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Westminster College Professor and Biology Students Attend Wilson Ornithological Society Meeting, Present Research

Posted on Friday, April 5, 2013

NEW WILMINGTON, Pa. - Dr. Kerri Cornell Duerr, assistant professor of biology, and three Westminster College senior biology students presented research at the 125th Wilson Ornithological Society annual meeting in Williamsburg, Va., March 7-10.

The following students participated at the meeting:

Colin Feeney is a son of Donald and Debra Feeney of Waterford and a graduate of Fort Le Boeuf High School.

Samantha Higgins is a daughter of Scott and Mary Beth Higgins of McMurray and a graduate of Peters Township High School.

Briana Valentino is a daughter of Lisa Valentino and Michael Valentino, Canton, Ohio, and a graduate of Glenoak High School. She attended the meeting, but did not present research.

James Ward is a son of Michael and Kathleen Ward of Washington and a graduate of Trinity High School.

The Wilson Ornithological Society, founded in 1888, is a world-wide organization of nearly 2,500 people who share a curiosity about birds. Named in honor of Alexander Wilson, the Father of American Ornithology, the Society publishes a peer-reviewed quarterly journal of ornithology, The Wilson Journal of Ornithology, and holds annual meetings. At this year's meeting nearly 90 students gave presentations.

"At the annual meetings, participants learn more about birds, present results of their research, and expand their professional network.  Meetings provide a wonderful opportunity for students and established professionals to meet and discuss interesting topics, participate in forwarding the most recent advances in ornithological knowledge, and to travel to new birding locations," Duerr said. "Scientific papers presented at the meeting deal with current research on all aspects of bird biology, conservation, and systematics." 

One aspect of the meetings consists of plenary lectures by winners of the Margaret Morse Nice Medal, a premiere ornithological award bestowed by the Wilson Ornithological Society.   The plenary lectures this year were given by Drs. Peter and Rosemary Grant of Princeton University on their work on the ecology and evolution of Galapagos Finches, and by Dr. Jed Burtt of Ohio Wesleyan University on the evolution of avian color.   One highlight of the meeting for Westminster students included personal conversations with these world-renowned ornithologists about the research being conducted at Westminster.

"It was a unique and special experience to hear Peter and Rosemary Grant speak about their research on the Galapagos finches.  I was able to briefly speak to them as well and was surprised at how interested they were in my own research.  I had never been to William and Mary, so getting to see the campus and explore colonial Williamsburg was fun as well," Higgins said.

During the conference Duerr and Higgins presented their research "Do House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) Adjust Parental Care Behaviors When Mates Desert?  A Test of the Negotiation Rule."

"I performed a mate removal study on House Sparrows (Passer domesticus) to determine if parents negotiate their care when raising offspring together.  I observed nest boxes in the New Wilmington area and recorded how many times each parent entered the nest.  I then removed a mate and recorded the number of times the lone parent entered the nest," Higgins said.  "I determined that when males were removed, females greatly increased their trips into the nest.  When females were removed, males decreased their trips into the nest.  I also monitored how offspring were affected by the loss of a parent and found that when females were present, nearly 90 percent of their young survived to leave the nest.  When males were present, less than 30 percent of young survived to leave the nest.  Overall, my results found that house sparrows may negotiate their care for offspring."

Higgins received a Student Travel Grant from the Wilson Society to attend the meeting.  She competed against 50 other applicants from undergraduate, master's, and doctoral programs and ranked in the top one-third of all applicants. Awards were granted based on five criteria: overall writing and grammar, clear objectives and methods, adequate data presentation and analysis, completeness (or the potential) of the study, and, clear conclusions and significance provided. Higgins also received travel funding from the Westminster College Drinko Center for Experiential Learning.

"The conference exceeded my expectations.  I had never attended one before, but I was able to understand and take away a lot of useful, interesting information from other people's research," Higgins said.  "Attending a conference like this was beneficial in showing me how much more of interest I had in birds and research in general than I realized.  It also helped me to gain confidence and get valuable feedback as a young researcher."

Ward and Feeney also made a presentation with Duerr titled "Effects of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Wells and Land Use on Post-Breeding Raptor Populations in Southwest Pennsylvania."

Both Colin and James received travel funding from the Westminster Drinko Center for Experiential Learning.

"One of the biggest benefits of going to this conference was meeting other people and really feeling immersed in and welcomed by the field.  It was great to see how people were building upon each other's work and sharing ideas to further develop the field," said Feeney.  "For example, James and I had not heard of anyone else conducting bird surveys in areas of Marcellus shale natural gas until coming to this conference.  We were able to talk to the graduate students conducting the work to comparing observations, results and future directions. It was welcoming to see the genuine interest that people had in undergraduate work and the way that everyone was treated as a peer."

Feeney continued, "There is no better example of this than our (Briana and myself) conversation with the Grants when we passed by them walking through the William and Mary campus.  What was intended to be a quick compliment on their presentation turned into a ten- minute conversation about our research. There were a number of networking opportunities and everyone was happy to share experiences and stories."

During the conference, Duerr also served as a chair (or moderator) for a general session of oral presentations and served as a judge of student presentations. Each year, The Wilson Ornithological Society President nominates three professionals in ornithology to serve a three-year term as Elected Councilors for the society.  Duerr was nominated by current president, Dr. Robert Curry, of Villanova University, to serve as one of the Elected Councilors for 2013-2016.  Her nomination was approved by voting members of the society at the annual conference in Williamsburg.

Duerr, who joined the Westminster faculty in 2010, earned an undergraduate degree from Hartwick College, master's degree from Villanova University, and Ph.D. from the University of Vermont. 

Contact Duerr at (724) 946-7210 or for additional information.

Back row: (L to R) James Ward and Colin Feeney. Middle Row: (L to R) Samantha Higgins and Briana Valentino. Front: Dr. Kerri Duerr.
Samantha Higgins presents research at the Wilson meeting
James Ward and Colin Feeney present research at the Wilson meeting