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Fascination with birds leads to research opportunity at Montclair State

Posted in: Science and Technology

Emilie Luttman

Emilie Luttman is spreading her wings as a graduate student at Montclair State University, contributing to the research of the endangered American kestrel, the smallest bird of prey.

Montclair State’s designation as a national research university has provided opportunities for students like Luttman to participate in a wide variety of absorbing projects. Luttman, who is working on her master’s in biology with a concentration in ecology and evolution, says she is grateful for the chance to engage in the study of ornithology, a field she is passionate about.

Since 1990, John Smallwood, associate professor of biology, has been studying populations of kestrels that breed in nest boxes he erects in New Jersey and Florida. In early March, Luttman will help him clean out the nest boxes before the birds’ arrival across the rural portions of Sussex and Warren counties in northwestern New Jersey. They will continue to monitor the boxes through the breeding season and hatching of the clutch of eggs.

The kestrel’s habitats are considered threatened, likely by a combination of multiple factors, including pesticides, rodenticides, habitat fragmentation and climate change, Luttman says. “There’s been some evidence to suggest that climate change is actually shifting their breeding season earlier and earlier, which of course could be detrimental if there’s some sort of extreme weather event that could impact the rest of their breeding season.”

Luttman has cared for penguins at Jenkinson’s Aquarium at the Jersey Shore, monitored the Piping Plover of Sandy Hook, and watched the hawks over Montclair and the ravens on campus. Until the research opportunity, the American kestrel was new to her.

“Something about their tenacity and determination against the odds really was just something that really drew me to them,” she says.