Wednesday, April 7, 2021

An Avian Affection

        Gently holding a sparrow in his hand as nearly two dozen students stand in a socially-distant circle around him, Professor Peter Paton quizzes his Field Ornithology class members about bird anatomy and identification. After noting feather types, preferred foods, migration routes and other details about the species, he hands the bird to a student to release into the nearby forest. And then he repeats the process until every student has released a bird.
        For most students, it’s the first time they have ever held a wild bird, and it’s a magical moment. The glittering smiles on their faces suggest it’s an experience they won’t soon forget.
        The class is gathered at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station, where thousands of birds have been captured, banded and released every fall for more than 60 years, a site that is the highlight of
Kate Iaquinto at Monomoy National Wildlife Refuge
Paton’s weekly class field trips. Located less than a mile from campus, the research station is the former home of the late Douglas Kraus, a long-time chemistry professor whose interest in birds occupied as much of his time as did chemistry. Before he died in 2000, he donated his house and 82 acres of land to the Audubon Society of Rhode Island with a stipulation that URI manage the property for wildlife research.
        Ever since then, graduate students in the Department of Natural Resources Science have lived and worked at the property and continued to band birds on a daily basis during fall migration to learn about trends in bird populations. They capture birds using a series of nets like fine-meshed volleyball nets, collect physical measurements about each bird, and place a metal band around one leg so if they are captured again elsewhere, their migratory movements can be determined. With nearly 60 years of data, the field station is one of the nation’s longest running bird banding stations.
        “The number of species we capture each year hasn’t really declined over time, but the number of individual birds has seen a major decrease,” says Paton, who has managed the research station with Professor Scott McWilliams since 1998. “We’re probably down by about 30 percent, which is similar to national figures. On a really good day, they used to capture 150 to 200 birds, and now a good day is 100 birds. That’s a substantial decline.”
        A recent study found that North American bird populations have decreased by about 3 billion birds in the last half century, due largely to habitat loss. Scientists worry that human-altered landscapes are losing their ability to support birdlife.
        The activity at the Kingston Wildlife Research Station is just one element of a wide variety of bird-related research, education and outreach undertaken by URI faculty and staff. The Field Ornithology class has also helped to introduce hundreds of students to the bird world, turning many into bird scientists, birdwatchers and bird photographers. Many other former URI students turned to birding as a hobby sometime after graduation as a way of getting exercise, enjoying nature or reducing stress. And the lockdown due to the pandemic has found even more alumni discovering the joy of birds and birdwatching, whether in their backyard or beyond.
        Paton had planned a career as a medical doctor, but when he got hooked on birds while in college, those plans changed. “I like to be outside, and birds bring you outside,” he says. “You can go anywhere on the planet and see a bird, and because they have wings and can fly, you never know what you’re going to find in a given area.”
        In addition to overseeing the bird banding station, Paton has conducted research on sparrows, seabirds, shorebirds and other varieties. Some of his current work aims to determine the potential impact of offshore wind turbines on migrating birds.
        McWilliams calls himself a physiological ecologist who studies the physiology of bird migration.
        “My group studies any bird that migrates, and over the years we’ve studied songbirds, woodcock, sea ducks, Arctic nesting geese, and everything in between,” he says. “The common denominator is that they move across the landscape throughout the annual cycle.”
        According to McWilliams, one of the biggest challenges for birds during migration is their need to store large quantities of energy to fuel long-distance flight. To maximize their ability to do so, they have evolved the ability to increase the size of their digestive system in preparation for migration, reduce it while migrating, and increase it again when they stop to refuel.
        “Migration is a fasting and refeeding cycle, which the gut makes possible,” he says. “That’s why we say that migration takes guts. They’re trying to maximize the amount of energy and nutrients they get from what they eat.”
        McWilliams and his graduate students have spent two decades studying the physiology of migration by capturing and studying birds and the foods they consume in Kingston and Block Island. He also has a long-term research project on the woodcock, an unusual gamebird sometimes called the timberdoodle, which involves studies of...

        Read the rest of the story in the Spring 2021 issue of URI Magazine.

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