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For his eighth grade science project, Dr. David Horn investigated the favorite seeds of various birds in his hometown.  It is safe to say that his project exceeded his teacher’s expectations.  His project regarding bird seed preferences grew into a lifelong passion and eventually a million dollar research project funded by the Wild Bird Feeding Industry. 

Dr. Horn arrived at Millikin in 2005 and has been hard at work putting Millikin at the forefront of wild bird feeding research.  Shortly after arriving, he commenced his studies of wild birds here at Millikin.  The Wild Bird Feeding Industry took notice of Dr. Horn’s research.  In 2005, they invested $1 million in Project Wildbird, a study that sought to determine the seed preferences of birds attracted to backyards.  Dr. Horn and his team of students spearheaded the project and coordinated observational research, recording over a million bird visits in forty two states and Canada from 2005 to 2008.  Stacey Johansen, who graduated from Millikin in 2008, was afforded the unique opportunity of serving as project coordinator while she was a student at Millikin. 

After Project Wildbird, Ms. Johansen and Dr. Horn began another project on wild birds, in which they resurrected the National Bird Feeding Society.  The National Bird Feeding Society was created in 1989 to improve the bird feeding experience by connecting hobbyists with education and research about backyard bird feeding.  However, it fell from prominence in the early 2000s despite the fact that bird feeding had grown to become the second most popular hobby in America.  Ms. Johansen and Dr. Horn decided to share their passion and knowledge with bird feeding hobbyists in America by reviving the society in 2009.  Their work has paid off.  Over 500 people have registered as members and the website is the top search result for “bird feeding” in Google.  Bird feeding hobbyists will profit from the breadth of information on the Society’s website, including tips and bird feed and seed preference charts.  The National Bird Feeding Society is housed right here at Millikin University under the direction of Dr. Horn and managed by Ms. Johansen.  According to Dr. Horn, 95% of running the National Bird Feeding Society is business rather than science.   As such, they have regularly turned to students in the Tabor School of Business to help advance the organization.  One marketing course is currently working to create direct business to business advertisements, and past students in Tabor’s Small Business Consulting course aided the Society when it was first re-launched.

The recognition received through the advancement of the National Bird Feeding Society propelled Dr. Horn, along with Millikin professor and Co-Principal Investigator Dr. Travis Wilcoxen, to pursue a first-of-its-kind study beginning in the spring of 2011.  To do so, they turned to Stacey Johansen and 2010 Millikin graduate Lisa Lundstrom to manage the day to day operations of the project.  Lisa had previously worked with Dr. Horn on multiple projects, including a television tower bird mortality study and a wind farm study in Bureau County.  In addition, over ten current Millikin students are completing research for the project.  The goal of the project is to determine how wild bird feeding impacts bird communities and the health of individual birds.  More specifically, the results of the study will illuminate the effects of wild bird feeding on reproduction, migration, and winter health.  Although studies regarding supplemental bird food have been conducted before, this study covers the broadest range of species and examines the impact of wild bird food throughout all four seasons.  Initial funding for the project came from The Scotts Company.  Recently, Dr. Horn and Dr. Wilcoxen received the exciting news that the Decatur Audubon Society and the Wild Bird Feeding Industry trade association has decided to contribute funding through the summer of 2012. 

The Millikin team developed a methodology for evaluating the impact of wild bird feeding on bird communities and individual bird health.  First, they conducted bird censuses at six forest preserves in order to determine the number of birds and variety of species in each preserve.  Next, they set up nets to catch birds and then tag them with an identification band.  Each captured bird is given a complete physical examination including blood work and is then released back into the wild.  Researchers then introduce bird feeders into half of the forest preserves.  Recaptured birds are once again given a physical to determine if the introduction of bird feeders has had an effect on the bird’s overall health.  Furthermore, researchers observe the bird feeders to determine how often birds use feeders.  Once the research has been conducted through the summer of 2012, the team will be able to review the effects of wild bird feeding on a vast array of species over the course of all four seasons.

Dr. Horn’s arrival at Millikin University marked the beginning of the institution’s ascent to the forefront of wild bird feeding research.  Because the bird feeding industry is a four billion dollar industry that caters to over 55 million Americans of the age of 16, wild bird feeding research will continue to provide exciting ventures for Millikin faculty, alums, and current students to pursue. 

Kevin Stocks

Millikin Student Writer

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Millikin University - Decatur, IL
Millikin University - Decatur, IL