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Steve Chaplin
IU Communications

Last modified: Tuesday, December 4, 2012

With songbird as star, 'Ordinary Extraordinary Junco' movie puts spotlight on evolution, IU research

Dec. 4, 2012

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Indiana University on Tuesday, Dec. 11, will unveil the film "Ordinary Extraordinary Junco: Remarkable Biology From a Backyard Bird" in a free, public premiere at IU Cinema.

The film, which traces the fascinating history of one of North America's most common and abundant songbirds, the dark-eyed junco, is the inspiration of Jonathan Atwell, a post-doctoral researcher working in the lab of Ellen Ketterson, Distinguished Professor in the College of Arts and Sciences' Department of Biology. Ketterson has used the junco as a research subject in evolutionary biology for over 40 years.

IU Department of Telecommunications graduate student and cinematographer Steve Burns recorded most of the video and joined Atwell and Ketterson in all aspects of the production process. With the help of a cast of fellow scientists, actors and birds, they tell the story of a simple, elegant songbird and its place in science, both past and present.

The 85-minute film, purposely designed in interconnected five- to 15-minute modules that can double as instructional units, traces the long history of the junco as a central subject in a wide range of scientific discoveries, highlighting past scientists and their groundbreaking research with the species, while providing accessible lessons in animal behavior and evolutionary biology. The team also created a short trailer, just under three minutes long, that introduces viewers to the movie, and a downloadable poster announcing the premiere is also available.

From a historical perspective, the film stretches from William Rowan's discovery in the 1920s that day length is a key environmental cue for avian migration, and Alden H. Miller's taxonomic research in the same era that classified all the juncos, to research currently under way by Atwell, Ketterson and members of their group. At the same time, "Ordinary Extraordinary Junco" captures the tiny bird with its dark hood, pale gray underbelly and flashing white tail feathers in domains from the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia to recently urbanized populations in San Diego, as well as several other exciting destinations including the highlands of Guatemala and Mexico and a remote island in the Pacific Ocean.

Unrecognized by most people, but familiar to birdwatchers, juncos are abundant across much of North America, and they are easy to find and observe because they forage and nest on the ground. And that's why Ketterson and her late husband, Val Nolan Jr., a professor of law and biology at IU, found the junco to be an ideal species for research.

"The junco is a perfect study species," as Ketterson says, that "reveals its biology to you in the field and in captivity."

Evolutionary diversification is one of the key themes throughout the film, as juncos exhibit striking diversity and variation across their range. Such differences can emerge over thousands of years or even in just a few decades.

"Evolution isn't something that happened a long time ago, it's something that happens every day," said Phil Unitt, curator at the San Diego Natural History Museum and one of the participants in the film.

About 90 percent of all bird species are monogamous, including the junco, making them also interesting to study from an animal behavior perspective.

"People are a lot like birds," Ketterson said. "One of the reasons for studying birds and not studying mammals -- most mammals -- is that birds form pair bonds just as people form couples, and when birds take care of offspring, usually the male helps."

The movie reveals the important role testosterone plays not only in the aspects that humans most closely associate the hormone with -- muscle mass, aggression and sexual behavior -- but also in its modulation of parental care, the immune system, stress response and even survival. On a broader scale, moviegoers will see science in action, as the film captures scientists and students conducting mist-netting to capture juncos, searching for nests, recording songs, collecting samples for laboratory analysis and more.

"Our longer-term goal is to raise awareness of the film for national and international audiences we hope to reach, including high school and college teachers for classroom use, as well as birdwatchers, conservation groups and Latin American audiences, since the junco is found throughout Mexico and Central America," Atwell said.

Producing the film was a collaboration of IU personnel that included recent graduates Joseph Toth (telecommunications) and Elie Abraham (arts management); WFIU producer and announcer Yael Ksander as narrator; and Deanna Soper, a former high school teacher with a Ph.D. in biology from IU, as educational consultant and developer of the teaching resources that will be available as supplements to the film.

In addition, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis science librarian Eric Snajdr served as field expert and archival consultant; telecommunications professor Ron Osgood collaborated on the development of successful funding proposals; and telecommunications professor Steve Krahnke plays the part of scientist William Rowan during a historical re-enactment in the film. Both Krahnke and Osgood were on the committee for filmmaker Burns' master's thesis (the film was part of his thesis) before Burns' graduation.

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. The primary external funder and supporter was the National Science Foundation.

The film will premiere at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 11, at IU Cinema. It is a free event, but tickets are required through the cinema box office and can be obtained in advance. A reception will follow immediately after at WonderLab, 308 W. Fourth St., Bloomington.