A Morning Routine for the Birds: Kara Bowers’ FURSCA Experience

Student-athlete researches nest habits of female house wrens

August 6, 2014

Kara Bowers, '15
Kara Bowers, '15, jots down notes for her project, titled "Nocturnal Desertions and Initiation of Dawn Activity in Female House Wrens." At right is professor Doug White, who also serves as associate director for Albion's Center for Sustainability and the Environment.

Kara Bowers, ’15, is used to rising early during the school year. A letter winner with both the swimming and women’s lacrosse teams at Albion College, Bowers is used to arriving at the Dean Aquatic Center for a swim before sunrise.

While technology allows the opportunity to work what Americans define as a typical workday, Bowers was still able to examine early-morning routines in house wrens for her summer project sponsored by the College’s Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship, and Creative Activity (FURSCA).

A biology major who is also minoring in Spanish and pursuing an environmental science concentration, Bowers is using data collected from sensors to gauge the nocturnal-to-dawn activity in incubating female wrens living at the College’s Whitehouse Nature Center.

Wake-up call

“House wrens are easy to study because they are cavity nesters,” Bowers said as an introduction to her research. “You can put up a bird box and they will nest in it.

“What I’m trying to find is what time they leave the nest and why and when they return relative to sunlight,” Bowers added. “I’m also looking at nest desertion caused when a squirrel or raccoon will disturb the nest in the middle of the night.”

One of the questions Bowers’ study seeks to answer: Which cue—sunlight entering the box, a male’s song—does a female respond to when leaving the nest in the morning?

Bowers will crunch the data from this summer and previous years’ research by biology professors Dale Kennedy and Doug White to create a report on the habits of females.

“There is not a lot of data about the morning habits of females during the incubating period,” Bowers said. “There have been a ton of studies about the male dawn chorus—when they start singing, why they start singing, and the factors that make them start singing.

“The period when the females desert the nest leaves the unborn vulnerable to hypothermia and predation,” she added.

Bowers indicated her research will seek to formulate reasons behind female desertion of the nest in the morning. Females leaving during sunlight could see predators, while females may know the nest is under watch by males if they leave after hearing the song.

While unsure if she will turn the research into a senior thesis project—Bowers will juggle three laboratory classes, work as a first-year student mentor, and swimming this fall—she knows her efforts this summer will be an important piece as she builds a résumé to support her quest for a job in the parks service.

“There is a program called the Student Conservation Association, and I’m thinking about taking a gap year before graduate school and do a few internships with them,” Bowers said. “I could shadow biologists and pursue wildlife and natural resource management internships.”

A fall Down Under

Bowers spent her junior year taking advantage of the opportunities afforded to Albion students. Last fall, the Ann Arbor native studied the biodiversity of Australia’s rain forest as a student in the School for Field Studies, associated with Boston University.

“You go to school at a biological field station,” Bowers said. “There were normal classes six days a week. One day of the week featured a half-day of class with the other half devoted to community service. It was all about environmental stewardship—ecology and conservation biology—gearing to a career in the field.”

In addition, the school gave students a directed research project that also saw Bowers study birds and built structures, as environmentalists seek less costly alternatives to renewing the Atherton Tableland area in the northeast corner of the country.

‘FURSCA is what you make of it’

Bowers has spent previous summer breaks using her swimming training for work as a lifeguard, and she has worked at a restaurant. While making money is a worthy summer endeavor, few experiential-learning opportunities compare to what students gain by spending May, June, and July on campus.

“You get a summer of one-on-one training with a professor,” Bowers said, referring to Kennedy and White. “They have taught me so much about equipment and methodology.”