Sarah Winnicki

Professional Title,Sarah Winnicki with Grasshopper Sparrow

Graduate Student

University Department, Lab:

Boyle Lab in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University

Brief Bio:

I have been fascinated by birds since I was a toddler, so I have taken every opportunity I could to study birds! I started studying populations of breeding birds, searching for the reasons why the birds lived in certain habitats but not others. As an undergraduate at Denison University (Ohio) I studied Red-winged Blackbirds on the Lake Erie Islands and Grasshopper Sparrows in Kansas. I became interested in the Grasshopper Sparrow’s babies (nestlings) when I noticed that they grew at different rates/speeds, so I came back to Kansas to continue to study these birds as a Master’s student at Kansas State University. When I’m not studying birds, I’m cuddling my cats, reading Star Wars novels, or talking about science on Twitter!

Current Research Question:Speckled Kingsnake at Dickcissel nest

Why do grassland songbird nestlings grow at different rates and develop in different ways? What are the effects of predation, parental care, and brood parasitism (the cool breeding system where one bird lays its eggs in another bird’s nest) on growth and development?

Background on Research:

Humans grow up at different rates and develop in different ways, and so do baby birds! I want to know why one sparrow may grow faster than a sparrow in a nearby nest, and I think that it might have something to do with the threat of predators and brood parasitism at the nest. Snakes love gobbling up sparrows, and sparrows in Kansas fall victim to Brown-headed Cowbird brood parasitism—cowbirds lay their eggs in sparrow nests, forcing sparrows to feed their big, hungry babies! We want to know if these pressures affect the way the sparrow babies grow up.

Overview of Methods Used:

My crew and I spend every day of the summer on the beautiful Konza Prairie in NE Kansas, watching adult birds and searching for their nests. Finding the nests is hard work because they are really well-hidden in the prairie grass, so we use some interesting techniques, like dragging a rope through the grass and watching for adult birds flying away. When we find the nest, we monitor it by visiting every other day and (sometimes) putting up nest cameras. We measure over thirty aspects of the baby birds’ (nestlings’) growth every other day, including the length of their leg bones, their weight, and  their feather development. We pay very close attention to the presence of cowbird and predators at the nest!

Konza Prairie

Connecting with Sarah Winnicki:

I am more than happy to connect with classrooms and other public audiences! In the past, I have chatted with classrooms in person, over Skype, and through blog posts and emails, but I am happy to connect in any way that works best for the audience.

Let Sunset Zoo's Behind the Science staff help connect you with Sarah Winnicki by emailing behindthescience@cityofmhk.com.

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