Ph.D. Student Katie Henson selected for NSF's Graduate Research Fellowships Program (GRFP)


Ph.D. student Katie Henson's love of birding led to her research on bird coloration

This year, 18 Duke Ph.D. students were selected as part of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP). This competitive fellowship provides students with a stipend, money for their research, and covers their tuition. It is considered the most prestigious fellowship a young researcher may receive in the United States. 

Katie Henson will use her fellowship to explore the secret language of zebra finches. More specifically, she will look at the role of black and white striped feather patterns (also known as barred plumage) in the reproductive success of zebra finches. She hypothesizes that the regularity of barred plumage serves as an indicator of male quality in zebra finches, a species in which only males display this pattern. 

To test her hypothesis, Katie will first assess just how adept birds are at perceiving variation in these highly contrasting patterns. If female zebra finches are unable to perceive variation in this plumage pattern, then barred plumage likely does not function in intraspecific communication.

She will start by photographing museum specimens of male zebra finches to see if there is considerable natural variation in this pattern. Next, she will design an experiment using these photographs to measure the extent to which captive female zebra finches can perceive variation in barred plumage. Finally, she will compare the perceptive abilities of zebra finches to their closest relatives to test for a potential evolutionary trade-off between color and contrast perception.

We look forward of seeing the progress of her research!