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Bird Skull

Cult of CORAX

Cult, n. (french, latin), 5 a : great devotion to a person, idea, object, movement, or work (as a film or book); especially such devotion regarded as an intellectual passion; b : a typically small group of people characterized by such devotion

Corax, n. (latin), 1 : the common species of raven, noted for its intelligence, curiosity, and an appetite so large it gave rise to the descriptor 'ravenous’; 2. CORAX : acronym for an exclusive band (cult) of Willamette University undergraduate researchers whose intelligence, curiosity and appetite for knowledge rival that of their feathered namesake, founded and led by associate biology professor David Craig, the “c” in CORAX, and a man who considers it his life’s work to infect students with his own strain of bird flu

Indeed, Craig’s enthusiasm is contagious. Perhaps that’s what drives more than 40 students a semester to approach him to be their advisor—that and the opportunity to be directly involved in his various field research projects.

“Dave was a great advisor,” says Sam antha Lantz, who fledged from Willamette and CORAX in 2005. “He encouraged us to think for ourselves and to ask questions beyond those we were directly studying. I came in thinking about going into biotech or pre-vet studies and ended up as a field biologist. Dave definitely got me excited about working with birds.”

Thanks to Craig, a lot of Willamette students are excited about working with birds, despite hazards including long hours, bird bites (“tern kisses” as the group calls them), and every form of extreme weather imaginable, including the inevitable storm of what Zach Holmboe ’03, MAT’04, refers to as “excretory rain.”

Craig formed CORAX in 2001 as a way to encourage and reward dedicated undergraduate researchers. Craig’s Outstanding Research Associates—the X in CORAX is a variable for behavior or ecology—enjoy their own laboratory next to Craig’s office. On the door is a list detailing “the Pecking Order,” with Craig himself ranking as the “Big Bird,” along with the following statement: “A group of ravens is called an unkindness. It can also be a 'constable’ or 'conspiracy,’ depending on what they are doing at the time…. Those named below are a part of a constable for the CORAX lab. They are in charge of keeping the lab orderly. If they do not, they will be told to flock off….” Other rules of membership include the responsibility to grow the network of research colleagues and to participate first-hand in Craig’s field research.

Caspian Tern

In recent years, that research has increasingly focused on Caspian Terns, the world’s largest species of tern and one of the most widespread, with colonies on every continent except Antarctica. The species is endangered everywhere outside North America, including their homeland at the mouth of the Volga River near the Caspian Sea, where a special preserve has been established to protect their dwindling numbers. Such is not the case here in the Columbia River estuary.

Caspian Terns are typically found in colonies of about 50 pairs, though Craig’s colleagues in Finland, Sweden and South Africa have reported colonies up to 500 pairs intermixed with other seabirds. In contrast the Columbia River estuary is home to the world’s largest colony of Caspian Terns—nearly 10,000 pairs nesting as a single group. “Whether you look at the situation from a theoretical or an applied research approach,” Craig says, “the obvious question is 'Why?’”

The answer appears to be that for 15 years, Portland created Caspian Tern paradise in the Columbia River on Rice Island. “In the past, bare sand islands like this one would last for only a few years. They’d erode or become overgrown with vegetation, and the birds would move on,” Craig says. “Because the Port of Portland is 70 miles inland, we dredge the river so big ships can sail in, and that annual dredging creates fresh islands that are bare, predator-free and ideal for these birds.” Not to mention the unlimited food supply. Salmon hatcheries dump nearly 200 million smolts into the Columbia each year. “It’s like filling a bird feeder with fish,” Craig says. And therein lay the problem.

“My real joy comes from seeing students develop a sense of service, a passion for the intellectual life, from seeing them get internships and jobs through the corax network they’ve built. They think this networking is normal, but it’s value added, it’s the intellectual endowment growing with each new graduate, and it’s sweet!”

