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Ornithology: Research & Projects

<p>Northernmost of the 242 species of tanagers, the Western Tanager (Piranga ludoviciana) is a common inhabitant of the mature coniferous and mixedwood forests of Alberta. Its bright colours are due to carotenoid pigments, which ultimately the bird derives from its food. Unlike its North American cousins which manufacture their red pigments from yellow dietary precursors, the Western Tanager may be dependent on its food also for an unusual red carotenoid (rhodoxanthin) the male sports on its head.</p><p>In spite of its showiness the Western Tanager is not often seen, partly because of its rather sedentary and deliberate feeding habits. The Western Tanager annually makes long-distance migrations between its wintering grounds in Mexico and Central America and its breeding grounds in western North America.</p><p><em>Source: Photo CD 2269 1012 0322, Image # 028</em></p>

The confluence of three major natural regions (Boreal Forest, Grasslands and Mountains) in Alberta, an associated diversity of habitats, and an active zone of secondary contact (hybridization) between eastern and western forms of several species of birds along the eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains, provide marvellous outdoor laboratories for avian studies.

In recent years, work at Royal Alberta Museum has focused on three main projects:

The first deals with the reproductive interactions between two species of sapsuckers (woodpeckers: Yellow-bellied and Red-naped sapsuckers) in south-western Alberta, ultimately to determine whether one or two species is involved. As part of the study, volunteers were recruited in a citizen-science project named Project Sapsucker.

In a collaboration with researchers in Italy (Prof. Riccardo Stradi) and Saskatchewan (Dr. Karen Wiebe), we have also been characterising the pigments responsible for the marked difference in colour between the Yellow-shafted and Red-shafted forms of the Northern Flicker (Colaptes auratus), two of the most distinct bird subspecies (actually, subspecies groups) on the continent. This work, we hope, will bring insight into how the differences evolved in the flickers.

Finally, we are investigating the origins of marked variation in the coloration of the plumage of a showy bird, the Western Tanager, across its range in Alberta, and how it might relate to variation in the quality of the environment in which the species lives and reproduces.

Other topics of interest are the ecological determinants of distribution and biodiversity of birds in the province (for example, the Flycatcher Status Update), the origin of individual variation in plumage coloration, particularly carotenoid pigmentation, and the chemical nature of plumage and iris pigments in birds.