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Why do birds migrate?

Why do some birds fly thousands of miles back and forth between breeding and non-breeding areas every year whereas others never travel at all?

One textbook explanation suggests either eating fruit or living in non-forested environments were the precursors needed to evolve migratory behavior.

Not so, report a pair of ecologists from The University of Arizona in Tucson. The pressure to migrate comes from seasonal food scarcity.

"It's not just whether you eat insects, fruit, nectar or candy bars or where you eat them -- it matters how reliable that food source is from day-to-day," said W. Alice Boyle. "For example, some really long-distance migrants like arctic terns are not fruit-eaters."

Boyle, an adjunct lecturer in UA's department of ecology and evolutionary biology and co-author Courtney J. Conway, a UA assistant professor of natural resources and a research scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey, report their findings in the March 2007 issue of American Naturalist.

To figure out the underlying pressures that drive some birds to leave home for the season, the team wanted to examine a related set of species and compare their size, food type, habitat, migratory behavior and whether they fed in flocks.

Boyle and Conway focused on 379 species of New World flycatchers from the suborder Tyranni. One of the largest groups of New World birds, the Tyranni includes kingbirds, flycatchers, phoebes and such southern Arizona birdwatchers' delights as vermillion flycatchers and rose-throated becards. Tropical members include manakins and cotingas.

First the scientists had to construct the first "supertree" for New World flycatchers.

"No one has ever compiled all those birds together into one megafamily tree," Boyle said, adding that "supertree" is a technical term among evolutionary biologists.

Having the tree let the researchers compare a variety of traits across the
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Contact: Mari N. Jensen
mnjensen@email.arizona.edu
520-626-9635
University of Arizona
1-Mar-2007


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