Dr. Ronald L. Mumme Observes Foraging Behavior in Hooded Warbler

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CARSON REY, Contributing Writer

Ronald Mumme, professor of biology at Allegheny College for 25 years, recently studied the hooder warbler bird species. He began his study on the hooded warbler in 2010 because of its similarities to his previous research on a different species called the slate-throated redstart.

“I’m interested in how some species of birds use striking plumage patterns to actually startle insects,” Mumme said on his interest in the hooded warbler. “Usually when you see birds’ plumage ornaments you think it’s some kind of social or sexual signal, but I’m interested in the situations where it’s not that.”

Mumme composed a paper on the subject of the Hooded Warbler’s foraging techniques and the research he did that was published in April earlier this year by “The Auk: Ornithological Advances,” and appeared in the “BirdWatching Magazine” in August.

The startling of insects is an important foraging technique. The bird flashes its brightly colored tail feathers to startle the insects and catches them when they attempt to fly away. Mumme communicated his recent findings in relation to molting – a process that occurs once a year in which birds replace all their feathers.

The hooded warbler species perform this process slightly differently in that families will drop their tail feathers simultaneously. The first to molt in a family will then abandon their offspring. In light of the tail being an important foraging tool, these actions appear problematic.

In analyzing his research, Mumme is trying to understand the sexual politics of hooded warblers and what determines whether a bird is going to abandon its nestlings or not. While he mostly observes males molting before the females, he has seen some cases in which females abandon their nestlings and male counterparts.

Additionally, males who do not find a mate tend to molt on the early side. Mumme continues to try and find explanations for the interplay among the molting of tail feathers, abandonment, and foraging.

Anne Jacobs, visiting assistant professor in the biology department, also took part in Mumme’s research. During the day, with several hours to observe in the field, participants in Mumme’s research took on projects. Jacobs commented on the field work and the general activity of Mumme’s research.

“I was doing a separate project looking at male territories so I had to find a male who was singing and then follow him…and record where he went and what his color bands were.”

The color bands allow researchers like Mumme and Jacobs to identify an individual in the field from a distance. Without them, there would remain one band with an ID number inscribed for that individual warbler. If there were no color bands, one would have to catch and identify birds repeatedly which would consume more time in the field than necessary.

In the previous years of his research, Dr. Mumme has caught and banded many hooded warblers before their winter migration to Central America. It has been observed that around half of those banded do not make it back.

A benefit of Allegheny’s small community is being able to participate in professor research. Noah McNeill, ’16, had the opportunity to work with Mumme over the summer break. Part of his fieldwork project was watching warbler’s foraging behavior and movement as he played warbler calls. McNeill described his work as an invaluable experience.

“Honing my skills of finding and watching the species along with spending the work week in the field showed me that I was on a track I love and want to continue working in after my time at Allegheny.”

Mumme has been a birdwatcher for 41 years and is always enthusiastic about his studies. In future investigations, he plans to find a relationship between geographical location and foraging behavior of the aforementioned slate-throated redstart.