Dissertation Research

A way to say thanks

I’m writing this in the car in between two interviews that I’m conducting this sunny Sunday morning. What I’ve been struck with as I’ve been busy with interviews this Spring and Fall is just how generous people have been with their time and personal space–I’m visiting people in their homes as a part of my work right now. What is difficult is that I’m not going to get a way to individually thank all my participants in my dissertation (that would break the rules of anonymous research). So while I do thank people effusivley at the end of an interview, I feel like I need to figure out some way of thanking these people again.


Birds migrate at night in loose flocks

Birds migrate at night. Bird tend to flock together.

These two disseparate facts have been recently weaved together to suggest that birds migrate at night in flocks. What I find interesting here is the suggestion that these flock are “loose”–not the tight configurations visible in the preceding video of starlings flying in a flock–birds may be migrating in groups that are as much as 200 meters apart from each other. As the lead researcher, Ronald Larkin, suggests birds flying in the same direction at one point in time is not the same as birds travelling together over long distances:

“Even back in the 1970s it hit me that you can have two birds flying absolutely parallel in the same direction and at the same height, but they can be flying at such a different speed that one of them gains on the other and they’re just, you know, automobiles passing on the expressway,” he said. “They’re simply taking the same route and not keeping together.”

What Larkin has shown through a magic elixer of radar and statistics is that migrating birds tracked were actively travelling together: same speed, same altitude, same direction. Just much further apart then we had ever imagined before.

For me, this finding brings up the obvious question: how? I know I’ve stood outside during spring and fall migration and heard the whisper thin call of migrating passerines, so perhaps they stay in contact via vocalizations. But that’s just conjecture on my part.

And I have to share Larkin’s sense-of-wonder with this phenomenon:

“To me, that’s the marvelous thing – that they’re flying in social groups in the middle of the night in the middle of the air, over territory most of them have never been over before.”

Link to article

Academia Birds

Prairie Chickens and bird-watching

I keep an eye out for newspaper articles published on birding as I find they provide an interesting insight into the larger cultural perception of the activity. While I’m not doing a discourse analysis of this stuff, a recent article published in the New York Times (Prairie Birds Flirt, and a Town Livens Up) hits on some interesting themes that I’ve been finding in my research.

Certain birds have agency in attracting humans

The article outlines the fact that the bodily presence of Prairie Chickens attracts humans. Following the normal pattern, it is the fact that these birds are perceived as being rare that attracts birders to come and see them. Rarity isn’t the only reason that birders are interested in these birds, aesthetics plays a large part in attracting humans–the Prairie Chicken’s spring-time display, visually stunning is a key component. This mating display between males is unique to one time of year and so rarity is compounded–an aesthetics that is rare in time in addition to the Chicken’s diminishing numbers.

Birds, then, have positive impacts on local economies

Humans travelling to take in the display has had an positive, significant impact for the local (human) economy. Animal agency becomes bird tourism, where birders travel and spend money in the same area that these birds are being seen. Since the agricultural economy in the region has softened, this is seen as a positive influx of money for the local economy–money spent on lunches, gas and accommodation.

Ironically, the Prairie Chickens are in this sparsely populated region for the reason that humans are not–the birds need undisturbed prairie habitat. No mention is made in the article how the increased attention on the birds with impact the number of birds in the future. Likely, there’s the rosy forecast that more attention paid to the birds will improve their profile and, in turn their numbers. Quite often, however, this conclusion is made without any real interrogation of the potential birder’s impact.


Rondeau Research

So I’m well passed the halfway mark for my tenure conducting birder research here at Rondeau Provincial Park. I’ve got sixteen interviews in the hopper and could get a couple more before I leave on Saturday. While the birding hasn’t been stellar (it’s been “thin” as someone today described it), I’m really pleased with the number of interviews I’ve managed to conduct. Before I left, I had the magical number of fourteen in my head. If I reached that, then I would consider my time here a success. I reached fourteen yesterday, about three days ahead of time. The other great thing about my time here is that everyone (birders, that it) is quite interested that I would be researching them and many are interested in participating. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been generous with their time and answering my litany of questions. So. Even though I have two more days left, the work here already feels like a success.

