Having a mania for birds

A birdwatching trend is sweeping Sweden. But birds are not just fascinating to watch. Researchers Angela Pauliny and Donald Blomqvist are also using them to better understand our aging processes.

An alert is received. An unusual citrine wagtail has been spotted in the Kungsbacka area, and suddenly mobile phones all around the country are sounding. Soon a steady stream of people are making their way down to the shoreline meadows at the Kungsbackafjorden Nature Reserve.

If birdwatching in the past was considered eccentric, nowadays it is socially acceptable and a little cool. More and more people are drawn out to the countryside to be on the lookout for flying rarities, and the membership of bird societies like Club 300 is growing steadily. This spring SVT, the Swedish national public TV broadcaster, also latched onto the trend and is investing heavily in Swedes’ newfound interest in birds with the reality series ‘Det Stora Fågeläventyret’ (The Great Bird Adventure).

Donald Blomqvist, a researcher at the University of Gothenburg’s Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, thinks one reason for the birdwatching trend is new information technology. ‘It’s so easy to learn more about birds using your mobile phone today’, he says. ‘It also introduces a competitive element. You can quickly show many others that you’ve seen an unusual species.’

There is a growing interest in photography as well, since it is now easy to share your best bird photos through social media.
‘Birdwatching can also serve as a kind of mindfulness’, adds Angela Pauliny, a colleague to Blomqvist. ‘Scouting for birds in nature becomes a much-needed form of relaxation and a pleasant contrast to the stress of everyday life.’

Angela Pauliny

Angela Pauliny is a molecular biologist and uses molecular methodology to answer evolutionary questions. Donald Blomqvist studies evolutionary ecology and is interested in life histories and reproductive behaviours. He and his research team have received international attention for their studies of the connection between stress and aging, including why species that have fewer offspring tend to live longer.

Through their studies of species such as barnacle geese and dunlins, these researchers have found that one important explanation for why certain individuals age faster than others depends on how long their telomeres are. Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes that protect them against debilitating factors such as stress. The longer the telomeres, the better the protection and a healthier life.

The length of telomeres varies greatly among different individuals, even among those of the same age. It depends in part on the length of telomeres we have inherited from our parents and partly on how much stress we have been subjected to.
‘This process is the same for people’, says Pauliny. ‘So it’s an important discovery, given that many of us live stressful lives today.’
‘We can learn a lot from birds’, Blomqvist emphasises. ‘In our research we are continuing to work on stress and reproduction, on what mating behaviours look like and why some populations are changing or maybe dying out.’

Researchers mostly think it’s a good thing that they now get to share their passion for birds with more hobby birders out in nature. In their view this contributes to greater involvement in nature conservation efforts.
‘When you know what a bird is called, what it looks like and you relate to it, then you also are more inclined to protect it. With more birdwatchers, there are more people who want to protect biodiversity.’

But there also are negative aspects.
‘Most people are very considerate, but there are aberrations. Some see birdwatching just as way of getting together and aren’t concerned about whether a bird is in poor condition or if they are disturbing the breeding process’, Pauliny notes. ‘There actually have been times when we have not been able to conduct our research but had to stop work because too many people had come to a place where birds were nesting. The risk is that the young will not survive if the birds are disturbed.’

Donald Blomqvist

They hope this year’s field work will be calmer. Angela Pauliny and Donald Blomqvist are in the midst of final preparations for departure to Halland and the vast seaside meadows. They spend four to six weeks there each spring to make behavioural observations, band birds and sometimes take blood samples for genetic analyses.
‘It’s the highlight of the year and generates new ideas for research’, says Blomqvist. ‘This year we are focusing on northern lapwings. By means of telescopes, we will study how environmental stress factors affect parental behaviours and what their young are doing.’

Research on telomeres is also proceeding.
‘We have broadened the study’, says Pauliny. ‘Now we’re also looking at reptiles and fish. People stop growing, but these animals continue to grow throughout their lives. How do they preserve their telomeres when they undergo so many cell divisions? That’s what we’re interested in looking at now.’

Birdwatching – Getting started

  • Join a bird society, where you can get pointers, advice and the chance to meet like-minded people. Sweden’s ornithological society, BirdLife Sverige, has a list of all societies in Sweden. Birdlife.se
  • Equipment: A good bird guide or bird app and binoculars will get you off to a good start. Don’t forget a notebook in which you can write down your observations.
  • At Artportalen.se, you can get tips on where different species have recently been spotted in Sweden.
  • Keep bird conservation in mind! Be considerate and remember to always put the birds first.

Sources: Natursidan and BirdLife Sverige

Curious about bird research?

Here are some references for the research carried out by Angela Pauliny and Donald Blomqvist:

• Pauliny A, Devlin RH, Johnsson JI & Blomqvist D (2015). Rapid growth accelerates telomere attrition in a transgenic fish. BMC Evolutionary Biology 15: 159.
• Blomqvist D, Pauliny A, Larsson M & Flodin L-Å (2010). Trapped in the extinction vortex? Strong genetic effects in a declining vertebrate population. BMC Evolutionary Biology 10: 33.
• Olsson M, Pauliny A, Wapstra E & Blomqvist D (2010). Proximate determinants of telomere length in sand lizards (Lacerta agilis). Biology Letters 6: 651-653.
• Pauliny A, Wagner R H, Augustin J, Szép T & Blomqvist D (2006). Age-independent telomere length predicts fitness in two bird species. Molecular Ecology 15: 1681-1687.