Biology Professor Rob Smith Studies Land Birds

Rob Smith, Ph.D., professor of biology at Scranton, has been working on a preliminary project on saw-whet owls. (Photo credit: Dr. Smith.)
April 4, 2018

Rob Smith, Ph.D., professor of biology, spends time in Lackawanna State Park studying the migratory habits of land birds. (He was quoted in a recent article about volunteering in the park here.) He and his wife -- “an outdoors person like me” – get up before sunrise and head to the park to catch and tag them during migration season. Most recently, Dr. Smith has been working on a preliminary project on saw-whet owls.

Read more from Dr. Smith in the Q&A below and find out more about his research here.

Q: Tell me a little about your research in the parks.

A: We look at spring and fall migration of land birds so we’ve been in and around the local parks since 2004. We work closely with Angela Lambert [Lackawanna State Park environmental educator and volunteer coordinator] and the people in Lackawanna State Park. They've been very good to us, letting us work there.

Q: What are your research interests?

A: What we're interested in doing is finding out what habitats are important for migratory land birds. Land birds stay on land, as opposed to waterbirds -- examples are bluebirds and robins, though we don’t get a lot of those. We catch wood thrushes, American redstarts, grey catbirds,  common yellowthroats and magnolia warblers.

Q: Tell me about your owl project.

A: This is a preliminary project that we started last fall. We wanted to see if the Northern saw-whet owls were in the park. Turns out they are! We were only out there a couple nights but over the course of three nights, we caught about 15 owls. Because we found them, we’ll likely do more work in the fall.

Q: How do you catch the birds?

A: That’s a good question! We catch both owls and other land birds in something called mist nets. We put these nets in their habitat and we are there to monitor them because we don’t want anything bad to happen to the birds. Last year we set up four. They are 12 meters each. When we study the land birds, we have 15 to 20 nets running and we check them every 30 minutes or so. We bring USGS aluminum bands – individually numbered bands – so that we can track them. We either recatch them or – even better – someone else does! We had one bird recaptured in West Virginia and we know that because of the band on the bird’s leg. That doesn’t happen often!

Q: Do you work on this research with students?

A: Yes! I’ll increase efforts to include students in the fall on this owl project, but currently, I have between two and five students who come out and do fieldwork with us in the spring and fall and about the same number of students in the lab.

One of my students is actually doing his honors thesis on feather coloration in catbirds.

Back to Top