National Science Foundation Funds Study on a Quirky Songbird

Biology professor Heather E. Watts has been awarded a three-year National Science Foundation grant to further her studies on the environment, behavior and endocrinology of an interesting songbird known as the pine siskin. The $463,894 grant will permit Watts to address some key questions about pine siskins with the aid of a postdoctoral scholar and Loyola Marymount University undergraduate biology students. NSF grants are highly competitive.

“I was very excited to get this grant,” says Watts, who received her Ph.D. in zoology and ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior at Michigan State University in 2007. “Without a grant, it might take a decade or more to do a project of this type and scale.”

Watts’ research investigates the relationships between environmental variation, life history patterns and the behavior of birds and mammals. She is especially interested in gregarious animals, completing her Ph.D. work on spotted hyenas. Pine siskins are also social creatures and are interesting because they’re nomadic and irruptive migrants, meaning that their migration patterns are relatively unpredictable. Unlike many other birds, they do not migrate according to highly predictable schedules and to the same places year after year. Pine siskins also have variable reproductive schedules.

“What I’m interested in trying to understand is how animals use the information in the environment to time their annual schedules, including reproduction and migration,” she explains. “What are they paying attention to in the environment in order to time these events? And what are the hormones that are important in making the transition between life stages?”

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While some field work is involved—Watts has been spending time trapping pine siskins in the San Gabriel Mountains, about an hour and a half from LMU—many birds will be housed in the lab for experiments. Watts welcomes the opportunity to expose undergraduate students to this type of research.

“The NSF encourages undergraduate involvement in research,” she says. “I think it’s cool that students get to be involved in research like this as undergraduates. I like the combination of research and teaching that we have here at LMU. There is support for faculty to do research, but we really value the undergraduates and that they’re involved in research.”