Why do birds spend time eating bugs from some trees, but leave others untouched? Maybe when the insects start to munch on leaves or needles, the trees then “call for help” by releasing chemicals that the birds can “smell.” That possibility forms the basis of thesis research being conducted in Marquette County jack pine stands by Northern Michigan University Biology master’s student Katie Bjornen. She has recently won several competitive research grants and presented her work Aug. 2 at the joint meeting of the American Ornithological Society and Society of Canadian Ornithologists in East Lansing.
Preliminary results from her work indicate that birds may prefer some trees over others for foraging, that there is an unexpected amount of variability in the volatile compounds released by the trees, and that in fact birds are attracted to trees that are releasing certain volatile chemicals. Bjornen notes that a few prior studies performed in lab conditions indicated that birds could detect volatile chemicals released by deciduous trees, but hers is the first to look at wild birds foraging on coniferous trees under natural conditions.
“Katie’s research may provide lots of exciting insights on avian ecology,” said her adviser, NMU Biology Professor Alec Lindsay. “For starters, the conventional wisdom has been that most bird species don’t use olfactory cues in their everyday lives, but Katie’s work adds to the evidence that indicates otherwise. Additionally, since she is looking at this phenomenon in jack pine stands, the outcomes of her work may have important implications for managed commercial forests, and for the conservation of Kirtland’s warblers – an endangered species of bird that requires young jack pine stands for breeding habitats.”
Bjornen obtained her bachelor's degree in Organismal Biology from Montana State University in 2014. She first become interested in birds by tagging along during the research performed by her parents, both ornithologists in Montana. While an undergraduate student and since, she has held positions conducting avian ecology research for various agencies and consulting companies. Since arriving at NMU, she has been involved in several bird research projects and served as a teaching assistant for ornithology classes.
Bjornen’s research has received funding from competitive research organizations including the Paul A. Stewart Award from the Wilson Ornithological Society, the Grant in Aid of Research from Sigma Xi (the International Scientific Research Honors Society), the William Robinson Award from the NMU Foundation, and the Excellence in Education award from NMU.