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Birds of a Feather

From a distance, they look like your typical college students on campus for summer classes. Walking down the academic mall, they carry backpacks, water bottles, and … wait a minute, are those binoculars?

This summer, the most recognizable characters on campus were Hank Kerschen and Patrick Quinn, senior science students, college guys and certifiable bird geeks.

The bird brains were working as summer research students for assistant professor of biology George Farnsworth, who is conducting research on some very busy northern mockingbirds, a species conveniently prolific around campus. Together, the group hopes to prove that these birds, considered by most ornithologists to be monogamous maters, may father many different offspring even within the same nest.

“This is something that has never been proven,” Kerschen says, “so we decided to do paternity testing, like a giant Jerry Springer show. You know, ‘Who’s Your Daddy?’ ”

The full results of the experiments, which include capturing and banding birds from different nests and then observing their mating behavior, continues into the fall.

The students admit their study of these birds has led them to new understandings of the animal world. “We superimpose our ideas of what a family is on these mockingbirds,” Quinn says. “We just believe that, ‘Oh look, there’s a nest, they’re a happy family.’ But I think the way nature has it is that the birds are just more into breeding than necessarily finding a soul mate or living by our societal norms.”

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