Behavior, Ecology, Conservation
In our lab group we study human-wildlife coexistence, often viewing the issues from the point of view of the wildlife. By understanding how animals sense and respond (or not) to a fast-changing human-affected environment, we are striving to produce sustainable solutions for conservation and better understand and illustrate the importance of biodiversity for society.
Sensory pollution, sensory ecology, and human-wildlife coexistence
Introduction of anthropogenic noise can cause substantial behavioral problems for wildlife (e.g. blocking vocal communication channels for birds). To date, our work has shown that adult birds’ and nestlings’ vocal communication is disrupted by human noise pollution and that this can result in decreased strength of pair bonds and lower reproductive success. We are currently investigating how birds hear the world around them and how this will affect how we quantify, model, and predict the potential negative effects of noise pollution.
Building from our understanding of how birds respond to noise, we have turned the tables on our knowledge to design acoustic stimuli and technology that will deliberately deter birds from socioeconomically important areas. Specifically, if we broadcast a spatially-controlled net of sound into an area that stops birds from hearing each other, their state of fear increases and they leave to go elsewhere. They don't habituate as their real sense of danger increases. These "Sonic Nets" are delivered through seaker systems at places such as farms and airports where some birds can do tremendous damage. They move the birds on to quieter sites. The Sonic Nets can also be deployed at places where birds are harmed, e.g., polluted sites. We've shown that this idea works in both captive and field conditions, and the Sonic Net technology has been commercialized with Flock Free.
Millions, perhaps billions, of birds die each year when they collide with large human-built structures, such as buildings, wind turbines, and communication towers. We've developed a new way of thinking about how to limit those collisions. As birds fly during daytime migration they are often looking at the ground and their eyes are positioned toward the side of their skulls. Hence, they are not looking where they are going. By projecting a conspicuous sound field in front of a collision-risk object, we grab the visual attention of the bird and reduce the risk of collision. We've demonstrated the effectiveness of the "Acoustic Lighthouse" in captivity and in field trials that show substantial reduction of collisions with tall communication towers.
We have developed new and improved ways to assess the effectiveness of technologies to reduce bird-window collisions, which are major threats to the conservation and preservation of bird populations in almost every built area. In the US alone, almost a billion birds die each year from window collisions. We have tested new emerging window treatments that appear to substantially reduce risk while being almost entirely transparent to humans--so not causing aesthetic issues for property owners. We are also collaborating with partners to design a window-safe app for homeowners so people can take action with their own properties to reduce the risks of bird-window collisions.
One Health approaches to wellbeing
Biodiversity and human disease
We have investigated the consequences of avian ecology and diversity for human health. We have collected robust information to indicate that humans are often better protected against avian-borne diseases (e.g. West Nile virus) when avian biodiversity increases in local populations. This is because most avian species are poor host reservoirs for their respective disease organisms, and so adding a bird species to an area most likely adds a low competence host and “dilutes” the disease locally, lowering infection risks for humans. We are interested in expanding this project by looking at further ways in which wildlife community structure and life history traits influence infectious disease risks to humans.
Heavy Metals, the Environment, and Health
We have investigated how low levels of mercury exposure influence many aspects of individual physiology (cellular immune responses, adreno-coriticol responses), development (neural formation, brain language center development, sperm production and fertility), and behavior (mate preferences, male song, flight mechanics, foraging strategy, antipredatory tactics) in two model songbird species (zebra finches, European starlings). Mercury is a global, persistent contaminant that is released in large amounts from certain chemical processes and coal-fired power plants, and biomagnifies and accumulates in aquatic and terrestrial food webs. Little is known about how low-level exposure to mercury affects key systems in the body and the published “safe levels” are largely driven by litigation rather than strong science. Our recent work is pivoting to explore similar questions in association with lead exposure due to mining activities.