St. Olaf College | News

Student’s research project combines love of birds, conservation

PattersonEmily300x400Most students wouldn’t sign up for a class that meets 15 minutes before sunrise.

But Emily Patterson ’15 designed her course that way.

Dawn is the best time of day for birds, after all.

Patterson has a passion for ornithology, and last spring she received a federal permit to band birds in Minnesota. Under the guidance of St. Olaf College Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathy Shea, Patterson designed a semester-long research project that combined her love of birds and conservation.

Patterson’s project is just one example of the college’s commitment to fostering independent undergraduate research opportunities across the liberal arts. Students are encouraged to combine academic interests in their various independent studies.

Just as other students have created projects that combine mathematics with ceramics and psychology with linguistics, Patterson used St. Olaf’s integrated approach to learning to gain hands-on experience in the field of avian conservation.

Emily Patterson '15 holds a Cooper's Hawk that she banded on the St. Olaf Natural Lands as part of an independent research project she designed.
Emily Patterson ’15 holds a Cooper’s Hawk that she banded on the St. Olaf Natural Lands as part of her project.

In her independent research course, Patterson — who has worked at the bird banding station at Buffalo State Park near Moorhead, Minnesota, and at the Braddock Bay Bird Observatory near Rochester, New York —  focused on the distribution of birds in five sections of the St. Olaf Natural Lands that had been burned in different years.

Controlled prairie burns are a form of prairie preservation. Fire removes dead vegetation from the prairie and allows more plants to flower, make seeds, and grow taller. It also uncovers darkened soil, which heats up more quickly from sunlight, and lengthens the growing season for warm-season plants.

Emily Patterson '15 holds one of the bluebirds that she banded on the St. Olaf Natural Lands.
Emily Patterson ’15 holds one of the bluebirds that she banded on the St. Olaf Natural Lands.

In her project, Patterson hypothesized that different species of birds would occupy different areas of the prairie, depending on the year in which each area was burned.

She set up a total of 10 nets in five different sections of the Natural Lands, and caught birds on 17 days.

Between September 13 and October 27 of last year, Patterson banded 98 birds of 23 different species. She recorded each bird’s species, age, sex, weight, and wing length, and blew on their collar bones and stomachs to look for fat.

“My findings suggest that continuing to burn smaller sections of prairie helps promote a greater amount of biodiversity in the Natural Lands as a whole,” says Patterson.

“I’m grateful that St. Olaf has given me the opportunity to unite one of my passions with research and conservation.”