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Sandhill cranes roost on UCF main campus

By Megan Elliott
On October 16, 2013

The infamous UCF squirrels may be losing their stronghold as the most charismatic animals at the university. There’s a unique creature stealing the attention of students and faculty, and it’s not as bent on stealing people’s lunches.

Whether they’re strolling near the Visual Arts Building or holding up traffic on Gemini Boulevard, UCF’s population of Florida sandhill cranes is becoming well-known around campus.

An environmental studies senior, Marisa Zimmerman, has been monitoring the behavior of the cranes since February and has asked citizen scientists — anyone who wants to help — to contribute to her research by snapping photos of the birds on their cellphones or other devices and sending them to her email address. Zimmerman is attempting to follow patterns of the cranes on campus, an unexplored area of research so far.

Three-fourths of Zimmerman’s data is from citizen scientists, mostly students and faculty, who took part in her research by submitting their photos of the birds. Since April, about 50 citizen scientists have contributed, Zimmerman said. Any photos taken since February can be used.

Florida sandhill cranes are a threatened species, Zimmerman said, primarily due to habitat loss. Zimmerman hopes that by getting citizen scientists involved, her research will raise awareness of this fact.

Zimmerman’s research will be presented at UCF’s Showcase of Undergraduate Research Excellence in April 2014.

The results of Zimmerman’s study will also be reported to the St. John’s River Water Management District, so they can be integrated into its research and monitoring programs, the program coordinator of UCF Arboretum Tina Richards said in an email.

Patrick Bohlen, who is Zimmerman’s mentor and also the director of the UCF Aboretum and Landscape and Natural Resources, said in an urban environment, the leading cause of mortality among sandhill cranes is automobiles.

Since the project began in February, one crane has been killed by a vehicle on campus, Bohlen said. The population of Florida sandhill cranes on campus varies depending on the season.

Zimmerman once spotted 19 cranes on campus, but recently, only seven of the birds — two families — have been seen foraging at the university. The Research and Mentoring Program funds Zimmerman’s research through the Arboretum, and her research is the first of its kind at UCF.

Zimmerman is the second UCF Research and Mentoring Program student at the Arboretum since the program started hiring student researchers in 2011, Richards said in an email.

Originally, Zimmerman was collecting data exclusively by following predetermined routes, or transects, around campus to observe the birds at different times of the day.

The idea to ask for help from the community arose about two months into Zimmerman’s project, when she realized that she was not collecting enough observations of the birds on her transects.

“When I was just doing transects, I wasn’t getting enough data points,” Zimmerman said. “So my mentor suggested that we get other people involved.”

Bohlen said that citizen scientists improve observational studies, like Zimmerman’s, by providing data that would otherwise be unattainable.

“Scientists are limited by the amount of data they can collect. In ecology, you’re limited by the amount of observations you can make,” Bohlen said.

Two to three times a week, Zimmerman still makes transects around campus in a John Deere Gator to observe the birds’ foraging habits and watch for changes.

“This data provides us with crucial information on the decrease or increase of the population and corresponding range info,” Richards said in an email.

Zimmerman hopes to draw similarities among the areas where the cranes are most often seen foraging.

“I’d like to know if those lands have something in common,” Zimmerman said. “To see if there is something UCF can do to make our [sandhill crane] population succeed.”

Zimmerman has also observed the marshes around campus and Research Park to monitor the birds’ nesting habits.

Although the cranes have constructed nests in UCF’s marshes, they did not reproduce on campus during the most recent mating season.

However, one of the crane’s nestings across the street in Research Park did reproduce. There could be a number of reasons for why this occurred, Zimmerman said.

“To know whether we can do anything to help manage the wildlife on campus, it’s good to know something about it,” Bohlen said. “And we don’t know a lot about the cranes other than that they frequent the landscape here.”

Until Oct. 31, citizen scientists can submit their photos with the subject line “cranes” to nature@ucf.edu.

In addition to photos, Zimmerman requires that contributors document the time, date and location of the encounter.

According to the UCF Arboretum website, students who are interested in contributing to this project are encouraged to photograph the birds at a distance, as it is a federal offense to harass Florida sandhill cranes.

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