Facility enhances opportunities for novel research, hands-on student learning, and crosscutting collaborations

In September, the college officially opened its new Research Aviary, one of few such university facilities in the region.

“Virginia Tech has incredible strengths in avian biology, ecology, and conservation,” said Professor Bill Hopkins, who heads up the facility. “In the past, we have relied on fieldwork and lab experiments, but some critical questions require intermediate conditions, where captive birds are able to fly and behave in social groups. This facility, where we have some control but also seminatural conditions, bridges the gap between field and lab studies.”

The state-of-the-art facility has 16 identical aviary rooms. “We can conduct experiments and replicate them in statistically robust designs,” Hopkins said. “Each room can house a small flock of songbirds, such as finches, sparrows, and starlings, or family groups of species like wood ducks so we can observe adults raising their young, for instance.”

Other features include partial roofing of each room with an outer, mesh-enclosed area so the birds can experience daylight cycles and natural temperature changes but remain sheltered from extreme weather and predators. The birds can be observed through one-way glass panels.

The aviary is located on the west edge of campus in a research complex known as Center Woods, on university-owned agricultural field station land. Built with $700,000 in internal funding by the College of Natural Resources and Environment and the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, the facility will be used for collaborations with other Virginia Tech colleges and other universities in order to study many bird species.

“Facilities like this help us attract and retain the best scientists, who in turn recruit and retain the best graduate students,” said Dean Paul Winistorfer. “The close proximity to campus, yet relative isolation, is a benefit for our researchers and students. This is the first of more new developments to come.”

Hopkins recently finished his first experiment in the aviary, a study of how embryonic developmental conditions for wood ducks affect the hatchlings. Earlier research by his team has demonstrated that incubation temperature affects growth, the ability to regulate body temperature, the immune system, and the endocrine system. As little as 1 degree Celsius below normal incubation temperature, which could happen if the mother leaves the nest for too long to forage, can have a detrimental effect.

“But the earlier work was confined to the lab, so we were limited to raising ducklings for three weeks,” Hopkins said. “We don’t know how long the effects last, such as whether they affect the chick’s ability to mature and reproduce. The aviary allows us to follow the hatchlings to maturity.”

In addition to studies by Hopkins and his students, researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences are interested in determining whether invasive species of plants are dispersed by birds. Likewise, Associate Professor Dana Hawley in the College of Science is studying the social dynamics of house finches and their transmission of a disease similar to pink eye in humans. “In time, we will accommodate a lot of other species,” Hopkins said.

One of the biggest perks of the new facility is the educational benefits for graduate and undergraduate students. “Birds are high-maintenance study subjects, so we need a lot of hands to help care for the animals,” Hopkins said. “This animal husbandry provides entry-level training for undergraduates, which sometimes leads to independent study or even a senior thesis in my lab.”

Hopkins, a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate and director of the Global Change Center, leads both an undergraduate research program and an interdisciplinary graduate program that are among those that will utilize this new facility. “I am thrilled that the college has invested in infrastructure that can simultaneously advance our research and educational missions,” he said.