The Avian Parasitic Fly Project (#VampireMaggots) is supported through Ohio University Research Council, the Columbus Audubon, and from folks just like you (through the Sindisa Fund). Vampire maggots are obligate parasites and depend on blood meals from nestling birds, which can cause complications with their development and growth, often leading to death. We are investigating the cues the adult flies use to locate nests (thermal and infrared) and potential mates (flashing wing beat frequency or FWF) to learn about their communication pathways and ecology. By using native flies and birds as a surrogate, we hope to apply information gleaned from this project towards earth-friendly management practices and conservation tools for threatened and endangered bird species.
After mating, adult female bird blow flies (Genus Protocalliphora) must lay their eggs, and are tasked with the difficult job of locating a bird nest with newly hatched baby birds. This is tricky because bird nestling periods are short (e.g. 8-21 days) as is larval development times (e.g. 7-10 days) which means she needs to time egg-laying just right with bird hatching.
Eggs hatch into vampire maggots and, for these maggots, the “night time is the right time”. At night maggots crawl up the nesting material towards the baby birds and, with their fangs, drink the bird’s blood. Once the sun begins to rise, they move to the bottom of the nest where it is cool, dark, and moist (and they are safe from being eaten by parent birds!).
Pupation, when maggots undergo the transformation into the adult life stage, is perfectly timed with the fledging of birds. After 7-14 days, the adult fly will emerge near the end of the nesting season, overwinter in hollow trees and old bird nests, and to start the cycle over by parasitizing nestlings the next spring season.
The victims of vampire maggots include many species of birds (complete list here) but we focus on cavity nesting birds including Eastern bluebirds (Sialia sialis), tree swallows, (Tachycineta bicolor), and purple martins (Progne subis).
Tree swallows (photo: left) are found in open and wooded areas, especially those near water. Although it is not completely understood why, their numbers have been declining in recent years.
The Eastern bluebird (photo: middle) is a small thrush found in open woodlands, farmlands, and orchards. The Eastern bluebird has its its own species specific bird blow fly (Protocalliphora sialis).
Purple martins (photo right) are the largest North American Swallow and have been completely dependent on human-created nesting structures since early Native Americans. (Their gourd-like nesting structure is seen in the pictures taken at the Wren Farm, below.)
THE WREN FARM
Many of our experiments are conducted in controlled labs at Ohio University but we always take our experiments into the field to investigate the equivalent in a real world situation. Our field site is located at the Wren Farm (owned by Mike Wren in Athens, Ohio), which is equipped with over 100 bird boxes! Mike Wren is a retired Ohio University Basketball coach turned
crazy birder and, thanks to Mike and other avid Athens Area Birders that share their knowledge and resources, we have the perfect environment for collecting data.
THE PROJECT TEAM
(*denotes undergraduate research students)
Sudnick, M.* (presenter), B. Brodie & K. Williams. Identification of oviposition resources by bird blow flies (Protocalliphora spp.). Entomological Society of America: Medical, Urban, and Veterinary Entomology (MUVE) Undergraduate Research Symposium. St. Louis, MI, 17-10 November 2019. (First Place Award, Undergraduate Oral Presentation)
Sudnick, M.* (presenter), B.S. Brodie, K.A. Williams. Evaluating nest structure and temperature in relationship to parasitism by the avian blow fly. Ohio Avian Research Conference. Denison University, Granville, OH, 20 October 2018.
EDUCATION and OUTREACH
Brodie, B.S. Let’s have a chat about the birds and… flies? The Ohio University College of Arts and Sciences Forum.May 6, 2019. https://www.ohio-forum.com/2019/05/lets-have-a-chat-about-the-birds-and-flies/
Dr. Kelly Williams regularly takes students, friends, colleagues, and community members out bird banding and offers Ohio University Students a free bird banding (NABC) certification!
Brodie, B.S. , M. Sudnick*, K. Williams, M. Duffner*, and K. Johnson. In the eye of the fly: What is behind the large, specialized eyes of flies? And how do they use them to communicate, find mates, and food?”. Athens Area Birders Association. Athens, OH 6 November 18.
The Sindisa Fund, is a non-profit that supports and conducts activities that contribute to the global conservation of endangered species. The funds reach is global from South Africa to here in Athens, Ohio, U.S.A. Please consider becoming a member or help by donating to a to a Sindisa conservation project.
The Columbus Audubon was founded in 1913 and is a chapter of the Audubon. It’s mission is to promote the appreciation, understanding and conservation of birds, other wildlife and their habitats, for present and future generations.