November 9, 2017
What can the mating behavior of birds tell us about evolution, climate change and species survival? For Peter Dunn, UWM distinguished professor of biological sciences, bird-watching offers clues to overarching ecological questions. He wants to know the purpose behind bird preferences such as feather brightness and why some birds follow the same mating playbook, while others deviate. He and Professor Linda Whittingham are now in their 21st year of studying tree swallows at the UWM Field Station, a 320-acre wetland near Saukville. This has given the ornithologists a long-term perspective on the birds they study, which include common yellowthroats and tree swallows.
What attracted you to this work?
When I first became interested in bird behavior I was drawn in by birds that have a lek mating system, like the greater prairie chicken. In the lek, the males give a public display out in a field, which attracts the females. The males all hang out in this group, just strutting their stuff for the females. Some get multiple mates and other don't get any. It's like a bar scene where the guys are showing off and the females gather to check them out.
After mating, the females go off and build a nest and raise the young all by themselves. The males do not provide any parental care. This is unusual. Ninety percent of birds are monogamous and they raise their young together. So, what originally interested me was the question of why are some birds like that and others are not.