IU sophomore on ‘front end’ of sustainability research on bird migration, climate

“If there’s ever a fire, we’re supposed to grab that book first.”

That’s how one researcher describes the only copy of a binder containing nearly 50 years of painstakingly collected data on the migratory patterns of dark-eyed juncos in southern Indiana.

The person currently contributing new information to this priceless record is Lia Bobay, a sophomore environmental science major in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs who is collecting and analyzing data on the birds as a 2020 Sustainability Scholar.

Undergraduates in IU’s 2020 Sustainability Scholars Program participate in two semesters of sustainability research with access to world-class faculty on the IU Bloomington campus. Bobay’s research mentors are Ellen Ketterson, IU Distinguished Professor in the IU Bloomington College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Biology, and Adam Fudickar, a postdoctoral researcher in Ketterson’s lab.

A renowned expert on birds, Ketterson started her research on dark-eyed juncos in the early 1960s in collaboration with the late Val Nolan Jr., IU professor of law and biology, and Ketterson’s husband. The junco data log sits on a shelf outside her office in Jordan Hall on the IU Bloomington campus.

Lia Bobay and Adam Fudickar

Lia Bobay and Adam Fudickar hold birds captured at the IU Research and Teaching Preserve. Birds are released after tagging. Photo by Eric Rudd

The logs contain hundreds of pages of measurements — times, temperatures, climate conditions, bird weight and sex — with each line representing a single junco captured and released in the field. Collecting data on a single bird can take hours.

Since the fall, Bobay has been working with Fudickar to determine whether climate change has altered the male-to-female ratio of dark-eyed juncos in southern Indiana. The birds, which breed in the boreal forests of northern Canada and Alaska, migrate to Indiana during the cold-weather months of November to April. Historically, males outnumber females in Indiana and females outnumber males in southern states.

If changes in temperature influence the birds’ migration distance, Bobay predicts that a shift in the sex ratio will correlate with temperature. The results could provide new insight into the impacts of broad-scale climate changes across North America over the past half-century.

Lia Bobay

Bobay’s research experience has given her new insight into the science that influences environmental policy. Photo by Eric Rudd

“When I first applied to this program, I never thought I would get the opportunity to do this sort of work,” said Bobay, who also has a minor in sustainability studies. “I’ve really gained a new appreciation for birds and all of their variety. Once it’s brought to your attention, you really can’t help but realize how amazing they are.”

It also helps to learn from mentors as passionate about birds as Fudickar and Ketterson, the latter of whom she jokes “has about 30 bird apps on her phone.”

Although they’re primarily focused on basic data collection and analysis, the work also has potential to make a real impact.

“The more we understand about how alterations to the environment impact plant and animal life, the more prepared we are to act in response,” Fudickar said.

Fieldwork for the study takes place on part of the IU Research and Teaching Preserve, a 1,600-acre area of protected natural resources used to support research, teaching and outreach at IU. To capture birds, Bobay and Fudickar arrive at the site, located about 10 miles outside of Bloomington, at sunrise to unfurl gossamer nets across a long, muddy stretch of land on the preserve, sprinkling birdseed beneath the traps, after which birds swooping down to eat get gently caught in the nets.

After carefully untangling the birds, Bobay grasps each delicate creature in the crook of her hand between thumb and forefinger — a trick learned as part of her field training. After applying a band across the birds’ legs and taking some measurements, including a small blood sample, the animals are released back into the wild.

Lia Bobay and Adam Fudickar

Bobay and Fudickar review the original long-term dataset on dark-eyed junco migration in southern Indiana. Photo by Kevin Fryling

The measurements are made at the Kent Farm Banding Station, a recent addition to this part of the preserve that occupies a formerly abandoned building on the site. Also near the station is a small aviary that houses junco species from across North America. Fudickar is director of the banding station.

In addition to field research, Bobay’s work as a sustainability scholar has taught her advanced data management and analysis methods for seeking out correlations between the migration data and climate. She also played a role with Fudickar in working with the IU Libraries to digitize the information in Ketterson’s logs, which not only enabled the data analysis but also safely preserved the migration records in a modern digital format.

“This work really gives students the chance to experience a lot of different kinds of research, and Lia’s been very enthusiastic,” Fudickar said. “It’s great to work with young minds who can bring a fresh perspective and ask import questions.”

As a student at SPEA, Bobay said her main interests lean toward environmental policy, not necessarily hard science and fieldwork, but her experience as a sustainability scholar has given new insights into the role that environmental practitioners play in gathering and interpreting the data that informs long-term policy.


Ellen Ketterson, center, with Bobay, center left, and members of her lab. Photo courtesy Ketterson Lab.

The program will also provide her the opportunity to attend the 2016 North American Ornithological Conference in Washington, D.C., in August.

“This whole experience has helped me better understand a really important component of sustainability and sustainability practice: the actual scientific research,” she said.

“I feel like I’m really on the front end of this topic now, which isn’t necessarily somewhere I had thought I would be. And it’s really interesting.”

For more information about the 2020 Sustainability Scholars program, visit the IU Newsroom’s Student Experience Blog.