The Way Phainopeplas Breed and Migrate May Help Them Adapt to A Changing Climate

Using tracking devices, Dan Baldassarre revealed key aspects of the "goth cardinal's" fascinating behavior.
Phainopepla. Photo: Dan Baldassarre

Dan Baldassarre is a distinguished behavioral ecologist, educator, mentor, and social media sensation. He adeptly combines research and his online presence, creating a captivating, educational, and influential fusion that personifies the modern ornithologist. Through his work, Baldassarre delves into the intricacies of research while recognizing the pivotal role of social media in amplifying voices too often overlooked by the scientific community. In doing so, he offers a glimpse into the dynamic landscape of ornithology today while inspiring the next generation of scientists dedicated to addressing environmental challenges. 

Central to his research journey is the Phainopepla, an enigmatic species that captured his fascination during his second postdoc at the Riehl Lab at Princeton University. For Baldassarre, the Phainopepla is more than just an “odd little tropical gift” that finds its way into the United States. They are a scientific treasure trove waiting to be discovered. And Baldassarre should know what riches they reveal. By utilizing GPS tracking and insights from the field of phylogeography, Baldassarre achieved something remarkable. He was the first researcher to confirm a long-standing suspicion: Phainopeplas are itinerant breeders, breeding in two distinct and disparate ecological habitats during the same year. Starting in the Sonoran, Mojave, and Colorado Deserts of the southwest during the winter, Phainopeplas then migrate to the cooler oak and sycamore canyon woodlands of California and Arizona in spring, where they do it all over again before migrating south for the non-breeding season.

So, how did Baldassarre, an Alabama-born, central New York native, find himself diving into the arid acacia-filled world of the beloved “goth cardinal?”

“I develop projects pondering the mysteries of biology; that’s where I discover the spark for new projects,” said Baldassarre. “I eventually sold it as an opportunity to study this peculiar flexible bird that modulates its life during the breeding season.”

Starting around March 2017, at the tail end of the desert breeding season for Phainopeplas, Baldassarre deployed 24 GPS tags. From this, a quarter of the birds returned the following winter, which might seem like a small sample size. However, Baldassarre feels differently. “The following season, we got six birds, which is a decent return rate.” He continues, unashamed to paint the complete research picture, “Unfortunately, the sample size shrank, and one bird returned without a transmitter.” He continues, “We saw a bird atop the acacia, and we kept looking at it because it can be easy to miss the tag; really, you’re looking for the antenna to stick off. Eventually, it became apparent he was not wearing his tag, which was devasting.” Thankfully, the five birds were enough to publish his findings in the Auk

When asked what the challenges were working with Phainopeplas, Baldassarre stated that the biggest surprise was the emotional rollercoaster of deploying tags. “You put out several dozen tags worth thousands of dollars on birds you hope to see again in 10 months.”  

However, logistically, it was starting the project from scratch, finding an appropriate study site where they would breed in high enough density to come back the following year. “These birds are quasi-nomadic, so they’re predisposed to itinerant breeding, and of course, they’re reliant on mistletoe, which blinks in and out, so they follow it around.” Baldassarre needed a reliable spot to be sure the birds would return the following year and not go over the ridge to some other place after putting tags out. “It was daunting. Where do you even start? We would drive around slowly, listening, hoping to hear birds calling.” Painting the scene, Baldassarre imitates the species’ distinctive wurps.

Once found in the desired densities that would likely ensure some return of tagged birds, Baldassarre admits Phainopeplas are a fantastic species for day-to-day field ornithology logistics. “They’re found in wide-open arid habitats, and where you find old river washes, there are patches of acacia, and that’s where they are.” Fortunately, this habitat is somewhat two-dimensional, and while they are magnificent, acrobatic flyers, it was relatively easy for Baldassarre to work with them.  

According to Baldassarre, Phainopeplas present a potential model for a species that might be resilient to climate change. “They’re the type of bird with the phenotypical ability to deal with climate change, move around, find food, deal with different habitat types,” he said.  

But questions remain. “As desert habitats continue to aridify, will their departure date to other breeding grounds change? Will they be willing to give up breeding in harsh desert areas and become a more typical migratory bird that breeds in one place?” To help address these questions and continue learning more about this unique bird, Baldassarre says he keeps trying to convince friends to pick up the Phainopepla research mantle. “I know the study site; the birds are still there!” Unfortunately, nobody has just yet. 

As an Assistant Professor at SUNY Oswego, Baldassarre is head of the Oswego Bird Behavior Lab, where he works with all undergraduate students to explore questions like whether urban cardinals differ from their non-urban counterparts in plumage color, including on the UV spectrum, due to their consumption of ornamental plants planted by humans. This research has broadened Baldassarre’s horizons and turned his small lab on the shore of Lake Ontario into a bustling hub for analyzing plumage color, extending its reach to other species like Black Tern and American Woodcock.  

Baldassarre has also initiated a MAPS (banding) Station at SUNY Oswego’s Rice Creek Field Station, where he mentors students in the fine art of field research. This hands-on approach allows students to learn critical field ornithology techniques, including the safe trapping, handling, and banding of birds. The data from his banding station contributes to a massive dataset that will eventually be accessible to other researchers worldwide, including researchers at Audubon and the Migratory Bird Initiative. Baldassarre underscores the significance of banding data, stating that, in a digital age where data from banding is still vital, “it’s neck and neck with eBird; we often take it for granted.”

Despite all the fantastic research coming out of his lab, what lights up Baldassarre the most is the opportunity to work with his students. He describes it as the most fun and impactful part of his job. He acknowledges that his journey into ornithology was nurtured by professors who mentored him and allowed him to work on their projects. “To feel like I’m bringing that full circle is cool and fun, making the sacrifices in this job worth it.” 

When asked about his students and if they make him feel secure in our future, Baldassarre’s optimism shines through. “One hundred percent,” he says, “an enjoyable part of working with students and younger folks is that something is happening. The upcoming generation is taking climate change seriously and not getting discouraged by the well-justified doom and gloom. Being around these students who want to apply themselves and make a change is encouraging.”