A Bird in the Hand

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Many children learn to identify and appreciate birds from a backyard feeder, but how many go so far as to order live eggs and an incubator out of a magazine? Davidson Professor of Biology Mark Stanback ’84 did, and spent several years of his childhood raising a pet quail named Phil. “He imprinted on me from hatching and thought of me as his mom,” Stanback recalled.

Thus began a rich and rewarding lifelong career in ornithology. Growing up in nearby Salisbury, N.C., Stanback volunteered at the Carolina Raptor Center as a Davidson undergraduate, and wrote his Ph.D. thesis at UC Berkeley about cooperative breeding in acorn woodpeckers. “At first glance, theirs appears to be a sort of a free love society where all mate with all,” he explained. “But the reality of incest avoidance and cut-throat competition is even more interesting.”

After a stint in Namibia studying hornbills, Stanback joined the faculty at his alma mater in 1995. Since then, he and his students have conducted a succession of research projects on local bird species. “Although my birding skills are fair, my real passion is using birds to answer ecological and evolutionary questions,” he said.

Stanback’s student researchers travel to farms and golf courses in the Davidson area, gathering and analyzing data on the inhabitants of the 500 or so nest boxes Stanback has erected in the region. They’re investigating nest-site competition between bluebirds and brown-headed nuthatches, nest spacing in barn swallows, the effects of nest parasites on baby Carolina chickadees, and roost cavity use in eastern screech owls.

Another study, conducted with Pat McGovern ’11 (right) and David Millican ’11, involves the role of ambient temperatures in the nesting ecology of tree swallows. Formerly a breeding bird of the north, tree swallows have been expanding their range southward. Stanback’s site at the Lake Campus represents the southeastern-most population in North America. By monitoring hatching success and chick condition in control (warm) and manipulated (cool) boxes, Stanback and his students have demonstrated that, surprisingly, tree swallows tolerate the warmer temperatures in these Southern climes.

—Bill Giduz

Photo: Bill Giduz

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