My thesis but also MS paint drawings

After a cursory glance over my old posts, I don’t think I’ve done a great job outlining my thesis research (Perceived predation risk and the responses of adult and nestling Tree Swallows).  I also don’t think I ever expressed my love of crudely done MS Paint drawings here either.  And with those powers combined, I give you this blog post!

A major part of my thesis pertains to bird calls, so to begin, let’s get some background on the noises birds make.

There are songs:


And then there are calls:



Birds song varies from species to species, some species don’t even use songs at all. Fun fact; while song is typically associated with male birds, females of some species are able to sing as well.   Songs tend to sound more musical compared to a call, and generally are only used in the spring time for two purposes.



Calls, on the other hand, are used year round by males and females alike.  Even baby birds use calls to communicate to parents and siblings.  Calls sound less musical than songs do, but have several jobs to do.


The type of calls I focus on in my thesis are alarm calls.  These are the calls that birds use to tell other birds about danger.  There are two types of alarm calls:

1) Non-specific alarm calls


2) Specific (also called referential alarm calls)


Referential alarm calls are unique in the sense that birds that use them are capable of encoding important information about the predator in them.  They might call faster or slower, higher or lower, potentially add more syllables onto the call- it all depends on the type of predator and how much danger it poses to them.

Now enter the Tree Swallow!


Uh…I mean the Tree Swallow; Tachycineta bicolor! 


Eventually, Tree Swallows will get their own post without my…artistic renditions.  Tree Swallows are a small  bird that naturally nests in tree cavities, but will gladly kill a man to live in a nest box. Since they nest in cavities, the nestlings may respond differently to predatory threats compared to birds that nest in an open cup or other cavity nesting birds. My thesis looks at how adult and nestling Tree Swallows respond to different nest predators.  I broke down predatory threats into three groups: Box Penetraters (black rat snake and chipmunk), Grabbers (raccoon and kestrel), and Wait-That’s-Not-A-Predator (an American Robin).


My thesis has two main objectives: to determine if parent tree swallows use different alarm calls for different predators and to see how nestlings respond to their parents’ alarm calls depending on what the predatory threat is. To collect the data I needed, I placed a camcorder in the back of a plastic container attached to the nest box so I could record the nestlings.  After the nestlings acclimated to the camcorder, I placed a predator or the robin in front of or on top of the nest box.  I used a microphone and a recorder to record whatever noises the adults were making during the trial.  Or visually…


I’ve already watched all of my videos and I’m processing the audio still.  Please note, I haven’t done any statistical analyses and this is all speculative.  My ideal expectations were that they would crouch in response to the grabbing predators (to avoid being grabbed out of the nest box), crouch in response to the robin and then resume normal behavior (because robins don’t eat baby birds or would have an interest in taking over a nest box), and they would crouch in response to the box penetrating predators unless they were close to leaving the nest anyway, in which case they would attempt to fledge (as a way of upping the odds of survival, twelve day old tree swallow+snake=bye bye baby, but eighteen day old tree swallow+snake=bye bye baby to the outside of the nest box, potentially).

My personal observations from watching 68 videos is that the trend in behavior is for the nestlings to crouch down in the nest and stop calling when they here a noise outside the nest box or the parents start calling.  However, this isn’t entirely consistent with all nest boxes. I had one box with the snake on top and the parent came to feed so the offspring all freaked out and started to beg.  I’ve had other boxes were the nestlings stop crouching and go back to hanging out in the line of sight, calling occasionally.  There were a couple of boxes where the nestlings did jump around, but I think it was because they heard the parents calling and thought they were about to be fed, not that they were trying to fledge.


The lack of the behaviors I expected for each predator type doesn’t mean the parents’ aren’t using changing their alarm call for the different predators.  Based on one study that documented Tree Swallow alarm calls, it appears that adults call more or less when different predators are present.  They’re also able to change the frequency of the shriek call , which can make it sound higher or lower.  Going through the spectrograms (visual representation of sound), I am seeing variation in the number of calls given at a time, how long a bird waits between calling, and some possible changes in frequency. But like I said, it’s still a work in progress and I haven’t run any formal analyses on anything, so everything is speculative so far.


 I’m planning to have everything analyzed, written, and defended so I can finally be a Master of Science by August.  Once everything is over and done, I’ll write a detailed blog post about the results I found (and my experience defending my thesis) and what they mean in a biological perspective.  Tree Swallow vocal repertoires haven’t been well categorized beyond two papers from the 90s and a study like mine hasn’t been done with Tree Swallows yet.  I think there’s potential for finding out some cool information about how the shriek alarm call is used in different situations and learning if other calls are incorporated (such as the anxiety call).  If you’d like a detailed post about Tree Swallows or bird noises sooner rather than later, let me know in the comments below and I’ll get to work on it. And as always, we can also chat in the comments about any questions/ideas you have. Catch y’all on the flippity flop!

Stay Frosty!


Fun filler post

I haven’t had the time to write a proper scientific post (i.e. I need to read papers to learn and confirm things) but I don’t want to lose the update at least once a week groove. So, I thought I would take the opportunity to flex the creative writing muscles and do a fun filler deal.  One of my favorite nursery rhymes is “Sing a Sing of Sixpence”, for mostly unknown reasons, probably about birds being baked into a pie.  It dates back to the 1700s and the origins are somewhat unknown.  I’ve decided to re-purpose it to be a somewhat parody about graduate school.  Here’s a link to the original verses for those unfamiliar. 
Sing a song of grad school,
A pocket full of why.
Four and twenty swallows,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
How is your thesis going,
When are you defending?!
The professors were in their offices
Deleting student emails;
The students were in their prison cells,
Wondering what their degree actually entailed.
Natalia was in the depot,
Scaring all the birds,
When down flew a mother swallow
To get on her last nerve 
A group text was sent out 
For whomever was near;
Let’s meet up at the local bar 
To chat and drink a round of beer 


As I’m getting read to defend my Master’s Thesis for August (come hell or high water), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my journey as a graduate student.  The road was paved with more bumps than I would have liked, and some of them could have been prevented entirely.   For me, it’s too late to go back and undo the choices I made, but maybe others can benefit from my hindsight.  I also made choices that were incredibly helpful to my graduate career, so I’m including them in the post as well.

