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Interviewees: John Wingfield, University of California Davis
In Aesop’s fable “The Town Mouse and The Country Mouse,” a rural rodent visiting her city cousin has a hard time adjusting to the stresses of urban chaos. Aesop himself lived in ancient Greece but his story is timeless. From retellings of the story such as Beatrix Potter’s 1918 "The Tale of Johnny Town-Mouse," to reality TV shows like Paris Hilton’s "The Simple Life," the idea that city slickers and country folk are cut from a different cloth is an age-old maxim.
Now research suggests that, at least for birds, there’s biology to back up the idea that living in the city may take some special qualities.
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Biologists Fran Bonier and John Wingfield wanted to know what differentiated the birds that move into urban habitats compared to their closely related species in more rural habitats. They conducted the study while Bonier was a PhD student of Wingfield’s at the University of Washington.
Bonier, now at Queens University in Ontario, sent out surveys to bird lovers—both amateurs and professionals—in 73 cities around the world. The respondents listed the common bird species seen in their cities as well as the closely related species that could be found in nearby rural areas.
After analyzing the information they found that city birds could be found in a wider range of places, climates and elevations.
Wingfield, now at University of California Davis, says that the findings suggests that these city birds “have a lot of flexibility in dealing with severe environments or environments that fluctuate widely.”
The researchers are also studying what particular physiological differences might be involved.
Bonier explains, “In one study, we found that within a species, individuals in cities had higher baseline stress hormone levels. These hormones probably reflect the animal’s response to the challenges of city living. But what might be important here is that we didn’t measure any negative effects of high stress hormones. This could be key – birds that can tolerate elevated stress hormones (that might be an unavoidable response to urban habitat) might be those that are better able to adapt to cities, and persist as areas become urbanized. “
The researchers hope that further studies will allow scientists to predict which types of birds are more vulnerable to global changes so that conservation plans can be put in place. They have no plans to investigate these differences in humans, or in Paris Hilton.
PUBLICATION: Biology Letters, December 22, 2007
RESEARCH FUNDED BY: The National Science Foundation
Elsewhere on the Web:
National Audubon Society’s Webpage about citizen science
American Museum of Natural History- bird exhibit
Article produced by Sunita Reed and Brad Kloza
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