Skip to main content
Manon Vezinet in an underground cave wearing an Oregon State University sweatshirt.

Undergrad explores the avian world in paid summer research adventure

By Hannah Ashton

In the realm of science, laboratories aren’t always sterile white rooms filled with test tubes and machines. Sometimes, the natural world itself becomes the stage for discovery, where hiking boots replace lab coats and baby birds held with gentle hands take the place of microscopic samples.

Manon Vezinet is one of the scientists who spent last summer working with the Cornelius Laboratory, led by Integrative Biology Assistant Professor Jamie Cornelius, studying how increased frequency of unfavorable weather events affects nestling growth. Because of the SURE program, Summer Undergraduate Research Experience, Vezinet was able to experience the once-in-a lifetime opportunity to conduct undergraduate field research and get paid to do it.

“Having the opportunity to create something of my own was super impactful. Not just in progressing my career because this research could get published, but also in terms of personal fulfillment as well,” she said.

Donations to the Field-based experiences for Integrative Biology Students Dam Proud Day fund, helps more students like Vezinet see science in a new perspective and expand the realm of what’s possible.

A woman holds an adult western blue bird.

Manon Vezinet holds an adult western blue bird.

During a vertebrate biology class her junior year, Vezinet took an interest in avian species. The TA for her class turned out to be a Cornelius lab graduate student whose passion for birds spilled over into her teaching. Beyond the classroom and fields, Vezinet further immersed herself in the avian world by working on the campus aviary, gaining experience with various bird species and deepening her understanding of their behavior and biology.

“Birds bring a lot of joy to people,” Vezinet said. “I feel like it’s the one animal group that you can see almost every day and all people are connected to. Birds rely on oral communication and sight, something humans also rely heavily on. Humans just have an innate draw to birds that I appreciate.”

An Honors student majoring in zoology with a minor in chemistry, she has been drawn to field research since she started at Oregon State. Zoology degrees don’t always lead to working as a veterinarian or in a zoo-type environment, she said.

The Cornelius lab offered the perfect opportunity to combine a love of birds with the allure of field research. The lab investigates different behavioral and physiological strategies that birds use to cope with unpredictable changes in their environments. Their research could help explain why some animals survive better than others when the going gets tough.

Focusing on baby bird growth and climate, specifically temperature, Vezinet was paired with a graduate student and spent the summer months traveling to 300 nest boxes posted around Benton County.

“Everyday we would have to go out and monitor each and every one of them. So the days would be super long, sometimes, like maybe up to 10 hours and no weekends off. It was really hot but awesome,” she said. “The opportunity to handle baby birds and measure them myself was amazing.”

A woman holds a nestling.

Vezinet holds a nestling, a baby bird that can't fly yet and tends to hang out in its nest.

According to The National Audubon Society, ecologists expect to see large-scale chick mortality events with increasing frequency as a result of climate change and growing habitat loss. Research around how heat waves affect offspring during critical periods of the breeding season can help categorize which events are the most dangerous.

Without funding from the SURE program, Vezinet says she wouldn’t be able to participate in research and would have instead found a summer job to pay for college. “I am extremely grateful this program exists. I was very excited when I found out that I got funding,” she said.

The benefits of hands-on research are endless. She learned how to work in a research group, how to communicate with a Primary Investigator and operate new technology. She also learned different methods of research.

“How to measure this, why we measure that and why do we care about the data we are collecting. I learned all of that in the field,” she said. “I also learned about the importance of working with the public on scientific endeavors.”

Many of the nest boxes were posted in community gardens and people's homes. Vezinet learned how to communicate her research with the public and share the importance of putting up nest boxes.

Working with baby birds sounds like a dream come true, however, the research did not come without a few heartaches.

“There were a lot of dead swallows, one of my study species, because of the heatwaves we have been having,” she said.

Going from rolling up tiny living babies in a sock like a bird burrito to opening a nest and finding numerous carcasses was tough emotionally. Nonetheless, seeing death didn’t deter her from continuing fieldwork.

“Finding out how this is occurring makes it worth it. Making little steps towards finding out how we can help the animals we share our earth with is important to me,” she said.

Vezinet will be graduating in June and plans to take a gap year before pursuing graduate school, focusing on avian research. “I think everyone should spend more time enjoying birds, putting up feeders and watching them,” she said. “I had two spiritual moments during my research. Just holding a bird and thinking ‘Wow, we’re a part of this universe and not that different.’ I could probably cry thinking about it. Birds are amazing.”