Graduate student earns competitive NSF fellowship to research grassland birds

Studying grassland birds at tallgrass prairies in Illinois and Indiana this summer, graduate student Antonio Del Valle won a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship.

NIU Graduate Student Antonio Del Valle, won a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Photo courtesy of Dee Hudson.

Del Valle will benefit from a three-year annual stipend of $34,000, along with a $12,000 cost of education allowance for tuition and fees, as he works toward his master’s degree under the guidance of NIU Associate Professor Holly Jones in the Department of Biological Sciences.

“It kind of feels surreal,” Del Valle said of winning the fellowship, known as one of the most competitive and respected fellowships in the country.

Now living in DeKalb, the Sheboygan, Wis., native earned his bachelor’s degree in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2015.

His passion in birds grew gradually, he said, likely rooted in his younger days, as he spent much of his time outdoors hunting, hiking and fishing in northern Wisconsin.

Upon earning his bachelor’s degree, Del Valle worked in the field for about five years before joining Jones’ Evidence-based Restoration Lab.

His research project involves surveying grassland birds at two prairies in Illinois—Nachusa Grasslands and Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie—and one in Indiana—Kankakee Sands.

He’ll study how bison and prescribed fires have potentially impacted the birds. With efforts underway to restore tallgrass prairies, it’s important work, Del Valle said.

More than 99 percent of Illinois’ tallgrass prairies were lost upon settlement in Illinois, with much of the land converted to agriculture or cities.

Bison at the Nachusa Grasslands

“So now there are little pockets of tallgrass prairies in Illinois, and conservationists are trying to restore the habitat,” Del Valle said. “Prairies really were the dominant habitat in Illinois historically, and it’s important to conserve these rare habitats for the benefit of wildlife and people. That involves a lot of intense work.”

Part of that work entails prescribed fires and reintroducing bison to the land, which helps cycle nutrients and deter woody plants, he said.

To better understand grassland birds on these landscapes, Del Valle will survey the birds in relation to the bison.

“Grassland birds are super rare as well, and they’ve been shown to be declining in the U.S. dramatically,” Del Valle said. “It’s thought some of that could be due to habitat loses. It’s a concern so it’s important to put effort into researching them.”

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