Volunteers are amazing!


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.


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!

Assigning human values

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!