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Sunday, September 19, 2021

Save the saltmarsh sparrow

URI student studies rare bird on verge of extinction

Todd McLeish

URI student Jessica Szpila poses with a rare saltmarsh sparrow
at Jacob’s Point in Warren. (Photo courtesy of Jessica Szpila)

Even though the rare saltmarsh sparrow is expected to go extinct by 2050 due to rising sea levels flooding its nesting habitat, University of Rhode Island junior Jessica Szpila is committed to doing what she can to learn about the birds in hopes of discovering something about them that might delay their disappearance.

Szpila, 26, a native of Tiverton who lives in Providence with her husband, stepdaughter and young son, spent the summer collaborating on the Saltmarsh Sparrow Research Initiative at Jacob’s Point in Warren, led by amateur ornithologists Steven Reinert and Deirdre Robinson. 

Together, they are documenting the nesting success of the sparrows at the marsh.

“Our goal is to collect as much data as we can and get as deep an understanding of this bird as possible,” she said. “It’s a small endangered songbird that only lives on the East Coast, and its population is decreasing at about 9 percent annually.”

She spent most days looking for nests, monitoring the eggs to see if they hatch, banding the adult birds and nestlings, assessing the vegetation where they build their nests, and documenting if the chicks survive.

“We’re studying their nesting ecology,” Szpila said. “Mainly, we’re looking at the variables to nesting success or failure in the marsh.”

Because so many chicks die in their nests during high tides, it can be an emotionally challenging job.

“I definitely learned that working with an endangered species is intense,” she said. “In some ways, you have to have a strong heart to be able to cope with seeing a lot of death and sadness, and understanding that this species is likely to still go extinct despite our work.

“You also have to be strong to want to put in all this work,” Szpila added. “My mentors are inspiring, they care so much about this species, and they’re doing everything they can to help the birds in any way they can. I’ve fed off of that. Being in that environment has lifted me up.”

Despite the challenges, she has enjoyed her first field research experience.

“Being on the salt marsh every morning was quite beautiful,” Szpila said. “And there were lots of other beautiful birds out there. It was an amazing opportunity to learn to collect large bodies of data in the field and analyze them at home on the computer. I learned so much about working with a small team on a big project, which meant that I had a lot more responsibility than ever before.”

Szpila’s research was supported by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique initiative designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its 25th year, the program pairs students with a mentor and research staff to help them gain skills relevant to their academic major and future occupations.

As she completes her Coastal Fellows research project this fall, Szpila is already looking ahead to next year, when she will pursue a senior thesis project on the saltmarsh sparrows and whether the females choose a nesting location higher in the marsh after seeing their first nest become flooded. Eventually she plans to earn a doctorate to continue studying birds.

“I really enjoy teaching — I’ve done a lot of tutoring — so I’d like to keep doing that,” she said of her career plans. “And I want to stay in academia because I’d have a lot of access for continuing research in the field.”