Studies revealed the burgeoning Caspian Tern colony could consume up to 15 million salmonids each year, so in 1999 the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies provided grants to Craig and other experts to help move the birds further down the river to East Sand Island, where they could feast on a buffet of herring, anchovies, sardines, shiner perch and other fish that thrive in the estuary waters. Much to the delight of scientists and the relief of salmon advocates, a laborious process called “social facilitation” involving decoys and tern calls was successful in relocating the majority of the colony to East Sand Island. The move has reduced salmon consumption by 40 to 50 percent, and the goal now is to break this single large colony into many smaller colonies throughout the western United States.

To do this, Craig and students are now focusing their research on long-term issues like migration and breeding. “Things don’t add up with these birds,” Craig says. “We are getting more birds from someplace that we don’t know about, and in some years, young birds who are supposed to be breeding don’t show up here in the Columbia River estuary. I’m interested in their migration, how and where they’re going, and what’s happening on their wintering grounds.”

Caspian Terns feed their fledged young during winter migration and apparently feed them longer than any other tern species. Since the greatest mortality in these birds occurs in the first two years, Craig hypothesizes the long parental investment is necessary for fledglings to learn to feed. If wintering ground conditions are particularly conducive to this process, it might help explain the growth in Caspian Tern colonies in this region.

With grants from the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and Willamette University, Craig has started tracking the terns with satellite telemetry units, GPS devices weighing only 18 grams, that can be strapped onto the birds like tiny backpacks—albeit expensive backpacks, with a price tag of $4,000 apiece. Signals are transmitted to computers in Maryland, Seattle or Toulouse, France, and then Craig and his students receive an email about the location of a particular bird.

While tracking harnesses have been used on other bird species including osprey, eagles and albatross—all much bigger birds—Craig and his students had to devise a tern harness that would not interfere with the birds’ natural behavior or endanger their well-being. Researchers at the University of Washington tagged terns with similar devices in 2005, but the harnesses proved lethal. Most of the birds were found dead within two weeks, their beaks trapped in the harness material.

Beach and Terns

Confirming his theory that who you know can be as important as what you know, Craig made a call to a friend from graduate school who had used fabric harnesses to study iguanas in Puerto Rico. That friend encouraged Craig to contact Nike, which was boasting a new shoe with “the toughest fabric ever invented.” Nike “Imagineers” got behind the project and helped Craig analyze a variety of neoprene- and lycra-based fabrics for the backpacks. They provided samples and put him in touch with a wholesaler, who donated the final selection—a fabric that was lycra on one side, neoprene on the other. Once fashioned into a harness, Craig and the Imagineers dubbed it “The Terncoat.”

Creating the harness was quite an adventure for Samantha Lantz ’05 and Joel Shinn ’05. “We had two captive terns that summer, Wild Bill and Tiny Tim,” Lantz recalls. “We tried out different harnesses on them and perfected the fit for the satellite tags.” The two CORAX members spent hundreds of hours observing and videotaping the terns’ reaction to various cuts and fits of harnesses in what Craig calls “the summer of captivity,” referring to both the birds and the students. The final design, based on the template of a peregrine falcon harness, is light-weight, snag-proof, waterproof, diveproof and won’t interfere with the birds’ normal activities.

Once they had the backpack, they needed the birds, so last summer Craig and seven students headed to the shores of East Sand Island, armed with binoculars, pliers, clipboards, wire cutters, bird decoys, a net launcher, netting, terncoats and tags. Early attempts failed to corral the birds within close enough proximity of the net launcher, so the team regrouped, moved their decoys and waited. Their patience paid off, with eight terns captured under the arcing net.

After the well-orchestrated team effort to grasp each bird, hold its beak to prevent biting, and untangle it from the net, Craig began the laborious process of attaching the harnesses. Using a curved needle and cotton thread, Craig sewed the small straps of each harness in three places so the device sits directly behind the bird’s head with its six-inch antenna extending toward the tail. The cotton thread will degrade in a year or two, freeing the bird and allowing the tracking device to be retrieved.

