the birds to their reproductive activities.”

Dr. Doucet’s research focuses on the visual signals of savannah sparrows.

She said while the savannah sparrow is often perceived as being drab in appearance, this population has a prominent patch of yellow feathers above each eye.

“The colour can range from a pale yellow wash to a bright lemon yellow,” Doucet said. “Using a field-portable spectrophotometer, we can empirically quantify this colour variation in savannah sparrows and examine whether it related to their breeding biology or ecology, and even where they spent the previous winter.”

Katherine McGuire, Ines Moran, and Ian Thomas on the research boat the "Ernest Joy." (Photo courtesy of Stéphanie Doucet)

Doucet said the sparrow’s propensity to return to Kent Island will eventually allow researchers to examine the sparrow’s ability to inherit the variation in the colour.

“Kent Island is an extraordinary place to conduct research,” Mennill said, adding that the island is home to the Bowdoin Scientific Station.

“There’s no electricity or plumbing, but there’s great infrastructure for us to conduct research on this unique population of songbirds, and better understand the biology of wild animals.”

Mennill and Doucet’s team this year includes UWindsor alumna Katherine McGuire and master of science students Ines Moran and Ian Thomas. The research team will be returning to Windsor in early July.

For more information on their research or to follow along, visit Mennill’s twitter @DMennill.

Ines Moran records the acoustics from the Savannah Sparrow on Kent Island in this handout photo.

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