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Projects

Below are some examples of potential projects.  The projects on which REU participants work may include one or more of these or others not listed depending on student and mentor interest at the time of selection of REU participants and as Summer 2020 approaches.

List of Projects

Dr. Sarah Shulwitz's Projects

Testing consequences of nest box management regimes on population trends of American kestrels (Falco sparverius)

The Peregrine Fund’s American Kestrel Partnership (AKP) works with citizen and professional scientists across North America who install and monitor nest boxes to contribute data to a centralized database. Unfortunately, many citizen scientists are inconsistent with their installation, monitoring, and box relocation regimes. McClure et al. (2017) used simulations to demonstrate hypothesized effects of various nest box management regimes—showing nest boxes can be potentially harmful and produce misleading trends in population indices. REU-RR students will empirically test and verify results of McClure et al. (2017) using different nest management regimes to examine influence on both occupancy and local abundance of American kestrels. The REU-RR students install and monitor kestrel nest boxes and conduct surveys to determine trends in the local populations using methods outlined in Smallwood et al. (2009b).

Dr. Poessel's Projects

California Condor behavior

My research interests are focused on movements, behavior, habitat use, and spatial ecology of wildlife.  I am currently studying a variety of birds, with a particular focus on California condors.  I am interested in understanding flight patterns, movements, foraging behavior, and distribution of this critically endangered species, with the goal of promoting condor conservation.

Dr. Julie Heath's Projects

Testing mechanisms of Bergmann's Rule in the American kestrel

The positive relationship between body size and latitude–known as Bergmann’s rule–is a widespread geographic pattern found across taxa. Despite decades of ongoing research, the mechanisms underlying this pattern and how it might vary seasonally remain unresolved. Our team, the Full Cycle Phenology Project, has collected a unique morphometric dataset for the American kestrel (Falco sparverius), spanning the species’ North American range and annual cycle. The REU-RR student will leverage this dataset to investigate how aspects of kestrel body size are influenced by latitude, climate, and other ecological factors throughout the annual cycle. In addition, the student may collect morphological data on our local long-term project. This project provides the opportunity to receive intensive training in ecological data science and analysis using R, an open-source software program. Students with interests in global change biology, spatial ecology, and statistics are best suited for this project.

How does migration strategy affect telomeres and senescence of American kestrels?

American kestrels show a wide array of migration strategies from long distance migration, short distance migration, and resident behavior.  The trade-offs associated with migration strategy are poorly understood in this wide ranging falcon. Telomeres are repeating sequences of nucleotides at the end of chromosomes that prevent chromosomal degradation during cellular division. Telomere length, and their ability to protect DNA, decreases with age and environmental stress. Analyzing the telomere lengths of these American Kestrels could provide insight onto compare the relative stress and energetic demands of migration and versus residency as wintering strategies. The REU-RR student on this project will use modern laboratory approaches to quantify the lengths of telomeres from our local, partial migrant population of American kestrels and a nearby fully migrant population in central Idaho.  The student will conduct field work to capture and collect samples from American kestrels in the field, and conduct lab work to extract DNA and estimate telomere lengths from quantitative PCR (qPCR) using primers that bind to the telomeric repeat.

Dr. David Anderson’s Projects

Prey density and patterns of gyrfalcon occupancy and productivity on the Seward Peninsula, Alaska.

Publication Cover
Applied Raptor Ecology: Essentials from Gyrfalcon Research. David L. Anderson, Christopher J.W. McClure, and Alastair Franke.

Gyrfalcons (Falco rusticolus) have an interesting diet.  Early in the breeding season the only type of prey that is available to them are ptarmigan (Lagopus spp.).  As other types of prey become available later in the breeding seasons, such as migratory birds or young squirrels and foxes, they gradually incorporate these into the diet as well.

Each year since 2014 our Alaska team collects data on prey density and  deliveries at gyrfalcon nests. We conduct road-based surveys to estimate prey density, and we install camera traps in gyrfalcon nests to record prey deliveries. Concurrently, we monitor gyrfalcon productivity and behavior. These data allow formulation and testing of hypotheses related to how climate change affects top predators in an Arctic setting in comparison to temperate zone counterparts. REU-RR students participate through a combination of site visits and follow-up Boise based analyses to further our understanding of climate change effects on the biota.

Dr. Todd Katzner's Projects

Avian interactions with renewable energy development

Thousands of raptors die every year from collision with wind turbines. Recent work in my lab has focused on understanding avian flight behavior to predict risk to birds from wind energy development. However, much past work has focused on one or two species, with the assumption that protection of those can serve as a conservation umbrella for other species. Our team has a dataset of ~30 million GPS datapoints collected from telemetered birds – golden eagles, bald eagles, California condors, ferruginous hawks and others – that are available for a student to analyze. The goal of this project will be to compare the flight altitude response of golden and bald eagles to evaluate similarity in their behavior and to understand the extent to which either species can reasonably serve as a proxy for the other when mapping risk to birds. REU-RR participants will (a) map GPS data and filter them; (b) link them to topographic position as estimated from digital elevation models (DEMs); (c) measure flight altitude above ground level; and (d) use generalized linear models to evaluate flight altitude response to different topographic position categories. Although all data for this project are already in hand, the student will also participate in data collection on a number of other field research projects.

