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Sparrow Nothing in Wildlife Research

Daniel Choi holding a sparrow
Daniel Choi prepares to band a Bachman's Sparrow nestling.

Daniel Choi, a Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology major spent his summer at Fort Bragg, near his hometown in Fayetteville, N.C., where his research experience was spent in the field getting to know Bachman’s Sparrows on their terms. As part of his research internship, Choi is continuing the research of fellow CNR graduate students and preparing to conduct his own original research on the birds, which are a species of concern to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. When not scouring Sentinel Landscapes for sparrows, Choi is a CNR Engaging Leaders Student Coordinator, University Honors student, Leopold Wildlife Club and CRU Campus Ministries member, and a Doris Collaborative Scholar.

Tell us about some of your internship experiences. My internship is through the Doris Duke Collaborative Scholars Program, a paid opportunity I applied for earlier this year. The internship coordinators then found me a place to work, which turned out to be under Alex Fish, a graduate student in the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources. He’s working at Fort Bragg, N.C. studying the effects of military training on Bachman’s Sparrows, a current species of concern.

A typical day for me begins at 4:45 AM., when I roll out of bed to eat breakfast, pack lunch, and make sure that I have my GPS, radio, and other essential tools. Fish, another intern, and myself leave the field house by 5:20 AM. By 6 AM, we arrive at our first field site. We split up, with our binoculars in hand, to survey a known territory for Bachman’s Sparrows. I stand quietly for 20 minutes, hoping to catch a view of a bird that allows me to see the colored leg bands and identify it. Quite often, a sparrow makes no appearance, and I then proceed to use playback (a recording of the Sparrow’s song) to entice a bird to sing. I do this for an entire hour, keeping careful notes of what I see and hear: males, females, juveniles, nests, courtship, location, behavior, etc. By now, it is fully light and we move on to our next set of birds.

Afterward, we move on to taking vegetation surveys. We do this by using a set of GPS points. Ten are points at which we saw a bird, and ten are randomly generated points for comparison. I navigate to a point, take out my clipboard and veg pole, and begin. I’m recording what type of plants touch my pole at each vertical section. On a good day, the vegetation is short grass and shrubs; I move quickly along. Other times, I must fight my way through thick, thorny, and wet bushes that are above my head.

By now it is 9:30 AM and we are all ready for lunch. We later move on to perhaps more veg surveys, nest checks, and juveniles tracking using radio telemetry. By 1:30 PM, we have had a full day, and head home to take shelter from the now blazing 95 degree heat and the humidity.

Day after day, I learn, and am still learning new things. Basic bird and plant identification, radio telemetry, practical field skills, and how to avoid the relentless chiggers. Most importantly to me, however, is new insight into my future career; I get to wet my feet and interests and see the world in a new way.

What have you enjoyed most about your internship and would you recommend your internship to other students?? I’m currently working on developing a research project with the help of Fish. I will look at female Bachman’s Sparrow survival, something that has never been done. The idea of discovering new knowledge and contributing to the scientific community intrigues me greatly. I am also attempting to produce a 3-5 minutes documentary on the birds at Fort Bragg. As a lover of photography and videography, this is very exciting. (Check out more photos from Choi’s internship here.)

I would absolutely recommend it! Both the broad Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program and the actual work it has allowed me to do. The DDCSP is both paid and a two year program. By receiving this internship you will gain diversity training, meet fellow students from 4 other universities, be assured of a research project for the summer, and much more. I even got to meet the US Director of Fish and Wildlife!

Have you learned anything interesting or cool you’d like to share? Practically, I have learned many field skills. I have also gained a little bit of experience using arcGIS. Ultimately, though, the insight into the research process has been the highlight.

Why would you recommend your major to incoming students? Wildlife Biology is an interesting major, especially here at NC State. You get to learn from experts both in the field and in the classroom. I would recommend this major to anyone who feels passionate about the environment and wants to help advance the knowledge and conservation of it.

Any advice to incoming students? There are opportunities everywhere you look: in emails, on hall walls, in classes. Don’t push anything aside! As soon as you see an opportunity, go for it! I found out about the Doris Duke program my first semester of classes. If you wait or just decide to “look into it later,” you WILL miss out. But if you take the initiative and respond to emails, talk to your professors, and keep in touch with your adviser, you’ll find yourself having to choose between opportunities instead of grasping for even one.

What do you plan to do after graduation? I would like to apply for and participate in the Directorate Resource Assistant Fellows Program with the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Completing this program essentially proves to the FWS that you will be a valuable employee. You are able to bypass the general applicant pool and slip into a job with the FWS without further competition. I hadn’t head of this program until the first week of my internship, during which the entire cohort of interns spent time at the National Conservation Training Center.

Why do you feel CNR has prepared you for life after graduation? I feel that I have learned incredible things during my first year in college. Practical fields skills, professional skills, problem solving skills, etc. I still have much more that I need and want to learn. I think that CNR has kept my passion stoked, broadened my interests, and inspired my to do more; those qualities will surely help me find success wherever I may go. Opportunities abound throughout CNR and NC State. I’m grateful for the faculty, staff, and other students who have taught, encouraged, and pushed me. CNR is a family, and it is that family that has allowed me to get where I am today. Thank you!