Tāmaki Innovation Campus


Daria Erastova PhD student Daria Erastova

Daria Erastova is a recent arrival to the Tāmaki Campus, but no newcomer to what makes birds tick, an interest that began years ago observing her pet crows.

She is a University of Auckland Doctoral Scholar in the School of Biological Sciences, supervised by Assoc. Prof. Margaret Stanley with co-supervisors Dr Kristal Cane (UoA) and Dr Josie Galbraith (Auckland Museum).

Her research topic looks at the influence of sugar water feeders on the welfare and social structure of New Zealand native birds in urban gardens: the first time such a study has been carried out in NZ.

It’s a critical subject, she says, as the project will increase knowledge of disease dynamics within urban native bird populations, which currently is poorly understood.

“We will also use this research to provide an opportunity for others (students, Birds New Zealand members, community, mana whenua) to become involved in doing bird research.”

Feeding birds in backyards is a popular pastime in New Zealand, according to previous studies (Galbraith et al. 2014). About half of New Zealanders feed birds in their gardens, with almost 20% of them providing sugar water for native birds.

“But,” she says “there is still little known about how provision of sugar water affects the behaviour and health of native birds. The main concerns are inadequate feeder hygiene, possible malnutrition, potential reorganisation of social structure, and         a lower level of pollination services.”

Her research project will be a comparative urban experiment that compares native and endemic birds in gardens, with and without sugar water provisioning. This research will compare the influence of sugar water feeding on birds in Auckland and Dunedin.

She is expecting multiple outcomes in addition to publishing. “I will also develop educational hygiene guidelines for households with feeders. I anticipate being able to definitively say whether sugar water feeding has negative effects on urban native birds, and whether additional hygiene procedures may be able to mitigate any negative effects”.

The road to her current PhD topic began at St. Petersburg State University in Russia; with a Bachelor thesis in Botany, and      a Master thesis (with honour) in Protozoology. She spent almost a year in Germany, at Ernst Moritz University of Greifswald, studying phylogenetic methods, then phylogeny and ecology of amoeba at the Russian Academy of Science as a junior researcher. Following that, she worked with pathogen bacteria and fungi at medical company “Labstory” as a lab technician. Eventually she ended up as an independent researcher at Oka Nature Reserve (crane behaviour) and at Kandalaksha Nature Reserve (morphometrics and count for passerines).

“For years, my greatest fascination were birds, their ability to adjust for new situations, their willingness for play and outstanding creative force. I am also interested in ecology, since we are living in era of a rapidly changing environment with great consequences for the whole biosphere. It is not always easy to judge what is good and what is bad. For example, sugar water feeding looks like a humane act towards native birds, but there might be some negatives effects that people simply might not be aware of.

“One of my greatest interests is how birds adjust their behaviour in accordance to changing environment. So, it’s no surprise that I became excited when Margaret Stanley proposed that I study how native birds’ welfare and behaviour might be altered by practice of sugar water feeding,” she says.

Her passion for her subject shines through, as a charming combination of continuing her lifelong study of birds, coupled with going ‘as far as possible’ to explore the planet. However, she says it was a big challenge to move to New Zealand and have      a completely different life (with the rider that she is very pleased to have done so).

Still in the embryonic stages of her work, she is still at the experimental design/literature review stage.

“I am very keen to start my experiment. This research is a logical continuation of a previous study of seed/bread feeding by Josie Galbraith. I hope that I would be able to pass this relay race to future investigators who will be interested in how the growing human population can co-exist with other species.”