February meeting

Wed 14 February 2024 07:30pm

Nicki Taws - Preliminary findings of the 2023 annual COG Bird Blitz
Damien Farine - Uncovering the secret social lives of birds: the curious case of the Vulturine Guineafowl (and other intriguing species)

The February 2024 meeting will be a normal face-to-face one held at our usual venue. As COVID is still widespread in the community attendees should heed social distancing and good hygiene practice etc, and use their common sense and stay home if they have COVID symptoms. Mask wearing is recommended.

The presentations will be preceded by the awarding of the 2022 and 2023 Steve Wilson medals.

The short presentation will be by the Blitz co-ordinator Nicki Taws who will present the preliminary findings of the 2023 annual COG Bird Blitz, COG’s 19th annual territory-wide census of birds of the ACT, and the first one for some years that was conducted under reasonable conditions.

The main presentation with be by Damien Farine, Associate Professor, Division of Ecology and Evolution, Research School of Biology at the ANU, on “Uncovering the secret social lives of birds: the curious case of the Vulturine Guineafowl (and other intriguing species)”

Sociality is widespread in birds. Yet we still know remarkably little about the social lives of most birds. Why do they form groups? How do they move and function as a group? And how do individuals navigate social life? In his talk, Damien will first explain why these questions have been overlooked by biologists for so long, and how we have managed to overcome the challenges that are inherent in addressing them. He will then share his journey of discovery, which has revealed that the answers to these questions are far more fascinating than we could have imagined.

He will give examples from his previous research on mixed-species flocks of Australian thornbills and flocks of tits in ancient English woodlands, but will draw mostly from his current work on (the clearly misnomered) ‘confusions’ of Vulturine Guineafowl of East Africa. Vulturine Guineafowl are large, highly social, almost completely terrestrial, and – until his research – were completely unstudied. Since starting the project in 2016, he has uncovered how Vulturine Guineafowl navigate the politics of their group, how they resolve conflicts about where to move, and that they form societies that have a close structural resemblance to those of humans. As East Africa recently faced one of the most extreme droughts in the past century, this also revealed that the social structure of Vulturine Guineafowl might provide important benefits, helping them survive harsh drought conditions.

Finally, to answer how these benefits arise, he will leave the African savannah for some birds that are come much closer to home. They recently discovered that the social structure of Superb Fairy-wrens also has the same distinct, ‘human-like’ structural feature. Strikingly, we found that who individuals socialise with during the winter predicts the help that they receive when they are in distress – a pattern that almost exactly matches helping in contemporary hunter-gather societies. These projects, the tools they have developed to study birds, and discoveries that they have made along the way, set the scene for the new research projects that Damien’s group is now developing here in Canberra.

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