Mike Webster

Director, Macaulay Library

Expertise

Animal Behavior • Animal Communication • Evolution • Bird Song • Breeding Biology

I wear two hats at the Lab. First, I am Director of the Macaulay Library, which is a media collection dedicated to capturing and preserving recordings (audio, video, and photos) that capture the behaviors of wild birds and other animals. In this role my goal is to grow the collection and make it as accessible and useful as possible for people who want to use our recordings for research and for educational outreach.

Second, I am also a professor in Cornell University’s Department of Neurobiology and Behavior. In this role I do research on, and also teach classes about, animal communication and behavior. Through my research and teaching I aim for a better understanding of how and why animals communicate with each other, and also what accounts for the evolution of the incredible diversity of signals that we see in nature (think of the diversity of bird songs, plumage colors, and elaborate displays).

Why do I do this? Quite simply because there is nothing more fascinating than understanding the forces that have shaped the diverse behaviors we see in nature today. I am excited to study these forces, and also to help guide a research collection that can help others understand, learn about, and preserve the diversity of life on our planet.

My fascination with nature and animal behavior goes back to childhood, as I was always an “outdoorsy” type and enjoyed losing myself in wild places. I didn’t know how to turn that passion into a profession, though, and so I stumbled into college thinking that I might be a marine biologist (until I discovered that I wasn’t interested in plankton) or a veterinarian (until I discovered that I was no good at anatomy). On a whim, rather late in my college career, I took a course in animal behavior, and my fate was sealed. Ever since that course I have devoted myself to watching, and working to understand, what animals do and why they do it.

Education

Ph.D., Cornell University
B.A., University of California, San Diego

Inspirational Bird

My Ph.D. dissertation focused on the behavior of a Neotropical bird, the Montezuma Oropendola. Because of this, one of my favorite quotes is by the great Neotropical ornithologist Alexander Skutch, who in 1954 described the song of the male Montezuma Oropendola as “a long-drawn, far-carrying liquid gurgle, an undulatory sound ascending in pitch. When heard in the distance it is most melodious, but when the performer is nearby his screeching overtones somewhat mar the effect.”

