Keeper of the birdhouses

Ripon College professor Memuna Khan checks and cleans out one of her many bluebird boxes located in the Golf Courses of Lawsonia.  Laura Lyke photo

RC professor monitors bluebirds around area

by Laura Lyke
Green Lake Reporter

Mid-spring, when many college students begin packing up their rooms and dreaming of summer, Ripon College biology professor Memuna Khan and her students are just kicking their favorite research project into gear: The Ripon College Bluebird Trail.

For the ninth year, Khan and her students have place bluebird boxes around the Ripon and Green Lake area — providing not only a helping hand to bluebirds in search of a home, but an educational fieldwork opportunity for students.

A professor at Ripon College since 2006 and a bird-lover since childhood, Khan was determined to pursue her fascination with birds while going above and beyond in carrying out the mission of Ripon College to provide an intellectual, hands-on experience for students.

“I wanted to develop a research project that would keep me intellectually engaged and would provide an excellent learning experience for my students, so I came up with the Ripon College Bluebird Trail,” Khan said. “Bluebirds are cavity nesters, meaning they build nests in holes created by other species. So we’ve put up bluebird boxes around the Ripon and Green Lake area so students can observe the brooding habits, growth rate and behavior of the bluebirds.”

In 2007 the professor met with the president of the Bluebird Restoration Association of Wisconsin and was taught how to see through a bluebird’s eyes.

Keeper 2 9-9-15

Riggs County Park is home to a few of Memuna Khan’s original 25 boxes, first set in place in 2007.  Laura Lyke photo

Now on her ninth year, Khan’s bluebird trail began with 25 of these boxes and now has nearly tripled to 70 boxes today.

“We monitor the boxes weekly during breeding season, starting somewhere from late March to early April and we keep records,” Khan said. “When I know that the box is home to a bluebird I start to check it more frequently and figure out when the first egg was laid. We let them hatch and visit them on days six, 10 and 13 after the babies are born.”

Khan and her students put colored bands on the babies (made of cut down Perler Beads). Every baby has a unique color combination, enabling Khan to recognize who they are, when they were born, what box they came from, etc.

“We also catch adult females and put bands on them, as well,” she said. “I do that because I’m interested in studying brooding behaviors, where many bluebirds will have one nest where they raise a family of five, and then will just leave and raise another. Some bluebirds will have up to three brooding.”

Originally, boxes were placed on the edges of Ceresco Prairie, Barlow Park and a few backyards in Ripon, however now the project has expanded to Lawsonia, Christianos, Riggs County Park, Murray Park, and other locations in the Ripon/Green Lake area.

One pest, house sparrows, often attempt to take over many of the bluebird boxes, and are gently kicked out to prevent the bird from forming a bond with the box and taking over.

The pest, however, doesn’t keep Khan and her students from studying the creature.

“My philosophy is house sparrows are here to stay. I think it’s neat to study,” Khan said. “There seem to be fewer house sparrows here in Green Lake County in comparison to Ripon in town. So one student, upcoming senior Perry Poulos, is studying if bluebirds are less or more territorial when exposed to more house sparrows.”

Growing up in New York City, Khan didn’t have easy access to exploring a variety of species in their natural habitats. The concrete jungle, however, didn’t stop her from remaining passionate about wildlife from her early years into adulthood.

“I’ve always really loved animals since I was a kid,” Khan said. “I loved horses, but that doesn’t really work out well when you live in Brooklyn. I did get an opportunity to volunteer with the park police, however, so I really got the closest thing possible.”

Khan studied the endangered red-cockaded woodpecker during graduate school at Virginia Tech and became fascinated with how the bird exhibits a “helping behavior” (an activity of feeding young by birds that are not of parent-offspring relatedness).

Although bluebirds only display a “helping behavior” occasionally, Khan saw monitoring bluebirds as an excellent way to integrate her fascination with avian behavior into her college curriculum.

Khan not only keeps an eye on her birds during warm months, but also has been able to track a few of her birds during the winter, as well.

Some of her birds have travelled south to Dane County into the Madison area and at least one bird made it to St. Louis, Mo.

“If anybody sees a banded bluebird, please take a picture and send it to me,” Khan said. “I just love to see where my bluebirds go.”


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