Thursday, February 21, 2013

Library hosts hummingbird talk

Toni Lucas, Pincher Creek Voice

Andrew Hurly
T. Lucas photo

The Pincher Creek and Municipal District Library hosted Professor Andrew Hurly of the University of Lethbridge Biological Sciences Department on the evening of February 20 for a talk entitled 'Hummingbirds: Small Brains and Big Memories'.

According to Hurly, he has been working with hummingbirds for 22 years.  "There are two hummingbirds you'll see commonly around here, the rufous and the calliope.  Occasionally, you'll see others that are on the edge of their range.  Rufous is the dominate one, calliope seems to waiting to be chased away by rufous.  When we put out feeders, it attracts both.  The experiments are entirely behavioral, we will capture a bird for five minutes to put some ink on it's breast feathers, to identify it as an individual."

May through July Hurly puts out feeders to attract birds, and then will systematically alter some of the cues that the bird might be responding to, to see how it then behaves.  "If you move a landmark five meters to the right, and the next time it comes in it goes five meters to the right, it means that it was paying attention to that landmark."

Some of his findings lean toward the birds using landmarks to return to a place that has been previously rewarding.  "We have done many experiments that seem to have the hummingbirds remember the location of flowers by remembering where they are, not what they  look like.  I think it's pretty clear that they are using objects as landmarks," said Hurly.

"I'm interested in how natural selection has shaped the behaviour of animals to fit the ecological circumstances in which they live.  The focus most recently of that research deals with cognition, the way animals perceive the world around them, and process that information.  How they store it, recall it, and everything.  We are very used to the idea that natural selection has acted on the length of a birds bill, or the shape of it's wings, but we sometimes forget that it acts on behaviors as well.  If it acts on behaviours, it's probably acting on some aspect of the cognitive system.  What myself and my colleagues do is study the types of things that are often studied by psychologists in the laboratory, but we can do it in the wild, under real ecological circumstances."  

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