Our Stories

Jacquie Grace: Talking Terns

Call Jacquie Grace '07 a birdbrain and, instead of getting angry, she might thank you.

That's because after countless hours studying birds in their habitat and watching the way they interact with their chicks and each other, she noticed a pattern emerging: Birds may be smarter than we think.

"In the past, people thought everything animals did was by instinct, that there was no learning," she says. "That bias is especially strong against birds. Everyone thought birds were dumb because they have small brains. We haven't completely proven yet that the birds are learning skills and that their parents are teaching them, but the evidence is pointing that way."

Grace is one of many biology majors under the tutelage of associate professor David Craig, who dedicates his research to the Caspian Terns living in the Columbia River estuary. But Grace has been the clear stand-out in recent years, providing invaluable assistance and leadership in Craig's project. Her own research focuses on the way the tern chicks receive food from their parents, as well as the way they play to learn prey-handling skills.

The summer after her freshman year, Grace traveled with Craig on a month-long post-session trip to Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands to collect data on Blue-footed Boobies. Her sophomore year, she helped map the local territories of Western Scrub-Jays. And for the past two summers, Grace participated in the Science Collaborative Research Program, a Willamette program that allows students to research alongside their professors. She traveled with Craig and others to an area near the mouth of the Columbia River to spend months observing the terns.

A typical Caspian Tern colony might contain about 100 birds, but the Columbia River estuary is home to the world's largest colony -- about 18,000 birds. These birds live on East Sand Island, where they feast on herring, anchovies and perch. They previously gorged on salmon while living on nearby Rice Island, causing concern about the disappearance of the endangered fish and leading to Craig and others moving the birds to their new home.

Grace remembers crawling along the ground so as not to scare the terns until she reached a wooden shelter called a blind. Once inside, she spent hours watching the birds' behavior and recording her findings. "When you have that many birds in a colony, there's always something going on," she says. "You have the tragedy of a gull trying to come down and take a fish or take a chick. But they're also really funny, especially when the chicks try to fly. Whenever a gust of wind comes up, they put their wings up and try to flap."

Specifically, Grace was examining whether the birds exhibited lateralization -- the ability to process different functions in different hemispheres of their brains. She watched the way the terns carried fish horizontally in their bills before passing the food on to their chicks. The chicks preferred to grab the fish by the head, and Grace noted that, time and time again, the adults would deliver the fish with the prey's head facing to the right side.

She's not sure of the reason, whether it was easier for the chicks to receive the fish that way or because the adults wanted to keep their left eye free to keep watch -- they tend to use their left eye for detecting enemies. Either way, her findings appear to point to a differentiation in brain hemispheres and a preferential use of one side of the body over the other. "Scientists used to think only higher-order animals are lateralized, but we're finding out that more and more animals have lateralization," Grace says. "It's a very important question in learning how animals do what they do."

Grace also studied the way the chicks handled the fish and how they seemed to "learn" skills from their parents. She observed chicks playing with sticks and pebbles. They would throw and catch sticks of a certain length -- the same length as the fish their parents fed them.

The success of Grace's work has taken her to France to present a poster at the International Society of Behavioral Ecology Conference and to Mexico to give an oral presentation at the North American Ornithological Conference -- an extremely rare opportunity for an undergraduate researcher. In Mexico, she luckily didn't recognize the faces of the world's top ornithologists in the audience. She might have gotten too nervous to present if she'd known that the man who asked the first question was Ian Nisbet, the world's top tern researcher.

"Giving the presentation was a scary experience, but it was a great conference to go to because I was exposed to all this research, and I got to meet so many amazing people," she says.

Grace and other student researchers also have studied crows and jays, and discovered their intelligence simply by walking across campus. After climbing trees and poking around near the birds' nests, the students found that the birds had learned to recognize and dislike them -- and sometimes dive-bomb them as they head to class.

Grace first became interested in birds in the fourth grade when an ornithologist visited her school in Kaneohe, Hawaii, to talk about sea birds. When Grace eventually came to Willamette and heard about Craig's work, she knew he was destined to be her advisor. Unfortunately, Craig didn't share her revelation. He declined her request because he already had 41 advisees. But she was persistent, told him about her interest in his work, and he relented. They spent four years researching terns together, and they are preparing to publish a paper they co-wrote.

"Jacquie's combination of exceptional field toughness, wicked smarts and talented technical writing have set the high-water mark in the flood of great students I have had the privilege to do research with at Willamette," Craig says.

For a change of pace, Grace spent one semester studying in the animal behavior program at the University of Chester in England, where she learned more about animal welfare from well-known primatologists. In the fall, she has yet another exciting opportunity -- she will join the biology PhD program at Wake Forest University, where she will study Nazca Boobies with one of the foremost seabird experts in the U.S. and do her fieldwork in the Galapagos Islands.

Grace's accomplishments are stunning, not only because she's young, but also because of the difficulty of balancing research with her numerous other campus activities. Craig calls her a "super scientist sorority sister": Grace was in the Delta Gamma sorority, was on the dance team for two years, sang with the women's a capella group Vamp and was president of Tri Beta National Biological Honor Society. She credits the intimacy of Willamette for helping her get so far.

"At a larger university, you really don't get the same research opportunities that undergraduates have here," she says. "If they do have undergraduates involved, they're usually just doing lab work and not developing their own ideas and testing them on their own. The faculty members here are amazing. When you're doing research with them, they treat you as a peer."