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Prowling woodland thickets in spring rain and summer heat, Corey Freeman-Gallant doesn’t care if he’s in fashion. He’s not trolling for a date; he’s on stakeout. His only ornaments are binoculars and plenty of bug repellent. But the reason he’s out there is to document the role of fashion statements in gender relations.
The subjects of his scrutiny are dapper little songbirds called common yellowthroats. Along with bright-yellow bibs, the males sport jet-black facial masks. After several years of studying savannah sparrows—nondescript birds of a class known to many a frustrated birdwatcher as LBJs (little brown jobs)—Freeman-Gallant spent a summer researching yellowthroats in Skidmore’s North Woods with Elizabeth Johnson ’02. Their study suggested that females preferentially mate with larger-bibbed males. That project piqued the interest of a Milwaukee yellowthroat researcher who’d found that large masks, not bibs, made the difference. Now, with a shared, three-year $270,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, Freeman-Gallant will study bibs, masks, and mating success in Saratoga yellowthroats, while two University of Wisconsin ornithologists will conduct the same studies in their region.
|“For a socially monogamous
animal, there’s a lot of
philandering—both males and females mating outside
the social pair bond.”
“I just love evolutionary biology,” says Freeman-Gallant. “With their short life cycles, birds let you follow several generations and chart changes in just a few years.” It’s one thing to study population structure and genetics, but “it’s really fun to be able to go out and see it at work.” And many birds “present intriguing paradoxes. For a socially monogamous animal, in some species there’s a lot of philandering—both males and females frequently mating outside the social pair bond. And some birds have a vast habitat but exhibit striking local variations.” (For example, if yellowthroats’ masks impress rival males while their bibs attract females, then perhaps territorial border patrol is crucial for males competing in the Wisconsin bog where researchers noticed the importance of mask size, whereas the narrow shape of the research tract near Skidmore may require less competition and therefore less emphasis on masks.)
In Freeman-Gallant’s research area, just north of campus, all the male yellowthroats were photographed, leg-banded, and DNA-tested last summer. This summer he and a couple of students will do it all again. First they’ll set up nets and play recordings of the birds’ catchy “witchety witchety witch” song, and “in about five minutes, any male in the area will dive-bomb the net.” Along with digital photographs for exact measurement of bib and mask sizes, the researchers will take spectrometer readings to measure the intensity of the yellow color. They’ll even put a few birds into an aviary to observe as males compete with each other and females choose males. Will males with yellower throats prevail? What will happen when the black mask is enlarged with paint? Or when the bib is partly covered with a dull color?
Back outdoors, the toughest job is finding all the nests so that nestlings can be genotyped. Yellowthroat females are olive-drab, and very secretive about their nests, which they build on the ground in dense thickets. “Finding nests entails waiting and watching for hours,” says Freeman-Gallant. “I think it’s a knack some people have. You get a kind of sixth sense: is she about to head toward her nest, or is she bluffing? If we locate three nests in a full day of searching, that’s an amazing success.” But the payoff is big: with DNA testing, “we can finger the true dad for each kid.” And that will reveal which dads, with which ornamentation, tend to sire the most, and the strongest, offspring.
“Fieldwork is great,” Freeman-Gallant enthuses. “You get to know the population as individuals. But lab work is exciting too, as you watch a particular bird’s genes showing up all over the place, or not in the nests you expected. The soap opera begins, and you just follow the stories.” —SR