Keep in mind that I’m in a smaller Master’s program at a university where research isn’t the end-all/be-all and the part of the biology program I’m in is more ecological/organismal than medical/cellular/microbiological.  I came from a similar minded undergraduate program but reversed in that it was more focused on getting people into the medical field.  TL;DR: Your results may vary depending on what you’re interested in and where you go to school 

  1. “Cold-calling” professors isn’t the only way to find space in a program 
    When I was looking for Master’s programs, my undergraduate advisor gave me the advice to look at the authors of papers I’ve read or to look up on ideas I’d like to work and see if a) the authors were professors and b) if they were at schools that had a Master’s program I would be interested in.  The next step was to then send them an email asking if they were currently accepting graduate students (if their website didn’t provide any information about it) and provide a background about my research interests/abilities and why I would like to be apart of their lab.  More often than not, I did not hear back from these emails.  Most of the people I did hear back from was a “you seem like a great student but I’m not taking on more graduate students at this time”.  What I didn’t realize is there are alternative ways to find potential programs.

    The Texas A&M Job Board has a section on it just for Graduate Assistanceships .  Another way I’ve found to learn about potential GAs is from my favorite list serve, Ecolog, you don’t even need to be apart of it find openings, the website archives all emails that are sent out every week.  I’m sure there are more places to look, but these are the two that I became familiar with this year from using them to look for jobs.  By finding an already active listing, you know that there is space available in a lab/program and can go into the application process with an idea of what kind of project you would be working on for your thesis.  There is likely to be more competition for these postings since any person can find them (versus emailing someone that isn’t actively advertising an open space in their lab) but at least this way you don’t need to worry about the professor not having space in their lab.

