Junkin's warbler: a Scientific Mystery Bird


(This 847th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on June 17, 2007.)


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This is a story about a mystery warbler.


Dave Junkin was for many years director of Buffalo Audubon's Beaver Meadow Wildlife Sanctuary in Java. He still lives with his wife Sandy in a lovely lakeside home near the sanctuary.


In his retirement Dave has become one of the region's most active bird banders and his influence is important to all of his colleagues in western New York. Each year he and Sandy host a meeting of those banders. Even though I gave up my banding license many years ago, I have attended some of those sessions at which information is shared not only about birds banded and recaptured but also about the techniques and expensive equipment so important to this interesting volunteer effort.


One of the unusual features of Dave's banding has been his work with owls. During each of the past several years he has banded dozens of saw-whet owls, a diminutive species thought to be very rare in this region. His colleague Tom LeBlanc has joined in this activity to band similar numbers of saw-whets in Allegany State Park. Their banding indicates that these owls are far more common here at some times of the year than we thought.


But now we return to that mystery warbler. Dave Junkin is an expert ornithologist but last year he caught a small bird in his mist net that he could not identify. For a birder like him, this is as rare as seeing an ivory-billed woodpecker. When you band a bird you have it in your hand so you can observe up close all of its field marks. You are not just getting a fleeting look through binoculars.


There is one exception to this. There are two species that banders cannot identify: willow and alder flycatchers. These two look-alikes are only distinguished in the field by their quite different songs, the willow flycatcher's two syllable, "fitz'-brew" and the alder's three syllable, "way-be'-oh." Because the birds they are handling do not offer that evidence, banders record both species as Traill's flycatchers, the name they went by until they were separated by the American Ornithologists Union in 1973.


In any case, Dave caught this strange bird he couldn't identify. He took all kinds of measurements and Sandy photographed it from several angles. Having no luck looking in his reference books, he posted Sandy's pictures on the web and asked expert birders for help. He received many guesses, but his question remained unanswered. In the process, however, the bird took on a popular name of its own, Junkin's warbler.


The identification seemed impossible, but then Dave recaptured the bird and, before releasing it, extracted a single feather which he sent to Cornell for DNA testing.


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There evolutionary science took over. As Irby Lovette of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology tells us: "All birds, like all humans, inherit some of their DNA from their mothers and some from their fathers. Depending on the type of DNA, however, the pattern of inheritance can differ, and we can use these differences to our advantage to determine which two species interbred to produce a hybrid individual like the Junkin's warbler."


Cornell lab scientist Amanda Talaba extracted DNA (for the tongue-twisting deoxyribonucleic acid) from the feather and purified the sample. She then used a process called the polymerase chain reaction to copy specific regions. This evidence she could then use to check against the Lab's database library of over a hundred of the world's warblers.


To determine the mother, Amanda checked mitochondrial DNA. This is the evidence passed on from mother to offspring, fathers making no contribution to the next generation. The match: a Kentucky warbler mother. This is a rare species on the Niagara Frontier; I have seen only four in a lifetime of birding.


Identifying the father was a bit more complicated. Amanda sequenced part of a gene from the bird¹s nuclear genome. The pairing gave her Kentucky warbler and mourning warbler. That pinned down the father as mourning warbler, a more common species here.


Mystery solved. Junkin's warbler is a hybrid mourning-Kentucky warbler.


According to Lovette, "To our knowledge, this is the first recorded hybridization between these two warbler species.-- Gerry Rising"