Thursday, December 10, 2020

Pesticides are bad news-- especially for grassland birds

Cover image for the December 2020 issue of Nature Sustainability is also in Understanding Bird Behavior.

Li, Y., Miao, R. & Khanna, M. Neonicotinoids and decline in bird biodiversity in the United States. Nat Sustain 3, 1027–1035 (2020).

Wednesday, June 10, 2020

Second book out in August

Confusingly, this will have different titles and covers in different countries, but apart from the spelling of words like colour, the interiors should be unchanged. Credit for the titles and cover designs should go entirely to each of the publishers.

Cover of 'How Birds Behave' featuring a close-up photo of a dark bird with
UK cover

  • A vivid, eye-opening view of why birds behave the way they do

North America

Birds are intelligent, sociable creatures that exhibit a wide array of behaviors—from mobbing and mimicking to mating and joint nesting. Why do they behave as they do? Bringing to light the remarkable actions of birds through examples from species around the world, Understanding Bird Behavior presents engaging vignettes about the private lives of birds, all explained in an evolutionary context.

We discover how birds find food, relying on foraging techniques, tools, and thievery. We learn about the courtship rituals through which birds choose, compete for, woo, and win mates; the familial conflicts that crop up among parents, offspring, and siblings; and the stresses and strains of nesting, including territory defense, nepotism, and relationship sabotage. We see how birds respond to threats and danger—through such unique practices as murmurations, specific alarm calls, distraction displays, and antipredator nest design. We also read about how birds change certain behaviors—preening, migration, breeding, and huddling—based on climate. Richly illustrated, this book explores the increasing focus on how individual birds differ in personality and how big data and citizen scientists are helping to add to what we know about them.

Drawing on classic examples and the latest research, Understanding Bird Behavior offers a close-up look at the many ways birds conduct themselves in the wild.

  • Compelling insights into bird behavior
  • Classic examples and the latest research, including work by citizen scientists
  • Fascinating vignettes about the private lives of birds, from finding food and family life, to coping with climate and other threats
  • 150 detailed color illustrations and photographs

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Spring 2020

Decided to record some of the lovely spring that is taking place in the northeastern US (mostly in Prospect Park and Park Slope).  

April 2020

Friday, March 13, 2020

Book Talks, Interviews, Reviews

The Natural History Magazine from the American Museum of Natural History has an excerpt of Bird Love in their June 2020 print issue!

And in Psychology Today

Book Talks

6th March  Harvard Bookstore

7th May  World Migratory Bird Day (a global bird conservation and education campaign)

18th May Princeton Public Library-- replay available

12th September Seattle Town Hall-- replay available

24th September Science On Tap--replay available


4th March  Psychology Today

24th March Bird Calls Radio podcast

8th April Princeton Alumni Weekly

17th April New Books Network podcast with Lukas Rieppel, author of Assembling the Dinosaur (a very good read)


On Amazon

What struck me most from this wonderful book is that nature, even within one family is extraordinary diverse. Mating, pairing and offspring rearing is as varied in the avian world as in the human realm, maybe even more so. The breadth of knowledge of the author is displayed on every page and is really well presented.
Its entirely admirable that someone should know as much as they do with a depth of scientific understanding yet be able to convey that to the lay reader, succinctly, accurately and readably.
I’m still reading and re-reading and have been charmed, captivated and entertained, but mostly greatly educated by this work.
It gets my highest recommendation.

A review by Joan Roughgarden

Wenfei Tong presents a contemporary overview of diversity in the family life of birds. Other than Darwin’s manifesto of 1874, The Descent of Man and Selection in Relation to Sex, only David Lack’s Ecological Adaptations for Breeding in Birds from 1968 offers comparable coverage. To these might be added Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity, published in 1999, which surveys certain additional examples of courtship and family life in birds and mammals.

