Student researcher is contributing to worldwide data collection project to better understand why some birds fear new foods
Each summer, Lafayette College students have the opportunity to participate in academically meaningful experiences outside the classroom. Students selected as EXCEL Scholars engage in collaborative research projects with Lafayette faculty, enhancing their academic skills as well as developing other skills that will be useful in post-graduate education and careers. This summer, we are highlighting several scholars who are working on hands-on, collaborative research projects with faculty and other students.
Lam: This summer, I have been working with Prof. Michael Butler and Devon Hallihan ’23 on a project that studies neophobia in birds. Neophobia in animals is the fear and avoidance of novel objects; while sometimes being cautious can keep an animal safe from danger, an animal that is too cautious may miss out on potentially useful resources, including new foods.
However, the reason why some species exhibit more neophobia, while others exhibit less, is still an open question. To answer this question, it is important to collect data from lots of different species, and see if the degree of neophobia is driven by body size, or what sorts of foods they eat, or how social they are.
Lam: The Butler lab is taking part in a worldwide collaborative venture, wherein investigators from dozens of labs all run the same experiment in many different settings, with many different species. The experimental design consists of either placing a novel object on a bird feeder or leaving the bird feeder as it normally is, and then taking videos of wild birds interacting with the feeder and analyzing their behavior.
Lam: By the end of this project, we are hoping to learn more about how different novel objects can affect the feeding behavior of multiple species that naturally come to feeders in eastern Pennsylvania. We are very excited to work with so many different scientists and bird enthusiasts around the world, and we’re hoping our contribution helps to answer the question of why some birds are brave, and others shy.
Lam: I started communicating with Prof. Butler during my first year because I was in Science Horizons, which is a program in the Biology Department that helps freshmen build skills and find opportunities. Due to COVID, though, I was unable to do summer research with Prof. Butler that year. I continued to communicate with him and eventually joined his lab my spring semester sophomore year.
This is my second summer in the field. We decided to tackle this project last spring after Prof. Butler read an article about it. I’ve really enjoyed working with the birds and have found birds in general to be fascinating and extremely fun to work with.
Lafayette's EXCEL Scholars program allows students to work closely and collaboratively with faculty on significant research projects that hone critical-thinking and communication skills