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Research Themes

Ecosystem Management

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Ecosystem management (EM) has been a major theme in my lab for over a decade, ever since I helped develop the prototype Partners in Flight large-scale bird conservation plan for the lower Mississippi Valley.  I am a firm believer in EM as a unifying concept for natural resources conservation and management in human-dominated as well as relatively pristine landscapes.  But what is it, and how does it differ from traditional natural resources management?  Rather than a primary focus on goods and services that an ecosystem supplies, the focus is on maintaining that system’s integrity; products can be extracted provided the extraction doesn’t compromise the primary goals, rather than the other way around. Rather than a focus on single species, such as game or endangered species, there is a focus on maintaining biological diversity at all levels.  The idea is that, if the integrity of the system is maintained, so will its species.  This may seem like a new concept, but it really is just a logical progression from the earliest wildlife conservation and management concepts first espoused by Aldo Leopold.

Virtually all of my students have research projects that somehow fit into the EM theme.  Many are working with species that are possible indicators of ecosystem integrity, or sentinel species for assessing environmental effects.  Many are investigating alternative ways to manage forests, agroecosystems, or wetlands, with some alternatives consistent with the goals of EM, others less so.  Often, the birds we investigate in response to management could be called indicator or sentinel species.  Other times, we take a broader, community approach.  A major component of EM is adaptive management, which can be highly quantitative, and also is a theme in my lab.  Even the more basic research I do fits into the EM theme: for example, investigating the role of insectivorous birds in forests and agricultural fields.  Each of the other major themes in the lab can be placed under the EM umbrella.


Environmental Indicators

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A common theme in my lab is investigating the effects of alternative management practices or larger land use patterns on ecosystems, and we usually choose birds as model organisms that might be effective indicators of the larger ecosystem effect.  Sometimes we take a community approach, but more often we choose one or several species that are representative of the ecosystem, and indeed may be found nowhere else.  Examples include Bachman's Sparrow in southern pine savannas, Seaside Sparrow in salt marshes, and Black-throated Blue Warblers in deciduous forests in the southern Appalachians Previous students have similarly examined the Prothonotary Warbler, Louisiana Waterthrush, Clapper Rail, and eastern indigo snake as indicator species.

The advantage of a population approach is that we can often do more detailed work, such as estimating productivity though finding and monitoring nests, estimating survival by assessing returns of color-banded birds, or estimation of habitat use and movements through radiotelemetry, that allows us to address more complex questions about the effects of land use on birds and other organisms.  These effects are often subtle (e.g., Marshall et al. 2002) and difficult to detect using abundance or presence-absence.


Climate Change

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In recent years, I have become more involved in climate change research given its potential to have large impacts on ecosystem processes. My lab is working in conjunction with other labs in our department to examine various effects of climate change at Whitehall Forest and Coweeta LTER. We offer a year-long undergraduate program, "Investigating and Modeling the Potential Effects of Climate Change on Ecological Systems," that will involve the cooperation of several of my graduate students to integrate their longer-term research with summer coursework designed to teach undergraduates how to design ecological field experiments. In addition to designing field experiments, students will learn how to develop and test predictive models, estimate model parameters, assess model fit, and improve models using adaptive feedback. This is a rare opportunity for undergraduates to become intimately involved in climate-change research.

Many of the effects of climate change on birds are largely unknown; however, there is a growing body of research that indicates birds are already being affected by warming temperatures and seasonal shifts. For example, arrival times on the breeding grounds are advancing and this may lead to asynchrony between prey availability and food sources required for nesting. Additionally, warming at higher elevations could lead to large shifts in species' ranges or elimination of suitable habitat for species that require habitats at higher elevations. Understanding the potential impact of climate change can guide conservation strategies to ensure the persistence of many of the species that may be affected by changing global climate.


