Where’s the research?

You might—or, by this point, might not—recall that I’m supposed to be doing research that will be the basis of a PhD here. Based on the actual content of the blog, you’d be forgiven if you thought that the point of all of this was to take photos of various annoyed birds held in the photographer’s grip.

Go away! I am not a PhD!

So where’s the research part?

Well, unfortunately a lot of it is effectively invisible, and will remain so for a while. The blood samples I take, for example, will let me look at genetic diversity, parentage of chicks (if I ever sample any chicks), and check the sex of the birds. But I won’t actually have time to analyze my blood samples until the fall. The feather samples I take will let me look for differences in diet, but again, I won’t be able to do that analysis until the fall.

My data on phenology—the timing of events like egg-laying, fledging, and migration—doesn’t need any lab work to be useful, but at the moment it suffers from very small sample size: two nests, two females with brood patches. I had not anticipated quite how hard it would be to catch females, nor how confusing the relative phenologies of my sites would be. If a high-elevation site has eggs, I thought, a low-elevation site should have nestlings, or even fledglings… but so far, based on my tiny sample size, that doesn’t seem to be the case. I’m hopeful that our next trip will be more informative.

Finally there’s the information that I have now and have in decent amounts: the physical measurements and photographs of the juncos. I haven’t yet had much time to do that alchemy known as statistics whereby numbers become data, so what I have done has been crude and, so far, not significant. That doesn’t surprise me: real-world field data is complex, and plugging numbers into a simple linear model and hoping for significance is comparable to tossing a lead block into a mix of whatever you have in your kitchen cupboard and hoping for gold.

Promisingly, there are a lot of aspects of the juncos that vary a lot, meaning they will be interesting to investigate further. We’ve measured masses from 16.3 to 19.5 grams; we’ve seen tails that are perfectly symmetrical in their white patches and tails that are dramatically not so; we’ve seen bills where the upper mandible extends several millimeters beyond the lower mandible, and bills where both halves line up perfectly. In general the juncos have gotten fatter as the season wears on, but still we see some with no fat.

Tail white patch variation among juncos. Compare the amount of white on the third feather from the right of SAMM’s tail…

…to that on AMES’s tail.

I’m presenting a poster at a conference in August, so I will most definitely have to do some more rigorous statistics—with quicksilver, occult chanting, maiden’s eyelashes pickled in moonlight and all the rest—before then. Hopefully with the additional data I’ll collect, and the better statistics, I’ll have something more to report soon.

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