Student researchers work alongside biology professor Darren Proppe to study songbirdsBy Lynn Rosendale | Dec. 01, 2014
With poles set about a volleyball net-width apart strung top to bottom with barely visible hairnet-thick webbing, the “trap” is set. From a speaker just below the netting “tea-Cher, tea-Cher, tea-Cher,” the call of the male ovenbird, plays.
Amid the forest, carpeted with ferns and maple saplings, student researchers accompanied by biology professor Darren Proppe sit quietly, several feet from the webbing. A few ovenbirds respond; the territorial bird is curious about the call of the intruder. The students anxiously wait.
A bird swoops in, and Proppe jumps up. “We’ve got one,” he says.
The students walk quickly to the netting to aid the entangled bird, gently freeing first the feet and wings, and then the head, and eventually the whole bird.
“This is super great,” exclaims Sammy Cowell, one of the student researchers. “This is the best day of my life.”
Cowell has long had an interest in birds; he hopes to go into international bird rescue someday.
Proppe supervises the students who take measurements and band the bird, contributing not just to Proppe’s research but to future studies on the species.
After the data are collected—the length of the beak, the bird’s sex and weight, etc.—they carefully release the bird.
“I never thought that we would actually be holding birds,” says student researcher Thuy-Nhi Nguyen. “Before I got here I didn’t know anything about birds. I knew nothing. I was so scared I was going to screw this all up.”
The wonder of birds
Nguyen, a senior biology major at Calvin, has plans to become a physician's assistant, but her summer of research opened her eyes to the wonder of birds. “Everywhere I go, I hear their sounds now. I can identify them. Before, birds were nonexistent to me.”
After lunch, the students relocate the “trap” and attempt to attract a hermit thrush. They are successful at drawing one in with its flute-like song.
This one, though, gets away before it can be measured and banded. However, they deem the first day of banding a success.
“I love ecology stuff like this,” says Leanna DeJong, another student researcher on the project. “I took the research in biology class and decided to look into it more. After I took the ornithology class, I was more excited about how complex birds are. They’re a pretty amazing part of God’s creation, and looking for them is kind of addicting, too.”
Hearing what the students have to say is gratifying for Proppe, who said they are crucial to his research. “I enjoy having the students participate in my research,” he said. “It’s great experience for them in preparation for a career or graduate school. This hands-on experience can put them over the top as a candidate for a job or graduate school. But I could not do this research without them. I’m gaining a lot, too.”
Beyond the measuring and banding, Proppe’s research involves hours of data collection from sites where birds’ songs are being played and control sites where they are not.
The effect of noise on songbirds
“The bigger picture,” he said, “is to study the effect of noise on songbirds. We’re trying to understand if we can bring birds into noisy areas where they are no longer found. First, we attempt to attract them to new areas by playing back their species-specific songs, and then we can measure how successful they are in those areas.”
In this summer’s initial study, students daily collected data at nine sites with playback speakers resounding the songs of six bird species, as well as nine random non-playback sites.
While previous studies have used playback to encourage habitat establishment by an individual species, few have researched the potential of attracting a community of multiple species, Proppe said.
What Proppe and the student researchers determined is that “conspecific [of the same species] attraction targeting a community of songbirds does indeed encourage more target species to establish territories in a preselected area,” according to their preliminary report. And the data further suggested that attempting to attract multiple species does not seem to have any negative effect on the density of any targeted species.
“This finding is important for a number of reasons. First, it validates the use of song playback as a method to increase songbird establishment in Northern Michigan forests. Second, it shows that increasing numbers of a few focal species does not necessarily result in decreased numbers for other species. And it lays the groundwork for future research contrasting song playback with human-produced noise, which generally decreases songbird diversity and density.”
Why it matters is that people like birds, and by attracting them to urban parks and roadsides, more people are likely to see birds and there is merit in that, Proppe said. “People tend to value what they see,” he said. “From the birds’ side of things, a lot of species are in fairly steep decline, and if we can increase their habitat by attracting them to areas where they aren’t normally found, that’s significant.”
Additionally, Proppe, who has done previous research on the effect of urban noise on birds, hopes to use this research as a basis for assessing whether urban noise is perceived as a negative indicator of habitat quality when presented in conjunction with birds’ song playback, which has been proven to be associated with good habitats.
Proppe plans to continue his research over the next few years to fully determine if the birds can be attracted and then if the birds are successful in the new environment: “We don’t want to bring birds in and then find that they don’t thrive and reproduce, creating a sink, or basically a killing zone.”
