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Researching the social behavior of Australia’s cutest birds: An interview with Allison Johnson

8 May, 2024

By Alexander Trifunovic

Allison Johnson, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and co-founder of the Fairywren Project, holding an adult male Splendid Fairywren (Malurus splendens). Photo courtesy of Allison Johnson.

 

Allison Johnson is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Nebraska- Lincoln and a co-founder of the Fairywren Project, a citizen science-based approach to understanding the social and ecological complexities of Australian fairywrens across their broad ranges. IBCP outreach fellow Alex Trifunovic spoke with Allison about her career experience, ecological research, and about the behavioral ecology of some of the cutest birds in the world: the fairywrens.

 

  1. How did you first become interested in birds?

AJ: There was an incident. I always wanted to do biology of some sort. I am originally from Nebraska, and my family used to go watch the crane migration every year. The Rowe Audubon Society puts on a mini crane conference for the public every year. I went to listen to someone give a talk about cranes, but I ignored him and was doodling. He came over and told me to pay attention. We talked after, and he signed a book for me. His name was Paul Johnsgard. He has since passed away but he was on the faculty at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and we started corresponding and he started sending me bird books. It was kind of fun; someone just got me hooked and I ended up stumbling into finding a mentor. 

Every spring, hundreds of thousands of Sandhill Cranes (Antigone canadensis) utilize the Platte River in Nebraska as a critical stopover point on their journey north. Photo by USFWS Mountain-Prairie, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

2.              What is your favorite bird or group of birds?

AJ: I think my favorite bird is the Sandhill Crane because of that weird background with it. But other than that, I’d say I’m partial to fairywrens.  

A bright adult male Splendid Fairywren (Malurus splendens) in the hand as part of Allison’s long-term research in Australia. Photo by Allison Johnson. 

 

3.              Can you briefly outline your career path to get where you are now?

AJ: As I mentioned, I connected with a faculty member relatively early, and he introduced me to Charles and Mary Brown who work on a Cliff Swallow project at Cedar Point Biological Station. Because of that connection, I got the opportunity to do bird field work the summer after my senior year of high school. Then when I started undergrad, I found a faculty member that had luckily just started. I wanted to do a project on facial recognition in Cliff Swallows and I feel like the average person would’ve said no, but he was like “if you know how to band birds let’s do this together”, and it was awesome! So, for all four years of undergrad, I spent summers doing either Cliff Swallow work or helping my professor with his research project, which was sex determination in turtles, also very fun! From working on the Cliff Swallow project, I got hooked on social behavior and trying to understand how it functions and why a species evolves social behavior. When I was looking for graduate programs, I ended up looking specifically for ones that involved birds and social behavior. When I got the opportunity to go to Australia and work with fairywrens, that was a no brainer. Since then, that project has evolved and developed, but it started in the 1990s and we have a lot of long-term data. And that is something I have gotten hooked on: having the ability to look at temporal changes in a social population. I took over and changed it after my graduate advisor retired, but I have wanted to maintain the continuity of data collection even as the questions we are asking change. You can say how you think things are changing, but long-term data is where you get the power to say the actual impact on a species. 

Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) are colonial breeders, and large flocks construct their mud nests on cliff faces and on the underside of bridges. Photo by Ron Hinchley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

4.              How and why did the Fairywren Project come to be?

AJ: My work before the Fairywren Project was within a single species trying to understand the costs and benefits of social behavior. I am not the only person working on fairywrens; there are many labs globally working on different species of fairywrens. I have some collaborators including Joe Welklin, who is currently a postdoc at the University of Nevada, Reno. Joe and I were at an AOS conference together and we happened to both be into trail running, so we got up early and went trail running. We were talking about his populations of fairywrens and my populations of fairywrens and what makes them so different but so similar. We started talking about how most research programs only have one field site where you can see temporal changes within a population from one year to the next, but that doesn’t let you see the ecological correlates of the behaviors across the range of the species. These species have wide ranges, and how a species might evolve its social behavior is not a change happening in one population. So, we thought it would be good to develop a project to get more information on how social behavior varies across the range of one species and between different species. The Fairywren Project was this idea to use the fact that fairywrens are cute and everyone loves them to get citizen scientists to help us collect data on a wider scale. We partnered with eBird to encourage eBird participants to record additional data in the notes of their eBird submissions. And we had huge success, which is awesome! Now the project is supported under an NSF grant, we have many years of citizen science data, and we have started pairing that data with field experiments looking at intragroup conflict and reproductive success. 

Female Purple-backed Fairywren at Brookfield Conservation Park. Photo by Allison Johnson. 

 

5.              What is the most surprising thing you’ve found so far with the Fairywren Project?

AJ: We were thinking the benefit a species gains from being in a social group differs and that difference might impact their response to environmental variation. We were super excited about that idea. If a species gains reproductive benefits from a large group, such as having helpers bringing extra food to the nest, then that benefit is most useful in harsh environments. But, if you have a population where young are in their natal territory to queue up for their own reproductive opportunities without increasing the reproductive success of the group, you might see the exact opposite with larger groups occurring in benign environments where the survival of the young is already high. The harsher the environment, the lower the reproductive success, so the smaller the group size. And we found that in two species where we think they gained those different benefits, one gained reproductive success and one gained territory defense benefits. That’s what we found with our observational data, and then we started digging into citizen science data. And we found the same relationship for the Superb Fairywren: they had larger group sizes in benign environments and smaller group sizes in harsher environments. But we only found that in the part of their range we had sampled, but if you look at the citizen science data, the further north you get, the pattern starts to change.

