Her Beacon of Hope

Why Birds Inspire Biology Major

An ornithology class in college transformed Corina Newsome’s life. 

A junior at the time, she’d always considered birds “pretty mundane” until a professor’s passion and enthusiasm caused her to take another look.

“They were all just little brown birds to me,” she says, “and what’s exciting about that? He basically directed my attention to look closer in a way that I hadn’t before and when I did, I realized there was such a huge diversity of birds here and they’ve been here the whole time. I missed them just because I didn’t know how to look. He got me hooked, and from then on, I’ve been my own kind of crazy bird woman.”

A Deep Dive into the Seaside Sparrow Habitat

Newsome, now a biology graduate student, estimates that she can identify nearly 200 birds. Most days last summer, you could find her keeping an eye on just one — the MacGillivray’s seaside sparrow, which breeds in the coastal marshes of Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. The small, dusky songbird measures 5 to 6 inches with a long bill, and on average weighs about an ounce. The female lays from two to five eggs that hatch in two weeks.

For her research project, Newsome and an assistant set up a study site in the tidal zone near Brunswick, Georgia, to investigate predation on the seaside sparrow’s nest. The bird builds its nest in low marsh vegetation or just a few inches above the level of highest tide. Newsome explains this environment can hinder the sparrow’s success of nesting and raising offspring.

“The water rises twice a day and it’s unpredictable,” says Newsome, who will need two summers to complete the research. “It can rise pretty high, flood the nest and kill the offspring. Whenever that happens, they’ll immediately re-nest and they’ll re-nest higher to avoid the water. But when they nest higher they’re more visible to predators. So, I’m trying to see what kinds of predators they’re exposed to in their breeding habitat as well as determining the most common predators pursuing their nests.”

Newsome received grants from the Georgia Ornithological Society and Sigma Xi to fund her purchase of monitoring equipment. The equipment included floatable and waterproof camera traps and video recorders to take pictures of all the activity around the nests. She expected to see mammal predators like rats, raccoons and mink, but Newsome was surprised by some unexpected behaviors and interactions.

“Little marsh crabs tried to crack and eat the seaside sparrow eggs,” she says, adding that fish turned out to be predators as well. “One nest was too low for the tide and the water rose several inches above the nest. … You could see this fish swim into the nest and just start tearing this chick apart.” 

By studying where the seaside sparrows’ predators are highly concentrated, she hopes her findings will be a resource for wildlife officials involved in protecting certain breeding habitats in Georgia’s marshes.

Breaking Barriers

Raised in Philadelphia, the former zookeeper says she saw little diversity in the animal care field. But a meeting with Steve Hein, director of Georgia Southern’s Center for Wildlife Education, opened her eyes and drew her to Georgia Southern. While touring the facility, Newsome says she was surprised to see so many African American students working on the animal care and education team. 

“I started weeping in front of these strangers,” she says. “I thought, this is unreal. “These kids are working with birds of prey, owls, hawks and falcons; and flying and training these animals, and all kinds of native mammals. I had to cut through so much red tape and do years of interning before anyone would let me interact with an animal like that, and these students can come in and get that experience almost right away. I was like, ‘I hope you all know how blessed you are.’ This is a crazy opportunity. This place is a gold mine.”

Newsome adds throughout her academic life and professional career she grew used to being the only person of color in the room. 

“It’s tricky because whenever you look for a graduate school, you’re really looking for a professor who studies what you want to study and you just go wherever they are,” she says. “This is the first time in my life that I haven’t been the only person of color in the biology department. I wept when I saw that because I couldn’t believe it.”

Newsome says she has found extraordinary support and encouragement from the biology department faculty. She lauded Professors Ray Chandler, Ph.D., J. Checo Colon-Gaud, Ph.D., and Elizabeth Hunter, Ph.D., for their willingness to serve as advisers and mentors. While she remains unsure about her career path, Newsome says Georgia Southern has broadened her interests in blending research, education, conservation and wildlife activism.

African Americans make up nearly 14 percent of the U.S. population, but according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, barely 8 percent admit they intentionally watch birds. Newsome is aware that as a woman of color, she is breaking barriers, not only as a birder but also in the wildlife education field. She is hoping to inspire others to take a moment and observe the birds and other wildlife around them. Although many birds are lightweight and small, Newsome says they are resilient beings that “make migrations of thousands of miles without stopping over large bodies of water and survive crazy changes in temperature.” 

“When I see just how resilient they are while being something that’s so fragile, it’s a beacon of hope in a way for me,” she says. “Seeing how birds are able to thrive in very extreme environments give hope for people like myself who feel or have been told that they aren’t built for a certain thing whether that’s academically like biology or whatever the challenge might be. Birds have somehow become this symbol to me of the fact that very few things are impossible, if anything is impossible at all.”

Newsome will continue her research in the Georgia marsh next summer. 

Sandra Bennett

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