Other tern round-ups corralled chicks for color banding. Craig and his student researchers could then look for those chicks at the terns’ wintering ground in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they traveled in January.

One of Craig’s greatest resources on the trip was Evan Buechley ’06, who had conducted other research in Oaxaca, is fluent in Spanish, and was instrumental in working with local fishermen to understand how new bare islands were being created in the region. “Doing publishable field work at a small school is tough,” Craig says of the terncoat project, “but constraints compel creativity. If I was at a big research university, I wouldn’t have been aware of a student like Evan. I would have had to hire a translator. But there are conversations that take place around a campus like this, and I was able to hook up with Evan and train him as a researcher while I gained from his language skills, local knowledge and approach to people.”

Jacquie Grace ’07 has worked with Craig on more aspects of tern research than any of his other students—a small miracle considering how she met Craig three years ago. “I started the year with 43 advisees,” Craig recalls, “and I realized I had to draw the line somewhere. Then I met Jacquie. She stood at my door in maybe her third week of school and basically said I should be her advisor because ever since fourth grade, when an albatross biologist visited her class in Hawaii, she had wanted to do research on seabirds.”


CORAX: Craig’s Oddments, Rarities, Artifacts, X-cetera

Walk into any faculty office and you’ll learn more about its inhabitant than any number of questions can reveal. Walk into David Craig’s office and you’ll be amazed at the volume and variety of decorations, trimmings, personal effects or any number of other terms that could be used to describe his collection of branches, birds, books and bones—including a whale vertebra that might just fit into a standard-size oven, but only if the racks were removed. Set into a long wall of books is the nook shown below, jam-packed with artifacts. And Craig has a story for each one.

  1. A Caspian Tern decoy, one of several in Craig’s office, this one retired from field research expeditions.
  2. Craig found this bony mass when he was 9 years old and was convinced it was a bat’s skull. He imagined which holes were eye sockets, which were part of the jaw. It was only in college that he discovered it’s actually the pelvis of a duck.
  3. Craig carved this totem of a Marbled Murrelet from the branch of a redwood tree, in which he was sitting at the time after climbing it with a friend. Craig engraved the fetish with “5 July 89” and presented it to his soon-to-be-wife, WU’s Kendra Mingo, grants specialist. “It combines my passions for birds and old growth forests,” he says—and presumably for Kendra as well.
  4. While Craig is not a smoker, this pack of Belmont cigarettes holds great meaning (and great humor) for him. While traveling to Ecuador with a group of students after his first year of teaching, Craig bought a leather jacket. Thereafter the students said he looked very “suavĂ©.” They later presented him with the pack of Belmonts, but he didn’t get the joke. They kept telling him to look closely. He finally noticed the cigarettes were labeled “extra suavĂ©.” The students spent the rest of the trip speaking in British accents and calling Craig “Belmont.” He laughs fondly at the memory. “That’s what teaching is all about,” he says. “Creating that kind of dynamic with your students.”
  5. Craig’s first microscope, received when he was 6 or 7 years old. “As the oldest sibling, I claimed it as MINE.”
  6. This shell casing is from the cartridge used for the first net launch successful in capturing Caspian Terns for tagging. “This is when I knew the project was for real,” Craig recalls with a grin.
  7. Detail-oriented observers will notice this knit headband is done in the same colors as the Caspian Tern decoy in the foreground. It was knitted for Craig by one of his students and inspired him to learn how to knit (he was taught by another student) so he could make a Christmas present for a family member. He often sports the headband around campus, in the spirit of the film “The Royal Tennenbaums,” not so secretly hoping to start “some sort of bio-dork cult.”
  8. “Biology people love to have artifacts around to stump their friends,” Craig says. This, one of his favorite stumpers, is the under-beak of a Pacific octopus.
  9. Craig made this bead bracelet (red represents blood, green represents plants, etc.) in “outdoor school” in 6th grade.
  10. The skull of the common raven, Corvus corax, seen also at the top of this page. Craig found this skull in the East Sand Islands while researching ravens’ breeding and fledging habits.
  11. The doubly labeled water technique uses water (H2O) in which both the hydrogen and oxygen have been replaced with heavy isotopes (2H218O) for metabolic tracking purposes. Using this technique, Craig and Co. caught and injected 26 terns to calculate the average number of salmon consumed per tern per day. In a jolly good effort at cross-species data sampling, two students “captured” Craig and subjected him to the same research techniques he uses on birds. In the end, his legs were color-banded, his hair pink, his weight and limb lengths recorded, and his body filled with “Water Water.”
  12. Craig purchased this rubber duck and floated it down the Mill Race as part of a fraternity fund-raiser at Willamette a few years back. “It came in third!”
  13. On the duck is a radio collar, usually used for tracking squirrels, another of Craig and Co.’s research projects.
  14. Craig’s wife, Kendra, painted this egg. The daffodil is an inside joke, a reminder of the daffodil he gave her when they first started dating. In fact, Craig was in the habit of giving daffodils to the girls he dated, so much so that he was known as “Daffodil Dave” on the Lewis & Clark campus during his undergraduate years.
  15. A young niece gave Craig this birdman totem. “She likes birds. So do I.” The figure also reminds him of some Native American friends.
  16. Inside this glass vial is the skull of a Red-Capped Manakin. Craig found the skull in Costa Rica after discovering the nest of a rare Barred Forest Falcon.
  17. Craig spent his first year on the Willamette campus as a replacement for a professor on sabbatical. At the end of the year, he learned he would be kept on as faculty. Wanting to commemorate the occasion, he wandered over to the University Center, where a man was selling fossils. Craig chose this, fossilized turtle dung from the Cowlitz River, near one of his Caspian Tern research sites.
  18. One of Craig’s favorite photos shows (left to right) his father, Craig, then-girlfriend Kendra Mingo, and friend, fellow biologist and old-growth lover Eric Wold.
  19. A Caspian Tern egg.
  20. A Corax/raven totem carved from the same redwood branch as No. 3.