Recent Publications

Calhim, S., S. Pruett-Jones, M. S. Webster, and M. Rowe (2019). Asymmetries in reproductive anatomy: Insights from promiscuous songbirds. Biological Journal of the Linnean Society:1–14.
Cain, K. E., M. L. Hall, I. Medina, A. V. Leitao, K. Delhey, L. Brouwer, A. Peters, S. Pruett-Jones, M. S. Webster, N. E. Langmore, and R. A. Mulder (2019). Conspicuous plumage does not increase predation risk: A continentwide test using model songbirds. The American Naturalist 193:359–372.
Campbell, P., H. Arévalo, H. Martin, C. Chen, S. S. Shuzhen, A. Rowe, M. Webster, J. Searle, and B. Pasch (2019). [In Press] Vocal divergence is concordant with genomic evidence for strong reproductive isolation in grasshopper mice (Onychomys). Ecology & Evolution.
Diniz, P., R. H. Macedo, and M. S. Webster (2019). [In press] Duetting correlates with territory quality and reproductive success in a suboscine bird with low extra-pair paternity. The Auk.
Cain, K. E., M. L. Hall, I. Medina, A. V. Leitao, K. Delhy, L. Brouwer, A. Peters, S. Pruett-Jones, M. S. Webster, N. E. Langmore, and R. A. Mulder (2019). [In press] Conspicuous plumage does not increase predation risk: A continent-wide test using 3D printed model songbirds. American Naturalist.
Uy, J. A. C., D. Irwin, and M. S. Webster (2019). [In press] Behavioral isolation & incipient speciation in birds. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics.
Dowling, J. L., D. Colombelli-Négrel, and M. S. Webster (2019). [In press] Kin signatures learned in the egg? Red-backed Fairy-wrens incorporate maternal in-nest call elements into their adult songs. Frontiers in Behavioral and Evolutionary Ecology.
Mason, N. A., B. Pasch, K. J. Burns, and E. P. Derryberry (2019). [In press] Integrating Museum and Media Collections to Study Vocal Evolution. In The Extended Specimen: Emerging Frontiers in Collections-Based Ornithological research (W. Webster, Editor). University of California Press.
Smith, M. G., S. A. Kaiser, T. S. Sillett, and M. S. Webster (2018). Variation in nest characteristics and brooding patterns of female Black-throated Blue Warblers is associated with thermal cues. The Auk:733–747.
Yandell, D. D., W. M. Hochachka, S. Pruett-Jones, M. S. Webster, and E. I. Greig (2018). Geographic patterns of song variation in four species of Malurus fairy-wrens. Journal of Avian Biology 49:jav-01446.
Webster, M. S., R. A. Ligon, and G. M. Leighton (2018). Social costs are an underappreciated force for honest signalling in animal aggregations. Animal Behaviour. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.anbehav.2017.12.006
Dowling, J., and M. S. Webster (2018). Acoustic and physical mate guarding have different effects on intruder behaviour in a duetting songbird. Animal Behaviour 135:69–75.
Uy, J. A. C., D. E. Irwin, and M. S. Webster (2018). Behavioral isolation and incipient speciation in birds. Annual Review of Ecology, Evolution, and Systematics 49.
Mathers-Winn, C. A., J. L. Dowling, and M. S. Webster (2018). Forest fire reduces dawn singing effort in a passerine bird. Australian Field Ornithology 35:75–82.
Diniz, P., E. F. da Silva, M. S. Webster, and R. H. Macedo (2018). Duetting behavior in a Neotropical ovenbird: Sexual and seasonal variation and adaptive signaling functions. Journal of Avian Biology 49:jav-01637.
Feeney, W. E., T. A. Ryan, J. A. Kennerley, C. Poje, L. Clarke, M. Scheuering, and M. S. Webster (2018). A photographic guide for ageing nestlings of two Australian brood-parasitic cuckoo species: Horsfield's Bronze-Cuckoo Chalcites basalis and the Fan-tailed Cuckoo Cacomantis flabelliformis. Australian Field Ornithology 35:8.
Brouwer, L., M. van de Pol, N. H. Aranzamendi, G. Bain, D. T. Baldassarre, L. C. Brooker, M. G. Brooker, D. Colombelli‐Négrel, E. Enbody, Gielow, M. L. Hall, et al. (2017). Multiple hypotheses explain variation in extra‐pair paternity at different levels in a single bird family. Molecular Ecology 26:6717–6729.
Araya-Salas, M., G. Smith-Vidaurre, and M. Webster (2017). Assessing the effect of sound file compression and background noise on measures of acoustic signal structure. Bioacoustics:1–17.
Dias, R. I., M. S. Webster, and R. H. Macedo (2017). Parental and alloparental investment in campo flickers (Colaptes campestris campestris): When relatedness comes first. Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 71:139.
Kaiser, S. A., S. A. Taylor, N. Chen, T. S. Sillett, E. R. Bondra, and M. S. Webster (2017). A comparative assessment of SNP and microsatellite markers for assigning parentage in a socially monogamous bird. Molecular Ecology Resources 17:183–193.
Dowling, J., and M. S. Webster (2017). Working with what you've got: unattractive males show greater mate-guarding effort in a duetting songbird. Biology Letters 13:20160682.
Bostwick, K. S., T. A. Harvey, and E. Scholes (2017). Leveraging diverse specimen types to integrate behavior and morphology. In The Role of Collections in Ornithology: The Extended Specimen (M. S. Webster, Editor). Studies in Avian Biology 50:75–88.
Kaiser, S. A., B. B. Risk, T. S. Sillett, and M. S. Webster (2017). Ecological and social factors constrain spatial and temporal opportunities for mating in a migratory songbird. The American Naturalist 189:283–296.
Lindsay, W. R., D. G. Barron, M. S. Webster, and H. Schwabl (2016). Testosterone activates sexual dimorphism including male-typical carotenoid but not melanin plumage pigmentation in a female bird. The Journal of Experimental Biology 219:3091–3099.
Potticary, A. L., J. L. Dowling, D. G. Barron, D. T. Baldassarre, and M. S. Webster (2016). Subtle benefits of cooperation to breeding males of the Red-backed Fairywren. The Auk 133:286–297.
Colombelli-Négrel, D., M. S. Webster, J. L. Dowling, M. E. Hauber, and S. Kleindorfer (2016). Vocal imitation of mother's calls by begging Red-backed Fairywren nestlings increases parental provisioning. The Auk 133:273–285.
Dowling, J., and M. S. Webster (2016). An experimental test of duet function in a fairywren (Malurus) with moderate cuckoldry rates. Behavioral Ecology 27:228–236.
Townsend, A. K., E. G. Cooch, T. S. Sillett, N. L. Rodenhouse, R. T. Holmes, and M. S. Webster (2016). The interacting effects of food, spring temperature, and global climate cycles on population dynamics of a migratory songbird. Global Change Biology 22:544–555.
Baldassarre, D. T., E. I. Greig, and M. S. Webster (2016). The couple that sings together stays together: duetting, aggression and extra-pair paternity in a promiscuous bird species. Biology Letters 12:20151025.
Dowling, J. L., D. Colombelli-Négrel, and M. S. Webster (2016). Kin signatures learned in the egg? Red-backed Fairy-Wren songs are aimilar to their mother's in-nest calls and songs. Behavioral and Evolutionary Ecology:48.
Pasch, B., M. Z. Abbasi, M. Wilson, D. Zhao, J. B. Searle, M. S. Webster, and A. N. Rice (2016). Cross-fostering alters advertisement vocalizations of grasshopper mice (Onychomys): Evidence for the developmental stress hypothesis. Physiology & Behavior 157:265–269.
Webster, M. S., and G. F. Budney (2016). Sound archives and media specimens in the 21st century. In Comparative Bioacoustic Methods eBook (C. H. Brown and T. Riede, Editors). Bentham Science Publishers, Oak Park, IL.
Bostwick, K. S., E. Scholes III, and T. A. Harvey (2016). Chapter 5: leveraging diverse specimen types to integrate behavior and morphology. In Emerging Frontiers in Collections-based Ornithological Research: The Extended Specimen (M. S. Webster, Editor). CRC Press.
Webster, M. S. (2016). The extended specimen. In Emerging Frontiers in Collections-based Ornithological Research: The Extended Specimen. CRC Press.
Webster, M. S., C. Cicero, J. Bates, S. Hackett, and L. Joseph (2016). Ornithological collections in the 21st century. In Emerging Frontiers in Collections-based Ornithological Research: The Extended Specimen. CRC Press.
Greig, E. I., D. T. Baldassarre, and M. S. Webster (2015). Differential rates of phenotypic introgression are associated with male behavioral responses to multiple signals. Evolution 69:2602–2612.
Schwabl, H., J. Dowling, D. T. Baldassarre, M. Gahr, W. R. Lindsay, and M. S. Webster (2015). Variation in song system anatomy and androgen levels does not correspond to song characteristics in a tropical songbird. Animal Behaviour 104:39–50.
Baldassarre, D. T., T. A. White, J. Karubian, and M. S. Webster (2014). Genomic and morphological analysis of a semipermeable avian hybrid zone suggests asymmetrical introgression of a sexual signal. Evolution 68:2644–2657.

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