Biology Professor Profiled in Audubon Society Magazine

May 3, 2018

By Bonnie Tsui, Audubon Society Magazine

Professor Jay Pitocchelli is profiled in the Spring 2017 issue of Audubon Magazine. (The article follows in part.)

This Guy Is Mapping How Warblers Migrate, Just by Listening to Them Sing

We know where Mourning Warblers spend their winters and summers. But where they go inbetween is a mystery—one that can be solved through their songs.

Professor Jay Pitocchelli
Professor Jay Pitocchelli, Ph.D.

Jay Pitocchelli has worn many different hats—professor, ornithologist, sound technician—but he never thought he’d be an expert on Canadian accents. Twelve years ago, Pitocchelli recorded Mourning Warblers on their various breeding grounds across Southern Canada and the Northeast United States. Back in his lab at Saint Anselm College in New Hampshire, Pitocchelli noticed an unusual pattern in the sonograms he’d made: Mourning Warblers in different breeding “neighborhoods” had their own unique songs.

In May 2015, Pitocchelli launched a crowdsourced mapping project. He asks birders to record Mourning Warbler songs on their phones every April through May. “When people send their recordings, I can immediately see in the sonogram where [in Canada] the bird’s from. It’s like I’m reading it in Spanish or French,” Pitocchelli says. He then marks the bird’s location and connects the dots to trace a route.

Ultimately the project could document evidence of changes in birdsong in real time. “Does it look like there’s the potential for a new species to evolve within this Mourning Warbler breeding range? Are they migrating together, or are they separating from other populations? That’s what we’re trying to find out,” Pitocchelli says. He’s already detected that birds converging on the boundary of the Prairie and Eastern regiolects, just north of the Great Lakes, sing hybrid songs.

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