Biology Student Profile: Jon Clark’s Love of Birds Soars at Mason

By: Calil Davis & Keosha Quigley

From a young age, Jon Clark knew he had an interest in biology.

“I was always outside flipping over rocks, looking for bugs and worms,” said Clark, whose dinosaur obsession morphed into his current love of birds.

Clark always found himself looking through field guides and encyclopedias. He even recalls being 4-years-old and specifically identifying a scarlet macaw, a South American parrot species, in a pre-school entrance interview. The interviewers were very impressed because they only expected him to say “bird”.

This passion for nature and animals intensified over time. While at Mason, Clark has taken every opportunity to fully immerse himself in conservation and environmental biology.

Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation

In 2015, Clark spent his fall semester at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC) in Front Royal, VA. The semester long program, a collaboration between Mason and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI), prepares students to work professionally in conservation and biodiversity.

The students spent time learning a variety of topics in the classroom, while participating in workshops with scientists, going on field trips and gaining work experience in a weekly practicum. Clark created a blog to document his experiences in the program.

“We spent one day out of the week working in the field that we thought we might want to go into,” said Clark, who got the chance to work with ecologist Bill McShea in McShea’s conservation ecology office. He got to participate in fieldwork and data analysis on several of McShea’s long term projects which study the role of oak trees in eastern deciduous forests.

Costa Rica

A fiery throated hummingbird perches on a branch in Costa Rica's Cerro de la Muerto forest.

In addition to ants, Clark also saw birds like the fiery-throated hummingbird in Costa Rica’s Cerro de la Muerto forest. Photo courtesy of Jon Clark.

Clark then followed up his time at SMSC by spending his 2016 spring break in Costa Rica to fulfill the lab component of his BIOL 440 class. Clark and other students spent the week observing various tropical ecosystems and habitats.

During one part of the trip, he remembers standing toe-to-toe (almost literally) with a swarm of army ants.

“These ants move out and carpet the jungle floor, looking for food,” Clark said, “Most animals just get out of their way, but they’re always followed by the most beautiful birds. So our tour guide and I just couldn’t resist getting a good look at the birds and waiting until the last possible minute to get out of the way even though everyone else had backed away much earlier.”

Researching with the Luther Lab

Toward the spring semester’s end, Clark reached out to the trip’s organizer and secured a research position with Mason biology professor David Luther through OSCAR, the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, & Research. The two spent the summer observing grassland bird populations in Northern Virginia to see how ambient noise affects breeding behavior. The research was broken into two parts: territory mapping of the Eastern Meadowlark and Grasshopper Sparrow species; and monitoring community numbers for all grassland birds.

Though they’re still analyzing the results, Luther’s past research found that male birds tend to alter their song in louder areas which reduces their bandwidth and could essentially make them “less sexy” to females.

“So far, our analysis has suggested these species are less capable of defending a large territory when it’s loud,” Clark said in an OSCAR blog post.

Clark looks forward to diving into a full-time ecology career after grad school. He and Luther are also planning to publish their research in a journal.

Tell us about your own experiences at cosnews@gmu.edu!