Thompson Rivers University
Thompson Rivers University

Pathways to learning: Songbird research

  Posted on: August 25, 2015

Jackson Kusack checks out one of the bird feeders on campus which monitor bird movements.

A wide-ranging question about migratory birds set fifth-year animal biology major Jackson Kusack on the path to an award-winning research project.

Kusack’s Undergraduate Research Experience Award Program (UREAP) project was supposed to be something small, to complete before he starts his Honours Biology thesis this fall. He started with an idea suggested by biology faculty member Dr. Matthew Reudink: figure out potential driving forces behind the evolution of moult strategies in migratory songbirds in North America.

But when he began his research, the broad scope took him much further than he expected—all the way to Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in fact.

In July, he presented a poster of his findings at the 2015 Ornithology Meeting of the American Field Ornithologists, Society of Canadian Ornithologists and Wilson’s Ornithological Society at Acadia University, for which he received a Society of Canadian Ornithologists Student Presentation award.

For his project, “Evolution of Moult Strategies in Nearctic-Neotropical Long Distance Migratory Songbirds”, Kusack looked at a multitude of traits from migration distance to plumage brightness and social system to find out which were significant to moult strategies—when and where the songbirds replace their feathers in relation to migration, such as after breeding season but before migration (breeding moult), or after migration on the wintering grounds (winter moult).

“After working on it for a month I was totally hooked. For me, the appeal of this project is the scale of the question,” said Kusack.

While most traits were sourced from primary literature or reference materials, he had to calculate a few of them in the lab. For migration distance, for example, he ended up creating a “phylogenetic tree”, a sort of songbird family tree containing all his study species, in order to account for any effects caused by relatedness between the species.

Using the trait data, Kusack’s research so far has found significant differences between the moult groups for migration distance and plumage brightness.

Recognition at the conference has spurred him to share his findings in an article for publication.

“Once this project is published, I hope it creates further inspiration towards the study of moult strategy divergence in North American songbirds,” said Kusack. “This project was eye-opening for me, and I hope my research can have the same effect on others.”

The UREAP grant of $4,500 allowed him to commit more time to the research. “Living in Kamloops and paying rent would not have been possible without the support from UREAP.”


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