  2. Include a copy of the CV if you’re going to email the professor route
    When I was emailing professors, I would first check their website to see if they were currently accepting graduate students and if they had a specific way they wanted future students to contact them.  Unless otherwise specified, I did not include a copy of my CV.  Why?  I really don’t know, I included a blurb about my research experiences in the email so maybe that was my logic behind not sending a copy.  However, now I think that was pretty dumb of me.  Maybe I would have gotten more email responses if I had or more yes’s to lab space available if I included my CV, but I’ll never know.  I’ve changed though, now when I’m applying for jobs, I always attach a copy of my CV whether they ask for it or not.  Better safe than sorry.
  3. Don’t  use the same generic message for every person you email
    This was something I was told to avoid when emailing potential advisors and I’m glad I did. I observed firsthand that professors do not take kindly to generic copy/paste emails.  The emails I sent tended to follow the same format, but I made sure I personalized each one for its intended recipient with specific reasons why I wanted to work for their lab, what I liked about their research, and how I could fit into their lab.  I also had my undergraduate advisor read over some of them before I sent them to make sure that they read well and weren’t missing any information.
  4. Ask for the contact information of current graduate students if they are not listed on the professor’s website
    Current students’ opinions of their graduate advisor are important.  They will tell you things that the professor or the program website will not.  They will let you know about the professor’s advising style, level of involvement, and other their opinions of the program.  This is something I 1000% wish I had done before I made my decision but at the time was too naive to ask for because of reasons.
  5. Be clear in communication to your potential advisor about what your thesis project will be before you start your program (if at all possible)
    My thesis is not at all what I thought I would be doing, given my background information I provided my advisor and some of the past work that they have done.  While I am interested in behavior, I am really not interested in the vocal aspects of behavior (at least in the context of my thesis). When I was working with chickadees, I was able to hitch my interest horse to the referential alarm call wagon, but having to switch to Tree Swallows killed it. Don’t get stuck working on a project you have no passion for or true interest in.  It is the worst feeling in the world and getting the work done for it feels like a chore.  Working on a thesis isn’t always going to be daisies and sunshine (unless you’re studying plants and working with asters) but it shouldn’t be something you actively dread.
  6. Ask where the money is going to come from if you have to work over the summer
    Not all advisors have grants for their students to work off from to supplement their income over the summer.  Not all GAs pay enough to sustain you during the non-academic year. My GA waived 2/3s of my tuition and gave me a stipend that was enough to get by, but I only got paid during the academic year, not the summer.  I had to apply for grants so I could work over the summer when I was collecting data.  Luckily, I did receive a grant (and I also saved money during the semester) to help support me.  I also ended up working for another professor over the summer when I finished at my field site.  If I hadn’t received that grant, I’m not sure what I would have done for paying for all my gas (I was driving around 30 miles almost every day for about two months, plus making similar trips weekly before that) and paying rent and buying groceries.  I guess find a part time job or something but even that wouldn’t be guaranteed for me.
  7. Talk to other professors in the biology department
    I became close with two professors in my program and I am forever grateful for them. They were great role models and mentors to me.  They provided with with great advice and always had time for me.  They were even kind enough to be references for me for the jobs I apply to.  The other professors in my program were/are helpful too.  Since the biology department here is relatively small, I was able to get to know many of the professors whether I had them for a class or not.  I was comfortable approaching them and asking them for advice or their opinions.
  8. Consider tuition costs and benefits that come with your GA
    I should have listed this earlier but I thought of it after, and wordpress isn’t loving me trying to edit this numbered list.  Different schools offer different benefits for Master’s Students.  For my program, the GAs consist of 2/3s of the tuition waived and a stipend.  However, my program has different costs for in-state/out-of-state students, whether they’re graduates or undergraduates. I fell under the out-of-state category, so my tuition, even with 2/3s waived was higher.  Thankfully, there are payment plans, but even them I had an entire paycheck that was dedicated just to my monthly tuition payment (we get paid twice a month), and about half of the other went to rent/utilities.  There was a little bit left over for groceries, gas, textbooks, some car related costs, and a bit of cheap fun, but I am so so lucky I never ran into a big expenditure during the semesters (I waited until my last spring semester to buy my new laptop since I didn’t have to pay for classes, but even then I put it on my credit card to not have to pay it all off right away).  I also had help from my parents for a some things (like health insurance for example) but this isn’t always an option for everyone.  Money matters and keep that in mind.
  9. Make sure you have a good support system somewhere
    It isn’t the easiest being a graduate student- it can be really disheartening at times.  From experiments not panning out, to weather messing up your study, struggles with your thesis, issues with faculty members, *insert specific problem here*, it’s easy to fall into a black hole of despair with no end in sight.  I’m thankful for all my friends and professors that have helped me out during those times.  Having trusted friends, family, faculty, or even a mental health professional to help deal with frustrations/stress/anxiety/general bullshit is clutch.  I don’t know what I would have done without my friends here (and from at home + my undergrad) letting me vent to them about my problems.  My labmates especially were great because we were all going through similar problems so we were less alone in our issues.  And everyone is my program is super great for the most part- the ecology side is pretty close knit and generally all friends, so you always had the support of your fellow student.  My roommate/BFF was also a great resource because we could go on loud angry tangents about life to one another day or night.  You don’t need to carry your burden alone, if you need help, find help somewhere.  We all get stressed, we all have bad days, and having someone else to talk to or relate to is 10/10 would continue to have.
  10. You don’t need to go to graduate school right away
    This is really something I wish I considered when I was a senior in my undergrad.  But for a number of reasons, I saw graduate school as the only possible way for me. Now, I really wish I had  worked for a year or two after my undergrad to get more experience instead of jumping right into higher-er education.  Many people in my program worked for several years after their undergraduate before starting their Master’s and looking at their accomplishments and experiences makes me feel even worse about myself.  Truth time everyone*.  When I was a senior in my undergraduate I was afraid.  I was afraid I wasn’t good enough to work a job for anyone because I had limited field research experiences and most jobs out there for people with a BS are field tech positions. I have always been comfortable in a scholastic environment but I was afraid that I would never be good enough for any program.  I was afraid that even though I was sending out a lot of emails to a lot of different professors, I wouldn’t get into a Master’s program because I wasn’t smart enough (GRE, GPA), I didn’t have enough research experience, somehow the professors could see all my flaws over the email and instinctively avoid me.  My program was the only program that accepted me and that was one of the happiest day in my undergraduate career because it was validating to me that I could be enough.  Now though, knowing what I know and doing what I’ve done, I really should have taken the time off to work.  I’m leaving my program with a lot of great relationships with peers and faculty, some interesting courses, and research experience, but also with the worst burn-out I have ever felt in my life and serious reservations about what I thought my future would be.  Think long and hard before you make any major life choices and don’t be afraid to ask for advice about it.

I’m no expert in advice or making choices so I tried to keep this post general enough so that it could be broadly applicable. I hope this is useful to people, it wasn’t the easiest thing for me to write.  But, mistakes and hindsight provide good educational opportunities for everyone. If anyone else wants to contribute to this advice chain, leave it in the comments below because helping others is A-okay in my book.

Stay frosty!

Gossip Squirrel  Natalia

Continue reading

Literally the worst

Hello, it’s me again, Natalia the negligent science blogger.   The last time I posted here was April 7th, 2016 and now it’s June 7th, 2017.  If it wasn’t for my cousin creeping on my twitter page and coming across my blog, and then telling me she enjoyed reading it, I probably would have forgot writing on this was something I did.  So, for you Dana (and for the benefit of practicing my written communication skills and because sharing science on the world wide web is also a good thing) I’m going to make a solid effort to bring back the Natalia Does Science blog.

Much has changed since the last time I wrote here.  My thesis bird changed from Carolina Chickadees to Tree Swallows.  I’m no longer a real student- my coursework is done so I just need to work on getting my thesis defended.  And now I’m in the extra fun position of looking for a real job.  I could probably also write a blog dedicated to those three topics, and probably will do so in the future.  I also have a son now, he is the most handsome and hard to photograph boy in the world- I wouldn’t trade him for anything.

So my son is fish.  He’s the best son I could ever ask for and one day when I have a real job I will buy him a bigger tank (he’s in a 5 gallon) so he can explore until his heart’s content.  And I’ll probably give him a dedicated post with information about betta fish care (they don’t belong in unheated vases!!!).  With that, I’m going to end this update of my life and get to working on “real” blog posts about the birds and whatnot that I hope this blog will continue to focus around.  I’ll try to keep with a minimum of a once a week update, if I’m more ambitious (read that as have more free time) I’ll write more posts and see if I can’t get them to self publish at different times during the week.

Stay frosty!



I’m relevant, I swear!

