College students solving mysteries at local wild bird rehab

Published: Apr. 10, 2022 at 12:24 AM EDT
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QUECHEE, Vt. (WCAX) - The Vermont Institute of Natural Science attracts thousands of bird lovers every year to get a glimpse of the raptors in rehabilitation.

Emily Curd is an assistant professor of natural sciences at Landmark College. Curd says during one of her visits to VINS she noticed some raptors didn’t have their sex identified in the exhibit.

“Birds don’t always, you know, they don’t always let you know. They leave their internal organs on the inside. And unless they’re different, unless their sexual dimorphism, where the males and females look different, sometimes it’s not easy to tell,” said Curd.

So, VINS partnered up with Landmark, and Curd’s Principles of Biology class has spent the past four weeks analyzing the DNA of eight birds of prey at the rehab center.

“If you can give students a goal, and they can see, ‘Oh, look, there’s actually a real bird. There’s a real exhibit. An animal ambassador will provide information.’ And maybe it doesn’t change much about their lives, but we can solve a minor mystery,” said Curd.

Curd says there’s a tiny bit of DNA at the tip of a feather, and they conduct a test called gel electrophoresis, which determines if the bird has two sex chromosomes or one. Two indicates a female, and one indicates a male.

“I think it pipetting was really fun, being able to extract the DNA and being able to see what it looks like under the gel and all that,” said sophomore Alex Kairatsous.

Work from the students at Landmark College indicated that two turkey vultures at VINS named Poultney and Randolph have two different sex chromosomes indicating that they’re female. This is information the museum didn’t have prior, and now it can help them understand them even more

“It does give us a better understanding of their kind of behaviors during nesting or breeding season,” said Emily Johnson of VINS.

Members of the VINS community have been voting on what sex they think each bird is, and Saturday the results of the class’s findings were shared to the center and the students.

“It’s kind of cool that there’s an actual bird out there that I’ve learned about, and I might actually see him around here which, would be pretty awesome,” said sophomore Hannah Goldman.

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