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York prof's book on mating lives of birds attracts international media coverage

York prof's book on mating lives of birds attracts international media coverage

York Professor and Canada Research Chair Bridget Stutchbury is attracting international media attention with her new book, The Bird Detective. ABC News Online, the National Post, the Daily Mail Online and Maclean' published articles discussing her book on April 13.

Reuters wrote:

It’s not all love in the avian world, where divorce, child abandonment and marrying up are part of everyday life.

The Bird Detective, to be published in Canada this week, dispels the lovebird myth that birds pair up for life, and paints a picture instead that includes adultery and the pursuit of comfort.

“In terms of top 10 myths about birds, the permanent pair bonds that we think about, that does occur for some birds, but for most of the little songbirds that we studied, no,” said Stutchbury.

The book draws on 20 years of research from radio tracking and DNA testing and shows male Acadian flycatchers fertilizing females far away from their home nests, and female blue-headed vireos premeditating divorce by checking out new mates before they abandon their young.

Stutchbury, who has studied dozens of songbird species in Canada, the United States and Panama, said shorter summers may drive females to leave their nests before their young are fully fledged so they can quickly find new mates and lay more eggs. That leaves the males to feed the hungry chicks on their own.

Males can triple or quadruple their reproductive success by fertilizing neighbouring females, but only “mates” care for the young, and some are none the wiser. “They can’t tell when the egg hatches whether it’s theirs or not,” she said. “They have no way to know.”

Divorce is surprisingly common among birds, and most live with one partner for only a few months or years. Divorce rates range from 99 per cent in the greater flamingo to zero in the wandering albatross.

The Calgary Sun wrote:

Who knew birds could be so bad?

A new book from Bridget Stutchbury shows they cheat on each other, and their relationships often end in divorce. As well, some parent birds favour one offspring over another. “There are a number of theories about why birds go their separate ways,” Stutchbury said in a release about her book The Bird Detective.

“One hypothesis is that birds that are genetically or behaviourally incompatible separate when both can benefit from finding a new partner.” Another theory is birds, like humans, realize they can do better: One initiates divorce for selfish gain, leaving its former partner high and dry.

The York University biology professor – who was a 2007 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction finalist for her book Silence of the Songbirds – and post-doctoral student Bonnie Wolfenden looked at how female Acadian flycatchers were being fertilized by neighbouring males who lived hundreds of metres away.

“We had the genetic evidence of their infidelity, but we never did catch a female sneaking away from its nest. It turned out to be the males making clandestine visits to the females,” Stutchbury said.

Stutchbury, who is among York's Distinguished Research Professors, is a faculty member in the Department of Biology in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering. She holds a Canada Research Chair in Evolution & Ecology.

Posted by Elizabeth Monier-Williams, research communications officer, with files courtesy of YFile– York University’s daily e-bulletin.