I’m a bad science blogger.  I said I was going to post once a week and was sticking to it pretty well.  Then I had a busy week, and then another.  And now almost one month later, here I am.  But I’m ready to get back on the blogging wagon.  Biotweeps asked “What questions are you commonly asked about your work and/or interests?” on twitter (definitely read the replies to the tweet).  This is a  topic near and dear to my heart, I come from non-scientific stock and consequently get a lot of questions about my work.

The three questions I get asked the most are:

  1. So do you catch the birds with a butterfly net?
  2. How will your research benefit me?
  3. Why don’t you call home more often?

The answer to number three is the easiest to give: Sorry mom, I get busy and focus on the task at hand, plus the phone works both ways.  The answer to number one is also fairly easy: Hahaha, that’s only the tenth time you’ve asked me that *eye twitch*.  We actually catch birds using mist nets- they’re mesh net that the birds fly into and get tangled up, and I remove them to take measurements.  No running around here! The answer the question number two, it’s something that doesn’t come as easy as sassy reply to my mom or a rehearsed speech about my field work.  It’s an answer that has changed over time.

When I was younger, relatively speaking-I’m talking my first two years of college, my answer to “How will your research benefit me” reflected my immaturity.  It used to be a rather flippant “Oh it isn’t” accompanied with a snarky smile.  And really, that wasn’t a good way to answer the question.  I feel like scientists don’t always have the greatest rep with the public- some people think we’re weirdos stuck in the lab all down babbling jargon like no one’s business and looking down on all the other non-scientists.  So a smarmy non-answer to an important question isn’t really doing much to improve how the public views scientists.  Posing the answer in a stand-offish joking sort of way was also a defense- even I wasn’t sure how my research would benefit anyone, and I would rather make a joke and come off looking ass-ish than get caught with my pants down trying to piece together an answer I didn’t have.

But, like a fine wine (or a cheap wine if you’re a broke grad student like myself) I matured in the last two years of my undergrad. My interests were behavioral and I did feather work, so I tried to make my answer about how knowing more about life history is important!  Scientists want to know more about the world around us, which is a good benefit, and yeah, that’s what I’m doing with birds!  For my feather work, I was trying to convey the message that feathers could be used to indicate the health of the bird, which is good for the birds! (Although of you read about my feather work, you know that isn’t the case exactly)  Still, I wasn’t really answering the question, I was still giving non-answers. This time at least I was trying to convey to people why my research was important to the bird community.  I still couldn’t think of benefits to a non-scientific community, but at least I was trying to teach people instead of acting like a prick.

My newest iteration of the answer to “How will your research benefit me?”  is based on something a new graduate student uses to answer that question himself.  We were talking about getting questions from non-scientific/non-ecologist family members about why what we do is important and why we do what we do. Part of his answer was something along the lines of “My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know”.  I liked that because that’s a line that’ll turn heads and encourage people to ask questions to learn more.  Based on his answer, as well as what I’ve learned since entering the scientific field has lead to this answer:

My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know. Birds play an important role in the environment: they spread seeds, maintain insect/rodent populations, we eat them, they can indicate changes in habitat, and they have cultural/spiritual/emotional value.  While you may not be getting any direct benefits from my work on birds, what I do now may help other scientists in the future.  Knowing how a bird lives and what it does now is valuable for comparisons to be made to future populations.  If their behavior or habits change in the future, what I did may aid in determining the factors that caused the change (climate, human activities, etc.).  

I finally have an answer to “How will your research benefit me?”.  In  my head, I want to include  more details about the ecological impacts that birds have and more ways that changes will impact people if bird change, but brevity is the soul of having people not lose focus halfway through a explanation.  The answer is also open enough and hits number of points, so people have opportunities to ask more questions depending on what they’re interested in.  Obviously, my answer may change again as I go further along in my career.  My research interests may change or I may switch to studying another organism.  At least now I have a good framework to answer an important question and that engages with the non-scientist public.

How do you answer  “How will your research benefit me?” when people ask?


An unusual fear of cows

I grew up in the  suburbs of Long Island, where the largest animals we had wandering around were dogs on leashes and it got as wild as a rare sighting raccoon in the backyard (which thankfully, I never encountered).  My upbringing was not really outdoorsy or rural or nature based.  Which means, I was not really exposed to farm animals or wild animals, outside of petting zoo/real zoo situations.

My biggest issue was an irrational fear of raccoons, which (in theory) I am over now.  I heard coyotes for the first time last fall, and while they sound scary, I was assured that they do not mess with people.  There are venomous snakes in Kentucky, but I’m not going to be poking around in snake habitat, nor do I plan on going herping alone or any time soon for that matter.  I have a general distrust of the great apes and most species of monkey, but that’s because I’ve seen what they can do to people when they’re kept in a captive situation, when people get too close, or they figured out how to exploit humans.  Unless I run into Sasquatch at my field site, primates will not be an issue.  Really, there are not that many animals I’m afraid of or that make me nervous.  That was why I did not think cows would be an issue for me.  As it turns out, I really really really do not like cows.

Whenever I see cows on TV, it’s usually the bulls used in Professional Bull Riding circuit that are trying to go after their rider or it’s a mother cow going after ranchers or vets because they touched her baby or it’s a dairy cow kicking out while it’s getting milked. Cows have and will continue to be on the list of animals I do not want to get up close and personal with.  I did not ever think I’d have to be around cows without a fence between us. Nor did I think I would ever be afraid of them. How wrong I was.

