Penn State graduate student turns bird-watching passion into research for ecology’s master program | Campus

One of life’s biggest challenges is turning your passions into your profession, and this may be especially difficult if you happen to be interested in things like hunting and fishing.

For bird-watching enthusiast Matt Toenies, that path led him to pursue a master’s degree in ecology.

“Growing up in rural Minnesota, I spent a lot of time outside in the woods and wetlands around our house,” Toenies said. “I also had an interest in drawing animals from a very young age.”

Eventually, Toenies got a hummingbird feeder for his birthday, which “sparked [his] interest” in birds, birding and wildlife conservation.

“Like a lot of birders, I’m very drawn to the rare, unique, or hard to find species, and ones that are being pushed in the direction of extinction,” Toenies said. “I have spent a lot of time birding during travel to various places, including Australia and most recently Spain.”

Toenies did his undergraduate work at the University of Minnesota in Crookston. He is an active member of the Wildlife Society, which is how he got onto Penn State’s radar.

“I led a quiz bowl team and we won the national quiz bowl in Milwaukee,” Toenies said.

Dr. David Miller, associate professor of wildlife population ecology, went a bit further and said Toenies “basically won it singlehandedly.”

Miller said he was immediately interested and discussed the possibility of doing graduate research here at Penn State.

“He was extremely qualified,” Miller said. “Not only was he a great student, but when he got here, he already knew all of the eastern bird calls.”

Before long, Toenies was in the ecology master’s program.

“Being in the ecology program here has enabled me to look at conservation issues from an ecological perspective, which is critical,” Toenies said. His research connects his love of birding with a need to preserve biodiversity, by examining how an invasive species is changing our landscape.

In an unusual role reversal, a certain species of insect is now controlling the livelihood of a multitude of bird species, causing big changes to some forest ecosystems on the east coast.

The Hemlock Wooly Adelgid is an invasive insect species that was brought to the United States from East Asia by ships during the 1950s. The insect has been causing problems because it feeds on hemlock trees, and has steadily been wiping out entire sections of forest.

“We found about five or six species of birds that are really strongly associated with hemlock trees during the breeding season,” Toenies said. “[This is] likely due to the fact that they have a unique structure that provides really good habitat for the birds.”

To conduct the research, Toenies is doing field observation work, comparing his observations to data…

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