URI student examines the eating
habits of migratory birds
KINGSTON, R.I. — Oct. 29, 2002 — University of Rhode Island senior Kathleen McPherson has always had an interest in birds, which is why her research project is no surprise. McPherson is studying the nutritional habits of migratory birds as part of the University’s Coastal Fellows Program.
“I have always had birds as pets,” said the North Smithfield resident. “I think that helped to increase my interest in them, especially when my Cockatiels had two clutches of young. It was a great learning experience to see them raise their young.”
According to McPherson, migratory birds change their diet with the seasons.
“Migratory birds eat insects, which are high in protein and fat, during the summer. During migration in the fall, the birds eat fruits, which are high in sugars or lipids,” said McPherson. “No one really knows why they do this and that’s the question I’m trying to answer.”
Over the last year, she has collected nine species of fruit from Block Island, a common stopover spot for migratory birds. “For this project, I am not studying the birds themselves, I am only studying their diets…the fruit,” said McPherson.
In order to determine why the birds change their diets according to season, McPherson said, she had to first determine the energy-to-protein ratio of the fruit. A low energy-to-protein ratio helps the birds satisfy their protein requirements.
“Birds, like most animals, eat to satisfy their energy requirements rather than for particular nutrient requirements. Birds will eat fruit with a relatively high energy-to-protein ratio, and so, ingest less protein compared to a fruit with a relatively low energy-to-protein ratio,” said McPherson, who discovered that the fruit of viburnum bushes give birds the most nutritional value due to its high energy and fat content.
McPherson is still analyzing the data she collected from her research with the assistance of URI graduate students Barbara Pierce and David Podlesack and URI Assistant Professor Scott McWilliams.
The toughest part of the project was separating the seeds from the fruits, joked McPherson. “I spent a long time picking the seeds out of the fruit, when I could have just freeze-dried the fruit. That would have been much easier.”
Her research was funded by the National Science Foundation through the URI Coastal Fellows Program, a unique program designed to involve undergraduate students in addressing current environmental problems. Now in its seventh 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.
“I learned a lot from the Coastal Fellows Program,” said McPherson. “Students get hands-on experience analyzing data, using trial and error and gaining experience in the field. With Coastal Fellows, students get a taste of real research, not just lab work.”
After graduation, McPherson wants to travel the country for a year doing fieldwork. “I’m interested in studying birds outside of New England, especially in the west. It would be interesting to study the migratory patterns of birds elsewhere in the world.”