Students monitor and research raptors

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Students monitor and research raptors

Luther student intern Matt Lagus ('19) watches raptors from the bird blind.

Luther student intern Matt Lagus ('19) watches raptors from the bird blind.

Forrest Stewart ('20) | Chips

Luther student intern Matt Lagus ('19) watches raptors from the bird blind.

Forrest Stewart ('20) | Chips

Forrest Stewart ('20) | Chips

Luther student intern Matt Lagus ('19) watches raptors from the bird blind.

Forrest Stewart, Staff Writer

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This fall, six Luther students are conducting field research on raptors, or birds of prey, in conjunction with the non-profit organization the Raptor Resource Project (RRP).

A grant from the Iowa Department for Natural Resources allowed the construction of a new observation sight on the northeast end of Luther’s campus. The research involves the capture, observation, banding, and release of birds that migrate through Decorah during the fall.

According to the organization’s website, the RRP “specializes in the preservation of falcons, eagles, ospreys, hawks, and owls.” Its mission is to “preserve and strengthen raptor populations, expand participation in raptor preservation, and help foster the next generation of preservationists.”

The student interns that work with the project spend most of their time at the observation sight, called a bird blind. A bird blind is a structure that allows humans to observe wildlife at close distances. Using harnessed pigeons to attract raptors, student interns safely capture the birds with a remote controlled net. Once captured, the researchers collect a variety of information about the health and migration patterns of the birds before releasing them back into the wild.

According to Assistant Director for Sustainable Communities Emily Neal, capturing the birds provides students with an opportunity to help collect important information about the birds.

“The most important type of data that we get from the bird is their health statistics,” Neal said. “Are they striving? Are they hungry? Are they well fed?”

In addition to health statistics, the researchers check to see if the bird has already been banded.

“Our favorite birds to catch are ones that have already been banded because that basically doubles the amount of information we’re getting,” Neal said.

Forrest Stewart (’20) | Chips
Luther student intern Bishal Parajuli (’20) poses with a pigeon, used to attract raptors.

By referring to an ID number printed on the band, anyone who catches a bird can find out where it has been banded in the past. Jon Stavers, a local bird researcher who often operates the bird blind, said that he has trapped birds that were banded in Greenland and Alaska.

According to RRP board member Dave Kester, the Decorah area is an advantageous setting for raptor research.

“We’re about 35 miles off the Mississippi, which is a major migration route,” Kester said. “The Upper Iowa [River], the geology of the area, and the landscape create a pretty good raptor pathway.”

The new bird blind location allows students to play important roles in the research.

“I’m pretty excited about [the internships],” Neal said. “I think the educational opportunities are tremendous. [The interns] are learning the techniques for raptor banding, they are helping collect and gather data, and then each one of them will have a small project of their own design.”

Biology major and intern with the RRP Bishal Parajuli (‘20) described the new experience.
“It’s very cool to get an opportunity to interact with other species,” Parajuli said.

“It’s an interesting job because you don’t get immediate results. You have to have patience but when you get a bird it’s really exciting.”

While data collection is an important part of the RRP, Kester explained that the organization is currently focused on education.

“[We’re interested] in developing the new generation of young conservationists and preservationists and [getting them] out in the field, out of the classroom, and out of the lab,” Kester said. “The educational component of the project is our main priority.”

This is the internship program’s first year, and Neal hopes it continues to expand.

“Ideally, if we can get students trained over time, then they could man the blind [themselves] and they could start conducting their own research,” Neal said.

Kester is also looking to the future of the program in Decorah.

“We have to grow into ourselves and grow into the site,” Kester said. “[In the future,] I want to grow the data collection aspect and have it more organized.”

In the meantime, however, Kester is pleased with the student workers.

“I’m really excited about the interest level that the interns are bringing to the project,” Kester said. “They’re coming up on their own time. They’re active. All six are great.”

The grant funding for the student internships covers two years, meaning there will be six open positions during fall of 2018. Neal encourages any students interested in visiting the bird blind to email her at [email protected]

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