Mike Webster

Director, Macaulay Library


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.


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

Symes, L. B., K. D. Kittelberger, S. M. Stone, R. T. Holmes, J. S. Jones, I. P. Castaneda Ruvalcaba, M. S. Webster, and M. P. Ayres (2022). Analytical approaches for evaluating passive acoustic monitoring data: A case study of avian vocalizations. Ecology and Evolution 12:e8797.
Rowe, M., A. van Oort, L. Brouwer, J. T. Lifjeld, M. S. Webster, J. F. Welklin, and D. T. Baldassarre (2022). Sperm numbers as a paternity guard in a wild bird. Cells 11:231.
Welklin, J. F., S. M. Lantz, S. Khalil, N. M. Moody, J. Karubian, and M. S. Webster (2021). Social and abiotic factors differentially affect plumage ornamentation of young and old males in an Australian songbird. Animal Behaviour 182:173–188.
Falk, J. J., M. S. Webster, and D. R. Rubenstein (2021). Male-like ornamentation in female hummingbirds results from social harassment rather than sexual selection. Current Biology 31:4381-4387.e6.
Webster, M. S., J. Buschbom, and A. Bentley (2021). The digital extended specimen will enable new science and applications. Biodiversity Information Science and Standards 5:e75736.
Keen, S. C., K. J. Odom, M. S. Webster, G. M. Kohn, T. F. Wright, and M. Araya‐Salas (2021). A machine learning approach for classifying and quantifying acoustic diversity. Methods in Ecology and Evolution. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/2041-210X.13599
Walsh, J., L. Campagna, W. E. Feeney, J. King, and M. S. Webster (2021). Patterns of genetic divergence and demographic history shed light on island-mainland population dynamics and melanic plumage evolution in the white-winged Fairywren. Evolution. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/evo.14185
Odom, K. J., K. E. Cain, M. L. Hall, N. E. Langmore, R. A. Mulder, S. Kleindorfer, J. Karubian, L. Brouwer, E. D. Enbody, J. A. Jones, J. L. Dowling, et al. (2021). Sex role similarity and sexual selection predict male and female song elaboration and dimorphism in fairy-wrens. Ecology and Evolution 11:17901–17919.
Boersma, J., D. G. Barron, D. T. Baldassarre, M. S. Webster, and H. Schwabl (2021). Wildfire affects expression of male sexual plumage through suppressed testosterone circulation in a tropical songbird. Journal of Avian Biology 52.
Germain, R. R., M. T. Hallworth, S. A. Kaiser, T. S. Sillett, and M. S. Webster (2021). Variance in within-pair reproductive success influences the opportunity for selection annually and over the lifetimes of males in a multibrooded songbird*. Evolution 75:915–930.
Odom, K. J., M. Araya‐Salas, J. L. Morano, R. A. Ligon, G. M. Leighton, C. C. Taff, A. H. Dalziell, A. C. Billings, R. R. Germain, M. Pardo, L. G. de Andrade, et al. (2021). Comparative bioacoustics: a roadmap for quantifying and comparing animal sounds across diverse taxa. Biological Reviews. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/brv.12695
Khalil, S., J. F. Welklin, K. J. McGraw, J. Boersma, H. Schwabl, M. S. Webster, and J. Karubian (2020). Testosterone regulates CYP2J19-linked carotenoid signal expression in male Red-backed Fairy-wrens (Malurus melanocephalus). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 287:20201687.
Cramer, E. R. A., S. A. Kaiser, M. S. Webster, and T. B. Ryder (2020). Common field data limitations can substantially bias sexual selection metrics. American Naturalist 196:180–196.
DeLeon, S., M. S. Webster, T. J. DeVoogd, and A. A. Dhondt (2020). Developmental polychlorinated biphenyl exposure influences adult Zebra Finch reproductive behavior. PLOS ONE 15:e0230283.
Gaiotti, M. G., M. S. Webster, and R. H. Macedo (2020). An atypical mating system in a neotropical manakin. Royal Society Open Science 7:191548.
Carr, H. H., J. A. Kennerley, N. M. Richardson, M. S. Webster, and W. E. Feeney (2020). First record of black feathering in a female Red-backed Fairy-wren Malurus melanocephalus under natural conditions. Australian Field Ornithology 37.
Diniz, P., G. S. Rech, P. H. L. Ribeiro, M. S. Webster, and R. H. Macedo (2020). Partners coordinate territorial defense against simulated intruders in a duetting ovenbird. Ecology and Evolution 10:81–92.
Campbell, P., L. Arévalo, H. Martin, C. Chen, S. Sun, A. H. Rowe, M. S. Webster, J. B. Searle, and B. Pasch (2019). Vocal divergence is concordant with genomic evidence for strong reproductive isolation in grasshopper mice (Onychomys). Ecology and Evolution 9:12886–12896.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Thrasher, D. J., B. G. Butcher, L. Campagna, M. S. Webster, and I. J. Lovette (2018). Double-digest RAD sequencing outperforms microsatellite loci at assigning paternity and estimating relatedness: A proof of concept in a highly promiscuous bird. Molecular Ecology Resources 18:953–965.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Mike Webster
Center Macaulay Library
Email msw244@cornell.edu
Website Webster Lab

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