The first time I had a run-in with cows was at one of my bird watching spots, Taylor Fork.  Taylor Fork is  60 acres of old pastureland with fencerow strips of trees and small patches of woods and canebrakes, fenced off.  On the outside of the fence is pasture to graze cattle on, and you have to drive down the road in the pasture to get to Taylor Fork.  I’ve driven by the cows (I think they’re technically steers/heifers based on their size) before with no issue.  That all changed when the fire nation attacked  I finished bird watching one day.  There they were, surrounding my car and starting a ruckus with the cows in the field next to them.  Remember, that I am a child of the suburbs, and cows were foreign territory to me, other than what I had seen on TV (which painted cows in a rather unflattering light).  I could not sneak around to the driver’s side, there was a cow there.  There was also a cow near the trunk of my car as well.  How I wish I knew how to read cattle behavior as a left the safety of Taylor Fork and slunk towards my passenger side door.  How I wish I could run faster if a cow attacked.  How I wish there were no cows here.  I did safely make it into my car, and after some horn honking accompanied by slowly driving at them, the cows parted so I could make a hasty retreat out. But on that day, the seed of my cow fear was sown.

Soon after my first run-in, it was winter break and I went back to the cow-free suburbs of Long Island.  I thought I was done with having to deal with cows, when I arrived back at school the cows outside of Taylor Fork were gone (spoiler alert, they’re back now and even more into cars).  Then, I went out to my field site of the first time. As it turns out, it also grazes cattle, even more than at Taylor Fork.  It also has calves of various ages (which means protective mother cows), and as I recently discovered after driving by one of the cows last week, it also runs bulls. Luckily most of the cattle are polled, whether naturally or artificially.  That cuts down on my chances of being gored, I guess.

Unfortunately for me, the cows are free to graze around three of my feeders (I haven’t even thought of the nest boxes yet).  They also do not give a flying fart about moving when confronted by cars.  I know this because I had to drive in reverse down one of the roads until I got to a spot where I could turn around because a herd of cows refused to move.  The cows are also unafraid of honking cars or people yelling “Get away from me you stupid cow, my feeder is back there” while waving their arms and will approach anyway.  I know this because that was my Saturday.  Thankfully, the cows are generally not near my feeders, although I had a tense (in my mind) encounter filling up a feeder with an older calf nearby mooing for its mama in the field next to us.

I’m not sure how grounded in reality my fear of cows is.  It could just be like the raccoon situation, a completely irrational fear, based on perception bias.  Or it could be 100% super realistic and cows are blood thirsty creatures, ready to charge at any given moment plausible, and I should careful working around them.  This fear will have to be conquered.  I’ll be working at my field site for all of the spring and most of the summer,  and the cows are inevitable.  Still, I cannot wait for the day when the closest I’ll have to be to a cow is when they’re served medium-rare on plate or there’s a sturdy fence between us.  Anyone have any tips on how to get cows to moove it?


How I got into birds (Part 2)

Sorry for not posting for the past couple of weeks!  I had my thesis proposal defense and then the week after that other assorted school work that took priority.  My defense went well, the assorted school work is done for the most part (there’s always more)  and now some time has opened up for me to continue writing.


When I last left off in How I got into birds (Part 1)  I was unaware that I could actually pursue a career working with birds.  That revelation to me came after a mandatory freshmen seminar event.  At this event, all the professors in the biology department were presenting their research interests and projects as well as past and current projects they conducted with undergraduates.  No one caught my interest at first, I’m an organismal/behavioral/ecological kind of gal, and the bulk of biology department at The University of Scranton are of a  micro/cell/molecular/neuro biological persuasion.  Then the man that would eventually be assigned as my academic advisor presented.

Dr. Smith was one of the two bird guys in the biology department (now he’s just the one) but the only one that was accepting research students.  His research interests focused a lot around migration and stop-over ecology, but he also researched Catbirds and had worked with feathers in the past.  His research students were also the ones that prepared bird study skins.  I was sold and would have started to research with him right then and there.  However, I was terrified to talk to Dr. Smith, and it wasn’t until he was assigned to be my academic advisor that my research under him began.

I was most interested in feather coloration so together, we developed a project looking into the coloration of Common Yellowthroat tail feathers  (read about it here).  That study lasted three semesters, and once it was over I had a pseudo study to accompany an independent study course in R I was enrolled in.  The “goal” was to see if there were differences in condition (fat score and mass) by age and sex in fall migrants- if I remember correctly.  The actual goal was to write my own R code and trouble shoot issues on my own and run a successful analysis.  Researching with Dr. Smith also allowed me to assist at his field site- data recording and eventually removing birds from mist nests as well as get a taste for the less than exciting aspects of being a scientist- like data entry and scanning feathers until my eyes bled (though the latter is my own doing).

I came out of the lab know I wanted to research, I wanted to do behavior/ecology, and I probably want to do study birds* for my Master’s degree.  Although it’s different than what I imagined it would be, I don’t regret my decision for a second because the birds make it worth it.





*I had an awesome entomology internship for two summers so I was applying to Master’s programs for bird work or insect work



How I got into birds (Part 1)

A little late, but I will keep up my promise of one post a week.  I have a post in the pipeline that I cannot wait to write but I’m busy for the next two weeks.  I have my thesis proposal defense a week from today and then after that my cousins are visiting me for a week (and I have two exams that week as well).  The post I want to write requires me to do some research, and I don’t have the extra time to devote to it at the moment.  So for this week, I will do a cop-out post.  I was challenged by one of my friend’s a couple weeks ago to do the Facebook post a nature photo every day for a week challenge.  I told the story of how I got into birds for it with each picture I posted, so I’m retelling the story here, with more detail.  I love when scientists talk about how they got into their respective fields, so I hope you’ll enjoy my tale.

Birds were in my periphery for the first sixteen years of my life.  Growing up (and still present day) my grandma kept many bird feeders in her backyard, because she loved looking at birds.  I spent a lot of my childhood at my grandparents’ house, so I would watch the birds when they were there.  I was an animal lover (still am) so I liked the birds.  My grandma had an old Peterson that I would occasionally look at because it was a book with animals in it. My childhood was filled with reading animal books and watching Animal Planet back when it was good.  Birds were animals, I loved animals, therefore birds were okay in my book.  Birds were elevated from the okay status when I entered high school.

My freshmen year of high school, I had my first ever dedicated biology course.  It was love at first sight.  After a disastrous year in Earth Science, biology was a breath of fresh air.  It had felt like I had found my niche.  The experience I had my freshmen year in biology inspired me to take AP biology my junior year.  This is where the birds began.  My AP Bio teacher, Mr. R, was an enthusiastic, younger guy, who unfortunately was tasked with teaching advanced placement biology at 8:00 am to a bunch of half-dead juniors and seniors.  I loved AP biology just as much as I loved biology my freshmen year.  I sat up front, dead center in front of Mr. R, in order to stay awake and focus on the lecture.

Like most teachers, Mr. R would inevitably talking about himself a little bit. One of the things he talked about the most was his love for birds and bird watching.  Mr. R was not your casual Sunday birder, he was a birding beast.  Traveling around Long Island to see all these different birds, going birding while at different teaching conferences, competing with other teachers at the school to get the most species.  He was super into birding y’all.  I’ll be honest now, in high school I loved talking to my teachers before class and interacting with them outside of class.  And I really wanted to talk to Mr. R, he taught biology, I thought he was super cool, and since no one in my family or my friends were  science/animal oriented like I was, I was craving interactions with people like me.  So, I asked Mr. R about getting into birding.  I’m sure he told me places close by to go and things of that nature, but I can’t remember the specifics.

The first time I went birding for real was in April.  I woke up really early, woke my mom up really early so she could drive me, and off we went.  The location we went to was a small state park close to my house.  I may or may not have had binoculars, and I definitely didn’t own a field guide at that point, but I did have a camera.  I have pictures of that day of  mostly waterfowl (Mallards, Canadian Geese, and Mute Swans), sea gulls, and a robin. By my present day standards, that was not a great birding day, however young Natalia enjoyed it a lot.  The birding continued.  My parents had found binoculars in the basement for me to use and I purchased a Peterson’s Guide to birds of the East Coast.  My main birding spot was another state park near my house, Sunken Meadow.  It had  forest, river, marsh, and beach habitats, and plenty of birds.  I really cut my egg tooth there so to speak.  Every time I went out, I made lists of everything I saw in whatever notebooks or paper scraps I took with me.  I became proficient at identifying the local birds so I could tell my mom with confidence a just a smidgen of superiority, “That’s a Great Egret Mom, not a Snow Egret”.  In high school, birding was my hobby.  I was unaware that I could actually make birds my life until college…which I’ll cover in Part 2, next week.


Sunrise at Sunken Meadow

Throwback Thursday

My #1 passion (at this point in my scientific career) and probably what I want to dedicate the rest of my life to, is feather coloration and how birds use it- whether to be for sexual selection, to determine dominance, to mimic other birds.  Well really, mostly just sexual selection, and also couple the feathers with courtship rituals and I just about die and go to heaven. Anyway!   Although I am doing work with vocalizations and behavior in my graduate degree, in my undergrad I had the opportunity to have my own feather research project.  Since it will be Thursday by the time this will be posted, and Throwback Thursday is a thing, this post is dedicated to my past research.  It will also serve as a gateway for future feather posts.

Feathers can tell us a lot about the bird.  In many species, males and female have different feather colors.


Female and Male Northern Shovelers.  In many species that have sexual dichromatism, the male is the more colorful of the two.

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 Wilson’s Phalarope, females on the left, male on the right.  But plot twist! In some species, the females are the brightly colored ones.

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In all bird species, plumage can indicate the age of the bird to some degree. In some species, the age is blatantly obvious because birds of different ages will have different colored plumage.  In other species, not so much, there’s always skulling to be sure, but we’re talking about feathers here!  And I have never actually learned how to age based on the skull ossification so….:(


This is an adult male Red-winged blackbird. Definitely after hatch year (AHY) but possibly even older.

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This is a hatch year (HY) Red-winged Blackbird. Their plumage looks like that of the female. This makes them less likely to be attacked by an older male defending his territory (I think).

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One of the things I think is coolest about feather coloration is that in some cases, it can indicate the health of the bird, and therefore indicate quality as a potential mate! This is because  important bio-molecules called carotenoids.  Carotenoids are a pigment molecule that is produced in plants, specifically  in the chloroplasts. They are responsible for the reds, the yellows, and the oranges we see.  Carotenoids cannot be synthesized by birds, so in order for a bird to have all that beautiful red, orange, and yellow plumage, they either need to eat plants or eat insects which have been eating plants with carotenoids.

But before birds can get all those gorgeous feathers, they must allocate carotenoids for the greater good- their immune system. Carotenoids are used in the immune system to aid in activating the immune system to fight off illness.  Specifically, they stimulate effector T-cell function, enhance macrophage and cytotoxic T-cells, and stimulate T and B lymphocyte multiplication.  They also help get rid of free radicals that the birds produce from metabolic function.  Basically, carotenoids rally the troops whenever disease and parasites rear their ugly head in birds.  If a bird is getting enough carotenoids in it’s diet, it can allocate the excess to coloring their feathers up.


These two birds are both male House Finches, however the one on the left was kept on a diet that restricted carotenoid intake, while the one on the right was not. 

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In many species of birds, carotenoid coloration in the feathers can be used to determine how healthy a bird is.  This can be done by measuring the brightness, saturation, and hue of a feather (you could also extract and measure the amount of carotenoid in the feather, but that’s chemist territory).  Usually, the higher and saturated hue of a feather, the greater the carotenoid content.  I should also mention that in order to make comparisons between the feather traits and health of a bird, or feather traits and amount of carotenoids in the feathers, tests of immune health or pigment extraction occur.  Showing off how healthy you are is important for males. If a male bird is healthy enough to use carotenoids to color up his feathers he’ll be a more attractive mate; he may have better genes that help keep him healthier, he may be an optimal forager with a territory full of food, or the feathers look appealing to the lady bird’s eye.  Super cool stuff right?

My research project was assessing variability in feather coloration by gender and indices of immune function in Common Yellowthroats captured in  North Eastern Pennsylvania.  That’s quite a mouthful of scientific jargon, isn’t it?  Let’s break it down.

Assessing variability=Looking for differences

Feather coloration= Brightness, Saturation, and Hue

Gender= Male and Female

Indices of Immune Function= Amount of white blood cells in a blood sample

 Common Yellowthroats captured in  North Eastern Pennsylvania= My advisor had all these feathers/blood cell counts on hand from the past and his study site is in Pennsylvania and I wanted to do feather work so…


Yellowthroats, party of two?

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 The objective of this study was to test the hypothesis that carotenoid pigmentation in feathers is influenced by age, gender and immune function in Common Yellowthroats.  We did not have bib feathers, which are known to correlate with immune function.  However we did have tail feathers.   The rectrice feathers feathers of the Common Yellowthroat are colored by carotenoids (one called lutein) and melanins (brown/black/grey pigments the birds produce themselves).  Luckily for me, the feathers had already been pulled from the birds and some birds had a blood slide made for them with the numbers and types of white blood cells counted.  Eighty hours of feather scanning with a spectrometer, a run through Spectra Suite and Colour Analysis Program, and some data crunching in SPSS we had our results!  And they were not what we were expecting.  I should also note that we ended up including keel and fat score in our results because they had some interesting relationships with feather coloration.

Contrary to our original hypothesis, our measures of immune function did not appear to affect any of the feather coloration variables.  We found that male rectrix feathers were brighter than female rectrices and that female rectrix feathers were more saturated than males. One hypothesis is that females have darker tail feathers to minimize predator attraction while incubating and males utilize brighter tail feathers as a secondary ornament (in addition to mask and bib attributes) to display health and/or individual quality.  The results relating fat score to brightness (positive) are in line with the hypothesis that brightness may signal individual quality. Birds in better energetic condition grew brighter feathers. Further, the fact that males were brighter than females suggests that brightness in rectrix feathers may also be involved in female choice.  The negative association between keel score and brightness was unexpected. There is some evidence that accumulation of carotenoid pigments at levels needed for pigmentation of thousands of contour feathers in goldfinches exerts long-term stress and contributes to skeletal muscle breakdown , which we may be seeing evidence of in Common Yellowthroats (probs not though, I had a sample size of 35 birds and one had a keel score of one [which is bad] which probably caused the brightness/keel score relationship significance).

While I was initially disappointed with my results, mostly because I wanted my first project to have super cool super exciting super awesome feather world changing results, I accepted them in the end.  Not every scientific endeavor will shake the world with might.  Some just get your foot in the door for what you’re interested in, which is what happened in my case.  And with that, I will end this #ThrowBackThursday post.  I believe I’ve babbled enough about what I love, I need to save my babble for future posts.  Until next time!

If you’re super interested in carotenoid coloration after reading this, here are some of the papers I read when I was first learning about it and later used for my research project:

Faris, M. H. Determination and Quantitation of Carotenoids in Setophaga riticulla Deathers. MA thesis. University of Scranton, 2011. Print.

Guzy, M.J. and G. Ritchison. 1999. Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas), The Birds of North America Online (A. Poole, Ed.). Ithaca: Cornell Lab of Ornithology; Retrieved from the Birds of North America Online

Hatch MI, R.J. Smith, J.C. Ownes (2009). “Arrival timing and hematological parameters in Gray Catbirds (Dumetella carolinensis)”. Journal of Ornithology 151.3: 545-52. Print.

Hill, G. E. (1990). “Female house finches prefer colourful males: sexual selection for a condition-dependent trait.” Animal Behaviour 40(3): 563-572.

Hill, G. E. and W. R. Brawner, (1998). “Melanin–based plumage coloration in the house finch is unaffected by coccidial infection.” Proceedings of the Royal Society of London. Series B: Biological Sciences 265.1401: 1105-1109.

Huggins, K.A., K.J. Navara, M.T. Mendonça, and G.E. Hill. (2010). “Detrimental Effects of Carotenoid Pigments: The Dark Side of Bright Coloration.” Naturwissenschaften 97.7: 637-44. Print.

McGraw, K. J. (2006). “Mechanics of carotenoid-based coloration”. Bird Coloration: Mechanisms and Measurements. G. E. Hill and K. J. McGraw.eds. Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 177-242.

Montgomerie, R. (2006). “Analyzing colors”. Bird Coloration: Mechanisms and Measurements. G. E. Hill and K. J. McGraw.eds. Cambridge, Harvard University Press: 1

77-242 Montgomerie R, (2008). CLR: Colour Analysis Programs v1.02 ed. Queen’s University, Kingston, ON, Canada. Ocean Optics. (2007) Spectrasuite Spectrometer Operating software.

Pyle, P. Identification Guide to North American Birds. Bolinas (Calif.): Slate Creek, 1997. Print.

