Bird watching

A Q&A with migratory songbird researcher Kevin Fraser

Graphic by Caroline Norman

Kevin Fraser is an assistant professor in the University of Manitoba’s department of biological sciences, with research interests in ecological studies. On Nov. 16, Fraser will be giving a lecture as part of the U of M’s Science Research Talks series. This series invites local scientists to talk about their research and ways that students can be involved through the undergraduate research awards.

In preparation for the lecture, titled “Can migratory songbirds keep up with the pace of global change? New insights from migration tracking research,” the Manitoban spoke to Fraser about his research and what advice he has for students who might be interested in his field.


The Manitoban: What is your academic background?

Kevin Fraser: I have an interdisciplinary academic background and have studied at several Canadian institutions including a BA at McMaster University, an MSc at Queen’s University, a PhD at the University of New Brunswick, and two postdoctoral fellowships at York University.


M: What is your research focus?

KF: My work intersects the broad research areas of behavioural ecology, conservation biology, global change biology, and ornithology. Most of my current research is on the long-distance migration of songbirds, where my students and I are exploring what environmental, genetic, and morphological factors influence migration behaviour, and how species are responding to global change. Many migratory species are experiencing steep population declines so we also aim to determine the specific factors causing declines and point to solutions.


M: How did you get into this field/what inspired you to pursue this research?

KF: I have long been fascinated by bird migration and early on in my career discovered that there were huge gaps in our knowledge about this amazing natural phenomenon. With new technologies we can now study in great detail the patterns of migration, what influences when and where birds migrate, how fast they travel, how they respond to climate change, and more. I would say that my inspiration comes from dual interests in migration research and the challenge of better conserving our declining migratory species.

One of my first opportunities to conduct my own research came after summer employment as a field research assistant. This not only opened my eyes to the possibilities in this field but also allowed me to meet and work with people who provided the opportunities and training for me to take my interests further.


M: To date, what has been your favourite or most interesting work in your field?

KF: The next thing we are about to figure out through our research is often the most interesting thing. This sense of discovery makes the work continually engaging. Most recently, we used new lightweight GPS devices to track migratory swallows from their breeding sites across North America to their overwintering sites thousands of kilometres away in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon.

To our great surprise, we discovered that birds from breeding sites more than 2,000 kilometres apart often roosted together at night on small islands in the Amazon river and its tributaries. Drawing these precise connections allows us to study interactions of environment and behaviour across vast spatial scales, which is very exciting.


M: How can undergraduate students become involved in this kind of research? Any advice on how to pursue careers relating to ecological sciences?

KF: There are lots of great opportunities for students to get involved in research on campus, which can lead to future careers in many scientific fields. One way is to get some experience as an assistant on a lab- or field-based research project, either as a volunteer or as through a university-funded program such as the undergraduate student research awards.

This can be a great way to jump into a particular field of research to see what it is all about and if it is something you would like to pursue further. It is also a great way to acquire new skills that can lead to further academic work or employment in the field. Students who are keen to get involved in research should look into the student support programs that are available, and talk to their profs and fellow students about opportunities in the many great research labs we have right on campus.


Kevin Fraser’s talk will be held on Nov. 16 at 12:30 p.m. in Migizii Agamik. For more information, contact