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Meet FNR Outstanding Freshman Lydia Pultorak

Lydia Pultorak, a first-year wildlife major and forest ecosystems minor, has made her presence known in theLydia Pultorak sits on a rock up in the mountains Purdue Department of Forestry and Natural Resources since her arrival on campus from just 70 miles down the road in Brazil, Indiana, through a variety of research and hands-on experiences. For her efforts, she has been selected as the FNR Outstanding Freshman for 2023-24.

“I feel honored to be the representative of my class,” Pultorak said. “My life goal is to contribute to wildlife conservation, whether that be through research, education, or a different format. I have always been fascinated by nature and strive to protect natural resources wherever possible. Having received this award demonstrates to me that I am on the path to accomplishing my goal. Because of all the support I have received and opportunities presented to me, I feel like I'm where I belong in FNR.”

Pultorak was not new to the natural resources field when she made her way to Purdue. She had been a part of the King Conservation Science Scholars teen volunteer program for three years at the Brookfield Zoo, assisted with butterfly and bird monitoring with the Forest Preserve District of Will County in partnership with the Bird Conservation Network, and helped with invasive species removal events at several forest preserves throughout Will County, Illinois. She also has contributed to citizen science efforts by submitting her personal species lists to eBird.

In addition to her contributions in nature, Lydia also started the Samaritan Sunday Ministry at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church, collecting items for a variety of organizations around her community - such as Birthright of Joliet, Daybreak Shelter and St. Patrick’s Food Pantry - to help those in need. She also was part of the music ministry at St. Paul, Joliet Catholic Academy and St. Joseph University Parish. At her high school, she also was a member of the student council’s service community, volunteering for the annual food drive and assisting with other service projects such as the Christmas toy drive and coat drives. She received Joliet Catholic Academy’s Outstanding Service Award as a senior.

Pultorak earned several scholarships based on her conservation and environmental interest and academic prowess. She received the Illinois Conservation Achievement Scholarship, which is given to seniors who demonstrate effective, voluntary, long-term dedication to the preservation, protection or enhancement of the state’s natural resources. She also earned the Chicago Zoological Society Women’s Board Scholarship for Environmental Studies, which recognizes and rewards achievement in the pursuit of conservation leadership, and the Will-South Cook Soil and Water Conservation District Allan May Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded to students expecting to major in an agriculture or natural resource field.

Pultorak brought her appreciation of birds to campus and quickly found a home in Dr. Barny Dunning’s Bird Banding Lab. She also joined the Northern Saw-Whet Owl Banding Station staff and the Purdue Bird Collision Prevention Project and began an independent study on barn owl diet.

As part of Dunning’s bird banding lab, Lydia assisted with songbird banding at the Purdue Wildlife Area, learning practical skills such as setting up and taking down mist nets, extracting birds from the nets, determining age and sex of species, banding birds, measuring captures and recording data for use in the national bird banding database. She also participated in weekly lab meetings where members discussed current bird research and news, from ethical bird banding practices to the importance of stopover habitat for migratory songbirds to the changing eponymous North American bird names.

As part of the Northern Saw-Whet Owl Banding Station, Pultorak is currently in training and has learnedLydia Pultorak holds a Northern Saw-Whet Owl to extract owls from nets, measure individual specimen, record data and band owls. Due to the evasive and secretive nature of the species, this involves many late nights in the late fall and early spring capturing and releasing owls that are attracted to audio lures.

“Northern Saw-Whet Owl banding seeks to further the understanding of these owls’ migration patterns, and I enjoy participating in this project knowing that the information acquired will allow for greater knowledge of the species,” Pultorak said.

Lydia’s curiosity about the concept of bird-window collisions from her time growing up near Chicago, led to her involvement in the Purdue Bird Collision Prevention Project.

“I have been intrigued by the concept ever since I heard of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors,” she explained. “Naturally when I arrived at Purdue and realized they had a project studying the extent of collisions on campus, I was thrilled. I immediately became involved and started monitoring for collisions around campus. The project has been working to reduce bird-window collisions around campus and we are in the process of collaborating with individuals to make windows safer for birds. This has been an incredibly rewarding experience as I have been able to collect data regarding bird-window collisions on campus, preserve specimens for research, assist in coordinating a monitoring program and make an effort to reduce the number of birds impacted by glass on buildings.”

As part of the project, Lydia worked with the project leader throughout the fall to initiate seasonal daily monitoring of specific buildings that are most harmful to birds. She wrote out monitoring routes for five areas around campus, assisting in composing monitoring protocol and ensuring that volunteers completed their routes on the assigned days, covering for them if they were unable. The project hosted its first official monitoring period for three weeks during fall migration and duplicated its efforts during the spring of 2024. Lydia was also able to coordinate with a local individual to donate specimens to be used in research.

After her involvement in the both owl banding and the bird collision prevention projects, Lydia has been selected as a leader on both projects for the fall 2024 semester.Lydia Pultorak measures a bird beak as part of a bird banding outing

Lydia’s independent research project on barn owl diet called for her to collect barn owl pellets at roosts in Benton and Greene County. With help from The Wildlife Society, the pellets were dissected and the skulls present inside were identified. Next, Lydia is planning to test pellets for per- and polyfluorinated substances (PFAS), also called forever chemicals, in order to determine if the owls had been affected by these chemicals. She will then write a paper to share her findings with the Indiana Audubon Society.

“This has been an enjoyable experience for me as I have learned both what specific prey items owls in Indiana consume as well as how to identify small mammal skulls,” Pultorak said.

Lydia also gained two environmental education certifications during her first year at Purdue through the Indiana Department of Natural Resources: Project WET certification and Aquatic WILD certification. At the workshop where she earned the certifications, Pultorak learned how to engage with students grades kindergarten through 12 and teach them about the importance of water in nature and in our everyday lives. The workshop included both observing and practicing provided lesson plans centered around water conservation.

Outside of the classroom, Lydia has been involved in the Purdue Student Chapter of The Wildlife Society, the Purdue Student Chapter of Environmental Education, the College of Agriculture’s Dean’s Scholars, the Purdue Honors College and A Cause for Paws. She also went on the Natural History in Costa Rica spring break study abroad trip.Lydia Pultorak stands next to a nature trail sign

Pultorak also has been an active member in the Sycamore chapter of the Audubon Society and has attended several Thursday morning bird hikes at the Celery Bog.

Lydia received semester honors for her academics in fall 2023 and also was named to the Dean’s List.

“Lydia has been very active in the department,” Dunning said. “In addition to joining my lab group, she has taken a leadership role in two undergraduate-led research projects in the department. Lydia is clearly taking full advantage of her time here at Purdue. The level of involvement that she has shown is very remarkable for a freshman. The fact that she is showing this much leadership potential, while also maintaining the very highest of academic performance suggests that she is exactly the type of candidate that our department and our college should be recognizing.”

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