Ecology, evolution and marine biology dept. professor Stephen Rothstein recently received the Brewster Award for his research in ornithology, the study of birds.
The American Ornithologists’ Union awards the Brewster Award each summer to one author in the Western Hemisphere who has constructed the most meritorious body of work on avian biology. Recipients receive a medal and honorarium through the William Brewster Memorial Fund.
Rothstein, who is also the director of UCSB’s Museum of Systematics & Ecology, received the award for his service to the field – specifically, for his work on bird conservation, for his evaluations of studies by other researchers and for his skill in training young scientists. He was also recognized for his work relating to interactions between parasitic birds, especially cowbirds, and their hosts.
“Cowbirds and hosts are involved in antagonistic co-evolution, or an evolutionary arms race in which they each try to defeat the adaptations of the other side,” Rothstein said. “The study of these cowbird hosts has a practical side because parasitism is so detrimental to some endangered songbird species that it threatens their extinction.”
The research on songbird evolution will aid in further research of adaptation and evolution in other species, EEMB Dept. Chair Roger Nisbet said. Winning the Brewster Award not only means a great deal to Rothstein but to the EEMB department.
“The award is the most recent of many pointers to the strength of ecology at UCSB,” Nisbet said.
Rothstein’s current research involves the development of songs in brown-headed cowbirds. The correlation between the speech dialects in humans and the song dialects in cowbirds is of great interest to Rothstein and fellow researchers.
“We got into this because they have song dialects like human speech dialects and they are learned just like human speech is learned,” Rothstein said. “We discovered the system of dialects while we were engaged in other research; we just found it was a really interesting system.”
Researchers have been studying the dialects of songbirds and the relationship between those dialects and the dialects of human beings for 30 to 40 years, Rothstein said.
“It had been known that this serves as a really nice example in animals for the kind of vocal learning that occurs in people, and we just found the cowbird song dialects to be more clearly defined than other bird species that people have studied,” he said.
Undergraduates who work with Rothstein analyze the bird songs and are typically recruited from the courses Rothstein teaches, though students who are interested in Rothstein’s research can also get involved.
Senior zoology major Hilary Thum has learned to recognize different birds on campus after working with Rothstein.
“If you know a little bit, just a little bit, even about bird song, walking round anywhere you go, you’re just so finely tuned to everything around you,” she said. “Just walking through campus is a much more enriching experience.”