Daily Photo Me

What has been happening

OK, let me do a quick re-cap. Last week? Boston for the AAG. Week before that? Austin for Leesa’s project. Up next? Two weeks at Rondeau Provincial Park, collecting data for my dissertation.

I would have liked a bit more time between Boston and Rondeau, but no dice. So I’ve been spending this week getting prepared for next, editing book reviews for the CJEE and getting ready for my next gig. It’s been–and will continue to be–a busy spring. I’ll be back in Toronto May 11th for three night before I’m off to direct the Camp Arowhon Outdoor Centre. Ollie gets to come with me to camp, so that should be fun (and Heather gets a break looking after the dog).

OK, back to work–tonight’s task? Clean the desk so I can find my “research in provincial parks” permission form. Whoops!

Research Travel

(I’m about to be) Deep in the heart of Texas

Without making this post into a reminiscence about my youth and Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, I am off to Austin, Texas tomorrow with my supervisor (Dr. Leesa Fawcett) to assist with a research project on animal minds. We’re going to be interviewing Dr. Merlin Tuttle, founder of Bat Conservation International (a non-profit whose mission you should be able to deduce from its name), among other bat researchers and bat enthusiasts in the Austin area.

As far as travelling in Texas, I’ve only been to the Dallas-Fort Worth airport. So, I get to have a bit of an adventure, too. Austin is supposed to be a great place to visit, so I’m pleased that its the first real place that I’ll have a chance to explore in Texas ((the fact that its supposed to be in the high twenties / low thirties will help, too)). Leesa and I have congruent interests in so far as what counts as fun, so with the little free time we have, we’re going to be busy exploring the natural history of the area. I posted a question on MetaFilter, and I’ve got some good leads on places to check out.

I’m going to schlep my camera equipment, so I hope I get some interesting opportunities for photographs–who knows, of bats perhaps!


Acadian flycatchers prefer the country to the city to nest

Urban birds that nest in wooded areas don’t do as well (reproductively-speaking) as their non-urban counterparts. Conventional wisdom suggested that this was because of the presence of more egg-eating predators (eating bird eggs, obviously) in urban settings. New research suggests, however, that it might have more to do with fitter (larger, older) birds preferring (and getting) larger, non-disturbed wooded areas:

Urban areas attracted lower-quality birds which, compared to those in rural areas, arrived later in the spring, left earlier in the fall, made fewer nesting attempts and were much less likely to return to nesting spots from year to year.

Acadian flycatchers (Empidonax virescens) were the bird species studied, and it would seem that the urban flycatchers managed to raise one young versus two in the case of the non-urban flycatchers. Knowing just what makes these urban spaces unappealing to these birds is unknown. The brown headed cowbird (Molothrus ater) is a nest parasite–meaning that it lays eggs in another species’ nest and lets those birds raise the cowbird’s young–and is suggested as perhaps playing a role here. Urban nests were two times more likely to be parasitized than rural ones.



Boto bling

Freshwater dolphin

A recent article (hyperlink below) suggests that the male freshwater dolphins (Inia geoffrensis) that Heather and I got a chance to see in Peru this year (photographic evidence above) hold and thrash objects at the surface to “impress” females. What’s particularly interesting is this quote from the researcher:

“It’s particularly interesting that the complexity of this behavior in these dolphins is considerably greater than that in chimps,” Martin said. “Chimp males break off branches, thrash them around and make a lot of noise to show off how macho they are — bit like blokes with big motorbikes and Ferraris, I guess. Botos, however, are much more subtle, and often use their objects in what appears to be a ritualistic way.”

The complexity of the act sounds intruding.