Red-winged Blackbird Nestling Research Published by the American Ornithological Society

The American Ornithological Society published an article about Ken Yasukawa’s research regarding the behavior of baby Red-winged Blackbirds in the presence of predators. Beloit alums–Jessi Sollengerger ’16, Josie Lindsey-Robbins ’17, and Ellie DeBruyn ’20–participated in this research during their time here as students.

I had an opportunity to sit down with Ken to learn more about the process and importance of this study. His answers provided a fascinating glimpse into what he and his research students experienced while investigating the behavior of the Red-Winged Blackbird nestlings. Check out the original article here!

Why is it valuable to understand a nestling’s response to predators?

Predators are the most common source of nest failure in most species of birds, so studies of adaptations to reduce nest predation are important to understand the behavior, ecology, evolution, and conservation of birds. In the majority of birds, parents provide critical care to their young, including protecting them from predators and feeding them. Getting their parents to feed them is thus one of the most important tasks for nestlings that are not able to feed themselves. The way they let their parents know that they need food is by begging, which comprises movements (gaping, stretching up, quivering, jostling) and sounds (begging calls). Vocal begging calls can be really loud and easy to locate. That’s how ornithologists like me often find nests. And clearly, if we can do it, predators can too, and they’re much better at it than we are. Given the importance of nest predation and the potential for predators to use vocal begging to find nests, it makes sense to ask whether and how nestlings modify their vocal begging behavior to reduce the risk that predators can eavesdrop on them successfully.

Without having prior experience conducting this type of research, it’s hard to imagine all of the obstacles Ken and the students faced while studying the nestlings.

What was the most challenging aspect of this experiment?

The challenges were methodological. When you read a published article, it sounds easy, but my students and I had to overcome a lot of difficulties, including (1) finding nests that were well hidden, (2) having nestlings survive long enough for us to use in our experiments (over half of our nests failed before the nestlings were 6–7 days old—we had one case of snake predation DURING our playback—it’s really hard to study the behavior of a nestling that has been eaten by a snake, (3) having nests at locations that allowed us to make video recordings (some nests were too high or over water), (4) having all of our equipment work (camera, speaker, iPhone), and (5) being able to hear the playback and to see the female bring food to the nest and to leave after feeding.

Hands-on learning is a core value at Beloit, and Ken is passionate about involving students in research experiences.

Why is it important for Beloit students to participate in research like this?

Doing research is the most important form of experiential learning for a biology student at Beloit College. That is why we include research projects in ALL of our lab courses, from introductory to advanced. I involved 68 different Beloit College students in 90 distinct research experiences during my 39-year career at Beloit. Twenty-two of these projects have resulted in peer-reviewed journal articles published with 33 student co-authors. Original research experiences like the ones we are discussing are the ultimate stage in undergraduate development. Students experience all aspects of the creation of new knowledge, including developing a background by reading the primary literature, identifying interesting but poorly known biological phenomena to study, learning the methods of hypothesis testing (proposing, probing, and presenting potential explanations for biological phenomena), getting first-hand experience with the challenges of research (Murphy’s Law applies particularly well to scientific research), and having the opportunity to write, submit, revise, and publish a peer-reviewed, original research article in a biological journal. Dealing with co-authors, editors, and reviewers is something that relatively few undergraduates get to do. For my research students who have gone to graduate school, their research experiences were excellent preparation for careers in academia. For my research students who have chosen other career paths–health care, law, teaching, or business–their research experiences taught them how scientists do science.

More information about the Beloit alums who participated in this research:

Jessi Sollengerger (’16 Molecular, Cellular, and Integrative Biology) – Associate Microbiologist at Medtronic, Minneapolis, MN

Josie Lindsey-Robbins (’17 Environmental Biology) – Graduate school in Biology at Bowling Green State University (MS in Biology, 2019), Congressional Affairs Specialist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Ellie DeBruyn (’20 Ecology, Evolution, and Behavioral Biology) – Graduate school in Primate Behavior at Central Washington University

July 28, 2020

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