Advisee No. 44, Grace studied play behavior among the young terns since play is a sign of higher intelligence and better environmental adaptability. She observed the young birds throwing and catching sticks, always in a certain way, always sticks of a certain length—the same length as the fish the parents would bring them for feeding. Grace was honored with the Friends of Hatfield Library Best Paper Award for her tern research and will be a coauthor on a future paper with Craig. She is currently in England conducting research on the cognitive behavior of other types of birds.

Other former CORAX standouts include Lantz, who will pursue waterbird research when she begins graduate school at Florida Atlantic University this fall, and Penny Spiering ’03, Craig’s very first research assistant and “the woman who set the bar for all the rest,” who is currently working for the Smithsonian to reintroduce wild dogs in South Africa.

Carson Brown ’04, currently pursuing a master’s in biology at Angelo State University in Texas, is conducting a population genetic analysis of the endangered Mexican long-nosed bat. “Professor Craig never gave me the answer I was looking for, the easy answer, the factual nugget,” he recalls. “Rather, he often phrased his response in the form of a question, like a Jedi Master, like Yoda. You don’t realize it at the time, but these seemingly frustrating 'answers’ are seeds he is planting in your mind. They grow and develop into the fruit of knowledge, and then you realize he has taught you yet another important lesson.”

“Such students are great raw material,” Craig says, beaming. “Many already have the attitude and aptitude to be researchers. I really see research as teaching. It’s my paradigm at Willamette.”

Craig’s enthusiasm for teaching stems from his excitement as a student being encouraged to pursue something he loved. Raised in Scappoose, Ore., Craig was 7 when his grandmother gave him Peterson’s Field Guide to Western Birds for Christmas in 1974. He treasured the book and a pair of binoculars, which he used to recognize the birds, to learn their names and behaviors. He participated in Future Farmers of America, studied veterinary medicine, and was the first person in his family to go to college. A scholarship to study culture in Japan led him to dream of a career as an international doctor—a career he would enjoy and that would allow him to further his passion for bird watching.