Dusty Perkin's Projects

Modeling osprey (Pandion hailaetus) and ferruginous hawk (Buteo regalis) habitat suitability in Idaho

We use field techniques, geospatial analyses and molecular biology approaches tounderstand how anthropogenic activities, habitat characteristics, prey availability, and parasites influence raptor breeding ecology and behavior. Laboratory and field opportunities exist, and students learn to conduct field techniques, safely access and capture, handle and mark nestling raptors, obtain tissue samples for laboratory analysis, and conduct population dynamics research. Some projects use GIS for habitat suitability modeling or molecular techniques to identify blood pathogens and their influence on breeding success. Hawk projects evaluate factors influencing reproduction, survival, ecotoxicology, and population dynamics. Some overnight travel is required.

Dr. Jim Belthoff's Projects

Roadway mortality of barn owls (Tyto alba) along a local interstate highway

Thousands of barn owls die annually along roads (Boves and Belthoff 2012); in fact, we have documented the highestroadway mortality rates reported world-wide in southern Idaho. Our research has focused on deciphering factors contributing to the high rates (Belthoff et al. 2015, Arnold et al. 2018, Regan et al., in press). Important next steps are to undertake research to evaluate mitigation alternatives. Thus, REU-RR projects will address the efficacy of ‘pole barriers’ to alter flight of owls near roads to reduce vehicle collisions. The initial research makes use of captive barn owls to investigate flight in relation to differences in pole diameter, spacing, height, color, and with and without flagging elements. The hypothesis is that poles spaced at optimum heights/distances will cause owls to fly over traffic, with the notion that poles are more cost effective and less obtrusive to other wildlife than complete fencing or walls. Data on flight altitudes, speed, and behavior (flight between or above poles) are recorded using infrared video and onboard gps transmitters. Once controlled experiments are completed, transportation agencies will develop pole barrier arrays in owl mortality hotspots, during which time REU-RR projects can examine free-living GPS-equipped owls in response. A nest box population of barn owls that we study will also facilitate REU-RR projects focused on integrative pest management, ranging behavior, and ecology in urban and rural environments.

Host-ectoparasite relationships in burrowing owls

We have ongoing research focused on ectoparasites of burrowing owls to assess if and how fleas (Pulex irritans: Pulicidae) influence owls. This is an unusual association between a flea and an owl that has developed only in Pacific northwest populations of burrowing owls involving the ‘human flea,’ which typically infests mammals (carnivores). Previous REU-RR students examined (1) if and how flea prevalence altered sunning behavior in burrowing owls, (2) the physiological and behavioral (preening) influences of fleas on owls, and using a stable isotopes approach (3) geographic origins of fleas on owls, e.g., whether they became infested on breeding grounds or transported fleas from wintering areas (Navock et al. 2019). ­­A 4th REU-RR student examined how flea assemblages on owls changed after an epizootic of plague that killed local ground squirrels to examine whether fleas more typical of ground squirrels sought sympatric alternative hosts (i.e. burrowing owls). Remaining questions relate to how fleas alter the immune system of owls, how Pulex irritans infesting burrowing owls differ from P. irritans on more typical carnivore hosts (could they be a cryptic species?), what is the genetic population structuring of fleas on burrowing owls to understand the effects of owl movements on ectoparasites, and one particularly basic but important question of how the owls acquire fleas, i.e., from nests, from prey, from interactions with other owls? REU-RR students help design experiments to address these questions about host-parasite relationships.

Dr. Jay Carlisle, Rob Miller, and Greg Kaltenecker's Projects

Breeding ecology of northern goshawks in the northern Great Basin

IBO and Boise State partner with the USDA Sawtooth National Forest to study breeding northerngoshawks (Accipiter gentilis), a management indicator species for the forest. The naturally fragmented forest structure in the area presents unusual challenges for the species, including a unique prey assemblage (i.e., lack of tree squirrels, a common prey item for goshawks in most regions of their range), isolation from other western populations, high levels of human disturbance, and unusually high prevalence of endo- and ectoparasites. The study population is numerically strong but suffers from high annual turnover and a younger demographic structure than more stable populations elsewhere. The goal of this project is to examine the factors influencing the demographic structure of the population. Studies are planned that focus on the importance of annual variation in prey availability, genetic population structure, demography, the impacts of endo- and ectoparasites, and effects of human disturbance on nestling health and survival. REU-RR students help formulate research questions and design projects that draw from literature. Students have access to long-term data sets to address novel questions on predator-prey dynamics, demography, and/or aspects of northern goshawk nesting ecology. Camping with the team at the remote field site is required.

Dr. Jim Smith's Projects

Raptor population genetics

My laboratory focuses on molecular approaches to addressing evolutionary questions, and I mentor REU-RR students individually or in collaboration with other REU mentors. I mentored previous REU-RR participants on research projects related to northern goshawk genetic population structure and using DNA approaches to elucidate parentage in burrowing owls in a study of mating systems. Advances in recent years have enabled the use of DNA to rapidly answer many questions in a cost-effective manner, and this sets ups well for undergraduate research. I envision REU-RR collaborations on avian mating systems and analyses of population structure in raptors and their ectoparasites among other molecular projects.

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