Published: March 25, 2020 By

A CU Boulder researcher has received a $1.75 million NSF grant to study chickadee hybrids

A little black and white bird ubiquitous to many across the United States may soon offer some insight into why species evolve the way they do—with the help of a $1.75 million grant awarded to a University of Colorado Boulder researcher.

This “Rules of Life” grant will allow Scott Taylor, the grant’s lead researcher, and colleagues to look at the hybrid zone between two prominent North American birds—the Black-capped chickadee and Carolina chickadee—to see what local ecological adaptations cause their hybrids to struggle to survive the winter, if they survive at all.

The hope is that by looking at this common bird, the researchers will be able to understand how new species form and are maintained—which could then possibly help researchers better understand the evolution of other species.

Chickadee ranges

Black-capped chickadees and Carolina chickadees are found across North America. (Van Huynh & Rice/Ecology & Evolution)

“Chickadees are such a relatable, interesting species that we all have in our backyards. And, with them we can ask these really cool, broad evolutionary questions about local adaptation and what makes species different but do it with these birds that are with us all the time,” said Taylor, who is also an assistant professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at CU Boulder.

The Rules of Life grant, awarded by the National Science Foundation, seeks to answer big questions revolving around the “sets of rules” for how life functions. And, for this project, that means better understanding how new species come to exist and how they continue to look the way they do—in this case, by looking at where the ranges of Black-Capped Chickadees and Carolina Chickadees collide. 

While both subspecies exist within North America and don’t migrate, the Black-Capped Chickadee is more northern, with a range that stretches from Pennsylvania to Fairbanks, Alaska. The Carolina chickadee, on the other hand, is more southern, with its range mostly centered on the southeastern United States. However, in a narrow region between New Jersey and Kansas, the two species intermingle, sometimes producing offspring.

These hybrid offspring, though, if they survive at all, are sickly and mentally deficient, and Taylor and his colleagues want to know what might be causing the problems.

This project is a “large, continent-wide look at variation both within and between species that we know a lot about, and I think that helps us understand the system in a way that’s beneficial, broadly, for our understanding of how local adaptation evolves and how birds like chickadees might be able to survive these really cold temperatures over the winter,” explained Taylor.

“Our understanding of why hybrids don’t do well is growing, but we still don’t have a great handle on it.”

Chickadees are such a relatable, interesting species that we all have in our backyards."

With this grant, the researchers plan to take field measurements across the ranges of each species, including the hybrids, to understand the inner functioning of each individual bird. They’ll also work with the public to install bird feeders in backyards across the same area. The hope is that these feeders will help monitor chickadees throughout the year.

Broadly speaking, this will allow the team to see which birds survive over the winter, better understanding the health of each individual bird.

“I think the consensus is that for a long time, scientists haven’t been good at communicating what they’re doing or why they’re doing it or why it’s relevant,” said Taylor. 

“People are finally recognizing that there’s a lot of value in making sure the work that we’re doing, even if it seems esoteric or specific, that there are really tangible, meaningful ways to connect with the community and with the public and help them understand why we ask these questions and why they’re relevant.”

“I think the more closely you can involve them in the generation of new knowledge, the better and more fun it can be for them and for the scientists as well.”

Other researchers on this project include Amber Rice from Lehigh University; Zac Cheviron from the University of Montana; and Matthew Carling from the University of Wyoming.