Birds have been eliminated from many noisy areas in the U.S. and are continuing to lose habitat, Proppe said. “We’re looking for a way to help them adapt,” he said. “Birds are an important part of our ecosystem, our culture and even our faith. Their bright coloration and songs bring beauty to the landscapes around us. But their future is in question. As stewards of the creation, we need to take action to preserve these wonderful creatures.”
Lynn Rosendale is managing editor of Spark.
Professor Proppe’s second chance
Darren Proppe has often seen God’s power and goodness displayed in nature. In fact, it’s what Proppe has built his career upon. “That’s when I’m really alive, when I’m outside enjoying God’s creation,” he said.
More recently, though, Proppe has seen that same power and goodness revealed directly in his own life. Over the last four years, he has battled cancer on three separate occasions.
In 2010, prior to Proppe coming to Calvin, a tumor caused his 20/20 vision to drop to 20/400 in about a month. Upon discovery, doctors removed part of the tumor and treated the rest with radiation. Proppe’s vision returned to 20/20, and he thought that chapter was over.
About a year later, he found another mass. This time it was identified as aggressive diffuse B-cell lymphoma. Though the cure rate is 80 percent, it required rigorous chemotherapy treatment that caused hair loss, fatigue and weight gain.
It was during this time that Proppe was called to interview for a position at Calvin. “I wanted to be honest with the department here, so I told our chair about my diagnosis and treatment. They still wanted me to come. That made a real statement to me. I had been questioning, ‘What is the future?’ and ‘Do I even have a future?’ That was reassuring to me.”
Proppe received news of a clear scan and an offer to come to Calvin at about the same time.
Upon recovering from the arduous treatment, Proppe thought he was in the clear until a scan less than two years later revealed enlarged lymph nodes once again. When another mass developed, a few months later, Proppe and his wife, Sarah, knew they were in for another battle. It was devastating news.
“This time it was really bad news as the original scan revealed that the cancer had spread, possibly to the liver,” he said. Thirteen tumors were discovered.
Proppe decided to seek treatment at MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. “They are the top cancer place in the country,” said Proppe. “They run lots of trials and have access to many more tools than any other place.”
Still, the initial prognosis was grim: 99 percent of patients with his medical history would not survive for more than one year.
“I prayed that God would show me His goodness,” said Proppe. “I kept thinking that this is not good,” he said. “I wanted to see my children grow up; I wanted them to remember me. The response I kept getting was, ‘You are about to see My power.’ I didn’t know what it meant.”
Proppe was about to find out.
In a second scan, before any treatment, the doctors found less disease than in the first one: nothing in the liver, nothing in the skin. “This was all good news,” said Proppe.
Still, they awaited results from a biopsy.
“Because of the taxing side effects from my previous round of chemotherapy, my mom kept praying for me not to lose my hair and my energy,” said Proppe. “I wanted to say to her, ‘Why don’t you just pray for me live?’ She had more faith than I did.”
When the results came back, the Proppes were stunned. Darren had follicular lymphoma—unrelated to his second bout of cancer, but perhaps related to the cancer in his eye—a slow-growing, treatable cancer. His prognosis with treatment is now nearly 100 percent to five years, with 20 years being the average life expectancy.
“It’s amazing how your perspective changes,” said Proppe. “If someone had told me when I was healthy at 39 that I had 20 years, I would be pretty bummed about that. But obviously, we were thrilled.”
Just a few weeks prior, Proppe had gone to church and the pastor had started his sermon with, “Imagine if someone told you that you had six months to live.” “I just wanted to raise my hand and say, ‘That’s me.’”
Proppe returned from Houston this spring, and while continuing treatment, he is back to researching and teaching this fall. His immune therapy treatment does not cause hair loss or extreme energy loss (his mom’s prayers were answered!).
And he is reassured that God is good. “I still struggle with why God is giving me a second chance when a lot of others don’t get that chance. Both times we’ve seen people also in intense struggles die around us.
“I really felt like I saw God’s power and goodness right after I got the terrible diagnosis, though,” he said. “I prayed and cried out to God then, and I got the clear message that we could and would take care of me and that he could and would take care of my family. I felt that God’s goodness went beyond my circumstances.”
Overall, Proppe’s outlook has changed: “Enjoy the life that you are given,” he said. “Make the best of each day, so that when you get to the end of that day you can say, ‘Thank you, God,’ and feel like you have lived a good day.”
To learn more about Darren Proppe’s journey, visit proppefamily.wordpress.com.