Published: May 27, 2011

Golden-crowned Kinglet

Shannon Hackett, The Richard and Jill Chaifetz Associate Curator of Birds, Negaunee Integrative Research Center

Here's one of Evie Hill's drawings of one of my favourite North American birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa).  

Here's one of Evie Hill's drawings of one of my favorite North American birds, Golden-crowned Kinglet (Regulus satrapa).  Kinglets are tiny birds with extreme amounts of activity--kind of like Evie herself.  It's not uncommon to see them in the spring in our back yard in Evanston, IL.  We also have a number of kinglets in the Birds Collection Database of The Field Museum.  To check that out You can type Regulus in the Genus space and satrapa in the Species space.  It should return 889 records.  The earliest specimens are from the 1860's.  We also have 92 Golden-crowned Kinglet tissue samples in our cryogenics facility, which is in the Collections Resource Center.  Keith Barker, a previous Field Museum resident graduate student (who worked in the Pritzker Laboratory), studied the relationships of songbirds using DNA data and has kinglets in his tree of life for these birds.  They are a bit on their own in the songbird tree of life, with no really close relatives.  You can find out additional information on kinglets.  Keith Barker is now a professor at the University of Minnesota.  Learn more about Keith and his research.

Shannon Hackett
The Richard and Jill Chaifetz Associate Curator of Birds

Here's how to reach me.

  • 312.665.7729 (office)
  • 312.665.7754 (fax)
  • 312.665.7457 (DNA Discovery Center and Pritzker Lab)

I am an Associate Curator in the Department of Zoology, and Head of the Field Museum's Bird Division.

I study the systematics and evolution of birds. What I do is use DNA sequences, morphology, and behavior to reconstruct how populations and species are related to one another—the tree of life. I’m interested in the same things you are interested in with respect to your own family tree. You might ask yourself why you look the way you do, behave the way you do, where your family traces its roots to. I am interested in these exact same things, only in birds.

I grew up in a small town in British Columbia, Canada, always feeling like the square peg in a round hole. I knew I was interested in the natural world, but didn’t know what that meant or what to do about it. My career counseling advice was--you are too smart to be a nurse, you should be a doctor. So, that’s what I went to do. It was a chance event, a undergraduate course on the Natural History of Vertebrates of British Columbia at the University of Victoria, that led me to birdwatching, and from there to working in the Royal British Columbia Museum and ultimately to graduate school in Louisiana (Geaux Tigers), a postdoctoral stint in New York City’s American Museum of Natural History, and then to the best job in the World, Curator of Birds at the Field Museum of Natural History. I didn’t find scientific role models in my community, and that’s why the DNA Discovery Center is so important to me. Every day we have the chance to let people know what we do and what nontraditional careers are available to young people interested in science. As is often the case for women in science, I am married to a man in science. My husband, John Bates, is the other Curator of Birds at Field Museum (you can see a profile under Notes in the July section of the DNA Discovery Center’s facebook page). We have a teenage son, who loves hockey (my other passion in life after my family and birds).

I am part of a large project called Early Bird. This project is highly collaborative, involving many people, institutions, and collections throughout the United States. Our main goal is to figure out the evolutionary relationships among all major groups of birds. Believe it or not, even a few years ago, we knew very little about how birds were related to each other. So far we have sequenced many different sections of DNA (pieces of genes) in the genome of more than 200 species of birds and their closest living relatives (crocodiles). From these data, we developed a family tree of birds (see one of the images in my December 2010 profile in the notes section of the DNA Discovery Center's facebook page). Through these genomic studies we are learning some unexpected things about familiar birds. Parrots and songbirds, like the Starred Robin (see image in the facebook profile), don’t look alike but are actually closely related. Flamingoes and Grebes (again see images below) are each other’s closest relatives. It turns out that much of current avian taxonomy does not reflect the actual genealogical history of birds. This work would not be possible without the large collections of specimens of birds in museums like Field Museum. We have over 500,000 specimens that we can use for DNA studies.

My new research project, The Emerging Pathogens Project, is an extension of Early Bird, and is a collaboration with Kevin White, PhD, the James and Karen Frank Family Professor in Human Genetics and Ecology and Evolution and Director of the Institute of Genomics and Systems Biology at the University of Chicago. This project studies birds and small mammals and the parasites and pathogens that live in and on them from a genomics and evolutionary perspective. DNA extracted from these animals, as well as the viruses, bacteria, parasites and other pathogens affecting them, will allow us to create an extensive database of emerging animal and pathogen biodiversity. Through these DNA data, we can begin to understand how diseases have evolved and what might happen as infectious organisms jump between animal species, allowing us to form a basis from which genomic changes in emerging pathogens can be discovered. We can also monitor any changes in the distribution and virulence of diseases that may threaten humans and other wildlife. To learn more about this project, check out Holly Lutz’s profile and questions and answers from November.

It’s an exciting time to be interested in birds because there is so much new knowledge being generated. That’s the main reason I love my job. Every day I have the chance to learn something nobody knew the day before. How cool is that!