Art and science combine in warbler research

Taylor Thornberg
Spectrum Editor

VCU biology professor Lesley Bulluck holds a prothonotary warbler, a species that nests on the James River every summer. Image courtesy of Hannah Huddle

Hannah Huddle wants to bridge the gap between science and art. She’s not the first, but she is the first to use the prothonotary warbler as her medium.

After studying the warblers, a migratory bird, all last summer with an ecology research group at VCU, Huddle began planning a long-term fine art project about the process of scientific research.

“I wanted to do something that was like an art-biology overlap, and I thought that it would be a good opportunity with the UROP to do something.” Huddle said.

The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program at VCU, or UROP, awarded Huddle a $1,500 stipend that was matched by the arts school. This money allowed Huddle, a communication arts and biology double major, to do field research with the ecology group and collect data.

Huddle said the group has been studying the warbler’s growth rates since the late ’80s. She worked with Lesley Bulluck, a VCU professor of ornithology and biology, and two graduate students, who were each studying different aspects of the warbler’s habitat on the James River.

“One was focusing on the food supply, like the amount of food they ate and how that affects growth rates, and the other was looking at toxins in the James River.” Huddle said.

M.J. Foster, an environmental science major at VCU, has also taken part in the research project for the past two summers. They said the project has been going on since 1987, and they became involved through Bulluck, who was their biology professor.

Foster said they also got a UROP scholarship for $2,000 that paid for their living expenses for the summer. For their part, Foster studied feather reflectance and “spatial structure of the system,” which they said is just as complicated as it sounds. Foster published this research with Bulluck and a fellow student.

Huddle said the birds are good bioindicators, or organisms that can be used to monitor an ecosystem’s health. The project is also geared toward a conservation effort, as the researchers are building nest boxes.

Because the warblers are migratory birds, they return to the same places along the river every summer, and the nest boxes give them a home to come back to. Foster said the birds are especially important because they will live in these artificial nests.

“They are one of the only migratory birds that will live in artificial nest boxes so we know exactly where they will be each year, natural nest searching is totally a hassle,” Foster wrote in a Facebook message. “And this can clue into other similar species which are harder to study and more threatened, like the golden wing warbler which the lab also studies.”

Both Huddle and Foster were able to study abroad for two weeks in Panama during winter break from December 2014 into January 2015 to study the warblers’ winter habitat in comparison to their summer habitat.

Huddle is presenting her research through a series of paintings, drawings, photographs and charts that she hopes to turn into an exhibit. She created a zine about the warblers and the ecology research surrounding them and handed out copies at Richmond Zine Fest in October 2014.

“This is just about sharing and getting people excited about ecology research, and also hoping to kind of inspire people who do science stuff to look at how stuff could be laid out to be art or seen as art.” Huddle said.

The next step in Huddle’s project is to collect and organize her art along with the research and exhibit it in a local gallery. She said she’d like to exhibit both her sketchbook and paintings, and photographs and charts that other students involved in the research project created. The goal of the exhibit would be “to capture the experience of research” according to Huddle’s research proposal.

She will present the research aspect of her project in a poster at the UROP poster symposium on April 22 on the second floor of the Student Commons.

“I wanted to use art to show a different side to science,” Huddle said, “(to) use art to show the energy and the excitement that people who do the scientific research really have.”

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