Elena Berg received her PhD in Animal Behavior at UC Davis in 2004 with a dissertation entitled, "Parentage, kinship, and group structure in the white-throated magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa), a cooperative breeder with female helpers." [Also available online - restricted to UC campuses]
She is now a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University.
As a graduate student, Elena had had the opportunity to travel all over the world and explore a diverse array of both academic and non-academic interests, which helped shape her current interests in behavioral ecology. Her undergraduate studies at Cornell University and the University of Hamburg, Germany, incorporated a wide range of disciplines, including animal behavior and primatology. She received my B.A. in anthropology from Cornell in 1995, and then spent the next two years on a British Marshall Scholarship at the University of Cambridge, England. After completing her Masters in biological anthropology, Elena's focus shifted away from primates to non-primate species, particularly birds. She spent her second year at Cambridge in the Zoology Department conducting research on birds, including reed warblers. After moving to Davis, Elena settled happily into the world of birds. Throughout her academic career, Elena has maintained a passion for travel and field work, combining the two whenever possible. Her travels have taken her to such far-off places as Madagascar, where she studied the feeding ecology of lemurs; to Barbados, where she participated in a field course on the ecology and conservation of green monkeys; and to Israel, where she conducted a three-month study on the vigilance behaviors of the Arabian babbler. When Elena is not traveling, she enjoys pottery, painting and drawing, swimming, and hiking.
Her interests in behavioral ecology focused on alternative reproductive strategies, in particular the ecological and social bases of cooperative breeding and brood parasitism in group-living birds. During her first two years at Davis, she carried out a field study on the proximate mechanisms underlying facultative brood parasitism in the North American wood duck (Aix sponsa). With help from a research assistant and numerous undergraduate volunteers, she erected over 40 artificial nest boxes locally along Putah Creek. The aim of this study was to identify the visual cues influencing nest-site selection in females as well as to identify which variables intrinsic to the box itself might be affecting the likelihood and degree of brood parasitism. Visual cues were analyzed experimentally using different combinations of wood duck eggs, down, and eggshells to simulate different nesting conditions, and nest boxes were checked on a regular basis throughout the breeding season. During her second year, she continued to collect data on nest-site selection while participating in a large-scale effort to track nesting behavior of local wood duck populations. Along with ten undergraduate interns and several project leaders, she monitored nesting success and banded nesting females and ducklings.
The focus of her current doctoral research was on reproductive cooperation and conflict in the white-throated magpie-jay (Calocitta formosa), a cooperatively breeding corvid inhabiting the tropical dry forests of Central America. In most cooperative breeders, males act as “helpers-at-the-nest”, but the magpie-jay is particularly interesting in that these sex roles are reversed: only females stay behind. This provided a rare opportunity to study interactions between related females and assess the factors affecting female reproductive decisions. She spent three field seasons in Costa Rica collecting data on nesting patterns, reproductive success, and helping behavior within several groups of jays. In the laboratory, she used microsatellite DNA analysis to determine parentage and relatedness among group members.