Jenny Jenkins sets up in the snow in the Arboretum to monitor black-capped chickadees at a nearby feeder.

Arboretum offers right setting for field study on feeding habits of prominent feeder songbird, black-capped chickadees

Faculty and student researchers are setting up field research this winter in the Arboretum on the Allendale Campus to gain more insight into the feeding habits, and even the personalities, for common songbirds: black-capped chickadees.

The study led by Jenny Jenkins, affiliate professor of biology, involves monitoring the feeding habits of the small birds when the threat of a predator is nearby. In this case, the "predator" is a taxidermied Cooper's hawk set up about 5 yards from the feeder, Jenkins said, along with audio of the raptor's call.

The work is both providing both data on the black-capped chickadees and an opportunity for students studying behavioral neuroscience to hone their scientific skills and glean interesting information, Jenkins and the students said.

Jenny Jenkins sets up the "predator" for the study, which is a taxidermied Cooper's hawk.
Jenny Jenkins sets up the feeder and equipment for the study.
The field study includes setting up a taxidermied Cooper's hawk, left, and equipment around a feeder with food.

This work is also an extension of studies done on birds in cages to see if that behavior is predictive of how they'll behave in the field, Jenkins said. The research team trapped and banded the birds for the field study.

Jenkins said these are the key questions for these birds, which weigh less than an ounce, as they assess their eating options amid this perceived threat: "What is the payoff? Is it better to be bold or is it better to be shy?"

Watching this assessment is when the different personality traits can emerge as they respond to these pressures, Jenkins said.

And the broadened information can help people understand more about these common songbirds they see flitting about in backyard feeders, looking for their favored sunflower seeds, Jenkins said.

They are in constant decision mode to survive, she said. They must determine how they will get food, where they will get good, and how they will get food without becoming prey. Do they take a risk to grab food even when a predator is near, or do they take a cautious approach and hope for another – though never guaranteed – opportunity?

"The most important takeaway for these animals that we see at the feeder on a daily basis is that they have complex lives, which is worth thinking about," Jenkins said.

Be bold, or wait for another chance to eat when a predator is seemingly lurking? That is the question for these black-capped chickadees

A chickadee eats as seeds fly up from the feeder.
A chickadee perches on the end of a feeder
A chickadee takes off from the feeder.

She said students taking part in the study are often surprised by the complexity and richness of animal lives.

That notion has resonated with Ian Pope, who said he is excited to study the chickadees as part of his overall fascination with studying the behavior of animals. He said he has enjoyed learning about the intelligence and memories of the birds, such as how they choose from their cached food based on nutrition and freshness.

Pope said he is gaining valuable experience for his aspirations to be a scientist by learning about field work, statistical analysis and more.

"On top of that, I get to sit outside in probably one of the most beautiful parts of Grand Valley and watch these fascinating birds," Pope said.

Jodi Jenkins, who already did work analyzing the study of birds in the cage, said this study is important because it deepens knowledge about nature. That goal alone is important, said Jenkins, who added we can all learn a lot from animals.

"It's almost humbling, the fact that these tiny birds that people might not notice or see when they walk outside have their own behavior because of their personalities," said Jenkins, whose mother is Jenny Jenkins. 

Jenny Jenkins smiles as she looks through binoculars.


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