Weifei Tong was an undergraduate at Princeton University, receiving a degree in ecology and evolution, then receiving a PhD in biology from Harvard University, culminating in postdoctoral research at Cambridge University where she studied avian brood parasites. In addition to her research, she writes popular science articles and serves as a lecturer for Lindblad Expeditions. Also, Mike Webster, a consultant editor and professor of ornithology at Cornell University, contributed a Forward to the book. Chapters cover ecology and mating systems, courtship, nests and eggs, raising chicks, sex role reversal, group breeding, and brood parasitism.

In his Forward, Webster writes:

Our swallows are the very picture of a cooperative, monogamous and loving family. Yet, as a behavioral biologist, I know that lying beneath that cooperation is a lot of complexity, competition, and conflict. The male courts his mate with song and showy plumage, but he also courts and copulates with the mates of other males, and his own mate will likely copulate with `extra-pair’ males herself. (p. 6)

In her Introduction, Tong writes, “Bird family life can look rosy, from the long-term pair-bonds of parrots and albatrosses to the many species in which both sexes, and sometimes an extended family, share parental care duties. However, nature is amoral and a darker side, including sexual conflict, infanticide, and siblicide, is equally common” (p. 8). Thereafter, the chapters deconstruct any possible picture of avian family life that might figure in a Disney production. A movie featuring Tong’s account would be classified as adult-only because of excessive violence. But along the way, Tong brings us wonderful photographs of birds from around the world that illustrate some of the breadth of avian family organization.

Since the time of Darwin and Lack, the popular narrative in behavioral ecology has been to attribute differences in the sex roles of males and females ultimately to a difference in their gamete sizes.  Accordingly, Tong writes in her Introduction that “[t]he female reproductive strategy, with large-investment eggs, is quality over quantity, whereas the male strategy is typically the reverse” because “sperm are individually cheaper than eggs” (p. 10). Continuing, she writes, “The investment asymmetry from the time eggs and sperm are made often leads to larger differences later in birds’ reproductive life” (p. 10).  In particular, “in most bird mating markets, females are the buyers and males must advertise” (p. 10).

Other investigators going back to Darwin have questioned a connection between gamete size and sex role, noting that the cumulative ejaculate size and other mating costs in males is commensurate with egg size in females even though an individual sperm is much smaller than an egg. Darwin wrote “[o]n the whole, the expenditure of matter and force by the two sexes is probably nearly equal” (p. 233). Darwin interpreted differing gamete sizes in terms of different strategies of mobility (p. 230-231)—if the task is for two potential mates (or gametes) to find each other, then one should remain stationary while the other searches, a strategy even we humans should employ when we become separated from our partner in a crowd.

Of relevance then to a possible connection between gamete size and sex role is Tong’s discussion in Chapter 5 of the many avian species with sex-role reversal such as phalaropes, Black Coucals, and jacanas in which the males are the buyer and the females must advertise. Tong concludes that “we still lack a unifying explanation for sex role reversals” (p. 122). Even Lack found the phenomenon puzzling when he wrote: “Why in any species a reversal of the sex roles would be advantageous is not known” (p. 153).

Instead, the conclusion to be drawn is that the premise of gamete size explaining sex role is itself false—it is contradicted by the data. Indeed, the males of phalaropes, Black Coucals, and jacanas all make tiny sperm—that is why they are called males, and yet they still assume what has been considered the female sex role despite their small gametes. As a result, males and females both wind up having approximately the same net investments in their offspring, contrary to the false gamete-size/sex-role premise.

In Chapter 1, Tong offers the central premise guiding her interpretation of various family organizations. She writes, “Within species, mating systems are the passive outcomes of social conflicts between individuals attempting to maximize their own reproduction” (p. 20). From this premise, birds, or their traits, or their behaviors end up being discussed with phrases such as philanders (p. 24), cheaters (p. 25), cuckolds (p. 26), deserters (p. 29), manipulators (p. 30), divorcees (p. 34), between-sex arms races (p. 36), forced copulations (p. 37), inferior males (p. 42), sexy sons (p. 43), ornaments of genetic quality (p. 45), best genes (p. 45), sperm wars (p. 54), sneakers (p. 56), parent-parent conflict (p. 102), infanticide (p. 103), parent-offspring conflict (p. 105), siblicide (p. 111), bondage (p. 133), incest (p. 155), etc. These are the tip of behavioral biology’s iceberg of provocative terms littering their peer-reviewed literature. Explanations in behavioral biology increasingly resemble dime-store crime stories. Although one may reject Disney’s romanticism of nature, perhaps the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. Is there any more to bird social life than lying, cheating, and stealing?

