Birds aren’t in it for love, says York researcher

It’s not all love in the avian world, where divorce, child abandonment and marrying up are part of everyday life, said a Reuters story carried by ABC News online and the National Post, among others, April 12.

The Bird Detective, to be published in Canada this week, dispels the lovebird myth that birds pair up for life, and paints a picture instead that includes adultery and the pursuit of comfort.

“In terms of top 10 myths about birds, the permanent pair bonds that we think about, that does occur for some birds, but for most of the little songbirds that we studied, no,” said the book’s author, Bridget Stutchbury, Distinguished Research Professor of Biology in York University’s Faculty of Science & Engineering.

The book draws on 20 years of research from radio tracking and DNA testing and shows male Acadian flycatchers fertilizing females far away from their home nests, and female blue-headed vireos premeditating divorce by checking out new mates before they abandon their young.

Stutchbury, who has studied dozens of songbird species in Canada, the United States and Panama, said shorter summers may drive females to leave their nests before their young are fully fledged so they can quickly find new mates and lay more eggs. That leaves the males to feed the hungry chicks on their own.

Males can triple or quadruple their reproductive success by fertilizing neighbouring females, but only “mates” care for the young, and some are none the wiser. “They can’t tell when the egg hatches whether it’s theirs or not,” she said. “They have no way to know.”

Divorce is surprisingly common among birds, and most live with one partner for only a few months or years. Divorce rates range from 99 per cent in the greater flamingo to zero in the wandering albatross.

  • Who knew birds could be so bad? wrote the Calgary Sun April 13.

A new book from Bridget Stutchbury shows they cheat on each other and their relationships often end in divorce. As well, some parent birds favour one offspring over another. “There are a number of theories about why birds go their separate ways,” Stutchbury said in a release about her book The Bird Detective.

“One hypothesis is that birds that are genetically or behaviourally incompatible separate when both can benefit from finding a new partner.” Another theory is birds, like humans, realize they can do better: One initiates divorce for selfish gain, leaving its former partner high and dry.

The York University biology professor – who was a 2007 Governor General’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction finalist for her book Silence of the Songbirds – and post-doctoral student Bonnie Wolfenden looked at how female Acadian flycatchers were being fertilized by neighbouring males who lived hundreds of metres away.

“We had the genetic evidence of their infidelity, but we never did catch a female sneaking away from its nest. It turned out to be the males making clandestine visits to the females,” Stutchbury said.

Churches may be sanctuary no longer

The doors of a church have long served as the final barrier between desperate asylum seekers and deportation , wrote Canwest News Service April 13 . But, after at least two years of internal wrangling, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) has come up with a formal policy, listing some examples of when the agency says it may be necessary to violate the tradition of sanctuary.

Refugee law experts said they are not surprised CBSA has struggled to formulate a policy [and] question whether Ottawa needs to adopt a detailed policy at all.

“Because cases are being treated on a case-by-case basis, the groups offering sanctuary act cautiously,” said Sean Rehaag, a professor in York’s Osgoode Hall Law School and a resident faculty member in York’s Centre for Refugee Studies. “The result is that sanctuary is restricted to a small number of highly compelling cases and state authorities generally respect these sanctuary practices. This creates a surprisingly effective safety valve to catch glaring mistakes in the official refugee determination process.”

York track athletes break some records

Highlighted by Athlete of the Year honours for Tyrone Halstead and Heather Hamilton, York University’s track & field program turned in some record shattering results this indoor season, wrote the North York Mirror April 12.

In fact, with the women finishing fifth and the men posting a fourth-place finish at the Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships – a 12-medal haul, eight of them gold – it’s likely the best indoor season to date for head coach Colin Inglis since he signed on more than a decade ago.

In addition to Hamilton, Kristin Obrochta, Elizabeth Petrov, Cynthia Appiah, Danielle Villalta, Christa Acquah, Diandra Forde and Brittany Pepper represented the women, while Halstead, Christopher Theriau, Randolph Fajardo, Olu Ogunde, Dontae Richards-Kwok, Mat Stiver-Balla, Umar Khan, Jonathan Odumeru, Ryan Charlton, David Mayer, Dwayne Norman and Stefan Ristic represented the men.

Now that the university season is behind them and another club season is fast approaching, Inglis and the rest of York’s track program will take a much-deserved break before regrouping and returning to action for the Lions Spring Open, hosted by York University May 1.

“I think both the men’s and women’s programs are heading in the right direction,” said Inglis, who has produced 67 OUA all-stars and 21 all-Canadians in cross-country and track & field, on the subject of York’s future in track & field.

The program is losing a couple of key members next season – Theriau, Fajardo, Hamilton and Odumeru are all moving on – but “we’re still solid,” he said. “We have some depth in the men’s sprints, so we’ll be okay there, but there will be a void in the high jump, so we’ll be looking for someone else there. Basically now we’re looking for people to start stepping up and take the opportunity to try to be leaders themselves among the group.”

Duceppe’s hard slog

Once upon a time, a cross-Canada tour by a Quebec separatist could be counted on to attract frisky crowds and snarky media coverage. But 20 years after the death of the Meech Lake Accord, it’s harder to get a rise out of the ROC (as the Rest of Canada is called), wrote the Toronto Star April 13 in an editorial.

In Toronto last week, Duceppe’s one-day stopover passed virtually unnoticed. The bilingual students at York’s Glendon College doubtless enjoyed having such a fine orator drop by so they could hone their language skills. But interest in the constitutional wars of two decades ago is largely confined to the classrooms.

Award-winning athlete achieves his dream at York

Justin Brear is a co-winner of the Britt Jessup Memorial Trophy for outstanding achievement by a local female/male athlete in North Bay in 2009, wrote the North Bay Nugget April 13.

In 2008-2009, Brear was selected athlete of the year at West Ferris Secondary School. Upon graduation, he attended York University and achieved his dream of playing university football. He dressed in all eight of the York Lions’ games playing linebacker and on special teams.

On air

  • Joel Lexchin, a professor in York’s School of Health Policy & Management in the Faculty of Health, spoke about the Ontario government’s latest announcement on generic drug costs, on CBC Radio’s “The Current” April 12.
  • Theodore Tolias, an economics instructor in the Schulich School of Business at York University, took part in a panel discussion about Greece’s tottering economy, on TVO’s “The Agenda” April 12.