Wednesday, August 3, 2016

URSP Student Highlights: Anna McLernon

Hi there! My name is Anna McLernon and I am a rising junior majoring in Applied Global Conservation at George Mason University. I am working with Dr. Doris Davis of the Psychology Department to study both chicken grain preferences and rooster-to-chicken communication via food calls. Sometimes it is hard to imagine the cognition abilities of animals, especially of animals that some of us eat regularly. Even so, more and more research is being done to understand different species for different reasons. Investigating that hens do indeed have food preferences could mean farmers could give their chickens better well-being and increased happiness, making it possible that the chickens could lay more eggs. It is well-known that birds are connected to the dinosaurs that once roamed the earth, so understanding more and more about Avian species could very well lead scientists to understanding more about their prehistoric counterparts!
For four to five days every week, I drive an hour out to the beautiful countryside of Virginia to Dr. Davis’ personally-owned farm and conduct my research there. I place two bowls of different grains in a cage and let a hen eat whichever one she wants for thirty minutes. I weigh the bowls before and after a chicken’s consumption of the food to assess which grain she likes better. So far, extraordinarily, all four hens have had a consistent preference of grain. Therefore, it is clear to see that domestic chickens have an advanced choice behavior.
            Meeting Dr. Davis and conducting research on her farm with her beloved pets is an amazing experience, thanks to the OSCAR program. It has taught me what research with animals is like; a lot of chasing and capturing. It can be a bit of a hassle, but it is also very funny to look back on how I’ve had to run after the chickens. Working with animals can also be fragile, such as an animal getting wounded and therefore not eating as much as they did before, hurting the data. The many variables in research is what makes data-gathering in the field harder, but this research project has given me an inside look on how to solve my way out of a problem. Which, I think, is a very valuable skill indeed.