Traysea Malam-Auger: Cooperative Breeding among Brown-headed Nuthatches

Hello, I’m Traysea Malama-Auger, a rising senior Biology major who is excited to share with you my summer research project on the coordinated vocalizations of brown-headed nuthatches. This project is made possible in part due to the funding I received from the IDEA Grants program, and I’m looking forward to completing it this summer. My research is focused on characterizing the coordinated vocalizations of brown-headed nuthatch pairs. Brown-headed nuthatches are fire-dependent facultative cooperatively breeding birds endemic to southeastern pine forests. Recently, studies have been conducted on other cooperatively breeding species to determine whether loosely coordinated vocalizations met the definition of an avian duet, something I’m eager to apply this methodology to this system this summer.

Traysea Malama-Auger, Junior, Biological Science

To conduct my research, I have been carrying out field observations at Tall Timbers Research Station in anticipation of pursuing my own research. In addition, under the tutelage of Dr. Emily DuVal I have learned how to genetically sex this monomorphic bird. Both skills were necessary to learn prior to the start of my research given the difficulty in observing these birds, and the necessity of discerning sex prior to recording vocalizations. I will record the vocalizations in the field at Tall Timbers Research Station either by chance, or by eliciting a response using playback.

I will then bring these recordings back to the laboratory, where I analyze the recordings to investigate three chosen characteristics of a duet: whether the duet overlaps more than expected by chance, whether the pair’s songs have a repeating stereotyped structure, and whether the vocalizations present a constant time lag (indicating that a pair member is attempting to temporarily align their song to its partner’s). My research this summer aims to head off an Honors in the Major Thesis, with this summer laying down the groundwork for the thesis by characterizing some natural history information prior to conducting playback experiments to investigate the function of the pair’s coordinated vocalizations. During my Honors in the Major work, I hope to investigate what role the vocalizations play in territorial defense, pair bond maintenance, and neighbor-stranger discrimination.

Through my research, I hope to gain a deeper understanding of the social behavior of brown-headed nuthatches. This work is potentially important to the field of ornithology for a couple of reasons. The first being that literature reviews to date report that duetting in the brown-headed nuthatch’s sister species, the pygmy nuthatch, evolved independently of the rest of the genus. If there is support for a hypothesis that brown-headed nuthatches duet, then this information could better inform the current understanding of the evolution of duetting in neo-avian families. This knowledge is particularly important given that the sister family to nuthatches, Sitta, are wrens, Troglodytidae. Wrens are known to be a prolific duetting family and could indicate that the origins of the duetting behavior occurred earlier on the phylogenetic tree.

This research is also interesting given that the majority of duetting research has occurred on tightly stereotyped songs and to date little is known about loosely coordinated duets and their function. Finally, this research theoretically investigates the merits of the “social complexity hypothesis”, a hypothesis that asserts that animals with more “complex” social groups necessitate a more complex means of communication. Brown-headed nuthatches are cooperative breeders that often maintain within their social groups juveniles from years past. During any breeding season, a family group may consist of three generations of birds or more. This large familial structure may have led to the evolution of a more complex means of communication.

Overall, my ongoing research on brown-headed nuthatch paired vocalizations is an important contribution to our understanding of bird behavior, evolution, and communication. In part due to the support of the IDEA Grants program, I can pursue this research and make important contributions to our understanding of the natural world.

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