Pioneering ‘bird detective’ honoured by PM


Groundbreaker, pioneer – these terms come easily when you are describing Prof. Bridget J.M. Stutchbury (above, left), who recently received a framed letter of congratulations for her research from Prime Minster Jean Chrétien, delivered by York VP Research & Innovation Stan Shapson (above, right).

You might add “bird detective” to a description of this cutting-edge researcher. As York’s Canada Research Chair in Ecology and Conservation Biology, she has led the way in using radio tracking on small migratory birds. In fact, she is the first ornithologist to use DNA fingerprinting to investigate how the secretive extra-pair matings of birds are disrupted by forest fragmentation.

As she explains, “Birds who otherwise might be considered the model for monogamy (males do a lot of work raising the young) actually spend much of their time sneaking next door to neighbours’ territories to try to mate on the sly. The DNA fingerprinting shows that a remarkable 30 per cent of the young produced are the result of these secretive ”extra-pair” matings.”

When she talks about “forest fragmentation”, Stutchbury is referring to patches of forest that are left, such as those around Toronto, in comparison to the huge forests of centuries ago. “A big question in conservation is how the reproduction and behaviour of the forest birds is affected by being forced into small forest fragments. Typically reproduction is much lower.”

And that’s not the whole story of Stutchbury’s research. She is conducting fundamental studies on a key but missing piece of the migratory bird conservation puzzle – dispersal and habitat selection in fragmented landscapes. Hers will be one of the few Canadian research programs to study migratory birds in their breeding and non-breeding, wintering environments.

Each year, millions of birds migrate thousands of miles from their breeding grounds in Canadian forests to winter locales in Central and South America. However, in the past few decades researchers have observed serious population declines in dozens of our migratory bird species, particularly those which breed in our forests, says Stutchbury. ” This alarming loss of biodiversity is the result of severe habitat loss caused by human encroachment.”

Stutchbury’s aim is to help develop more effective strategies to manage and protect our environmental resources and ecosystems.