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How Birds Learn to Cope

Two quail, seemingly alike in disposition, are placed before a mirror. The first is stunned at the sight of its reflection and recoils in fear. The second becomes aggressive and lunges menacingly toward its image.

Franklin & Marshall College biologist Dan Ardia and two student researchers are scrutinizing these disparate reactions in an attempt to measure how the birds cope with changes to their environments. 

The team's efforts will be included in a larger body of Ardia's work examining how animal species with different coping mechanisms may react cognitively, biologically and physically to Earth's changing climate conditions. 

  • nestling birds summer research project
  • Julia Whyte '15, holds one of the young adult Japanese quail that she and Max Sechzer '14 are studying this summer with F&M biologist Dan Ardia. (Photo by Melissa Hess)

More specifically, which birds would better be able to survive if their environment, for example, became too hot or too cold, or a drought created a food shortage? Is it the wary bird, the one reacting fearfully to its image, or the aggressive bird?

"Can they acclimate, and is that change adaptive?" Ardia asked. "How [does] global change affects organisms?"

For their research, Max Sechzer '14 and Julia Whyte '15 have been working this summer with young adult Japanese quail and Zebra finches.

The students carefully place a bird inside a cardboard box, and then open one end to reveal the mirror that reflects the bird's image. Once the students record the reaction, they return the bird to its brooder, a special type of birdhouse.

Pointing to their two recent subjects of observation, Sechzer, a neuroscience major, said, "This one looked in the mirror twice, jumped back in fright and never went to the mirror again. This one attacked the mirror."

Ardia, a specialist in behavioral and physiological biology, is examining two specific behavior types in the quail and finch -- bold (risk-taker) and wary (risk-averse). These species have different early development growth.

Quail are "precocial," born with eyes open and capable of moving around on their own almost immediately after birth. Finches are "altricial," born with eyes closed and incapable of moving around on their own.

Ardia said biologists know metabolic rates in bold birds are high and in wary birds low, but what he and the students want to understand is how birds cope with change. After the mirror test, they offer the birds a new food to see how they react to that change, for example.

Sechzer and Whyte are collaborating with Ardia as F&M's Hackman Scholars. The 10-week program involves students in challenging projects to support faculty research.

An endowment from the late William M. and Lucille M. Hackman established the program in 1984. This year's 75 Hackman Research Scholars are working with 43 F&M professors. Eight other students are working on research with four F&M professors through other grants.

Sechzer and Whyte, through their work with Ardia, are gaining valuable experience in learning how to conduct and refine experiments.

In addition to the mirror test, the students used a rubber snake to observe the birds' reactions, but a snake is a predator and the experiment was not as conclusive, Whyte said.

"Two of them clearly wanted to get out of the box and two of them stayed, but away from [the snake]," said Whyte, an animal behavior major.  

Said Sechzer: "The only measure that we think works well now is the mirror test."

The researchers work with 20 finches, but only four quail. "They [finches] seem to be more at ease when they are in large social groups," Ardia said.

Ardia said the research contributes to the students' scholarship and his studies on how birds adapt to change.

"The work will be used for many future studies, building on the assays and techniques they will have developed," he said.