My name is Lauren Pharr, and if you haven’t picked up already, I absolutely love birds. I am currently a second year Master’s student at North Carolina State University (NCSU) pursuing my degree in Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology. When I am not neck deep in reading research papers, I usually have my head in a book, listening to music, or exploring and taking a “self-care” nature break.
As you have read in my previous works about birds and their relation to multiple factors in our ecosystem, you are probably wondering: who is Lauren Pharr? And why does she find birds so interesting?
In this article, I will introduce myself and tell you about my path into ornithology: how I got here, how I got into birding, and what my research specifically entails. After reading this article, as you continue to read my blog posts throughout the year, you will be equipped with the background of the” writer behind the writing” and you will finally understand where my passion for ornithology stems from and why I write about their importance in our ecosystem.
Born and raised in Waxhaw, North Carolina, I grew up in the country, so I had plenty of opportunities to explore the outdoors. Through exploration I became curious and started to develop a love for nature. I have also been around animals all my life, so my love for them has always been strong. Growing up, my dream was to become a veterinarian. Cliche, I know, but really, if you wanted to work with animals, then becoming a veterinarian was your only option – or so I thought. I kept this aspiration all the way through my senior year of high school. The summer before I graduated, I completed an internship at an animal hospital and worked there for 3 years. This was where my mind would change; as I explored the world of veterinary medicine, I had the feeling that this might not be the career path that I wanted to pursue after all. I became stuck, for my “only opportunity” to work with animals was gone. I went off to college at Wingate University to pursue pharmacy. Yes, you read that right, pharmacy. I started out with a Bachelor’s of Science Degree in Biology to meet the necessary course requirements to apply to pharmacy school. As I began my sophomore year, I continued to struggle through the heavy coursework on a topic that just was not all that appealing to me. My grades began to slip, and I was starting to not recognize myself anymore. It was evident that I was miserable, and even my mentors noticed. During my sophomore year in undergrad, I got the chance to conduct research with one of my professors studying sheep in Dubois, Idaho, and here was where my passion for research began.
How I Found my “Calling”
My uncle was your average and enthusiastic backyard bird watcher. He had an abundance of bird feeders everywhere and even made a natural bird area with native flora and a birdbath. When I was younger, I would call him every day on the phone and would ask what kind of birds he saw that day. We both had the same small “Field Guide to North American Birds” that we would flip through as we talked. This was just something fun that I did with my uncle and I would have never thought that one day I would be doing this professionally.
After my experience working with sheep in Idaho I had found I enjoyed research, though, the physiological work with sheep still wasn’t that appealing to me. I decided to seek out another professor who worked with birds. I began to work with Chinese Blue-breasted Quail (Coturnix chinensis), also known as King or Button Quail, and I began studying their behavior and changes in their vocal harmonics, specifically different aspects of their courtship and location calls. Without even realizing it, I began to fall in love with this research and with studying these birds. From my junior to senior year, I decided to change my major and I continued to study these quail. My results suggested that there were changes in both courtship and location calls, simply due to maturation and the growing of their larynx. I received multiple opportunities to present my research as an undergraduate to scientific research conferences and I even won Wingate University’s Undergraduate Research Award in Pure and Applied Sciences. I was also given the opportunity to tell my story and how I got into researching birds with my town’s local newspaper. I graduated from Wingate University with my Bachelors of Science Degree in Environmental Biology, and from there I made it my personal goal to further my education even more. I decided to pursue my master’s degree, and in the fall of 2019, I was accepted into North Carolina State University’s Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology Program.
My Current and Future Research
My thesis started out as a citizen science project. Citizen Science is a field of study where people of the general public get the opportunity to contribute and help professional scientists with data collection. It allows for people to become more involved in science while also giving them the chance to help with a study that they may show an interest in or care about. My citizen project, called “Cardinal Capture”, was focused on analyzing the effects of urban noise and light pollution on avian physiology; with the Northern Cardinal (Cardinalis cardinalis), a year round resident bird here in the eastern United States, as my focal species. Volunteers could sign up for my project and give my research team and me permission to come and mist net Northern Cardinals in their backgrounds. This aspect let the volunteer become more involved in the project while also contributing to our data collection of light pollution measurements using a light meter. Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, which was declared a national pandemic in March of 2020, my project was canceled due to the efforts that it entailed with communities and data collection. However, I am pursuing a new project still looking at urban noise and light pollution, but on adult avian survivorship of birds in the Washington, DC area. This project allows me to use and analyze a 20 year data set of already collected data to ultimately investigate this research question. As of now, I am beginning to analyze these results and I am set to finish my master’s program in March of 2021.
My future research will be investigating the potential cause(s) of partial brood loss in the federally endangered Red-cockaded Woodpecker (Leuconotopicus borealis). In recent years, scientists have noticed a drastic increase in chick mortality, but have no idea what might be causing it. For my PhD dissertation, I am planning on testing out multiple variables, including climate conditions, food availability, and disease, to see what might be causing chick loss in these cooperative breeding birds. This study will be taking place during the summer months at Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina with an anticipated completion in 2026.
Becoming a Science Communicator
While in graduate school, I found an interest for science communication. Although a new field in science, science communication is the practice of informing, educating, and raising awareness in science-related topics to both science and non-science related audiences. Through the week-long event of “Black Birders Week”, a series of events which was sparked in response to the Central Park bird watching incident where a white woman called the police on a Black man who was simply out birding – as well as the multiple police brutality actions upon Black Individuals, many stories of Black professionals in the wildlife biology field, including mine, were highlighted. As others began learning about me and my work, I began getting requests and inquiries from multiple media platforms asking me to contribute to pieces, write blog posts, or simply to tell my story about how I got to where I am today. I have contributed to and written for multiple platforms including Wired Magazine, Discover Magazine, and eBird. I also have pieces in the works with The American Birding Association and The Wildlife Society.
I have received opportunities to speak at birding clubs and youth camps. My colleagues and I also held a bird banding event and led a bird walk with Raleigh Parks and Recreation for the Youth Conservation Corps.
You could say that “Black Birders Week” was responsible for my realization that science communication was necessary to help with informing the public on multiple topics, whether it be about racial injustice, wildlife, or simply getting the chance to tell your story about your journey into a certain profession.
As a guest blogger for Benton Soil and Water Conservation District, I hope you continue to enjoy my blog posts about why birds are and will continue to be important for our ecosystem and the multiple interactions that they have with our environment.
Now you know where my spark comes from – and trust me, it’s not dying out anytime soon.
Visit my website to learn more about myself and my work.
Visit my Science Communication page to view more samples of my guest blogging, science writing, and other media contributions.
Contact me to inquire about outreach/speaking events, media contributions, or to simply ask a bird question.