Understanding and modelling migratory bird dynamics: A Fulbright Specialist Program at Ghent University

In Fall 2017, Dr. Zachary S. Ladin, an Ecologist atDepartment of Entomology and Wildlife Ecology, University of Delaware, collaborated with Dr. Jan Baetens, Department of Mathematical Modelling, Statistics and Bioinformatics at Ghent University to set up a Fulbright Specialist program that focused on understanding and modelling migratory bird dynamics.

What specific project activities did you complete during your grant?
While at University of Ghent, we had multiple meetings each week to develop an empirically-based model and simulations of post-fledging bird movements. This required collaboration among myself, Dr. Jan Baetens, Dr. Bernard De Baets, and the Ph.D. student, Steffie Van Nieuland. Through these frequent and productive meetings, we were able to create a functioning model to simulate the movement of post-fledging songbirds through an urbanized landscape, that will be a useful tool for predicting how birds will respond to future landscapes as urbanization increases in the future. Additionally, I presented a seminar (45 min) talk to the department of Biosciences and Engineering faculty, postdocs, and graduate students. Faculty from the Terrestrial Ecology group at University of Ghent were also invited, and I made new contacts with Professor Luc Lens and his Ph.D. student who are also working on using birds as model organisms to understand how ecosystems are responding to climate change and urbanization. During my stay, I was able to have a follow up meeting with Dr. Lens and his student to discuss potential collaborations that we are looking forward to exploring further.

What do you believe were the most important outcomes of your project (i.e. what results did you achieve)?
The most important outcome was the building of the movement model for the post-fledging movement of birds. This is a rather complex model relying on using estimates from our previous collaborative work that uses Brownian bridges to estimate the movement behavior of two different species (i.e., Wood Thrush and Gray Catbird). The model we built is an individual-based model where each individual must navigate a landscape within our study area in Newark, DE, USA, and make decisions on where to go based on the proportion and spatial arrangement of forest and roads. Each species has different decision rules that we developed to enable the model to behave with biological realism. By our final meeting, we had achieved running simulations with our decision rules, and we achieved very encouraging results. Remaining work will include fine-tuning the decision rules of the model. However, the hardest tasks of building the model architecture is complete.

Do you intend to continue to collaborate with your host institution in the future?
Yes. Dr. Jan Baetens and I have had a successful past through previous collaborative projects, and we’ve published two manuscripts together already. We are looking forward to continuing on working on future projects together, even after Steffie Van Nieuland completes here Ph.D. in the spring of 2018.

Do you intend to establish a linkage (formal or informal) between your U.S. institution/employer and your host institution abroad?
Yes. We have established a proposed formal co-advising relationship between University of Ghent and University of Delaware, whereby, if U. Ghent master’s students choose an available option to study abroad, they would come to the U.S. and work with me at the University of Delaware for 3-4 months and gain field work experience capturing birds, learning mark-resighting methods, nest searching, and have first-hand experience in collecting empirical data, which would subsequently be used in building mathematical models. I, Dr. Greg Shriver (at U. Delaware), and Dr. Jan Baetens (U. Ghent), would co-advise the master’s student and jointly oversee progress toward their degree.

Learn more about the Fulbright Specialist program: