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Jamie Cornelius kneels down in snow holding a small bird.

NSF Career Grant fuels Jamie Cornelius' deep dive into the hidden world of songbirds

By Hannah Ashton

When inclement weather hits, humans run indoors. Rain, snow, wind—although annoying—are not usually life threatening.

But what if you weighed less than 50 grams and measured 20 cm from beak to tail? Then inconvenient weather can be deadly.

Assistant Professor Jamie Cornelius received a coveted National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award to measure the energy and fitness costs of metabolic and behavioral strategies used by songbirds during inclement weather.

“We’ve all had that experience ourselves being in a cold rain feels a heck of a lot colder than dry cold. It’s could be 20 degrees warmer, but if it’s wet it will still somehow feel colder,” Cornelius said. “This project is asking, what are the costs of storms on birds, and what can birds do about it? And how do those strategies change if they’re raising young or if they’re sick or old?”

Storms are continuing to increase in frequency and irregularity, making the need for birds to adapt more urgent.

Cornelius will use her five-year, $1.5 million CAREER award to study songbirds within different seasonal contexts. CAREER awards are the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of early-career faculty.

Before graduate school, Cornelius wasn’t a huge birder, however, a fortuitous interaction changed her life.

‘I didn’t know that was a thing’

When you combine a passion for animals and a love of physiology, a rational career choice would be veterinary medicine and until her senior year at the University of Washington, that was her plan.

When Cornelius started pondering her next steps, a professor in the Department of Biology at the University of Washington, Marilyn Ramenofsky, asked her a life changing question.

“She said, ‘Have you ever even thought about doing research?’ And I responded, ‘What do you mean?’ I didn’t even know it was a thing,” Cornelius said. “I think we do a better job of communicating to undergrads, ‘This is a career path.’ A lot more people do research as an undergrad, but when I was in school that was pretty rare.”

Cornelius decided vet school wasn’t a good fit and instead applied to graduate school to study physiology and animal behavior.

At the University of California–Davis, she clicked with a researcher who studied birds and ended up becoming her graduate advisor.

“And so now I am a bird person,” she said. “I call it fortuitous because if you’re interested in behavior and hormones and how animals are responding to their environment, birds are awesome because you actually get to watch them. Birds are out there, they’re awake when we're awake and singing, feeding and moving around the environment where you can often watch them.”

Jamie Cornelius in front of a crossbill bench in Scotland.

Jamie Cornelius standing in front of a crossbill bench she found in Scotland.

Her next adventure sent her across the globe to Europe and Asia. She spent several years as a postdoctoral scholar at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in Germany and as a Fulbright fellow at St. Petersburg State University in Russia. The Fulbright Program is the flagship international exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government.

She believes studying abroad is “so formative, both in terms of your growth as an independent, capable, confident person–because it puts you in really uncomfortable situations and you realize you’ve got to get through it–but also cultural awareness and perspectives on your own culture at home.”

After returning to the U.S., Cornelius taught at California State University Monterey Bay and then Eastern Michigan University.

A desire to return to the Pacific Northwest drove her to apply for an open position at Oregon State, which she started six months before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Her husband, Taylor Chapple, is an assistant professor at the Coastal Oregon Marine Experiment Station in Newport with the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. He was on a research vessel in the Indian Ocean doing shark research when the pandemic started making news. His team decided to end their trip early, but getting home was a challenge.

Meanwhile, Cornelius was adjusting to a new university and lost her research team in the middle of a large experiment after campus shut down.

Receiving the NSF Award in 2023 was a mixture of excitement and relief.

‘What do they do and where do they go?’

“The question in this grant is like my baby; it’s my passion project. I’ve been trying to get it funded for a long time and it’s always gotten a lot of criticisms like, ‘You can’t do that at your University’ or ‘You’re not going to be able to follow birds in storms,’” she said. But she persisted and developed a strong research proposal based in data.

The importance of this project has two components.

“One is that as a theoretical biologist, I’m just interested in explaining the world and what is happening around us. And that is honestly my motivation, I think that it’s fascinating, and I think that has value,” she said.

The second involves investing time, resources and finances effectively. Her research will help inform predictive models that can then tell managers where to apply resources and help improve conservation efficiency. For example, it might not be effective to apply resources towards protecting a certain species in a particular area if the data shows they won't be able to survive there.

Data on birds is not as expansive as one might think.

“I think a lot of people would be pretty surprised by how little we know about most species in the world,” Cornelius said. “Take American robins for example. They’re everywhere, one of the most common and abundant birds, especially in urban landscapes. And it’s striking how much we don’t know about robins.”

In addition to the NSF award, Cornelius recently received a National Geographic Society Explorer grant. Her lab will examine the “acute impacts of fire and smoke on bird behavior, physiology and survival.”

"I think this is going to be one of those really interesting projects because, essentially, we know nothing."

After the 2020 fire season pummeled the Willamette Valley with smoke, she was curious how birds handle those conditions. A graduate student at the University of Washington was one of the only people at the time who had published anything on how animals respond in real time to smoke.

That graduate student is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of California Los Angeles and is collaborating with Cornelius on the new grant.

“Fire is something that’s happened for eons, so that is not new. And birds probably have evolved responses that help them during smoke. But the intensity of the smoke is increasing and potentially the timing and frequency, as well,” she said. “This is the first time that we’ll go out and try to put satellite tags and other kinds of heart rate transmitters on birds during smoke events.”

Curiosity is a driving force behind many of her research projects. She wonders how a small songbird on the east slope of the Cascades would deal with smoke. That geographic location gets cold at night and small songbirds have high metabolic turnover leading to a need for daily food.

“They can’t just sit for three weeks and wait for the air to get better; they have to do stuff,” she said. “So I am really curious. What do they do? Where do they go? How bad does it get before they’ll leave? Can they leave? Do they just die? I think this is going to be one of those really interesting projects because, essentially, we know nothing.”

Many of her projects are directly related to climate change, which she chooses not to handle with panic but instead with action. “It’s very clear that our world is going to change massively over the next 50 years. And we’re trying to help predict what those changes are going to look like. But then people, our communities, have to decide what’s important to them.”

Cornelius hopes people decide to protect the planet and the many birds that call it home.

To read more about biodiversity research visit the Department of Integrative Biology website.