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 of time.” 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