A way forward is to return to Lack who notes (p. 148) as does Tong (p. 23) that over 90% of nidicolous birds and 80% of nidifugous birds are monogamous. Lack did not know how widespread extra-pair mating is and thought that monogamy implied both social and genetic monogamy. These have different purposes, however. Social monogamy is one possible economic arrangement for how to divide the labor of raising chicks. Genetic monogamy is one possible arrangement for how to distribute paternity.

Departures from genetic monogamy need not indicate cheating or deceit. Indeed, in Razorbills the extra-pair matings occur out in the open witnessed by the pair male. Extra pair matings represent a spreading-the-risk strategy whereby a pair raises a clutch that includes some extra-pair offspring while other pairs raise clutches that include their offspring. Thus, the decoupling of economic and genetic monogamy makes perfect sense without requiring narratives of cheating, deceit, and cuckoldry. In general, family life need not be the passive outcome of conflicts because kin selection, family selection, and other forms of multilevel selection promote cooperation beyond what can be realized by a collection of individual fitness maximizers.

Because of the peacock’s popularity in Darwin’s theory of sexual selection (p. 214-251), a recurring theme in avian biology has been the interpretation of male displays as advertisements of genetic quality. However, Lack notes (p. 148) that “[m]onogamy, in birds and men, tends to be dressed in drab colours, but it is far more frequent than the exotic alternatives.” If colorful plumage, ornaments, and exotic displays in birds really did indicate male genetic quality, then it is puzzling why 10% of avian species have males whose variation in genetic quality requires such exotic advertising whereas the remaining 90% are content with their lack of style. The hierarchy of male genetic quality is a myth. According to what geneticists term the “paradox of the lek,” if, hypothetically, a hierarchy of male genetic quality did exist, and if females did prefer males who had the higher quality, then after a few generations, female choice would select out the bad genes, leaving only males with good genes. To sustain further female choice for male genetic quality, some unknown source of mutation would need to replenish the supply of bad genes in males so that females would have something to continue selecting for.

Instead, Lack (p. 158) endorses Huxley’s 1938 summary of the function of secondary sexual characters as: (i) threat displays to same-sex rivals, (ii) sex recognition prior to mating, (iii) psycho-physiological stimulation for mating, and (iv) mutual and bond-forming displays. These venerable suggestions make more sense than supposing that males possess a hierarchy of genetic quality that females are anxious to discern.

Tong notes (p. 26) that Blue Tit chicks sired by extra-pair males survive better than their half siblings, that extra-pair Bluethroat chicks have stronger immune systems, and that Savannah Sparrows and Reed Bunting chicks sired by extra-pair males are healthier. But Tong also allows that no extra-pair paternity benefits could be detected in Darwin’s finches, Sand Martins, and Coal Tits. Indeed, meta-analysis of extra-pair paternity benefits has shown no consistent genetic benefit, which is consistent with the absence of male hierarchies in genetic quality. Rather, extra-pair matings are best interpreted as representing a distributed system of paternity to avoid a bird’s keeping all its eggs in one nest rather than as attempts by females to solicit genetic upgrades.

The title of the book being reviewed is Bird Love, and a reader might wonder where the love is, given the book’s preoccupation with deceit and cheating. Indeed, is love no more than a mirage, a misnomer for some behavior intended by one party to manipulate the other into furthering its fitness agenda?

