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Sparrow sights and sounds

UWindsor biology associate professor Dan Mennill records the acoustic communication of a Savannah Sparrow on Kent Island.

Just as a population of savannah sparrows is drawn to return to a small island off the coast of New Brunswick each year, so too is a pair of University of Windsor researchers. Biology associate professors Dan Mennill and Stéphanie Doucet have been conducting research on Kent Island in the Bay of Fundy along with their graduate students, research technicians and undergraduate helpers since 2013. Their research focuses on the migratory population of savannah sparrows on the 100-hectare island.

“This population of savannah sparrows exhibits unusually high natal philopatry. In other words, birds that are born on this island tend to return here to breed as adults,” Dr. Mennill said, adding that this unique attribute is something that has attracted him to the island. “What is so interesting to me is the ability to study the early acoustic environment of a bird, and then follow this through to the vocal behaviours that the particular animal exhibits as an adult.”

His research focuses on the savannah sparrows’ acoustic communication and requires him and his graduate students to go out every morning armed with specialized recording equipment. “On a daily basis, we go out at dawn and use parabolic microphones to sample the vocal behaviours of each bird,” Mennill said. “We capture and mark each bird early in the year so that we can distinguish between each individual.”

Dr. Doucet’s research focuses on the visual signals of savannah sparrows. She said while the savannah sparrow is often perceived as being drab in appearance; this population has a prominent patch of yellow feathers above each eye. “The colour can range from a pale yellow wash to a bright lemon yellow,” Doucet said. “Using a field-portable spectrophotometer, we can empirically quantify this colour variation in savannah sparrows and examine whether it related to their breeding biology or ecology, and even where they spent the previous winter.”

According to Doucet, the sparrow’s propensity to return to Kent Island will eventually allow researchers to examine the sparrow’s ability to inherit the variation in the colour.

Both researchers consider Kent Island to be a prime location to conduct research. “There’s great infrastructure for us to conduct research on this unique population of songbirds, and better understand the biology of wild animals,” Mennill said, adding that the island is home to the Bowdoin Scientific Station.

This article was adapted with permission from the This link will take you to another Web site University of Windsor.