A Bird in the Hand

Published by Tom Porter

Benjamin Sewell-Grossman’s days start early this summer. “I’m typically up around 4:30 a.m. and am out tracking catbirds until about 10:00. Then it’s back to the lab to perform various organizational tasks in the afternoon and help a graduate student with a project on arthropods.” He’s often back in the field by 5:00 p.m., binoculars in hand, for a few more hours bird monitoring until sundown.

The rising sophomore is one of ninety-plus Bowdoin students awarded grants this summer from the College’s funded internship program, which provides them with a generous stipend to live on while they pursue work experience or career-related projects of their choice. Sewell-Grossman’s internship has taken him to Fordham University’s Louis Calder Center, an ecological field station set in 113 forested acres in upstate New York.

Sewell-Grossman said he fell in love with biology during his first semester at Bowdoin, when he took molecular neurobiology (BIOL 2566/NEUR 2566) with Professor Hadley Horch. “Since the class was online, our laboratory instructor mailed students dissection materials and experiments to conduct on our own and over Zoom. I was excited to start the research and amused with the challenge of keeping a variety of cockroaches and crickets alive, much to the distress of my roommate.”

This summer at the Calder Center, Sewell-Grossman is working on an independent research project studying the habits of the gray catbird, a relative of the mockingbird known for its cat-like wailing calls. “They sing when they’re on their home territory, so I’m going out and recording their songs and observing them. The aim is to compare catbird territories from last year with this year.” This also involves tracking individual birds by checking what bands they’re wearing, which requires a certain degree of stealth. “There’s a lot of sneaking about with binoculars,” he said. “We have a banding station here at the Center, where birds are harmlessly trapped using something called a mist net,” he explained. “They’re then given a unique combination of colored bands before being released, so we can identify them in the field.”

In mid-August, Sewell-Grossman will be presenting the results of his catbird project to a panel of Fordham faculty. The findings of his study will also be used to assist a PhD student who is researching catbird behavior and vocalizations, he said, meaning it’s possible he will get a coauthorship credit or at least a mention in the final thesis. “It’s such a great experience working here amongst so many gifted scientists,” Sewell-Grossman said. “I’m learning so much, not just about biology, but about how to collect field data and use new lab equipment.” All of which is very useful, he added, as he’s planning to major in biology. After Bowdoin he wants to attend grad school and become a research scientist. “I’m really interested in cancer biology and genomics, but I’ve always had a lifelong love for animals and nature. I’m very thankful for Bowdoin for providing me with this grant.”

Read more about what funded activities Bowdoin students are doing over the summer.