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! 

Nat does science, the rebirth

I remember long ago when  I started this blog, with intents to write every week about the science I do and articles that interest me.  Posts every week, well written, scientific but fun.  There was so much hope in that first blog post, so much promise for the future, and then I promptly got busy and forgot.  #MyBad

Now though, I have more time in my schedule- it’s the beginning of the semester, my course load and teaching requirements aren’t too bad, and my field season hasn’t started yet.  In theory, I should be able to dedicate myself to posting at least once a week. In practice, we’ll see how that works once the year starts to pick up.  For now though, some sort of post, every week.

A more-science orientated post will happen later this week.  For now a brief update on Nat, because she is doesing science.  I graduated from the University of Scranton  in May 2015 with a B.S. in Biology.  I inquired to and applied to various graduate programs, was accepted at Eastern Kentucky University, and now I’m living in Richmond, pursuing a Master’s of Science in Biology.  My thesis will be looking into the vocal/behavioral responses of adult and nestling Carolina chickadees to perceived predation risks.  My thesis will definitely be getting a dedicated post (and probably several more after that) at some point in the near future, perhaps after I defend my  proposal.

Natalia does science!

Is the first post always the hardest?  I have been brainstorming ideas of how to start for almost a week; do I introduce myself, go straight for the science, pretty pictures?  For some reason, trying to come up with something to put my foot in the door of blogging on WordPress (I’ve used blogger before, but WP seems much more official) has been a challenge.  I think the logical place to start with is my name.

My name is Natalia Maass.  Like it?  My parents gave it to me for my birthday.  I’m from New York, Long Island born and raised.  I am currently attending the University of Scranton, pursuing a B.S. in biology on track to graduate in 2015.  After that I’ll be going to graduate school…somewhere..doing something…researching…for science.  I have many interests; courtship, conversation, ecology, reproduction morphology, mate choice…the list goes on.  For now, let’s ignore what I’m doing with my future, (because that’s what I’ve been doing) and talk about my present science.

At The U* I research with Dr. Robert Smith, my advisor/inspiration/all around great guy.  He is a behavioral ecologist and most of his research is related to bird migration, stopover ecology, and catbirds. For my sophomore and junior years, I need research on Common Yellowthroats, an adorable species of warbler that is a migrant to NEPA. My project was the assessing variability in feather coloration by gender and indices of immune function or more simply, I was interested in if the coloration of tail feathers  were indicators of the birds gender and health.  Long story short for my results: tail feathers cannot do this.  For the long story, check out the poster linked below I made for The U’s celebration of student scholars.  As for my senior year, I am not sure what my research will entail.


My other research focus is on bee flies.  For the summers of 2013 and 2014 I interned for Dr. Michelle Trautwein, fly phylogeneticist/awesome boss/granter of amazing opportunities. Michelle’s research is in evolutionary relationships of flies, including the noble and understudied bee fly.  I did not do any work with evolutionary relationships (not exactly my interest), instead I became extremely good at fly identification.  My internship with her is somewhat of a funny story.  Spring of 2013 I applied to an internship at the Museum of Natural Sciences and didn’t hear back, but I had found out she was interested in my application.  A couple emails later, I’m going to Raleigh for the summer to identify bee flies, not knowing what a bee fly is and having zero entomological experience.

That changed by the end of the summer.  In 2013 I identified bee flies from North America, Chile, Argentina, and a couple from Madagascar.  2013 I had indentifed a new species from Madagascar and started a paper on it!  It still isn’t published (we’re working on it) but when it is, I will post it here.  2014 I came back to identify more bee flies from Madagascar, and that has resulted in a possible eight new flies (potentially even more).  I can’t give you anything concrete yet, but hopefully we have many many new species.

I now conclude my first post here on Natalia Does Science. This is just the basics of what I do and my science.  I’m sure over time I’ll write more about my life and adventures (including my first trip below the Equator!) in the crazy world of science.  I leave you with my new favorite photograph of myself, please admire  the majesty and wanna be entomologist nature.

*The U is the hip term for the University of Scranton