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Michael W. Butler Ecological Research Award

2017 Michael W. Butler Ecological Award Recipients

This year the department is pleased to announce two recipients for the Michael W. Butler Ecological Research Award. We were able to expand support because of the on-going support from the Butler family and a contribution from Boise State’s Raptor Research Center. This award is given annually to a graduate student conducting ecological research at Boise State University. Preference is given to applicants actively involved in promoting and enhancing the graduate programs within our department.

Graduate Student Skyler Wysocki

Skyler Wysocki

Skyler Wysocki (MS Raptor Biology)

Skyler’s research explores certain mechanisms of the natural history surrounding natal dispersal in birds. Using field experiments, she will evaluate if and how body condition and access to a reliable food source affect the timing of dispersal in young birds. In so doing, she will examine a critical, but as yet untested prediction that attempts to explain dispersal in non-migratory species of birds, using western screech-owls (Megascops asio) as a focal species.

Previous studies show that dominance hierarchies are established among nestlings within a nest that ultimately translate into the pattern of dispersal, such that the most dominant individuals disperse before their subordinate siblings. If there is selection on owls to disperse as soon as capable to acquire a breeding territory before competitors, then dominant individuals likely gain an advantage from earlier dispersal. There is also former research that shows evidence for endogenous factors that increase locomotor activity in screech-owls around the time of dispersal, and such increases are associated with increases in the glucocorticoid hormone corticosterone. These processes are thought to interact with body condition. Based on these factors, juveniles in good body condition should disperse when corticosterone increases, but birds in poorer condition should not; but instead increase foraging under the influence of the corticosterone (hyperphagia). Dispersal of their siblings in better body condition will reduce aggression and competition for food in the natal area, and this enables the remaining juveniles to achieve body condition needed for dispersal, and they subsequently depart natal territories later.

While previous research published from the Belthoff Lab shows there is correlative evidence for this body condition prediction (i.e., dominant individuals disperse before subordinates), Skyler plans to test this aspect of the model experimentally. To do so she will provide supplemental food (mice) to treatment nests of owls and none to control nests. Because their body condition will be improved more rapidly, she expect owls in the supplemented nests to disperse earlier than control nests under the notion that selection favors early dispersal. Skyler also expects that variance in dispersal timing (i.e., the number of days between dispersal of first and last juveniles from a nest) will be lower in treatment nests, because all nestlings in a brood would have superior body condition as a result of the food supplements.

Skyler has just completed her third semester as a Boise State biology graduate student in the Belthoff Lab. She earned her BA in Biology with minors in chemistry and GIS from Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack Park of New York in 2015. As a graduate student, Skyler takes every opportunity to engage and involve younger generations in STEM activities. She is a teaching assistant for General Biology at BSU, and involves a few interested students in her own graduate research project every semester. She also mentored a BSU REU student this past summer who went on to present his research at the Idaho Conference on Undergraduate Research as well as the Raptor Research Foundation Conference. Skyler is involved with a local Boy Scout troop, together they built and installed 120 owl nesting boxes along the Boise River. The kids were exposed to scientific research and proper wildlife handling techniques and two of the scouts used the experience for their Eagle Scout Project and gave presentations on the work they did to their scout-mates. Through her affiliations with the Biology Department she has also made connections with local school teachers and has given multiple presentations about her research to several grade levels including high school, kindergarten, and many in between.

Hanna McCaslin

Hanna McCaslin

Hanna McCaslin (MS Raptor Biology)

Hanna is interested in addressing questions about the effects of global change on bird populations, particularly avian movement patterns. For her thesis research at Boise State, Hanna is studying the environmental drivers of avian dispersal and the effects of environmental change on dispersal at both the individual and population levels. She is using bird banding and breeding bird survey data collected over the past 55 years to study how regional and temporal variation in climate and land cover has impacted dispersal and the resulting breeding distributions in American kestrels and other landbirds throughout North America. A portion of the Butler Ecological Research Award will enable Hanna to travel to the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology to participate in the 2017 AniMove course on animal movement to gain additional quantitative skills and insight into avian movements and climate change. 

Hanna recently completed her first year as a Master’s of Raptor Biology graduate student at Boise State. She graduated from University of Utah in 2016 with Bachelor of Science degrees in Biology and Applied Mathematics. Hanna is a teaching assistant in the Department of Biological Sciences, teaching Diversity of Life labs. She is also a volunteer for the Intermountain Bird Observatory (IBO), banding songbirds at IBO’s Lucky Peak and Boise River stations, where she enjoys the opportunity to share her excitement about birds with the community. Hanna’s passion for the outdoors and ecological research is inspired by her childhood exploring the foothills and forests of the Mountain West, and she is excited to be back in her hometown of Boise for her graduate work.