Dr. Jennifer Foote and Intern Kristen Marini

To the novice birder, the bird feeders set up in the wooded area around Algoma University may look like your everyday feeder. But the six stations set up every 200 metres are outfitted with state-of-the-art technologies, allowing bird expert Dr. Jennifer Foote to get a closer look at the life and behaviours of those that flock to the area in the winter months.

In October of 2017, Foote began her pilot project on campus which aims to examine the black-capped chickadee. “I studied chickadees during my PhD,” Foote begins while showing off the feeder in late December. “I wanted to get back into studying the chickadees in this area and their behaviours. I wanted to study something that I could get my students involved in in both their classes and their labs.”

With the help of Thompson Rivers University (TRU) in British Columbia, who graciously loaned the University the feeders, Foote has been able to start her project.

“At the moment, we’re trying to catch all of the birds and band them with PIT [passive integrated transponder] leg bands,” says Kristen Marini, a recent graduate of TRU’s Master’s of Science program, and a Northern Ontario Heritage Foundation Corporation (NOHFC) intern of Foote’s. “And strapped to the bottom of the feeders are RFID [radio frequency identification] readers. Each feeder has batteries, a computer memory chip, and an antenna, so whenever a bird lands there that has been PIT-tagged with its own identification number, the computer will log that ID number with the time, date, and the feeder location. That way, we can see when the bird was at the feeder, for how long, and if they’re moving between feeders.”

To date, students in Foote’s fourth-year Field Studies and Biology class have taken part in the research. “The students came and watched us banding birds, and they really enjoyed getting to see the birds in the hand. They made observations and did small research projects using the RFID readers for their final projects,” adds Foote.

Foote is eager to get more of her students involved in the project. “I’d like to build labs starting with the first year biology class, or at least have the students out in the morning when the birds are active and see what’s happening and learn about the setup.”

But what’s going on in the forests might be of interest to more than just Biology and Environmental Sciences students. Computer Science and Psychology students might also take an interest in her research. “There could be some applications for Psychology students, who might be interested in the food choices of the birds as well as their behaviours. Computer Science students could also get involved because we have a lot of data and need programs written to decipher that data.”

Right now, only three of the six bird feeders are collecting data and have only been doing so for just over a month’s time. Even then, Foote and Marini already have over 10,000 bird detections. “Having a program to analyze that data would be extremely helpful. Right now, I’m trying to figure out how to analyze and sort 10,000 pieces of data, especially when we’re not entirely sure yet what we’re looking for,” states Marini.

One thing Foote is interested in researching is the dominance that exists in the chickadee flocks. “The chickadees form flocks in the winter. They travel in flocks of four-12 birds and travel around a large home range together all day, every day. In those flocks, there’s a stable linear dominance hierarchy, ranging from most dominant, second, third, all the way down to the bottom. So we’re interested in the dominance relationship amongst the birds and the flocks and the memberships of the flocks and how that relates to their feeder behaviour,” says Foote.

While Foote’s project is still in its preliminary phases, she’s hoping to obtain funding for future years, allowing future students to get hands-on experience with her research.

For more information on Foote’s research, please visit her website.