Chelsey Watts stands amongst bushes and trees holding a bird.

Preserving nature’s music for future generations

June 18, 2024
Author: Rachel Stern

Chelsey Watts researches local bird species

Safeguarding birds for future generations is crucial, says Chelsey Watts.

“Some of the essential sounds of nature when you walk outside is birds singing. I would hate to imagine a world where you don’t hear that,” says Chelsey, a VIU Bachelor of Science student majoring in Biology. “I want to work on conserving these habitats and protecting these species as best I can for future generations to be able to hear birdsong. It’s so important for our mental health for people to get outside and experience nature and part of that is listening to the birds sing.”

Chelsey is currently researching bushtits, a small grey songbird about the size of a hummingbird, that gathers in flocks in thick dense shrubs along the Pacific coast. Bushtits exhibit helping behaviour, which Chelsey says is rare in bird species. They are called helpers because adult individuals who are not the breeding pair will help raise chicks in the nest by feeding them or incubating the eggs and keeping them warm while the breeding pair is out of the nest feeding.

Chelsey Watts holds a baby tree swallow in her hand.

Chelsey Watts bands a baby tree swallow.

Over the last 100 years there has been very little research on bushtits, says Chelsey. 

“For studies on their population dynamics, it is important to correctly identify the sex of individual bushtits out in the field. Our current knowledge tells us that males and females can be identified by their eye colour. When all bushtits hatch, they have dark brown eyes and as they mature it’s believed the males retain this colour while the female’s eyes turn pale yellow." 

Chelsey says there has been debate about this method of identification over the years and past studies have shown that eye colour could be sex-related or age-related. With the advancement of DNA technology, Chelsey can now shed light on this issue.

She’ll catch and release the birds through the VIU Bird Banding project. Chelsey will take photographs of the eye colour, biometric measurements like wing and tail length, and take two tail feathers from adult bushtits, to analyze them using DNA extraction and polymerase chain reaction (PCR) methods. She will look for specific markers in the sex chromosomes, which will identify whether the bird is male or female.

Once Chelsey has sequenced their DNA she will upload the data to GenBank, a global database for genetic data. She says bushtit genetic information isn’t in the database so adding it allows future researchers to access that information.

“Every piece of research adds to our collective knowledge base,” says Chelsey.

Her research can give insights into the population dynamics of bushtits and studies like these are important to predict if the species population is increasing or decreasing. She says if the species is decreasing, researchers and conservationists can look at the bigger ecosystem picture to identify things that could be contributing to the decline.

While bushtits aren’t currently listed as an endangered species, Chelsey says it’s important to protect them because they are a native species to BC and Nanaimo. Chelsey says over the last 50 years there have been declines in bird populations worldwide with an estimated three billion birds lost from North America alone.

“I’m a bird nerd so hearing about the sharp decline in our local populations is upsetting to me. And with the effects of climate change, everything has a huge impact on these species that are small and are a part of nature,” she says.

Chelsey says lots of resources are put into protecting endangered species but she thinks it’s important to also study native species to protect them and their habitats before they become endangered.

Chelsey received a VIU CREATE Project Pitch grant to help pursue her research. She is being mentored by Drs. Eric Demers and Jamie Gorrell.

“Chelsey’s research provides an opportunity to combine molecular lab methods with ecological observations made in the field. She has embraced this chance to build up a broad set of skills as a biologist while feeding her passion for birds,” says Eric.

Chelsey became interested in bird banding after Dr. Eric Demers visited her second-year ecology class to talk about the VIU Bird Banding project.

“The first day I got to release my very first robin. It lit something inside me. I was like ‘You know what, I love doing this’ and I just couldn’t get enough after that,” she says.

Chelsey says one of the highlights of attending VIU is the hands-on learning she gets to do in the field. As part of her course’s labs, she’s gone to Cumberland to explore wetlands, she’s explored peat bogs and taken soil samples. For a botany class, she went to Morrell Nature Sanctuary and identified both invasive and native plant species in the area.

“You get a lot of hands-on experience in close contact with these experts in their fields. I don’t think you get that at larger universities,” says Chelsey.

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