When IU postdoctoral student Jonathan Atwell, PhD '11, compared wild dark-eyed juncos to their urban brethren that had established themselves on the University of California-San Diego campus in the early 1980s, he was surprised at how differently the two populations behaved. The UCSD birds were tamer, had bolder exploratory behaviors, and they exhibited lower stress hormone levels than their forest-dwelling counterparts. Junco adaptation to city life resulted in the birds' rapid genetic evolution of behavior and corresponding hormonal responses.
Atwell strongly felt that photographs alone could not capture these differences. "I realized that film or video would do a much better job, so I thought this would make a neat little documentary short," he recalled. That is how Atwell and his research mentor, the noted avian biologist and IU Distinguished Professor of Biology Ellen Ketterson, BA'66, MA68, PhD74, came to produce a scientific documentary on one of North America's most common songbirds. The film, entitled Ordinary Extraordinary Junco: Remarkable Biology from a Backyard Bird, highlights over 100 years of research on these sparrows that can be found throughout the continent and can look noticeably different depending on their location.
Juncos make an ideal study organism for a variety of reasons. They are abundant; the birds forage and nest on the ground, making them easy for researchers to observe; and they thrive quite well in captivity.