West Virginia University researchers have been leading the flock in trying to find a better way to figure out the ages of birds. Now, a doctoral student has earned national recognition for her contribution to the project.

Crissa Cooey, a Ph.D. student in Wildlife and Fisheries Resources, received top honors from the Wildlife Society for her poster presentation at the organization’s recent annual meeting in Monterey, Calif. Cooey studied a minimally invasive method of taking a sample of from live birds to determine their age. Pentosidine is an end product of glycation, a process associated with aging in birds and mammals. It accumulates in body tissues over time and is easily measured in a laboratory setting.

“The only reliable methods of determining the age of birds in the past were either by holding them in captivity their entire lives, or banding them while they were still young,” Cooey said.

Neither of these methods is especially practical for researchers trying to estimate the age range of a population of wild birds.

“Once birds become adults, it is impossible to tell how old they are,” Cooey continued. “Their feathers don’t turn gray like hair does for mammals. You can’t age them by wear of teeth because they don’t have any teeth. Their skin is completely covered by feathers, so you can’t see any wrinkling.”

“It’s notoriously difficult to determine a bird’s age,” said Hillar Klandorf, a professor of animal physiology in the Davis College of Agriculture, Natural Resources and Design and one of Cooey’s collaborators. “The traditional method of determining the age of birds is through banding, and that’s very labor intensive.”

Cooey found that the least intrusive means of obtaining a usable sample was to take it from the patagium, a fold of skin that makes up the leading edge of a bird’s wing. She then closed the wound using a special tissue glue. Recovery time was shorter for these birds than other methods, and the samples offered accurate information on their ages.

Finding an effective minimally invasive method is particularly important for wildlife researchers, as it doesn’t have a negative physical impact on the birds being studied. Cooey’s method yields accurate results without harming birds or unduly influencing their behavior.

Another benefit of Cooey’s method is that age demographics of a wild bird population can be determined in a matter of weeks or months instead of years as with previous methods. It can also be applied to species survival programs in zoos to aid in paring recommendations for captive breeding programs.

In addition to Klandorf, Cooey collaborated with Jim Anderson, professor of Wildlife and Fisheries Resources in the Davis College, Brian Dorr and Katie Hanson of the National Wildlife Research Center’s Mississippi Field Station, and Elizabeth Falkenstein, a research assistant in the Davis College.

The Wildlife Society is a professional international non-profit scientific and educational association dedicated to excellence in wildlife stewardship through science and education. It has approximately 8,500 members.



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