An Interview with Jennifer Calkins

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Jennifer Calkins, a biology professor at The Evergreen State College. View her project, called “The Quail Diaries:  Seeking The Origin of Callipepla

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research.

I am extremely interested in the evolution of behavior in New World quail species.  As a result of this interest and my work with California quail, I’ve become more deeply intrigued by the evolution of dynamic mating and social behavior.  In other words, I’m curious about how individual birds make choices about who they mate with and who they associate with in family groups and in coveys depending upon their social situation and their environment. The project I am focused on in the Petridish campaign involves the examination of the extent of dynamism across four species of New World Quail–a question that has implication for each species persistence in the face of habitat conversion and climate change.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

While I’ve been interested in biology since I was a kid, it was during a Marine Biology class at UCLA that I decided that I was going to be a biologist.  I always loved science and enjoyed the observation of other animals; this course made it clear to me that the study of animal behavior was an actual possible career path.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your research so far?

That California Quail families are a mix of related and unrelated individuals.  When we see California Quail during the breeding season, we typically see a male, a female, and some chicks.  People view this as a perfect monogamous (nuclear) family.  However, Quail actually spend time in all sorts of family formations (multiple males, multiple females, single males, single females) and even these apparently nuclear families are comprised of many offspring that are not the male’s genetic kin and even some that are not the female’s genetic kin.  This suggests to me that the dynamics of parentage and family behavior are more complicated that is apparent from our observations–it also raises the question of how the intense social behavior during the nonbreeding season affects how these families form during the breeding season.

While the current Petridish project does not directly investigate parentage and family behavior the differences we’ve already observed among the four species of Callipepla in social and mating behavior is likely to be a direct cause of some of the differences we may see in the ability to adjust to novel habitats.

Q: Why did you decide to post a project on Petridish?

I am very excited about this particular research project but need funding to facilitate it.  I had experience crowdfunding a project through Kickstarter.  I learned about Petridish in a conversation with Matt Salzberg and was very impressed with their approach to directly crowdfunding scientific projects–they’ve set up a strong platform that addresses very specific issues associated with funding science in this manner.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in the field?

Probably my ongoing battles with Quail predators–in particular Cooper’s Hawks and Bobcats. The Cooper’s Hawks are primary predators of many North American Quail species–I am convinced they are slightly crazy.  I’ve been dive-bombed by Cooper’s when I’ve gone to pull Quail from traps–once I stood up, Quail in hand, to see a Cooper’s headed top speed towards my face.  It veered off at the last moment, which was good.   In my experience, if a Cooper’s has started hanging around a trap it’s best to move to a different location because the Quail will never show up.

The Bobcat issue happened during one two week period.  On the first day, I set a trap, walked away to sit behind a blind and when I’d turned back a Bobcat popped up from behind a hill near the trap and stayed until I finally gave up and disengaged the trap.   This went on for a couple of weeks and I ultimately had to move the trap.  While moving traps seems obvious and easy, it actually takes a substantial amount of work to figure out exactly where to set the traps up–Quail seem to need to be regularly in a location and “in the mood” when they are in that location in order to go into the traps.

To read more about Jennifer’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

The Quail Diaries:  Seeking The Origin of Callipepla

When the environment changes, why do some species survive and others vanish? We seek answers to this question in the past and present traces left by the four closely related members of the charismatic Callipepla quail.

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