Savannah Sparrows on Kent Island


Photo by S. Doucet

Since 2008, Ryan Norris and his graduate students have been working on a marked population of Savannah sparrows located on Kent Island, New Brunswick in the Bay of Fundy. This population was originally marked and followed by Nat Wheelwright in the late 1980’s and the Norris lab continues to monitor the fate and performance of all birds in the study area (over 10 thousand nests have been found to date) to examine the factors that influence fitness and population abundance of this migratory songbird. In addition to this long-term study, we have also been tracking departure dates and migration routes of a number of individuals over multiple years and, in collaboration with Amy Newman (University of Guelph), examining how early-life events influence the adult physiology, lifetime reproductive success, and survival. In collaboration with Dan Mennill and Stephanie Doucet (University of Windsor), one of our new projects is examining the cultural evolution of Savannah sparrow song (see picture and text below).

Savannah Sparrow Publications

Hensel, ALJ, Dobney, S, Moran, IG, Thomas, IP, Burant, JB, Woodworth, BK, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, Norris, DR, Williams, H & Mennill, DJ. 2022. Passive acoustic monitoring provides predictable and reliable underestimates of population size and longevity in wild Savannah Sparrows. Ornithological Applications duac018.

Hensel, ALJ, Dobney, S, Doucet, SM, Norris, DR, Newman, AEM, Williams, H & Mennill, DJ. 2022. Microgeographic variation in bird song: Savannah Sparrows exhibit microdialects in an island population. Animal Behaviour 188: 119-131.

Burant, JB, Heisey, EW, Wheelwright, NT, Newman, AEM, Whelan, S, Mennill, DJ, Doucet, SM, Mitchell, GW, Woodworth, BK & Norris, DR. 2022. Natal experience and pre-breeding environmental conditions affect lay date plasticity in Savannah sparrows. Ecology 103(2) :e03575.

Thomas, IP, Doucet, SM, Norris, DR, Newman, AEM, Williams, H & Mennill, DJ. 2021. Choice and consequence in avian vocal learning: acoustic similarity to neighbours shapes selective attrition and territorial aggression in Savannah sparrows. Animal Behaviour 176:77-86.

vanVliet, HEJ., Stutchbury, BJM, Newman, AEM & Norris, DR. 2020. The impacts of agricultural intensification on an obligate grassland bird of North America. Agriculture, Ecosystems & Environment 287:106696.

Moran, IG, Lukianchuk, KC, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, Williams, H, Norris, DR & Mennill, DJ. 2019. Diel and seasonal patterns of variation in the singing behavior of Savannah sparrows (Passerculus sandwichensis). Avian Research 10: 26.

Mennill, DJ, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, Williams, H, Moran, IG, Thomas, IP, Woodworth, BK, Bornais, M & Norris, DR. 2019. Social eavesdropping on adult vocal interactions does not enhance juvenile song learning: a playback experiment on a wild songbird population. Animal Behaviour 155: 67-75.

Williams, H, Robbins, CW, Norris, DR, Newman, AEM, Freeman-Gallant, CR, Wheelwright, NT & Mennill, DJ. 2019. The buzz segment of savannah sparrow song is a population marker. Journal of Ornithology 160:217-227.

Mennill, DJ, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, Williams, H, Moran, I, Woodworth, BK, Thomas, I & Norris, DR. 2018. Wild birds learn songs from experimental vocal tutors. Current Biology 28:3273-3278.

Moran, I, Doucet, SM, Newman, AEM, Norris, DR & Mennill, DJ. 2018. Quiet violence: Savannah sparrows respond to playback-simulated rivals using soft songs as aggressive signals. Ethology 124(10):724-732.

Woodworth, BK, Wheelwright, NT, Newman, AEM, & Norris, DR. 2017. Local density regulates songbird reproductive success through effects on double-brooding and nest predation. Ecology 98:2039-2048.

Newman, AEM, Hess, H, Woodworth, BK & Norris, DR. 2017. Time as a tyrant: the minute, hour and day make a difference for corticosterone concentrations in wild nestlings. General & Comparative Endocrinology 250:80-84.

