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October 3, 2023

Science students document a living laboratory

Courtesy of Jan Janes, Gavilan College:
High in the hills above Gavilan College, off the beaten path, students have installed bird boxes to shelter house wrens, tree swallows, kestrels and owls.
The Bird Habitat Project offers students hands-on science skills as they place the boxes and then visit one to three times each week to document avian activity. Begun in 2016 as a STEM internship project by Andrea Alvarez, the project transitioned to new students after she graduated and transferred to UCSC.
Students Alexis Miranda, from Hollister, and Juancarlos Rojas, from Gilroy, currently lead the project. They presented their findings at the STEM symposium in August 2018. The team has scouted additional locations on campus. They are also looking to expand to other locations, including Gilroy Golf Course and Santa Clara County Parks locations.
“For my project I sighted blue birds, house wrens and tree swallows,” said Miranda, an environmental chemistry major. The monitoring and findings are posted on birds.cornell.edu, a site managed by Cornell University. She also works as a student lab technician preparing materials for classroom experiments.
A chemistry major, Rojas worked on the Bird Habitat Project as a STEM intern as well as his own project, analyzing the deactivation of glyphosate using absorption. He likes being able to see behind the scenes. “Normally, students see finished studies and the pretty work,” he said. “With the internship, I got to see a lot of the STEM work behind the scenes.”
Rojas participates in MESA (Mathematics, Engineering Science Achievement) and is the historian for the college SACNAS (Society for the Advancement of Chicanos/Hispanics and Native Americans in Science).
An early fall hike high into the hills behind the campus revealed activity at installed nesting boxes. “We observe nesting, laying of eggs, document when the offspring fledged and left the boxes,” said Miranda, who plans to continue working on the project this fall. “We would like to get more students interested.”
Students use a GoPro camera equipped with software that records the exact location. The camera can be inserted into the bird entry area to record occupancy and activity. Through the season, students note arrival, occupancy, count eggs, count chicks and record when the young birds leave the nest.
Owls are nocturnal, so they can be observed in the nesting boxes during the day. The owl diet consists of insects, squirrels, rats, gophers and snakes. They digest the fleshy portions of their kill, then regurgitate undigestible fur and bone, often in the vicinity of the nesting boxes.
Owls do not compete in the same hunting grounds. The nesting boxes are located a substantial distance apart. Owls know, by their neighbors’ calls, how far apart they are spaced.
Key volunteers who mentor the students and help them construct the nesting are Lee Pauser and Dave Stocks. Owl boxes are cured for six months to eliminate human scent.
Golf courses are a possible location for expansion of the Bird Habitat Project, where the owls would serve as natural rodent control.
“Rodents really do a number on a golf course and create a lot of damage,” said Don DeLorenzo, general manager of Gilroy Golf Course on Hecker Pass Road. “In a perfect world, we would love to have 20 boxes installed, have the owls take care of the mice and gophers.”
As more nesting boxes are built and students monitor the boxes on campus, Miranda and Rojas are also busy with their academic work.
Miranda is currently taking chemistry and math, on track to complete her transferable units in Spring 2019. She plans to transfer to UCSC and continue studying environmental chemistry. Her career goal is to work locally as an industrial hygienist developing work protocols and safety processes.
Rojas will take more chemistry, math and physics. He plans to transfer to a CSU or other school where he can pursue a degree in chemistry or dendrology, then travel everywhere.
Guiding the program, instructor Rey Morales has a vision as well, noting the hands-on training the life sciences programs offer.
“My dream is to have the student internship program institutionalized. It will deliver practical experience to students in the arboretum, with the birds on campus, as lab tech assistance, paid for by work study funding,” he said.
Contact Morales about STEM participation as well as opportunities to collaborate on projects.