Nelsy Nino says she has always found it amazing how birds communicate through sound.

So much so that the Colombian biologist moved to Canada to study birds in the country’s southernmost region.

“You can close your eyes, but you can’t close your ears,” said the international doctoral student from the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Science.

“Many people love birds for their colors – their plumage, their presentation, their behavior – but their vocal behavior is simply amazing.”

A predominantly light bird with some brown feathers
A mockingbird appears in Houston on April 28, 2015. (Pat Sullivan/The Associated Press)

Nino says of particular interest is how some songbirds imitate other songbirds.

“We have the northern mockingbird, which is a really good mimic, so they imitate the tufted titmouse like the northern cardinals do,” she said.

“In the tropics we don’t know much about mimicry.”

And it’s her Colombian roots that allow her ears to perceive different sounds than those of a typical Canadian, she says.

VIEW | Why Nelsy Nino moved to Canada to study birds:

Colombian researcher closes gap in songbird research for Canada’s southernmost region

Nelsy Nino says she has always found it amazing how birds communicate through sound. The Colombian biologist moved to Canada to study birds in the country’s southernmost region while at the University of Windsor. Her professor says she has identified distinctive female mimicry.

“I come from the tropics. So when you enter a forest, you see a few species, but you hear a lot about them. There’s a lot of information that you take out for that vocal and acoustic channel.”

According to Nino, her home country has the highest diversity of bird populations and endemic birds that cannot be found anywhere else, which helped her move to Canada to study.

“I am very interested in certain groups because of their voting behavior.”

Dan Mennill, a professor at the University of Windsor, examines a reddish-white wren.  The bird has been the focus of a 15-year study of how climate affects its lifespan.
Dan Mennill, a professor at the University of Windsor, examines a reddish-white wren. (Dale Morris)

Dan Mennill from the University of Windsor says Nino grew up listening to the sounds of birds in Colombian forests, giving him an expertise that is invaluable to the program he oversees.

The professor and associate dean for science says Nino launched a doctoral project focusing on a group of birds called seed eaters, showing that both males and females mimic sounds made by other birds in their temperate zone.

Mockingbirds do the same thing, says Mennill, but in this case Nino also found female mimicry – which raises further questions.

“What are the differences between male and female facial expressions? How important are the facial sounds of males for a woman making a mate choice decision?”

“She has truly enriched the research in our laboratory in ways that we would not have been able to achieve without her international expertise.”

International students promote diverse research, says Prof

Mennill says international students play a critical role in post-secondary education across Canada – particularly when it comes to the different roles that science can play.

“We have an incomplete picture of the world because most of the world’s universities are in the temperate zone. But most of Earth’s biodiversity is found near the equator in the tropics. There are these rainforests with great biodiversity.”

VIEW | Prof. explains why he believes an international PhD student’s background is important:

International students promote diverse research, says Prof

Dan Mennill from the University of Windsor says international PhD student Nelsy Nino grew up listening to the sounds of birds in Colombian forests. He says this gives her a level of expertise that is invaluable to the program he oversees.

Mennill says scientists can’t simply be parachuted from temperate zones into the tropics to bring data back to universities like UWindsor.

“We do a lot more scientific work when we work with local people to help understand these native animals.”

Mennill says it’s important to have diverse universities and create opportunities for people from all over the world to afford and attend Canadian schools.

He says universities populated only by Canadian students would eliminate some of the most important questions in science and scholarship.

“The brain gain is that we’re getting all these great minds working from global perspectives to tackle problems here… that are much broader than we could if we just came with our own perspective, and the field of science would really be diminished by this. We only had a limited number of minds working on the most important problems.”

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