- Associated Press - Saturday, September 26, 2015

BLACKSBURG, Va. (AP) - Virginia Tech celebrated the opening of its new research aviary on Sept. 21 by inviting the public to see the facility and ask questions of those who work there.

“We’re really excited it’s finally here,” said Bill Hopkins, fish and wildlife professor and director of Tech’s Global Change Center, which specializes in study of issues related to climate change, pollution and disease.

About five years in the making, the research aviary was built with $700,000 in internal funding from the College of Natural Resources and Environment and Tech’s Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, according to college Dean Paul Winistorfer.

The aviary is located west of the main Blacksburg campus, less than 2 miles from the Drillfield, on university-owned agricultural field station land. The site was selected because of its proximity to campus, yet its relative isolation, which should be a benefit to researchers and students.

Most universities with robust ornithology programs have research aviaries, said Dana Hawley, a disease ecologist and ornithology professor who is currently conducting an experiment at the aviary.

Tech’s lack of such a facility was “a big missing piece” in its wildlife research program, Hawley said.

But now, the university has jumped ahead with a new, state-of-the-art aviary that will allow experiments that are not possible either in the laboratory or the field, the researchers said. It is also expected to help the college achieve a number of goals.

“Facilities help us attract and retain the best scientists, who in return recruit and retain the best graduate students,” Winistorfer wrote in an email.

“Facilities often enable a competitive grant or enable linkages to other institutions and researchers who may not have such a facility at their home institution,” he wrote.

It’s just one improvement Winistorfer hopes to make.

“Our college facilities are outdated, old and inadequate in quantity and quality of space, and we are taking steps one at a time do what we can for self-improvement,” he wrote.

The aviary has 16 enclosures, each of which can hold a small flock of about 24 songbirds, or family groups of medium-sized species, such as ducks or screech owls, Hopkins said.

It exposes the birds to natural light and temperature changes, but protects them from predators and extreme weather. The facility also allows birds to flock as in the wild, creating normal social structures, Hawley said.

This allows researchers enough control over conditions to conduct a range of experiments that aren’t possible either in highly variable natural environments or perfectly controlled labs, she said.

The aviary will benefit a range of graduate and undergraduate students, as well, Hopkins said. It will create more opportunities for interdisciplinary research and hands-on learning.

Hawley’s experiment includes 106 house finches, a common songbird that suffers from an infectious disease called mycoplasmal conjunctivitis - a disease specific to birds that resembles pink eye in humans.

The bacteria that causes the disease is easily spread, particularly at bird feeders. When it emerged in the mid-1990s, it killed about half the house finch population, Hawley said. The disease can blind the birds, making it harder for them to forage and evade predators, she said.

Finch numbers have since stabilized at the lower levels, Hawley said. But researchers are looking at a perplexing issue that has emerged with this disease. Rather than reducing in virulence over time as most disease do, mycoplasmal conjunctivitis seems to be increasing in virulence, Hawley said.

The current study tracks feeding and social behaviors and how those factors affect transmission of different strains of the disease, she said.

Understanding why this is happening may boost bird conservation efforts, and could also produce insights that help humans better manage their own infectious disease outbreaks, Hawley said.

In fact, many of the experiments done at the aviary are expected to shed light on problems that transcend the bird populations studied there, Hopkins said.

“We’re using birds as a model to understand some of the most important environmental issues in the world today,” he said.

Research at the aviary could help in decoding how climate change, pollution, invasive species and disease affect whole ecosystems, he said, including people.


Information from: The Roanoke Times, https://www.roanoke.com

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