For the birds
An undergrad researcher heads south for the winter break
Miles Walz-Salvador demonstrates the "photographer" hold on an Adelaide's Warbler. By holding the bird with the legs close to the body, risk of injury to the animal is minimized. Photos courtesy of Miles Walz-Salvador.
While some students relaxed between semesters, Miles Walz-Salvador found himself in a forest holding a loudly squawking Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo. The bird is not found anywhere else in the world. Walz-Salvador banded the cuckoo, recorded information, then released his feathered charge.
Walz-Salvador, a sophomore in forestry and fisheries and wildlife, joined a trip to the Guánica Dry Forest Reserve with a group of graduate students and Professor John Faaborg from the MU Avian Ecology Lab. The undergraduate researcher spent two weeks capturing, measuring and banding birds. Researchers use the bands to trace birds from year to year, determine survival rates and gather other information.
“By marking these birds over a long period of time, we measure how survival rates might change given different aspects of rainfall,” Faaborg says. Faaborg began studying birds in Guánica in 1972. Guánica is home to a number of birds found only in Puerto Rico, and it is also a wintering place for many North American birds.
Walz-Salvador, recipient of an Undergraduate Mentoring Environmental Biology (UMEB) scholarship, previously studied the summer breeding grounds of migratory birds with mentor Andrew Cox, a doctoral candidate in biological sciences. Faaborg and Cox thought the opportunity to study wintering grounds naturally fit.
Miles Walz-Salvador holds a Puerto Rican Lizard-Cuckoo. The bird, found only in Puerto Rico, is named for its main dietary staple: lizards.
Each day, the six-member group would split into three teams of two. The teams would string nets and then spend the day sitting about 50 feet away and checking every 20 minutes for captures. Just before sunset at 6 p.m., they would furl the nets. The number of birds Walz-Salvador handled daily varied considerably — from six to 25. In between catches, he read or chatted with a colleague.
Walz-Salvador says the experience outweighed the long days and slow pace. He plans to pursue a graduate degree in science. Faaborg says that offering undergraduates a chance to participate in research can make a huge difference in such decisions.
“I think it’s a way to get them hooked on the science so that they can see it’s interesting, that it’s fun and it’s a viable career,” says Faaborg. “They can go out and find out how the world works and, hopefully, help save it.”