Alice Boyle welcomes the chance to do some of her work outdoors amid the pandemic.
“It feels more like normal,” Boyle said. “A lot closer to normal than how the rest of the university is operating right now.”
Boyle, an associate professor in the Department of Biology at K-State, has been leading a research program studying the effects of Kansas’ climate on the bird population at the Konza Prairie Biological Station. Boyle said the area of the Konza she uses for her research has a small creek nearby, with plenty of shrubs and trees in an otherwise open prairie. Boyle said that permanent water source and vegetation is valuable to her work.
“What I realized being out there, is those areas are an important refuge for the bird community which uses that site in winter,” Boyle said.
Boyle made it her goal to study how the birds were dealing with the unpredictability of the Great Plains climate. To do so, Boyle established 10 walkable paths where the shrubs have been trimmed. In each of those 10 paths, Boyle and her team set up nets in four places to humanely capture wild birds.
The nets are a fine nylon mesh, and Boyle said they are billowy, so birds do not harm themselves when they fly into a net. The nets are 12 meters long and 3 meters high. On a typical morning, Boyle said she will open 20 nets.
“We go around and check all the nets every half-hour,” Boyle said. “Then we’ll take out any birds we find in the nets and put a little numbered metal leg band on an individual bird to record physical data.”
Boyle said the leg band will take measurements to tell her about the bird’s condition. She said she is interested in how birds manage their energy reserves to deal with weather changes.
“Birds can put on fat real fast, then burn it off when they need to,” Boyle said. “Unless they need it, they won’t carry around a lot of fat; if you see a fat bird, it tells you a lot about its condition over a few days.”
Boyle also uses a quantitative magnetic resonance machine to provide a more exact measure of how much of a bird’s mass is from muscle or fat.
“The relative contribution of those things can tell us how the bird is perceiving the world,” Boyle said. “Is it worried where its next meal will come from? Is it coping with some sort of unpredictability?”
Once a bird is banded, it is released. Boyle said they have several previously-banded birds that return to the nets.
“If it’s one we’ve captured before, we’ll record the data and release it again,” Boyle said. “We can use that data over years to estimate annual survival rates for these birds.”
Boyle said her group catches a combination of year-round bird residents, including cardinals and black cat chicadees, as well as the Harris’s sparrow and other variations of sparrows. She said the number one concern for her is keeping birds and humans safe. During a banding trip early in the morning on Jan. 31, she said she had no worries as she introduced a new group of students to the bird-banding program.
“One of the things I was most pleased about was how quickly the students caught on to basic procedures, like getting comfortable handling birds,” Boyle said.
She said capturing and handling the birds is about as much fun as a person can have, but this is not something just anybody can do. Boyle said the bird-banding program is heavily regulated by K-State and the state of Kansas. A permit and training are required, as well as having colleagues vouch for a person’s skills. Boyle said do not try this at home.
“Handling birds definitely required some pretty intensive one-on-one training,” Boyle said. “I would say for almost anybody who’s had a wild bird in the hand and have had the experience of letting it go, it can actually be a life-changing experience.”
Boyle said it is a privilege every time she can hold a bird, and some of the students understand the concepts from the beginning. She said others are slower to pick up the skills necessary to free a bird from the net.
“One of the key things is we have to take a bird out of the net the way it flew in, and that’s not always immediately obvious,” Boyle said. “Being able to visualize how the bird got tangled and reverse that ... some people get it very quickly, others it takes longer, but eventually everyone can do it.”
Boyle is working to potentially make the bird-banding effort more accessible to interested members of the public. She said she is bringing Konza Prairie docents into the fold to get an understanding of the program and be able to speak on the project details and host visitors.
“In future years I’m hoping for opportunities for interested people to sign up and come check out what we’re doing and experience that first-hand,” Boyle said.
Those opportunities will have to wait until the pandemic is over, but Boyle is optimistic about the future of the bird-banding program. She said she had to shut down her research efforts last March, which is risky for data-gathering efforts. She said it can take two to three years to recover if a year of research is missed in the middle. Now, with the ability to train students outdoors safely, Boyle said she is happy to be spending more time outside among nature.
“Although it’s super tiring, I come home sort of mentally refreshed,” Boyle said. “It feels great to be able to connect with the birds and the people.”