Next Generation: Claire Nemes on free-roaming cats and migratory songbirds

April 29, 2019

Next Generation: Claire Nemes

Advisor(s): Matt Fitzpatrick, Tyler Flockhart, Appalachian Laboratory

What is the focus of your research?
I am interested in understanding the impacts of free-roaming domestic cats on migratory songbird populations. There is a lot of research that tells us cats kill billions of birds every year in the United States and even more elsewhere around the world. Estimates have been developed for the U.S. and Canada, but many bird species are migratory and only spend a few months of the year in the U.S. during their short breeding season. The rest of the year they migrate to the tropics where resources are more abundant during the winter.

Cats kills billions of birds every year in the U.S. and around the world. Graduate student Claire Nemes is working to understand the impacts of free-roaming domestic cats on migratory songbird populations.

We don’t know the extent to which cats impact migratory birds in these locations during the non-breeding season, even though the number of cats in parts of the Neotropics, an area extending from southern Mexico to northern South America, may be higher than in temperate areas like much of the U.S. I’m interested in looking into those relationships and estimating densities of free-roaming cats in the non-breeding ranges of migratory birds, which can give us insights into whether cats in these regions may pose a threat to migratory bird populations.

How will it make a difference?
One of the challenges to understanding potential cat impacts on birds at the population level is a lack of good information on the numbers of free-roaming cats—their abundance or density in a given area. We have very little information on densities of cats in the Neotropics, even though, anecdotally, it looks like the numbers are fairly high. This research will help fill in an important knowledge gap. We need empirical data on cat abundance and distribution to assess whether cats have the potential to impact birds in these areas. Do they overlap spatially and temporally with bird species that we are concerned about?

What influenced your career path in science?
I was always interested in nature as a kid, and knew I wanted to study animals. About 10 years ago I became interested in birds and was fascinated by the diversity not only in Maryland but in the world. I was lucky enough to start working at a nature center when this interest in birds took wing and had mentors who encouraged me to explore my passion. While I enjoyed running public education programs at the nature center, the experience led me to realize that I really wanted to do research focused on birds and, in particular, understanding how best to conserve them.

What is an experience that stands out most to you about your time at UMCES?
Though the Appalachian Laboratory is a small community, everyone is working on their own specific projects across a wide variety of disciplines. We have biogeochemists, spatial ecologists, wildlife biologists, etc. It’s pretty interesting when we can get everyone together around the same table (for trainings, picnics, ping pong, celebrating someone’s defense). You learn a lot from talking with people in disciplines that may be very different from your area of research.

What is the most important thing people can do to help the environment?
Even though our individual actions as consumers do have major impacts on the environment, I believe there is a lot of importance in making informed decisions surrounding politics as well. By researching the positions of your representatives and making educated choices about who to vote for, the public can have a voice in solutions to large-scale problems such as climate change, habitat destruction, and unsustainable agriculture and development that cannot be solved by any one person alone. By educating yourself on fundamental science and environmental policy topics—and by electing officials who are themselves well-informed and will advocate for progressive environmental legislation—people can influence change on a broader level.

Humans have altered the planet dramatically through habitat loss and climate change, and we’ve made it a much tougher world for birds and other wildlife to live in. It’s our responsibility to figure out how to reverse or mitigate these changes, which often means taking a hard look our own behaviors at both the individual and societal levels and how they may be contributing to the problem.

To help birds specifically, keeping cats indoors is a great start.

Do you have advice for kids in the next generation who are interested in STEM fields?
Whatever you are excited about, go for it! The world needs more passionate, creative people in STEM and needs a broader diversity of backgrounds and experiences to help tackle the major problems facing the environment and society. Figure out whatever you are most curious about and try to follow your curiosity to the best of your ability. Don’t let cynicism get in your way; if you love something then go for it. Embrace new experiences and understand that it might take some time get to where you want to go, but that’s okay.

Also, if you’re interested in a scientist’s research, it’s really easy to drop them an email nowadays and ask questions. Don’t be intimidated (but do recognize that they’re busy and may not be able to get back to you right away.)

Have you received a scholarship, grant, travel award or gift from a donor? What did it allow
you to do and why was that important?
The Appalachian Laboratory has been fantastic in supporting my research through a student research award and featuring my research for a Giving Tuesday Campaign. The campaign prompted private donors to contribute to my research, which allowed me to travel to Puerto Rico and conduct fieldwork this year. A grant from the Nuttall Ornithological Society has also been very helpful.

What are your future plans?
I hope to finish my degree at UMCES by the end of 2021. Long-term, I’d like to work for either a nonprofit organization or state or federal resource agency conducting research that helps inform bird conservation and management.

Find out more about Claire's research WATCH THE VIDEO