URI student studies diet choices of migrating songbirds
Research conducted through Coastal Fellows Program
KINGSTON, R.I. -- December 12, 2000 -- Westerly resident Wendy
Wehunt, a senior at the University of Rhode Island, spent the last year
studying how songbirds choose what foods to eat during their first migration.
"Migration is such an energy expensive endeavor that birds need
to make wise food choices," said Wehunt, a wildlife management major.
"Because they don't have a lot of time to feed, they need to make
sure the food they choose is high in certain nutrients, namely dietary lipids.
It's these lipids that the birds then convert into useable energy. I wanted
to know how birds that have never migrated before determine which foods
will provide these nutrients."
Focusing her attention on yellow-rumped warblers born the previous summer,
birds were captured on Block Island a popular stopover point
for migrants and brought to Wehunt's lab. Under the direction of
URI Assistant Professor Scott McWilliams, she conducted several tests in
the lab to determine whether the birds select food based on its nutritional
value, its color, or by watching what other birds eat.
To test for nutritional value, Wehunt fed the captive birds foods that
looked identical but which differed in their nutritional composition.
"Warblers showed they're able to detect differences in the nutrient
composition of two unique diets by preferring one diet over the other,"
she said. "The birds established this preference in a very short period
After testing the birds for color preference and the social influence
of what other birds were eating, Wehunt concluded that nutritional value
was the primary indicator. "Regardless of the color of the food or
what the other birds were eating, the birds always showed a preference for
the healthier diet. "
Wehunt was fascinated by her research project. She had little prior
laboratory experience, but enjoyed the responsibility and fun of taking
care of the captive birds. "Because of my interest in animal behavior,
it was really entertaining to watch the social influence experiments,"
she said. "Some pairs of birds were really interested in each other,
while others couldn't have cared less."
Funding for the project came from the Rhode Island Agricultural Experiment
Station and was supported by the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program
designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental
problems. Now in its fifth year, the Coastal Fellows Program teams students
with URI faculty, research staff and graduate students to help undergraduates
gain skills that will ensure their future success.
"Nothing can replace the value of the experiential learning process
that came from this Coastal Fellowship," she notes. "There's
only so much you can learn in a book."
Following her graduation later this month, Wehunt expects to take a
break from her education. She will likely continue on to graduate school
to study physiological ecology and animal behavior.
For Information: Todd McLeish 874-7892