Research and Impact

Goldwater Scholar conducts citizen science with Rural Action, highlighting research at OHIO Museum Complex

Ohio University students often contribute to the Athens community or their home communities as part of their research work.

That’s certainly true for Madeline Sudnick, a junior who is conducting research to determine the impact of parental care behavior and the environment on offspring development in birds. She and her advisor, Dr. Kelly Williams, have collaborated with Rural Action and its volunteers to study birds – particularly tree swallows and eastern bluebirds – around Athens County.

“We partnered with Rural Action’s Nestwatch program, which monitors birds breeding in nest boxes, including prothonotary warblers, tree swallows, eastern bluebirds and Carolina chickadees, at several field sites in Athens County,” Sudnick, one of three Goldwater Scholars at Ohio University this year, said.

The partnership has greatly enhanced Rural Action’s citizen science initiative for bird monitoring, said Joe Brehm, Rural Action’s environmental education program director.

“It was really cool in that some of our volunteers got to see birds being banded and got to see Maddie and Dr. Williams drawing blood from the birds. We got to see peer-reviewed science in action,” Brehm said.

“They did a couple of workshops, they banded a couple of the bird species that we were monitoring that are not relevant to their project, and it really contributed to our volunteers really feeling like they are part of a larger, rigorous project,” Rural Action Chief Program Officer Brian Vadakin added. “Having (Sudnick and Williams) there was a real asset to our volunteers because, with people out doing citizen science, it sort of steps up their learning and engagement with people who are doing peer-reviewed science.”

The pair helped monitor nest boxes on public and private land at several sites in Athens County including the wetlands near Little Fish Brewing Company. Williams and Sudnick also obtained funding from Columbus Audubon to establish a new next box trail at the Land Lab on The Ridges and Williams obtained funding through OHIO’s Program to Aid Career Exploration (PACE) to provide paid internship and training for several OHIO undergraduate students.

“Our private landowners, citizen science volunteers and a team of OHIO undergraduate students are key in helping to monitor nest boxes. The OHIO undergraduate students learn how to do field and lab research as well as engage citizen scientists,” Williams said.

“We have been working with the OHIO Museum Complex to create a guided tour of the bird nest box trail in The Ridges Land Lab through the mAppAthens team,” Sudnick said. “The public can walk the trails and follow the tour to learn about the birds that nested in the boxes during previous summers.”

Williams has trained a number of undergraduate students over the years and has mentored Sudnick so she could learn to train and coordinate a team of undergraduate researchers, additional skills Sudnick will need as she moves on to graduate school.

“Dr. Williams has been an amazing mentor to me, and she’s given me opportunities in this research that can be uncommon for undergraduates,” Sudnick said. “She dedicates so much of her time to all of her students, including me. I couldn’t be more thankful for all of her effort.”

Sudnick added that Williams’ mentorship has helped her develop as a scientist and prepared her for a career in science.

“The work that Maddie has done the past three years is graduate-level work, and she’s been very engaged in all aspects of the research,” Williams said. “Maddie trained with me for two years on weekends and during summers to obtain a bird banding permit and she has learned to coordinate student interns and citizen science volunteers to make sure data were collected for our research. To better involve the community in citizen science, we also did outreach events with the Rural Action volunteers, the public and Southeast Ohio Young Birders whenever the nestlings needed to be banded.”

The nest box tour is a welcome addition to the Outdoor Museum trail system, notes Dr. Nancy Stevens, co-lead of the OHIO Museum Complex.

“Maddie is an outstanding scholar. Her citizen-engaged science project with Rural Action exemplifies the spirit of campus-community partnerships that the OHIO Museum Complex fosters, and highlights the caliber of student-faculty research collaborations led by Dr. Kelly Williams’ lab that contribute significantly to STEM educational outreach.”

Williams said the community outreach aspect is an important part of the research.

“Nest box research helps us to understand how both environment and parental care affect offspring development, but it’s also important to engage students in meaningful outreach that engages the community and helps develop an appreciation for the value of bird species within modern ecosystems,” Williams said. “By working together, OHIO undergraduate students and citizen science volunteers are able to conduct monitoring that helps to contribute valuable new knowledge.”

May 20, 2020
Staff reports