Person standing outside holding open the wing of a bird

Alexandra Pesano

Research Q & A

What’s your hometown?

I am from Baldwinsville, NY

How did you get started/what drew you to your area of study?

Studying Wildlife Biology at Unity College opened me up to all different fields of study – mammalogy, animal behavior, plant systematics, and so much more. However, what really captured my curiosity was birds! While taking a North American Wildlife ID course, I learned how many different beautiful duck species there are in North America. From there, I discovered the amazing diversity of other bird groups. Being able to identify a new bird in the field was like going on a treasure hunt. Avian diversity inspired me to focus in the field of ornithology and pursue various ecology and conservation field jobs across the country. Eventually this path lead me to my current position as a Masters student in the Integrated Biosciences Program at UMD.

What are you currently working on?

The Dayton Fund has generously provided funding for travel and supplies required of my Masters research. Overall, my current research focuses on the phylogenetic and geographic origins of non-harlani dark-morph Red-tailed Hawks migrating and wintering in Minnesota. This project will not only provide insight on questions at a local scale, but will answer long-standing questions regarding polymorphism and phylogenetic relationships among certain Red-tailed Hawk subspecies.

How are you working toward that goal?

One way I am working towards my overall project goal is by comparing genetic and phenotypic data of our migratory population of Red-tailed Hawks (including dark-morphs) here in Duluth, MN, to genetic and phenotypic data of birds in reference breeding populations across the country. We are also deploying satellite transmitters on non-harlani adult dark-morph Red-tailed Hawks, allowing us to map out where they go during the breeding season.

What advice would you give to someone who wanted to follow in your footsteps?

Anyone wishing to pursue a career in wildlife biology, conservation, or ornithology specifically, should lean into taking a leap of faith. Try traveling the country, or the world, to take on different field positions. Find out what you like and don’t like when it comes to research topics, places, and species. In my opinion, doing this will help you learn a lot about yourself and what you want out of a career and out of life. Find out what drives your passion and don’t settle!


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