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Canadian national Jamie McLaren will be awarded his doctorate degree at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) on 4 February. McLaren studied bird migration as a part of his doctoral research at the Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics (IBED). ‘Simulations can offer insight into bird behaviour, but you still never know exactly how a bird flies from point A to point B.’

What was your research about?

‘I wanted to learn more about the decisions migratory birds make when their living environment changes. I designed and analysed models based on the behaviour of individual birds. I used these models to study the migration patterns of species such as the willow warbler, a Dutch bird that migrates to Africa for the winter. The modelling results and radar measurements of long-distance migratory birds both show that the willow warbler does not have enough time to wait for favourable conditions, such as tailwind. Migratory birds that travel shorter distances do have the luxury of waiting for optimal conditions. Scandinavian thrushes use favourable wind patterns to cross the North Sea as they migrate to the Netherlands, which allows them to save time and energy. An analysis of tracking data on lesser black-backed gulls that regularly fly back and forth between the Dutch island of Texel and England showed that these birds cannot fly quite fast enough to make the most of their time and energy.'

Migration routes of the great snipe. From: McLaren, et al., Optimal orientation in flows: providing a benchmark for animal movement strategies. Photo of Great Snipe by Raymond Klaassen

What can we learn from these findings?

'Different migratory birds have different time and energy saving strategies. For example, the simulations showed that black-backed gulls are ideally equipped to make optimal use of their energy but fail to do so in practice. Models can help you make lots of accurate predictions, especially if you use them alongside data from radars and GPS systems. In the end, though, you never really know how a bird will travel from A to B in practice.

Can you tell us something about the health of migratory bird populations?

Many species aren't doing well, or are even in extremely poor condition due to developments such as global warming and the loss of suitable habitats. Birds play a crucial role in terms of biodiversity. The more we know about the choices they make during migration and the cost of these decisions, the better equipped we will be to protect them. For example, we can focus on maintaining existing resting areas. My models showed that these areas are extremely important.'

What inspired you to carry out this research project?

‘Apart from music, birds are my biggest passion, so the subject immediately appealed to me. Pursuing my doctorate degree was a major step, though. I'd been working as a professional cellist for fourteen years when I saw the vacancy for this doctoral position. Still, my gut feeling told me to go for it. I previously studied mathematics and oceanography in North America, and this subject seemed to complement those fields perfectly. I basically went from 'water flows' to 'bird flows'. It did take a while to find my bearings at university though. I had to learn that your performance isn't solely measured on the basis of your results: you also need to provide clear and accurate explanations. As a cellist, you basically have to perform in the moment. Thankfully it all worked out in the end.

What will you be doing next?

‘I'll be spending a year as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Delaware, where I'll be studying stopover patterns and the impact of extreme weather conditions on migratory birds. The latter project is being financed with funds made available by President Obama in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. My son is currently in the final year of secondary school here in Amsterdam, so I'll be travelling back and forth between Amsterdam and Delaware. I've got some major life changes and challenges ahead. But I'm really looking forward to them.' 

Publication details

J. McLaren et. al., Optimal orientation in flows: providing a benchmark for animal movement strategies. J. R. Soc. Interface:201411 20140588; DOI: 10.1098/rsif.2014.0588

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