Tong offers a photograph of Rockhopper Penguins (p. 33) and of Laysan Albatrosses (p. 92) engaged in “allopreening—using one’s bill to groom and caress another individual.” She adds that “[t]here is evidence from over 500 species that allopreening between mated pairs is more common in species where both parents raise the offspring, and couples that preen each other more have a higher chance of remaining together over the years” (p. 33).

Tong goes on to say that “[r]ates of allopreening have no bearing on the rate of sexual infidelity” (p. 33). That is to be expected because the allopreening relates to the economic function of monogamy—keeping the pair’s teamwork coordinated. What Tong refers to as infidelity relates to implementing the risk-spreading system of distributed paternity which is independent of the coordination needed to successfully provision chicks through teamwork.

The instance Tong gives of allopreening between the rockhoppers is presumed to be heterosexual and that between the albatrosses is labeled as homosexual. Moreover, Bagemihl assembled 177 pages of avian examples of homosexuality (p. 479–656). The element in common between heterosexual and homosexual allopreenings together with vocal duets, nuptial gifts, homosexual copulations, and other forms of social intimacy is the mutual exchange of pleasure. This is the proximal motivation for coordinated teamwork. The sensation, even the gratitude arising from the mutual exchange of pleasure and the shared memory of working successfully together, is what underlies avian teamwork. This is what might be identified as bird love.

Wenfei Tong’s new book, Bird Love: The Family Life of Birds, is important in bringing to popular attention some of the diversity in avian family organization and for placing that diversity in a contemporary explanatory framework. The book can then serve as a starting point for a critical examination of that framework. The book’s extensive and beautiful photographs document the majesty of bird family life, a contribution that will remain valuable long after academic theorists have moved on to other topics of debate.

by Corina Newsome Biologist, 12 March 2020
Wenfei Tong artfully narrates the complex world of avian reproduction in his newest work. Walking the reader through the many layers of bird family life, Tong describes the intricacies of mating systems and offspring-rearing strategies for bird species around the world, and the suite of social interactions that characterise them. Her use of analogies to the human social experience, such as infidelity and divorce, parental roles, and economic investments, allows us to personally relate to the reproductive decisions made by various species, while simultaneously celebrating the distinctness of avian life.
Understanding that birds have often been misinterpreted by the public as the epitome of romantic commitment, Tong gracefully guides us to the fact that bird mating systems are both more beautiful and more brutal than most people realise.
Bird Love will bring any reader to more deeply appreciate the hidden complexity of birds. 

Birdwatch Magazine

Gardens Illustrated

Wall Street Journal

By Julie Zickefoose April 16, 2020 11 49 am ET 
Brush up on your evolutionary biology and buckle up for Wenfei Tong’s “Bird Love” (Princeton, 192 pages, $29.95), a beautiful book about the world of avian breeding systems. Mountains and years of scientific research are gathered together here in a bare-bones recitation of all that is possible—and much that seems impossible—in bird reproduction. Pelicans lay two eggs but raise only one chick, standing impassively by as Cain and Abel fight it out. To escape predators, female hornbills seal themselves into a tree cavity for weeks, molting all their flight feathers, dependent entirely on their mates for sustenance. Attention is given to the behavioral outliers, with sex-role reversal, cooperative breeders and brood parasites commanding the most ink. Throughout, stunning photographs keep the pages turning. This is an information- dense book best made for dipping in and out. 
—Ms. Zickefoose is the author, most recently, of “Saving Jemima: Life and Love With a Hard-Luck Jay.” 3/4 
4/17/2020 Spring Books: Nature - WSJ 
Copyright © 2020 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Birdwatching Magazine 

May/June 2020
By Matt Mendenhall
The world’s birds have an extraordinary range of mating systems, and this gorgeous and expertly written book explains them all. Author Wenfei Tong covers courtship, nests and eggs, raising chicks, group breeding, and more. She considers why some species, such as the Wattled Jacana, rely on males to do all the childcare, while others, such as cuckoos and honeyguides, dump their eggs in the nests of others to raise. It’s a beautifully designed book on an endlessly fascinating topic.

