Local Professor Climbs for Crows

A Mount Saint Mary’s professor is studying the effects that climate change and antibiotic-resistant bacteria are having on the crow population.

When we were invited to Newburgh to see how Douglas Robinson, PhD, a biology professor at Mount Saint Mary’s College, studies crows, we didn’t expect that there would be an urgency to the mission. But with the subjects of the study (three 19-day-old hatchlings) about to mature to flying age, he knew he had to work fast. 

Strapping on a helmet and harness, Robinson shimmied up a 77-foot Norway Spruce in Newburgh resident Mike Fogarty’s backyard on a windy summer day. As he ascended to the sea of branches and pine needles, his assistant, Dominick DeCaterina, began setting up a station below where they would tag, measure, and take blood samples of the hatchlings. 

One aspect of the study is to investigate why crows are starting to reproduce earlier in the year. “The logical explanation is that it is getting warmer earlier in the season,” explains Robinson, who has been studying crows for 15 years. “So, whether you want to relate it to global climate change or not, the evidence stands that the incubation behaviors are shifting to earlier in the season.” Behavioral changes like this also affect other organisms, Robinson adds, and could potentially have irreversible effects in nature. “What is happening is that there are species being left in the dust,” he says. “And that dust will spell extinction after the long haul.”

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One of Robinson’s recent discoveries revealed the presence of antibiotic-resistant bacteria in the hatchlings’ environment. He wants to determine where they’re coming from and how they’re making their way into the crows’ nests, soil, and food supply. The source remains unknown, but Robinson believes it’s a direct result of how often humans use antibiotics. As a result, antibiotic-resistant bacteria are beginning to make their way into nature.

After each of the crows has been tagged and measured, he prepares himself for his second climb up the tree. The wind is getting stronger now, but he doesn’t mind. “Who wouldn’t want to do what I do?” 

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