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Undergraduate researchers have something to crow about

Undergraduate researchers have something to crow about

Published: May 12, 2015

The road to undergraduate research can take the most interesting turns for students at UW Bothell. For Bri McCloskey, Alex LeFort, and Alexi Menth their road included a stop in lecturer Doug Wacker's animal behavior class, which covered a popular community of crows.

For those who haven’t seen or heard them, UW Bothell would not be the same without the murder of crows. During the fall, winter and early spring months, they often fill the dusk skies above campus, covering trees and rooftops before ducking into the wetlands for the night. Their presence has raised the curiosity of faculty and students, inspiring lecturers like Wacker, a lecturer in the School of STEM biological sciences division, to conduct research on the crows' social vocalizations.

By time they completed the animal behavior class, the three were hooked on the feathered bunch and began assisting Wacker in his research. They’ve made great progress in beginning to understand just what those crows are talking- or cawing- about on campus.

“We have been in the process of taking some recordings and linking them to different behavioral contexts to get a better idea of how crows are using their calls to communicate,” says Wacker. So far, it is well known that crows tell each other when a predator is present and when to flee from it or mob it. Wacker is convinced that the intelligent birds have more to talk about than just predators, “They have so many different vocalization types that it seems unlikely that they are using 20 plus calls to just communicate those two things.”

All three undergraduate researchers were awarded scholarships to the annual Society for North Western Vertebrae Biology regional meeting, where they presented their research on crow vocalizations. Menth received an award for best poster, and LeFort was offered an internship with the Northwest Entomological Research Center. “Working under Dr. Wacker, you truly feel like your potential is endless,” says McCloskey.

You can learn more about the crows on campus here.

Crows flying

Photo credit: Laurie Anderson, Ph.D.