The Avian Ecology Program at URI

Students interested in ornithological research at URI may earn both a MSc and PhD degree through the Department of Natural Resources Science, College of the Environment and Life Sciences. A complete description of the undergraduate and graduate degree programs is available at the Department of Natural Resources Science homepage. For a more general description of URI, browse the URI homepage.

Faculty and their research interests

Ornithological research in the Department is taxonomically and geographically diverse and interdisciplinary, although most work involves the study of basic avian biology and ecology and their application to conservation-related problems.

Faculty and their students in the program study songbirds, shorebirds, waterfowl, colonial waterbirds, and seabirds in places such as arctic Canada and Alaska, the tropical islands of the Caribbean, the Great Basin wetlands in Utah and California, barrier islands of the Atlantic coast, and in the deciduous forests of eastern North America.

In association with the Coastal Research Field Station, a US Geological Survey unit housed at URI, the NRS department has developed an active coastal bird research program. The Department is also closely associated with the Kingston Wildlife Research Station where an active bird banding program has been conducted continuously since the 1950s.

The NRS department has a strong nucleus of faculty and staff whose primary interest is avian ecology (Scott McWilliams, Peter Paton). In addition, there are other NRS faculty who commonly include birds in their research on landscape ecology (Peter August) and wetland ecology (Frank Golet). Faculty and staff in the Avian Ecology Program study bird physiology, behavior, population dynamics, community ecology, landscape ecology, and restoration ecology. Here is a selected list of some of the recent or ongoing projects conducted by this group:

  • Distribution and abundance of Snowy Plovers at Great Salt Lake (Paton)
  • Spatial distribution of avian biodiversity hotspots in Rhode Island (Paton)
  • Impact of salt-marsh restoration on Sharp-tailed Sparrows (Paton)
  • Land management and the population dynamics, ecology, and physiology of migratory songbirds in coastal southern New England (McWilliams)
  • Nutritional ecology and physiology of geese (McWilliams)
  • The dynamics of body composition in small passerine birds and its implications for the nutrition of birds at stopover sites during migration (McWilliams)
  • Factors affecting the distribution of the Northern Waterthrush and Canada Warbler in Rhode Island (Golet)
  • Effects of habitat and landscape features on the avian community in southern Rhode Island forested wetlands (Golet)
  • Landscape patterns of breeding bird diversity in Rhode Island (August)

Unique research opportunities and facilities

The University of Rhode Island is one of the nation’s “land grant” colleges. As such, the University operates hundreds of acres of research farms which have been important sites for investigating the effect of certain land management practices on natural resources including birds and other wildlife. The University of Rhode Island owns and operates the W. Alton Jones Campus, a 2,300-acre reserve containing woodlands, wetlands, streams and ponds, and grassland, about 20 miles from the Kingston campus. The Alton Jones campus is an important research facility as well as a center for environmental education and conferences. In addition, faculty in the NRS department in cooperation with Audubon Society of Rhode Island operate the Kingston Wildlife Research Station, an 85-acre woodland reserve just one mile from the main campus, at which birds have been banded during migration each year since 1956. Other nearby areas that are often used for URI bird research (all within ca. 30 miles of the Kingston campus) include Block Island, Ninigret and Trustom Pond National Wildlife Refuges, Prudence Island National Estuarine Research Reserve, and Galilee Bird Sanctuary. State management areas and private lands have also been widely used for research.

The Department’s avian ecology research involves cooperation with government agencies (e.g., US Fish and Wildlife Service, US Geological Survey, Canadian Wildlife Service, RI Department of Environmental Management), and non-government conservation agencies (e.g., Audubon Society, The Nature Conservancy). The NRS Department has strong ties to the National Park Service. The NRS Department houses the National Park Service’s Field Technical Support Center which provides GIS support to all the National Parks in the Northeastern US. In addition, in 1988 the US National Park Service established its Coastal Research Field Station at URI. This unit was transferred to the US Geological Survey’s Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in 1996, and now has several research scientists stationed at URI who are also active faculty members, teaching courses and advising graduate students. Funding for the Coastal Research Field Station comes from a variety of sources, and supports basic and applied research in national parks and seashores, national wildlife refuges, and other areas particularly in the coastal northeast, but also at various locations in North America and elsewhere in the world. Currently, the US Geological Survey’s unit research scientists are active in the following Departments at URI: GeoSciences (Cheryl Hapke: coastal hazard mapping and erosion processes), Plant Sciences (Howard Ginsberg: insect ecology and acarology), and the Graduate School of Oceanography (Charles T. Roman: limnology and saltmarsh ecology).