Spring 2013 URSP Participant Jessica Magnotti:
I have always been curious of animals and the way they communicate, but birds completely fascinate me. This passion, along with my love of science and medicine, has led me to work towards becoming an avian veterinarian. You can imagine my excitement when I learned there is an ornithologist at George Mason, Dr. Luther. After learning of his research with urban bird communication, I met Dr. Luther and we began discussing the possibility of a collaborative research project.
Birds of the same species that live in different areas will sing slightly different songs, similar to the way that people from other countries speak different languages. In the presence of man-made noise such as traffic and construction, birds have been found to alter their songs. What this project will look at is whether birds living in rural areas will be able to differentiate a city bird’s song in the presence of certain levels of noise. I will also attempt to find out if rural birds will favor the city bird’s song and possibly mimic their sound.
I hope to continue conducting research on birds in veterinary school so this experience is of great value to me. While working on this project I am becoming familiar with important aspects of research including experimental design, working in the field, and preparing/submitting a paper for publication in a peer-reviewed journal.
A typical week usually starts with waking up early to find the birds. Birds tend to be most vocal around sunrise so this is when I head out into the field. I also spend quite a bit of time searching for papers in peer-reviewed journals on similar experiments. This is an important part of research because new information may affect my experiment.
One thing I discovered this week is that birds are curious. While observing a singing cardinal, I wondered what he would do if I whistled his song back at him. To my surprise, the cardinal moved to tree branches closer to where I was standing. While I whistled he tilted his head to the side as if to get a better look at what I was doing, and then, he whistled back! I suppose he decided I wasn't a threat because he flew away after a few minutes of whistling back and forth. I always assumed that a wild animal would either flee or ignore me if I tried to get their attention, so to see this wild bird observe me as well as vocalize back was a really thought-provoking experience.