Volunteers are amazing!

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As a PhD student, I don’t have much in the way of useful resources to help me carry out my work. Doing ecological research is very time consuming, especially when you are working at a landscape scale, chasing small, quiet and at times cryptic birds through thick scrubby forest, usually on your own. It’s really challenging to collect enough data to make meaningful inferences in the short period over which a PhD is usually carried out.

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Photo by Robert Bender

Despite this, I feel really lucky, because I have lots of terrific volunteers who have helped me out over my PhD (and continue to do so!). This includes a range of people – even my parents have been out to help me, especially with doing the more tedious habitat assessments; many willing students and keen animal-loving folk have been out to help me catch and band the robins; and, possibly the most helpful, are the wonderful bird watchers, which have the hardest job of all. They go out independently to search for banded robins. And unless the robins are having ‘one of those days’ where they are all continuously singing at the top of their little voices or boldly foraging right on the foot path in front of you, they can be incredibly hard to find. It is this part of the study that I find most challenging – I simply can’t be at all four sites across eastern Melbourne at once, spending hours looking for banded robins that I may not find and, at the very same time, be at my desk writing, analysing and organising.

Really, this post is all about saying thank you. To all of the fabulous volunteers that have helped me. You are amazing!

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Assigning human values

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It’s been some time since my last post. I am not quite sure why. Software, especially smart phone apps, make it very easy. Perhaps a lack of material?! Not likely – I’ve certainly had enough to think about recently. My sense is that I’ve been having a tough time grappling with my identity and validity as a “Scientist”. But that is a topic for another post. Nevertheless, I am back, and I plan to write more and, more importantly to write more often. No matter how “un-scientific” my ideas seem.

One concept that has played on my mind for a long time is the way we assign human values to animals. By “human values” I mean not simply that we see human behaviours, but more so that we rate and judge and stereotype animals quite readily. Most importantly I am interested in how we classify some species of animals as “bad” and others as “good”.

The picture above is what those in the bird banding world know as by-catch or non-target species. I have often heard the term (and indeed used the term) “bush trash” to describe non-targets. Implicit in this is a value judgement. That these species (Superb Fairy-wrens and a Golden Whistler) are less important, less “good” than my target species, Eastern Yellow Robins.

An even more profound (and, in my opinion, disturbing) assignment of human values is in the realm of invasive species. The words “feral”, “pest”, “weed” and even “non-native” now have a strong value attached to them. These species, these animals are “bad”. And, more often than I feel comfortable with, the consequence of this is the implied consent that it is ok to treat these animals as lesser beings and, consequently, inhumanely.

But are these species really “bad”? Is there really a concept of “bad” in the animal (other than human) world? Or are these species just very effective at doing what they do, at surviving and out-competing?

I don’t think the “bush trash” I catch is “bad”! The little bush trash birds are just as cute as yellow robins, sometimes more cute! They are just the “others”. They are different animals to what I have decided to study. Just as “ferals” and “pests” are not necessarily bad or evil, they are still just animals, doing their best to be their best!

Finding babies

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Like many Australian passerines, Eastern Yellow Robins have a protracted breeding season. If conditions are right, nest building and egg laying may begin as early as July (which, for those of us in the southern hemisphere, is the middle of winter). This means that I am one very busy researcher right now!

Although I started my PhD just over a year and a half ago, I still feel new to many of the methods involved in studying woodland birds. Which means that everything is quite exciting, but also means… I am slow. Finding active robin nests requires a lot of patience. So far, my process is to arrive at a site and set out looking for a breeding pair. If I’m lucky enough to spot a bird quickly, I will follow it. Otherwise I follow calls, which are not always frequent. Often I resort to using a bit of playback (a recording of a robin call) to try and see who’s around. Once I have a target, I watch and listen and wait. And pretend very hard to not look like I am watching. The little robins seem to know when I am stalking them!

It seems to be working so far – as you can see from the pictures above. I am finding nests, and it is incredibly rewarding. The nests are quite tiny – an incubating robin barely fits on the nest. But they are adorable! I go back regularly to each nest to monitor its development, from eggs to hatching and then to check in as the chicks develop their feathers and get ready to fledge. The two little babies on the left are the cutest thing I have seen so far. Freshly hatched, I managed to catch them gaping at the camera – they must’ve thought I was bringing a tasty worm. Too cute!

Go easy – I’m new here!

This is my first blog post here. So please go easy on me!

I started my PhD some time ago now – on Valentine’s day in 2011 in fact. Indeed, I thought that starting my PhD on the 14th of February might cause me to fall in love with my project. And, in many ways I did. But, as with any relationship, there have been ups and there have been downs. Sometimes, I am madly in love…. At other times I wish that ‘we’ could break up, and I have come dangerously close to ‘dumping’ my PhD! But, I think I have found that happy medium – I enjoy the good times and know that the bad times don’t last, and that ‘we’ don’t always see eye-to-eye (especially on how speedily things should be progressing!). I accept that ‘we’ simply agree to disagree on some things.

But one thing is an unrelenting source of happiness – the robins. Although their co-operation in the data collection process is not always perfect, they provide an endless supply of cuteness-factor and “ooooh, aaahs”. And that, for the most part, makes what I am doing worthwhile. Of course I am always striving for robust science, with clear, logical reasoning and efficacious methods. But, in order to maintain my sanity and day-to-day satisfaction, I must allow myself to revel in the wonders that working with wildlife provides.

That is what I would like to share with you here. Thus, I will not be concentrating too much on the science behind my work, although at times I may touch on it to illustrate a point, but rather I hope to provide an insight into the daily life of a wildlife researcher.

I hope you enjoy!