Cara Carne '12 is conducting research on yellow warblers.
Carne: "The first time you hold a bird is a magical moment."
Cara Carne ’12 has a lot of pluck.
The biology major is spending the summer conducting
research on a small population of yellow warblers. She describes the birds as “pretty
special,” because, among other things, “they migrate all the way from Central and
South America to spend just a few short, hot summer months here in the Eastern United
States to breed and raise their young.”
For Carne, whose project is titled The effect of decreased immunity on reproductive
success in male Prothonotary Warblers, Protonotaria citrea, the warblers’
sojourn to the U.S. represents a special research opportunity.
To read more Student Experience stories, click here.
Carne, who hails from Crozier, Virginia, is participating in R-MC’s Schapiro Undergraduate
Research Fellowship (SURF) program, a dynamic program
that gives students the opportunity to conduct original research under the guidance
of a faculty mentor.
“I decided to conduct research on warblers for a number of different reasons,” says
Carne. “After growing up with a variety of animals in rural Virginia, the opportunity
to work intensely on a population of wild warblers was very appealing. Being able
to hold the birds and relate things to them that I’ve read about vastly heightens
the learning experience.”
Carne’s research has enabled her to get a bird’s-eye view of the warblers’ world.
“Every day, Professor Sarah Huber (biology), Amanda Steinagel ‘11 and I head to
Deep Bottom County Park in Henrico County, Virginia, pack up our canoe and paddle
ourselves down Four Mile Creek and Seidenberg’s Stretch, where we hand-check over
75 individual nest boxes. The birds typically build their nests within cavities
of trees. However, sometimes trees are a little hard to get to and these nest boxes
are very convenient.” The wooden boxes are each about 8”x5”x5” with a one-inch hole
in the front. In 1987, more than 300 nest boxes were set up along the James River;
Carne and her cohorts are responsible for a small portion of the field site.
Carne’s research also includes genetic testing. “We take a blood sample from the
ulnar vein underneath the wing to use for DNA paternal testing,” she explains. “We
then conduct blood smears, which we use to identify particular parasites the birds
may be carrying.” The main objective of this study is to determine how parasite
load not only reflects plumage hue but also how these parasites affect a male’s
“I’m curious to see if having a high number of parasites restricts the number of
healthy offspring he’ll be able to raise,” says Carne. “The brightness of the males’
feathers reflect his parasitic load – the brighter the plumage, the fewer the parasites,
and vice versa. Females are attracted to brighter colored males, presumably for
this reason. I’ll not only quantify plumage characteristics but also document immune
responses (such as white blood cell production) and Haemoproteus parasitic
load. I’ll then compare these results and determine if there is any correlation
with reproductive success, such as number of offspring.” Carne and Steinagel also
pluck feathers from the tails, crests and breasts of the birds, and they record
measurements such as beak length, tail length and mass.
Throughout the summer, Carne has been sharing her research experiences by blogging
via the R-MC Web site. The SURF program has allowed her to stretch her own wings.
“Honestly, how many people wake up in the morning and get a chance to hold a bird,
let alone study the intricacies of its life?” she asks. “The first time you hold
a bird is a magical moment. Their hearts feel as if they are pounding through their
chests and their black, beady eyes stare off into the distance. However, my favorite
moment is when we release the birds. They’ll take a single breath and before you
know it, they’re gone.”
The SURF program was established in 1995 through a generous gift made by Ben '64 and Peggy Schapiro. The Schapiros continue to support this program, which promotes scholarly undergraduate research by R-MC students in all disciplines.
To read Carne’s blog entries and the blog entries of other R-MC students, visit