Craig recalls it was during his first year of pre-med studies at Lewis & Clark College that he was on the lower campus with his binoculars watching a Varied Thrush when his professor “caught” him and told him to come in during office hours. Instead of the interrogation he expected, Craig was encouraged to inquire about an internship with alumni conducting research at the Point Reyes Bird Observatory in Bolinas, Calif. It was during that internship he attended his first scientific meeting and realized “people have jobs doing my hobby!” He told his parents about his intended change of career, and they were behind him, “as long as they knew I had health insurance.”

Today, Craig wants the same kind of experience for his students. “My research is great because it’s easy for me to involve students and tap into their curiosity,” he says. “Students can make it their own and go on to do this professionally.” While not all students can accompany Craig on his excursions to Hawaii, Samoa, Ecuador or Mexico, he wants them to know they can learn and apply all the same skills that Nobel Prize winners like Niko Tinbergen, Konrad Lorenz and Karl von Frisch have used in their own quest for knowledge.

“Foremost among my training objectives is to engage students in my network of research connections and give them the momentum to make their own personal networks, which then feed back into mine, which then feed the next set of undergraduates.”

And so, as summer begins in earnest, Craig and various CORAX members are headed out to the field again to band and tag more Caspian Terns, collect more data, and prepare more papers for conference presentations. “Working with these students is as good as getting a big grant,” Craig says. “And my real joy comes from seeing students develop a sense of service, a passion for the intellectual life, from seeing them get internships and jobs through the CORAX network they’ve built. They think this networking is normal, but it’s value added, it’s the intellectual endowment growing with each new graduate, and it’s sweet!”

Bobbie Hasselbring contributed to this article.

Taking a Tern at Teaching

I had the pleasure of working with Dave Craig on many different projects, some with CORAX, some not. Now I’m a science teacher at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove, Ore., and seldom a week goes by that I don’t mention one of our numerous adventures to my class. Their favorite is the story of the tern research.

Beach and Terns

I tell them how I got to experience the Crusoe-like thrill of jumping out of the boat to pull it to shore, only to find I had reached some sort of commune boot camp fusion. The man in charge had ragged hair and a grizzly beard and used a commanding voice to train us how to crawl on our elbows so as not to disturb the terns before the time was right. We were to spread our arms and legs as wide as possible to corral the terns, but so many of them took to flight, the sky actually darkened. And then I realized I had forgotten about animal fear responses. The birds defecated and vomited at such a rate you would have thought you were in a snowstorm if not for the smell. The moment this began, Grizzly Man began yelling at us: 'Collect that! We need it for data!’

We stayed on the island that night in the frigid wind and somehow made fajitas in the dark of an edifice that was little more than a combination of tent and shack. We were greeted the next morning by the calling of a Swainson’s Thrush, which I greatly enjoyed.

I also went with Dave and a number of other students to Ecuador and the Galapagos. One time we were taking a boat up a river through a rainforest, and I noticed something floating in the water. It was a three-toed sloth. We all were satisfied to gawk at it as it held onto a branch, seeming to take a bath. But not Dave. Dave had to hold it. He gently lifted it out of the water, careful not to tip the boat, and it held onto his arm like you might expect a baby monkey to do. The creature’s slowness belied its strength, and within a minute there was blood running down Dave’s arms where the three toes were digging in. Dave, in his typical fashion, thought this was quite cool and handed someone his camera to take a picture of the bloody incident.

I constantly aim to match Dave’s enthusiasm with my students. I tell them stories of our adventures and do my best to get them outdoors to have our own Dave-like experiences. I work with a club called SMILE, designed to help students from disadvantaged backgrounds aim for college by getting them excited about science. My enthusiasm for teaching and encouraging my students stems directly from the enthusiasm Dave showed me.

— Zach Holmboe ’03, MAT’04