Woodworth, BK, Wheelwright, NT, Newman, AEM, Schaub, M & Norris, DR. 2017. Winter temperatures limit population growth rate of a migratory songbird. Nature Communications 8: 14812.

Woodworth, BK, Newman, AEM, Turbek, SP, Dossman, BC, Hobson, KA, Wassenaar, LI, Mitchell, GW, Wheelwright, NT & Norris, DR. 2016. Differential migration and the link between winter latitude, timing of migration and breeding in a songbird. Oecologia 181: 413-422.

Pakkala, JJ, Norris, DR, Sedinger, JS & Newman, AEM. 2016. Experimental effects of early-life corticosterone on the HPA axis and pre-migratory behaviour in a wild songbird. Functional Ecology 30: 1149-1160.

Mitchell, GW, Woodworth, BK, Taylor, PD & Norris, DR. 2015. Age-specific differences in flight duration and groundspeed are driven by wind conditions aloft: an automated telemetry study. Movement Ecology 3:19.

Williams, H, Levin, I, Norris, DR, Newman, AEM & Wheelwright, NT. 2013. Three decades of cultural evolution in Savannah sparrow song. Animal Behaviour 85: 213-223.

Mitchell, GW, Wikelski, M, Newman, AEM, & Norris, DR. 2012. Timing of breeding carries over to influence migratory departure in a songbird: an automated radiotracking study. Journal of Animal Ecology 81: 1024-1033.

Mitchell, GW, Guglielmo, CG, Wheelwright, NT & Norris, DR. 2012. Short- and long-term costs of reproduction in a migratory songbird. Ibis 154: 325-337.

Wheelwright, NT, Graf, ES & Norris, DR. 2012. Consistency in size, shape, and colouration of Savannah Sparrow eggs within and between breeding seasons. Condor 114: 412-420.

Mitchell, GW, Guglielmo, CG, Wheelwright, NT, Freeman-Gallant, CR & Norris, DR. 2011. Early life events carry-over to influence pre-migratory condition in a free-living songbird. Public Library of Science, One 6(12): e28838.

Rae, L, Mitchell, GW, Guglielmo, CG, Mauck, RM & Norris, DR. 2009. Radio transmitters do not affect the body condition of Savannah sparrows during the fall pre-migratory period. Journal of Field Ornithology 80: 434-441.

….has its challenges. The field research station is owned and operated by Bowdoin College in Maine. Mark Murray (pictured here) does an incredible job of being the caretaker of the island during the field season. He has also either built, repaired, or restored all of the buildings on the island and is always willing to lend us a hand with our quirky research needs. For example, in 2013, he helped us construct special cones made out of chicken wire to protect Savannah sparrow nests from avian predators. Just as important, he is also full of stories that document the rich history of the island.

…is not always a straightforward endeavour. There are frequently high winds on the island which turns mist nets into sails, making them quite visible to birds. Luckily, there are usually enough calm days on the island to catch every bird on the plot and fit it with a unique colour band combination so we can follow it for the remainder of the breeding season. Even if it is windy, we have a number of tricks up our sleeve to catch birds. Photo: S. Doucet.

Kent Island is a small 80 ha island located off of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy, New Brunswick. The Savannah sparrow population was first studied by Clara Dixon in the 1960’s but a long-term study was initiated by Nat Wheelwright in the mid-1980’s. Ryan Norris and his graduate students began studying this population in 2008, forming a time series of almost 30 years. The study site consists of 50m x 50m mowed trails (see in the photo) and supports between 35-75 breeding pairs per year. All individuals within the study site are banded and all nests are found and monitored throughout the season.

In 2013, we published a paper in collaboration with Heather Williams and Nat Wheelwright on the evolution of Savannah sparrows song elements on Kent Island from 3 decades of song recordings from over a thousand individuals. Some song elements have become popular over time and others have faded into obscurity. In 2013, in collaboration with Dan Mennill and Stephanie Doucet, we initiated a unique playback experiment intended to introduce unique song elements to this island population. Stayed tuned for the results. Photo: S. Doucet.

Ryan and Dan Kent Island

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