Chicago: lab visits, bird collections & the field museum

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Chris in Chicago

In early January, I headed stateside to begin a month-long visit to the University of Chicago with the main aim of spending some time working with Trevor Price, a world-leading expert on speciation, species diversity and colour vision in birds. Trevor began his research career studying Darwin’s finches on the Galapagos Islands with Peter and Rosemary Grant, and since then has gone on to have a long and distinguished career working on a huge range of Chris scanquestions related to the ecology and evolution of birds. Many of these insights were synthesised in his 2008 book “Speciation in birds”, which discusses the factors regulating the formation of new bird species for almost every conceivable angle. The wide-ranging nature of Trevor’s approach to understanding bird evolution is also reflected in the diversity of his lab group, whose current research interests stretch from understanding competitive interactions between ants and birds in the Indian Himalayas through to the role of chromosomal rearrangements in the formation of new bird species. The opportunity to spend time in such a vibrant research group that is doing so much exciting research was a great privilege, and I would like to say a big thank you to Trevor Price and his lab group for their hospitality and for the huge amount of inspiring discussions during his visit. A special thank you must also go to Macrobird PI Gavin Thomas, who encouraged and supported me in this visit from first to last. Thank you to everyone who made the visit such a success!

Field Museum

Aside from talking all things evolutionary with Trevor Price and his lab group, while in Chicago I also took the opportunity to visit the world-famous Field Museum of Natural history and add to the ever-expanding 3D beak-shape dataset. The Field Museum is one of the most prominent public museums in the world and is also home to one of the largest collections of natural history specimens. Like many natural history collections, a vast number of these specimens are birds, providing the perfect opportunity to locate and scan several hard-to-find species that are not represented in UK collections. In total I managed to add an extra 18 species to the dataset while out in Chicago, including several species of parrot (such as the blue-headed macaw, Primolius couloni) and Newell’s shearwater (Puffinus newelli) .

Chicago skyline

As a slight aside, one interesting—and perhaps slightly unfortunate—fact about the Field Museum is that every year their bird collection grows significantly owing to the fact that many hundreds of thousands of migrating birds perish after colliding with buildings in Chicago’s famous skyline. Many of these unfortunate birds are collected by museum volunteers or members of the public and then passed on to the Museum, who endeavour to preserve as many as possible in an effort to make the best of a bad situation. Because of the scale of the problem, the City of Chicago now takes steps to prevent as many bird collisions as possible, by modifying buildings and people’s behaviour, including encouraging workers to ensure office lights remain off overnight during migration periods. Again, the opportunity to spend time working at the Field Museum and to learn more about the role of the Museum in the fight against bird collisions was a huge privilege – a big thank you to Shannon Hackett, John Bates, Ben Marks at the Field Museum and Graham Slater at the University of Chicago for making that possible.