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Broadly speaking, Andrew Cox’s research interests within biology include ecology, evolution, and the conservation of birds. “Many people don’t realize,” says Cox, “that even in the best of circumstances a bird in the most pristine forest probably loses half of its young to predators.” Cox’s work, with his mentor John Faaborg of the Division of Biological Sciences, focuses on forest birds, particularly migrant birds, which winter in the south and come north to breed. “We know that the way people have used land has changed the breeding habitat of birds,” explains Cox. In Missouri, for example, much of the state was once comprised of forests. “As forests become more fragmented, it affects the lives of birds. We know that the more fragmented the forest becomes the lower the chances a particular bird has of producing young successfully.” Cox’s research seeks to understand why this is the case.
Focusing on two birds in particular, Acadian Flycatchers and Indigo Buntings—both of which reside in Missouri and surrounding areas—Cox uses constant surveillance cameras to monitor nests around the clock in order to identify the types of animals responsible for nest failure. He shows an example of a black rat snake attacking a young nestling. “Historically, we thought snakes and hawks were important predators, but we never had video evidence like this to prove it. You rarely witness the predation of an animal in the wild….We didn’t really know which animals were primarily responsible for overall predation pressures on these birds.”
Cox is also examining how predation impacts bird behavior. “There are a lot of predators out there who are visually oriented—for example, blue jays and hawks—so that the more frequently a bird goes to the nest to feed its young, the more likely it will draw attention to the nest.” Some research has shown that birds who visit the nest more often, in particular cases, are more likely to lose their nests to predators than those who visit less frequently. Cox seeks to understand the relationship between the types of predators and when they are most active, which can help to explain variation in the way birds behave. “As a small bird, you can only do so much to protect the nest,” Cox reflects. “A famous poet once said, ‘bread, tooth, and claw.’ It breaks your heart sometimes…but it’s the rule of the land, really, it’s just how things go.”