Press Release

Feather Busters?

July 15, 2016 – by Cole Hatcher

In this 2014 photo, Ohio Wesleyan professor Edward H. ‘Jed’ Burtt, now deceased, and student Cody Kent collaborate on bird research. A new study by the pair was published July 13 in The Auk: Ornithological Advances, the official journal of the American Ornithologists’ Union. (Photo by Mark Schmitter)

Research by OWU Alumnus, Professor Emeritus Examines Bacteria’s Effect on Bird Plumage

Newly published research by Ohio Wesleyan University alumnus Cody Kent, now a doctoral student at Tulane University, and his OWU mentor, zoology professor emeritus Edward H. “Jed” Burtt Jr., is being called a “tour de force” in ornithology.

Their research – “Feather-degrading bacilli in the plumage of wild birds: Prevalence and relation to feather wear” – was published July 13 in The Auk: Ornithological Advances journal. It is an extension of the groundbreaking ornithological research that Burtt conducted throughout his life, said Kent, OWU Class of 2015.

“It is very important to me that this research is Jed’s and mine,” says Kent, an OWU pre-professional zoology major now studying ecology and evolutionary biology at Tulane. “It is in large part a re-examination of his 1999 study that kicked off research into feather-degrading microorganisms. In addition, it uses the many years of data collection that he, along with many students, put into this line of research.”

Their new study examines how feather-degrading bacteria affect birds in the wild and could help scientists better understand avian evolution.

“This paper mainly seeks to plug a hole in the literature between laboratory studies and studies of potential evolutionary consequence,” Kent said. “[T]here are studies linking the presence of these bacteria to reproductive success and survival, with little work showing that these bacteria can cause measurable damage to feathers outside of laboratory settings. In this paper we found a link between the presence of these bacteria and the level of feather damage. …

“I think that the next step in this line of research should focus on detangling the complex interactions between plumage microbe communities and the physiology and ecology of the avian host,” he said.

In a article discussing their research, Dale Clayton, Ph.D., a University of Utah ornithologist, said: “Kent and Burtt’s new study is a tour de force. It underscores the potential importance of feather-degrading bacteria as selective agents that may influence the evolution of birds in important ways.”

Clayton also proclaimed the research to be “a fitting tribute” to Burtt and “his lifelong love of birds and his pioneering work on the creatures that live on them.”

Burtt died in April, following a 37-year career as an Ohio Wesleyan professor and researcher. During that time, he was recognized as the 2011 Ohio Professor of the Year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education. The award is given “to honor the most outstanding undergraduate instructors in the country – those who excel as teachers and influence the lives and careers of their students.”

No doubt, Burtt would have been very proud of Kent and the caliber of this new research. At Ohio Wesleyan, the two spent countless hours studying feather-degrading bacteria both in the field and in the laboratory. In 2014, Kent was invited to present findings at the national meeting of the Wilson Ornithological Society and Association of Field Ornithologists.

Kent earned the Nancy Klamm Best Undergraduate Student Oral Paper Award for his efforts, prompting Burtt to declare: “Cody gave the best presentation I have ever heard from a student at any level. It was very well-organized. The different hypotheses were clearly explained and tested. His statistics were flawless.”

Apparently some things never change. Congratulations, Cody, and best wishes for continued success!

Founded in 1842, Ohio Wesleyan University is one of the nation’s premier liberal arts universities. Located in Delaware, Ohio, the private university offers nearly 90 undergraduate majors and competes in 23 NCAA Division III varsity sports. Through Ohio Wesleyan’s signature OWU Connection program, students integrate knowledge across disciplines, build a diverse and global perspective, and apply their knowledge in real-world settings. Ohio Wesleyan is featured in the book “Colleges That Change Lives,” listed on the latest President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll with Distinction, and included in the U.S. News & World Report and Princeton Review “best colleges” lists. Learn more at