The Bookbag

by Peter Magee

Summary: An exquisitely-presented and informative look at the family life of birds. Highly recommended.

I was a little perturbed when I looked at the blurb for Bird Love on a couple of on-line booksellers: exploring the sex life of birds it said. I very nearly passed over the book, but a closer examination suggested that the book is about the family life of birds, which is rather different. If the book was confined to the sex life of birds, you would be missing an opportunity to understand how birds live day-to-day, bring up their families and cope in the wild. Not only that, you have missed the treat of so many beautiful illustrations about a wide variety of birds which run through this book from the first page to the last.
Superficially, it might seem that everything to do with birds is harmonious, without any suggestion of conflict but this is far from the truth. For example, if you are unlucky enough to be the second fledgeling in the nest you could find that your older brother or sister could be quite brutal as their aim is to survive rather than nurture. On the other hand, some species collaborate as a group to ensure that as many fledgelings as possible survive. There are even examples of role reversal where the male takes the dominant role in bringing up the chicks: nature discovered house husbands long before humans did so. How many of us knew that female albatrosses can have same-sex partnerships lasting twenty years?
This book is a timely reminder of the damage that humans can cause to the birds' environment. The decline and eradication of species is something which should all be aware of, and do our best to reverse. Wenfei Tong tells us that climate change has affected the migratory patterns of many birds. There are ten thousand species of birds, but the common cuckoo has declined by half in just twenty-five years. It could, of course, be argued that this is good news those birds which have been unwilling hosts in the past.
The coverage of Bird Love is extensive. It looks at ecology and mating systems, courtship, nests and eggs, raising chicks, sex-role reversals, group breeding and brood parasitism (think cuckoos on that one). Once you realise this, it becomes obvious that this is not a 'coffee-table book', as its appearance might suggest, but a serious look at the family life of birds. It is quite technical in places and you will need to work at it to get the most out of it, but I was surprised by how much information was delivered in an accessible fashion.
I found the book fascinating: it's the type of book which can intensely annoy other people because you're constantly telling them about what you're reading: Did you know that house sparrows and house finches use cigarette butts to keep their nests free of lice? I'd like to thank the publishers for giving me this opportunity.

The Well-Read Naturalist

by Johannes E. Riutta
Birds do it.
But if you’ve taken a basic biology course, you likely already knew that.
Dr. Wenfei Tong, however, knows much more about how they do it than just the basics, and in her new book Bird Love; the Family Life of Birds, she explores and explains the extraordinary range of courtship, mating, and brood rearing practices found among the planet’s diverse birdlife.
Covering the essentials of these behavioral categories, as well as delving into some of the more unusual – and frankly, surprising – practices, such as brood parasitism and reciprocal promiscuity, Dr. Tong’s book is clearly a work worthy of attention by ornithologists, birdwatchers, and general naturalists alike.

H.J. Ruiz – April 9th, 2020

I have enjoyed this book very much. The main reason is the author’s approach, which, I agree 100%. Let’s get to know the bird by knowing how it lives. The points that capture the behaviors and their daily lives are the following:

  • Ecology and Mating Systems
  • Courtship
  • Nests and Eggs
  • Raising Chicks
  • Sex Role Reversals
  • Group Breeding
  • Brood Parasitism

You’ll find out and get to know the bird’s way to see life, very much as humans behave and act. This approach will get you closer to your avian friends, and lead you, to understand how they live. 

This book has 192 pages with 220 gorgeous photos and a wonderful foreword by Mike Webster.

I was very pleased when I finished reading this book, which I recommend to my friends, readers, that visit my blog daily.

Author Wenfei Tong describes every situation in a comprehensive way, using precise samples of birds that the reader immediately will get the proper information of the chapter in question. All these, accompanied of amazing color illustrations and photos in a total of 150. This guide is a hard cover 224 pages. 
I found this guide to be interesting, since I am always observing and photographing birds, I also pay great attention to their fascinating behavior.
H.J. Ruiz – August 17th, 2020