Research in Ornithology

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You often hear the word “research” related to someone looking up new information – researching a new car, researching a term paper, researching a recipe, etc. Here is example of what real field research is in ornithology, based on one of my research subjects, Yellow-headed Blackbirds.

Male Yellow-headed Blackbird

At a field station site in the northeastern part of California there is a marsh – a wetland dominated by herbaceous species – mainly rushes and bullrushes. Close to Eagle Lake, the second largest natural lake in California, with minimal inflow or outflow, the size of both the lake and the marsh are related to rainfall.

My hypothesis, the first step in a research project, is that the population of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, their nests, the size of males’ territories, and the success of nesting will fluctuate with the amount of rainfall. The next step is library research, for weeks, to find out everything I can about Yellow-headed Blackbirds and what population studies have been done similar to what I am proposing, and what conclusions other studies have come to.

Before the male Yellow-headed Blackbirds arrived in the late spring to set up their territories I measured the marsh – the circumference, the area, and depth at various points. When the males arrived and established their territories, I measured their territories with the help of students. We slogged through the marsh, hip deep in muck and mire, with a tape measure and range finder to determine territory areas. When the females arrived, we counted the number of females in the territory of each male – Yellow-headed Blackbirds are polygamous and females choose the male to mate with depending on the quality of his territory.

After the nests were built, the students and I donned our hip boots and grabbed our notepads, entering the water to note the nests, their location, and the number of eggs or young in each nest. We did this every other day as quickly as possible so as to disturb the birds as little as possible.

Female Yellow-Headed Blackbird

We did this for eight weeks or so until the birds ended their nesting and migrated south. We tabulated our data every evening and put them into spreadsheets. Later in the fall, on campus, dry and comfortable, we analyzed the data. After four summers of this we were able to make some conclusions.

The population and nest success did fluctuate with water levels up to a point. The marsh was in a basin and when the basin was full to the edge, nesting success was the highest. But when the marsh shrank in size due to a lack of rainfall, nest success dropped. Why? Partly because there was more competition for food and  and nest sites among the birds and partly because it was easier for mammalian predators to prey on the eggs and young.

This example just illustrates the time and effort put into a relatively simple research project. Organizing it, walking through the marsh, rain or shine, collecting accurate data, writing it up to be published by a legitimate journal was almost a four-year-long project. Many people seem to think that field ornithological research is just watching birds and taking notes – of course that is part of it- but good, publishable research requires a lot of time and effort, often in uncomfortable conditions. And legitimate journals are quite fussy about publishing a paper, so it is reviewed and critiqued by several reviewers. This is why I tell those who are interested in a career in ornithology to study not only birds and ecology, but to get a solid grounding in writing and math, especially statistics.

That research was in the summer. The next time I discuss my research I’ll tell you about the wintery, below freezing, windy, miserable conditions I subjected myself to in order to investigate the territoriality of the Townsend’s Solitaire. Ornithological research is always rewarding, but not always fun.

8 thoughts on “Research in Ornithology”

  1. One detail of your article caught my eye:
    You stated, “females choose the male to mate with depending on the quality of his territory.”
    Previously, I had always assumed it was the quality of the male plumage that cinched the detail.
    Another question that arises is how does the female assess the “quality” of his territory?
    Do we know which bird species females assess territory over plumage and vice versa?

  2. In the case of Yellow-headed Blackbirds, the females choose the male that has the best territory – the one that has the best nest sites and the most food, typically in the middle rather than the edges of the marsh. There are lots of birds, like many blackbirds, whose females choose the males based on his ability to provide, usually because he has a good territory,

  3. I have done some research in my past but to my knowledge on statistics you can make these sort of figures suitable to any situation, ie there is no right or wrong when applying statistical figures To any given situation. Can I ask in what situations would you use statistics, how valuable is the information gained, and how should this information be used, ?how can these statistical figures be used for the benefit of the species???

    1. You are correct in that there can be some fuzziness in the use of statistics. But any reader who knows statistics can tell whether it is a strong and appropriate test or not. There are weak tests and there are strong tests but good data will allow you to apply strong and appropriate tests. I would use statistics anytime I gathered numerical data. If for example, the success rate of nesting is 2.3 young fledged per nest one year and the next year it is 2.8, is that a significant difference? COuld be, depending on how many nests there were each year. Without a statistical test you would not know if 2.3 is significantly different than 2.8.
      How valuable is the information, how should this information be used, and how can these statistical figures be used for the benefit of the species? Well, all that depends on what kind of study it is, how well it is done, and what the implications are of the conclusions. You can’t judge a study just by its statistics.

  4. That the female Yellow-headed Blackbird would choose the male whose territory is “typically in the middle rather than the edges of the marsh” makes the most logical sense to me, since it would be less prone to predation;” she would feel safer there.
    If “the most food” is also available in the middle of the marsh (is it?), could that only be coincidental?

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