Saks, L., K. McGraw, and P. Horak (2003). “How feather colour reflects its carotenoid content.” Functional Ecology 17.4: 555-561

Smith, R. J. and F. R. Moore (2005). “Arrival timing and seasonal reproductive performance in a long-distance migratory landbird.” Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology 57: 231-239.

Smith, R.J. and M.I. Hatch (2008). “A Comparison of shrub dominated and forested habitat use by spring migrating landbirds in Northeastern Pennsylvania” The Condor 110.4: 682-93. Print.

Tarof, S.A., P. O’Dunn, and L.A. Whittingham (2005). “Dual functions of a melanin-based ornament in the common yellowthroat”. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 272.1568: 1121-127.Print.

A foray into the Carolina Chickadee

Since I will spending the next year and a half or so eating, breathing, sleeping, and eventually becoming a Carolina Chickadee…I mean a person with a Master’s Degree, I feel like laying down some knowledge on my study species is important.  Inevitably, the Carolina Chickadee will be a dominant topic here, so might as well get started with them before I start to grow to resent them (kidding).

So what do Carolinas look like? Below is the majestic Carolina Chickadee…


…on Opposite Day.  The photo above is actually of a Black-capped Chickadee I saw when I was back home on Long Island.  The Carolina Chickadee is pictured below. I promise.


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Or at least one of them is the Carolina Chickadee.  The other is a Black-Capped.  But which one is which!?  Obviously, quite obviously, the Carolina is the one of the right.  Y’all can see the differences, right?  RIGHT?  Maybe a photo would be easier to spot the differences…


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…actually yeah, this is much better now.  As you can see, the Carolina Chickadee (right) is like ten times more cute.  They can also see through titanium safes, determine how to split the bill and tip at a restaurant without a calculator when dining out with friends, and are experts in claw to bill combat (source).  Super bad ass birds.

All jokes aside.  Chickadees are BABs. But before we get to the super cool bits (later posts y’all), I’m going to lay down the foundations of the Carolina.  A good foundation makes for a strong house, a strong house for the additional chickadee facts.  Plus I cannot reveal all their secrets in one go, it’s not what they want.  So let’s keep it to the basics for now.

The Carolina Chickadee (Poecile carolinensis, family: Paridae) is a charismatic backyard bird found in the south-eastern portion of the United States.


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They prefer a forested habitat, filled with tree holes and snags. This is because they’re secondary cavity nesters, meaning that they build their nests in tree cavities made by other birds.  Luckily for me, they’ll also nest in artificial cavities (aka bird boxes) placed near treed areas.  The forests also need to have a healthy shrub, midstory, and overstory layer.  This is because they’re acrobats, foraging acrobats.  The Carolina Chickadees bips and bops around on trees and their ilk looking for insects and spiders.  When times are lean, like in the winter, seeds and fruits become their staple food source.  Carolinas will also cache their food in branches, trunks, and dead leaves.  By having a secret stash of food, they can help build up their fat stores even more.



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The Carolina Chickadee is a plucky little bird.    In the winter they fight each other for territory and for access to bird feeders, in breeding season they defend the their breeding territories and of course the for the ladies (oo-la-la).They also fight for dominance within the flock (which relates back to breeding opportunities).  Chickadees will also mob predators, taking short rapid flights at them while giving off an alarm call (here’s a nice video example  it’s Black-cappeds though).  How gutsy is that?

Speaking of gutsy, did I mention that they sing?  The Carolina Chickadee has at least 35 different song types consisting of high and low frequency notes.  An individual bird may have 12 different types that it uses for different functions (fighting, learned, for the ladies).  The song is not my jimmy jam though, my colleague Laura Jessup (her site) will be looking more into that.  My jimmy jam is the call, which is even more super cool (sorry Laura).  The call from whence the the chickadee is named, the chick-a-dee call serves a variety of purposes much like the song.  The most coolest part is the fact that it serves as a referential alarm call.  This means that the call encodes information about the predator in it for other birds to interpret.  The number of dees encode predator size while the call rate determines how dangerous a predator is.  These two aspects are what I’ll be looking at in my thesis, as well as their offspring’s responses to these calls (my thesis will get post at some point).


So ugly, it’s kind of precious.

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Speaking of offspring, let’s talk babies.  Carolina Chickadees are socially monogamous, meaning that they only have one partner in the breeding season.  Often times, they’ll keep the partner around for awhile, like 2 years or more, which is a long time for a song bird.  Pairs form in the non-breeding season, August to February and the eggs are laid in late March to April.  The eggs are laid in cavities, and the nest is lined with fur and fibers.  The eggs are a white in color with caramel colored speckles and splotches and usually six eggs are laid.  Mrs. Chickadee incubates the eggs for 12-15 days before the chippy chirping of baby birds is heard.  Both parents feed the young and 16-19 days post hatching, the young are finally ready to leave the nest and start life independent of their parents.  Out in the real world, the fledings will have new dangers.  In the nest cavity, they had to worry about getting eat by Red-bellied woodpeckers, raccoons, opossums, cats, rat snakes, and hostile take-overs from House Wrens.  Outside, a variety of predatory birds (hawks, owls, kestrels) and cats are on the look-out for some chickadinner.


Plz the nest cavity 4 me

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And this, dear readers was a brief, just under 1000 word foray into the Carolina Chickadee. Eventually, you’ll learn more about the Carolina Chickadee than you ever though possible since the groundwork has been laid.  If you want to learn more about the Carolina Chickadee but can’t wait for me to post again, drop a question in the comments!  Until next time, chick-a-dee-dee-dee-dee!