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Songbird superstar, box-office success

May 22, 2013

 The world premiere of the film Ordinary Extraordinary Junco: Remarkable Biology From a Backyard Bird — a science documentary developed by biologists at Indiana University about one of North America’s most beloved songbirds — was a local success and a box office sell-out.

Now the team of scientists and filmmakers says the film, along with a package of complementary educational resources, is ready for distribution to inspire, educate, and entertain public and student audiences, especially among high school and college classes, birdwatchers, and anyone else interested in science, nature, or wildlife.

The film highlights more than 100 years of research on one of the most common and abundant, yet diverse and remarkable, groups of songbirds on the continent, the juncos. Key themes include evolution, ecology, animal behavior and the research process.

One scientist who knows almost everything about birds and citizen science is John Fitzpatrick, director of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which is supported by 45,000 members and has had about 200,000 people participate in its various projects. After viewing the film, Fitzpatrick congratulated the filmmakers on successfully projecting a common songbird as the superstar research subject that it is.

“We travel to habitats all over North America and learn in just a few spellbinding minutes how much a rapidly evolving bird can teach us — from how the body works to how new species form,” Fitzpatrick says. “I’ve never seen a more exciting demonstration of the fact that absolutely nothing in nature is ‘ordinary.'”

The 88-minute film was designed in eight interconnected five- to 15-minute modules that can double as stand-alone instructional units on topics as broad as the scientific method, yet as refined as the role hormones play in the evolutionary development of vertebrate social behavior. It can be viewed online in its entirety or in any combination of its eight chapters at a permanent web portal where downloadable teaching guides, study questions for students, links to relevant scientific literature and other open source educational materials can also be found.

The film was conceived by IU Bloomington Department of Biology postdoctoral researcher Jonathan Atwell and co-produced by Atwell and Distinguished Professor of Biology Ellen Ketterson. Filmmaking expertise came from collaborator Steve Burns, a graduate of IU Bloomington’s Department of Telecommunications, who acted as cinematographer, video editor, and co-writer. The film also features creative contributions from IU graduates Joseph Toth (sound design, color and graphics) and Elie Abraham (original music) and was narrated by WFIU radio producer Yael Ksander.

The creators said they took into account both National Science Education Standards of the National Research Council and standards of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s Benchmarks in Science when making the film. They said updates will be made when the new Next Generation Science Standards currently under development are finalized.

Virginia Tech University biology professor Ignacio Moore described the documentary as both entertaining and educational while appealing to a broad viewer base including research scientists, casual bird enthusiasts, and high-school-age students.

“As a teacher, I find these videos to be an extraordinary tool,” Moore says. “They demonstrate how science and researchers work. They also cross disciplinary lines and show what we can learn as ornithologists, physiologists, evolutionary biologists, ecologists and animal behaviorists. For the average viewer, these videos do a remarkable job showing why such studies are important and how much we can learn from an ‘ordinary’ bird.”

In creating the film, Ketterson, Atwell, and Burns said they wanted to show people that exciting biological processes, and even evolution, happen every day in our own backyards. Like Darwin’s finches in the Galapagos Islands and cichlid fish in Africa, rapid evolutionary diversification can also be recognized in one of the most abundant and recognizable bird species in North America.

“Juncos are easily observable by millions of people daily,” Atwell says. “So depending on where you are, chances are good that you can watch this film and then go see, or hear, a junco on your way to work or school.”

Ketterson is considered a pioneer in the field of animal behavior, and her studies on the interplay between hormones, life history traits, and natural selection in birds, recognized around the world, are the focus of the film’s second chapter. Working with Ketterson, Atwell last year published research showing that dark-eyed juncos, which recently colonized in an urban environment in San Diego, exhibited reduced stress hormone responses and bolder exploratory behavior when compared to forest-dwelling counterparts; and that the adaptation to city life was connected to rapid genetic evolution of both behavior and corresponding hormonal responses. Those findings are featured in the film’s sixth chapter.

Other segments focus on the research of colleagues from around the world, including Borja Mila, who works for Spain’s National Museum of Natural Sciences in Madrid but chooses to study juncos in North America, with the goal of understanding their stunning evolutionary diversification. Chapters 3 through 5 take viewers along on Mila’s quest, visiting spectacular habitats and juncos from the mountains of Wyoming, Nevada, and South Dakota, all the way to rural Mexico and Guatemala, and even a remote island off the Baja coast.

In addition to the film and supplementary materials package available at the project website, the team has also created a Facebook page and a Twitter account. Team members have been traveling to universities and visiting bird conservation groups like the Audubon Society to promote availability of the film and supporting materials.

Primary external funding for the film came from the National Science Foundation, and additional support from within the IU community came from the IU Bloomington Office of the Vice Provost for Research, the College of Arts and Sciences’ Themester program, the Department of Biology, the Department of Telecommunications, and the Center for Integrative Study of Animal Behavior.


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