Start looking

Science requires careful planning, foresight, and scrupulous attention to detail. Everything must be controlled so that the variables of interest can be examined. One mistake could bring everything down. Only with years of training can someone hope to add to our body of knowledge.

But if you take all of that too seriously, you’ll spend all of your time planning and theorizing rather than looking—and the most important part of science happens when people just start looking.

Peder V. Thellesen is a dairy farmer in Denmark. He has no formal scientific training. Evidently he loves starlings: he started banding them and observing their nests in 1971 and continued to do so every year, in nestboxes on his own farm and on his neighbors’ farms.

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It’s easy to see how you might fall for that gorgeous plumage. Photo by Phil McIver, reproduced from flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Fat bird season

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It’s the time of year when migrants come through the banding station on their way from their breeding grounds in the north to their wintering grounds in the south. We see a greater variety of species now—not just those who like to breed here, but everyone who thinks our patch of forest looks like a good place to stop for a snack. It isn’t just that these are different species, though: these birds have a different feel to them. These are travelers on a genuinely long and perilous journey. We banders are, I hope, just a blip in any bird’s day—a frightening moment to be shaken off by mid-afternoon—but the days we interrupt for these migrating birds are epic days.

This is physically manifested, on the birds, as fat.

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Animal accomplishments that have caused my students to break into applause

I’m teaching an Animal Behavior course this semester. The lectures are 80 minutes long and exactly during the sleepiest time of the afternoon; I enjoy the challenge of getting a reaction from the students under these circumstances. Videos of baby animals in peril always get attention (some good ones: marine iguana, barnacle goose, water buffalo), but they’re so reliable it almost feels like cheating.

My students have actually broken into applause during lecture three times so far. One of these will not be discussed in detail (it involved the recitation of poetry), but the other two were in response to two quite different animal accomplishments, which I thought I would share.

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Featured paper: five warblers, lots of tornadoes, and a mystery

Male Golden-winged Warbler. Photo by Mark Peck*

Male Golden-winged Warbler. Photo by Mark Peck*

This story begins when Streby et al. (2015) decided to track Golden-winged Warblers during their annual migration. We know that lots of birds migrate, but for most of them, we know surprisingly few details about that migration. Often we know generally where they go (to a specificity of, say, “somewhere in South America”) but not exactly where; rarely do we know what paths they take to get between wintering and breeding grounds. This kind of information is especially important for birds of conservation concern, since to protect a migratory population, you need to protect its wintering grounds and migration route as well as its breeding grounds.

The researchers relied on technology to tell them where the warblers went when they migrated. There are several different ways to track animal movements; in this case, researchers used light-level geolocators, which record the amount of light hitting the geolocator. Collected over time, these light intensity measurements allow researchers to calculate where the geolocator was, based on things such as day length. This location information isn’t as accurate as the data you would get from a GPS logger, but the light-level geolocators have a big advantage over GPS loggers: they can be much smaller, so you can put them on tiny birds like Golden-winged Warblers. A Golden-winged Warbler attached to a heavy, clunky GPS logger would not be migrating anywhere.

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