Quantitative Ecology

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I have a Masters degree in statistics, and quantitative approaches to wildlife conservation and management have always seemed important to me.  Although I do not expect my students to be biometricians, I do expect their research to be statistically rigorous, and we have the necessary resources here to train students quantitatively.  In addition, however, many of my students are interested in developing an exceptionally strong quantitative foundation, and WSFNR is a great place to do that too.  Check out the web sites of some of the other quantitative fish and wildlife faculty (e.g., John Carroll, Mike Conroy, Clint Moore, Jim Peterson) and some of their courses, especially Estimation of Fish and Wildlife Population Parameters.  Collectively, I think we offer one of the best places in the country to learn about quantitative wildlife ecology and management (also see Cooper et al. 2001).

Within the overall area of quantitative ecology, we have specialized in several areas especially pertinent to wildlife and especially ecosystem management, including population viability analysis, estimation of population parameters, and adaptive management.  We have recently published papers involving modeling of population viability  (e.g., Mattsson and Cooper in press, Mattsson et al. in review), population response to pesticide application (Marshall et al. 2002), estimating and modeling nest success (Hazler 2004, Mordecai et al. in review), and survival estimation (Marshall et al. 2004).


Tropical Ecology

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Through the years I have maintained a modest tropical research program, focused on the New World tropics.  In the past I have been involved with large-scale conservation efforts in Ecuador in cooperation with a non-profit organization called the Maquipucuna Foundation run by my colleagues and friends Rebeca Justicia and Rodrigo Ontaneda. Our work at Macquipucuna mostly involved the development of an adaptive bird monitoring program that is state of the art, but can conducted and updated by local people.  It featured monitoring done in the major land types in the region, including various types of agriculture.  My lab’s tropical research has mostly involved assessing how areas such as shade grown coffee agroecosystems function relative to primary forests.  Do they contain keystone species such as army ants, and key attendant bird species?  Do birds behave the same in the different ecosystems in terms of flocking, foraging, and the like? 

More recently, the focus has shifted to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve through UGA Costa Rica where I co-teach a summer course on insect and bird natural history. Additionally, one of my graduate students, Ryan Malloy, conducts his research examining how changes in winter habitat quality and quantity affect migratory bird populations.

Overall, my research in the tropics is consistent with my interests and work in ecosystem management elsewhere.


Abstracts and Presentations from Recent Meetings

2013 Meeting of the Georgia Ornithological Society, Tybee Island, GA

  • Cline, M.H., J.L. Hatt, M.J. Conroy and R. J. Cooper. Robust design survival analysis of a migrant songbird breeding in the Southern Appalachians, the Black-throated Blue Warbler.
  • Hatt, J. L., R. J. Cooper, J. H. Cymerman. Influence of food availability on fledgling survival of Black-throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerolescens) in the southern Appalachians. Posert presentation.
  • Jones, C. D., J. Coombs, K. Stodola, and R. J. Cooper. Corridor use by Bachman's Sparrows: Over the field or through the woods?  Poster presentation.

2012 North American Ornithological Conference, Vancouver, BC

  • View abstracts here.

2012 Meeting of the Southeast Partners in Flight

  • View abstracts and presentations here.

2012 Meeting of the Georgia Ornithological Sociey, Tybee Island, GA

  • Cooper, R. J., J. Hepinstall-Cymerman, M. J. Conroy, J. Marshall Shepard, J. Hatt, M. Cline, R. Mahan, K. Stodola. 2012. A bird's eye view of climate change: Research and teaching of decision-making skills using birds. Poster Presentation.
  • Jones, C. D., J. Coombs, and R. J. Cooper. 2012. As the sparrow flies: How Bachman's Sparrows traverse a fragmented landscape. Poster Presentation.
  • Lehmicke, A. J. L., Leggett, A. H., M. S. Woodrey, and R. J. Cooper. 2012. Landscape factors affecting density of Clapper Rails and Seaside Sparrows in the Grand Bay National Estuarine Research Reserver. Poster Presentation.

2011 Meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union, Jacksonville, FL.

  • View abstracts here.