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Posing as a Bird Mama: the adventures of a researcher-turned-bird-parent

I’m fascinated by the developmental mechanisms underlying song learning in birds, and I’m devoting years of my life to pursuing research on the topic. Sometimes, this entails reading articles, writing grants, performing fieldwork, running statistics…

…and sometimes, this entails picking up poop. For science!

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Figure 1. a) Baby birds in their nest in the lab, begging for food. b) Baby birds receive protein-rich food mixture via syringe from researchers – the syringe simulates a parent bird’s beak delivering food. (Photographs by Amy Strauss.)

Last summer, my lab started two projects exploring bird song learning. We’d spent months designing appropriate methods to address our questions. But once we had birds in the lab, it became clear that a huge amount of time and effort had to go into simply: 1) feeding birds by inserting plastic syringes full of mush down their throats (Fig. 1b), and 2) removing tiny poops from their nests using forceps. We had 32 babies, and each bird had to be fed (and poop removed, equipment sanitized) every 45 minutes from sunrise (~6am) to sundown (~9pm). One feeding round took ~45 minutes, upon which the next round had to be started. A missed feeding or poop-contaminated nest could threaten the sensitive birds’ lives and ruin the study!

So I put on my bird mama hat and, along with my advisor and a team of incredibly helpful undergraduate assistants, made sure those babies grew into strong, healthy adults!

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Figure 2. Can you spot all five sleeping baby birds in this nest? Each arrow points to one baby bird’s head. Please note the clean, poop-free nest! (Photograph by Amy Strauss.)

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