Superb Fairywren (Malurus cyaneus). By Sardaka, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

In the southeastern part of Australia, the pattern goes away completely, and if you go to the northeastern part of Australia it reverses. We don’t know quite what’s happening yet, but we think it’s because the southeastern part of Australia with Sydney and Melbourne is the most human-dense part of Australia. In those areas, Superb Fairywrens live in people's backyards, so we think that as people are curating the landscape around their homes, the relationship with the environment goes away. The environment in someone’s backyard is very different from what you would expect to be there naturally. As you go further north, we have some evidence and observations that suggest Superb Fairywrens may be expanding their range northward. Based on our metrics of rainfall and temperature, we would expect a benign environment with large group sizes. However, if they are actively pushing their range edge, there is vacancy to the north, so they don’t need large group sizes if those young have opportunities to disperse. So, you’d expect the exact opposite relationship, which is super cool! I’m hoping that as we work with some GIS data, we will find that the relationship between population density and human density is interacting with the environment to reshape the patterns of social behavior in these birds.     

A Purple-backed Fairywren (Malurus assimilis) nestling and egg at Brookfield Conservation Park. Photo by Allison Johnson. 


6.              What are some of the most memorable moments from your time in the field?

AJ: My graduate advisor that started the long-term fairywren research at Brookfield Conservation Park doesn’t like surveying by himself, and he wants to have someone to chit chat with. So, I was walking in an area that I knew he might be in, and I was looking for a bird nest. I heard footsteps behind me, and it was one of those days where I wanted quiet time by myself. I didn’t say anything and waited until he got right up behind me, and he didn’t say anything, so I turned around and it was not my advisor, it’s an emu! We had a moment of being shocked that the other was standing there. Then the emu made a very odd noise, stuck its little wing stubs out, turned, and ran off into the bush! That’s probably my favorite memory from my field work in Australia. It’s also fun to get to know these birds. We have them all color banded and just getting to see them every year and know what they’re doing is special.

Allison doing field work at Brookfield Conservation Park in South Australia. Photo courtesy of Allison Johnson. 


7.              What is your current research?

AJ: I am working with Dai Shizuka, and most of what I am working on is fairywren stuff, and I’m also involved with the work going on in this lab. We’re looking at heterospecific social behavior, including mixed species winter flocks. We’re putting RFID bands on birds and have an array of RFID feeders to see who comes in sequence at that site. Another project is at Cedar Point looking at movement ecology of a couple different species using Motus. We’re working on Tree Swallows looking at how they interact with different environments and how they move across the landscape.

Tree Swallows (Tachycineta bicolor). Photo by Channel City Camera Club from Santa Barbara, US, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

We’re hoping to start up a project looking at towhees. We have Spotted and Eastern and then we have hybrids, so we’re putting Motus tags on towhees, and we have nodes set out at the field sites. We’re hoping to see if there are differences in how they associate with one another, how they move across the landscape, and see if there is a correlation with the identity of the bird as Spotted, Eastern, or hybrid. There is also a graduate student at the University of Tulsa doing a project on Cliff Swallow movement ecology using Life Tags to see how birds are visiting different colonies at the beginning and end of the breeding season. We call it the ‘tour of homes' and they do it en masse. You get this big flock that flies through the colony a couple times, and individuals might jump on a nest and look at it, and they’ll do this multiple nights before they settle into a colony. The idea is they are looking at ectoparasite loads and determining how many fleas or swallow bugs have overwintered, but we don’t really know. You can see it happening, but you don’t know where an individual bird ends up, so this might be a way to start teasing apart what’s happening. 

Allison with an avian biology course at Cedar Point Biological Station. Photo courtesy of Allison Johnson. 

 

8.              What are some of your priorities for future research and conservation work?

AJ: For me, a lot of my work is not as applied, but my hope is with this long-term data I can inform people how species and communities of birds are going to socially respond to changing environments. I’d also like to look at whether social behavior makes birds more or less resilient, not just conspecific social interactions but also interspecific social interactions both in winter mixed flocks and at other times of the year.

A brilliant adult male Purple-backed Fairywren (Malurus assimilis), one of the focal species at Brookfield Conservation Park in Southern Australia. Photo by Allison Johnson. 

 

9.              What would your advice be to young people pursuing a career in bird conservation and research?

AJ: Keep your eye out for opportunities, and never be afraid to ask to get involved in a project. The people I started working with were more than happy to have me be involved. One of the downsides is that those positions aren’t as advertised as they ought to be, so be willing to step outside of your comfort zone and ask people what’s going on. A lot of labs and organizations are willing to have you work for them, we’re often just swamped and not constantly advertising. In research, biology, and conservation, people are doing that work because they care and are excited to share their excitement with other people. Make connections and find people, and often if there is not a position available in a particular lab, those people know other people who might have other opportunities. Always stay interested and be willing to be surprised.  

A Yellow-breasted Chat (Icteria virens) at the banding table at Cedar Point Biological Station. Photo by Allison Johnson. 

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