Professor Collins Shares Birding Enthusiasm with Students
Publication Date: 3/28/2012
Dr. Michael Collins of the Rhodes Department of Biology can point with certainty to the day he first became interested in birds.
“As an undergraduate, I took an ornithology class where we had to get up at 6 a.m. to go look at birds, which at the time I thought was ridiculous. But one day when we were on one of these trips, I saw a Peregrine Falcon swoop down and hit a Pintail Duck. Male Pintails are gorgeous, and this was one handsome bird. It was this National Geographic moment for me; it made me think I’d like to study avian ecology. And here I am many years later doing just that, and hopefully passing some of that enthusiasm onto my students.”
A theoretical biologist currently in his second year as an assistant professor at Rhodes, Collins examines how different species coexist in specific areas, and the processes that allow entire groups of species to survive in a given place while feeding on a limited number of resources. Last spring, he taught an ornithology course, which will be offered again in the Spring of 2013. As part of the class, students visit Shelby Farms and Overton Park to learn how to identify different species of birds and what techniques to use to estimate bird densities.
“What I really try to emphasize in that class is that it isn’t just about birds, but about how we can use birds as a study system to look at the natural world,” Collins says. “Birds have played huge roles in biological topics like genetics, sexual selection, ecology and animal behavior. And so we try to use them as a guide, a telescope, if you will, into the natural world.”
In addition to teaching, Collins works with students on various research projects in ornithology. Together, they look at stopover sites along the Mississippi Flyway, a major migration corridor for birds, to examine what cues birds use to select where they will refuel during both spring and fall migration along the corridor.
After taking Collins’ ecology class, Jared Swenson ’12 began his ongoing research in which he uses radar technology to track bird migration through Memphis. Using radar, Swenson can measure both speed and reflectivity, which he uses to count the number of individuals. Eventually, he says he hopes to identify general migration behavior in the Memphis area by quantifying the number of birds that fly along the corridor and also what direction they are flying in.
“Every night during periods of migration, there are things going on above us,” Swenson says. “Birds are interesting to study because they are so highly abundant---if you are looking to study a living organism, they are accessible and highly variable. When you go to new places, there are always new birds.”
Collins’ personal research looks at the biogeography of birds to study how the distribution of one species across an area like an archipelago affects the ability of another closely related species to survive in that same area. To do this, he takes existing mathematical models and adds a geographic component to measure patterns among species. In his free time, Collins enjoys birding in local areas like Shelby Forest.
“One of the things I like about ornithology is that it is an excuse to get out away from the city, put away your computer, put away your iPhone or your iPad, stop checking emails, and go out there and connect with nature for a bit.”
Rhodes student Logan Benoist ’12 holding a Common Yellowthroat at Shelby Farms
(information compiled by Rhodes Student Associate Lucy Kellison ’13)
Founded in 1848, Rhodes College is a private, coeducational college of liberal arts and sciences. It aspires to graduate students with a lifelong passion for learning, a compassion for others, and the ability to translate academic study and personal concern into effective leadership and action in their communities and the world.