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A peek outside of academia

Last week, I had the pleasure of taking an invited trip to just outside of Chicago to present in the "afternoon of education" at the National Finch and Softbill Society's annual bird show. What an absolute delight to meet the diverse and welcoming crowd of avian enthusiasts from around the nation (and beyond)--each of whom shares a deep passion for the careful breeding and appreciation of little feathered friends! (Award photos credit to Cheryl Burns of the NFSS Facebook page; pictured is judge Laura Watkins)

Having never before witnessed a bird show, I was both amused and more than a little awed to observe the in-depth judging of conformation and color of a wide variety of international species of finches, and more. The show is run akin to a dog show: birds compete within-breed (or within-type, for major breeds like zebra finches and canaries), then the best of each breed or type compete together for successively bigger titles--complete with big rosette ribbons. And the show was not restricted to our standard finches (though those were splendid enough): parrots of all shapes and sizes also were shown at the event, along with exotic softbill species like African starlings. Splendid!!

Unique among the judging was the case of the song-bred canaries. While color- and type-bred canaries took up at least half of the floorspace in the massive judging center (along with the other finches and hookbills), song-bred canaries had to be isolated in small, quiet rooms in a different wing of the convention center. These birds have been selected for generations to produce quiet, musical songs that must be both breed-specific and varied as well as appealing. Each breed is judged differently: Spanish Timbrados and German Rollers compete in teams of four from each breeder, and each team must produce a broad spectrum of breed-specific notes (each with their own names!) in good, appealing quality and variety. The first team of rollers I watched--in careful, motionless silence during a 20-min judging window--was deemed "very average" because the birds tended not to integrate different note types throughout their songs, but instead sang one type at the beginning of the song and a different at the end. But I was stunned by the deep, quiet warblers of the rollers, which sing with their bills shut for an especially soft and deep sound. American Singers, on the other hand, compete individually in groups of 8 birds from different breeders and are judged entirely on the novelty and appealing nature of their notes. Most amazing to me was the fact that not one of these song-bred birds produced the strident volume of song that I've become so accustomed to with my ear-piercing color-bred research and pet canaries!

My presentation itself was dull by comparison: I talked about learning about the genetic bases for coloration and other ornaments using the same domestic species present in the bird show. I had fun going all the way back to good old Darwin and his pigeons, through recent genetic work on pigeon "crests" and canary or zebra finch "redness genes", and even some yet-unpublished further research on white and sexually dichromatic canary breeds. I was excited to see the number of thoughtful questions coming from the audience--comprising entirely non-academic bird enthusiasts--as well as general fascination into the scientific side of their favorite little birds.

I only hope to have the pleasure of attending again next year, whether or not I am invited as an educational speaker. Maybe I'll have to bring along one of my feathered friends, too, though I hardly pretend I'm a cultured breeder!!

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