Alice Boyle

Professional Title:

Assistant Professor

University, Department, Lab, Etc:

K-State, Division of Biology, #BoyleLab

Brief Bio:

I came to science round-about, getting into birds after moving to Costa Rica to play in the CR National Symphony (fresh out of an undergrad in viola performance). To make a very long-story short, I ended up doing my PhD on altitudinal bird migration (seasonal movements up and down mountains) back in Costa Rica which set me firmly on a path of being a tropical biologist. Although I still work in the tropics, I also started working at the Konza Prairie when I moved K-State in 2012. The prairie has become my second love, and I could hardly imagine two more different ecosystems in which to work—tropical wet forests and hugely variable temperate grasslands. Each is fascinating for its own reasons, and I’m finding more and more links between my tropical and temperate work. 
Alice Boyle Praire Fieldwork

Current Research Question:

1) How much rain is too much rain (and why) for birds in tropical wet forests?

2) Why do grassland songbirds choose new breeding sites almost every year, and sometimes, multiple times within a year?

Background on Research:

1) The results of my tropical research revealed something surprising; although more rain often means plants grow better, making more food for the animals that feed on plants (and the animals that feed the animals that eat the plants…), in the really rainy places on earth, it seems like a wetter-than-average year can be bad for the animals that live there. We don’t know exactly how much rain is too much, or why animals respond poorly to that rain. It could be that the rain knocks nests out of trees or drenches the mothers trying to incubate the eggs, it could be that when there are so many heavy downpours, birds can’t get enough food because it is too rainy to go out an eat, and it could be that the rain is actually a problem from the plant’s perspective too… less fruit because there isn’t enough sunshine, or maybe more pests that attack them. 

2) Even in birds that migrate way far south to warm places for the winter, the typical scenario is that when they come back the next spring, they come back to the place they nested last year. That means that if you see a robin nesting in a tree in your yard one year, and again the next year, chances are, it is the same robin, especially if it was successful in raising a brood of chicks. We’ve found out that the little sparrows that live in our prairies are really different. Only about 20% of the birds that nested there this year will return next year. We don’t know why so few return, and why some of them DO return when most go elsewhere. Even more surprising is that after they arrive, start defending territories, and start trying to raise a family, half of them up-stakes and move to new territories mid-way through the summer!

Methods used:

Most of our work involves studies of ecology, behavior, and physiology of marked individuals. That means we capture birds in very fine nets (“walls” of netting 12 meters long and 3 m high), then quickly take them out of the net, and put 2 colored bands like bracelets on each of their legs. Each bird gets its own special combination which is like wearing a name-tag; once they go back to their territories, we can use binoculars to see the color combination and know who it is. Before we let them go, we collect any samples like feathers or blood, measure, and weigh them. In both places we use video (in Costa Rica, of the display sites to assess how male activity varies; in Kansas, on nests to measure feeding rates of chicks). We also use the chemistry of feathers and claws to learn where the birds have been over the past few months, and use genetics to understand who is related to whom in the population. In Kansas we spend a lot of time looking for nests by dragging a big rope across the prairie and looking for mother birds flying up out of the grass from nests.

Connect with Alice Boyle: 

I’m interested/willing to connect in all the proposed ways of connecting with K-12 classrooms, but in person visits of me to classrooms, and potentially students to the field (Konza) might make the biggest impact. I’m happy to collaborate on developing a lesson/unit, email interactions, or virtual visits, however. 

Let Sunset Zoo’s Behind the Science staff help you connect with Alice Boyle by emailing