Beyond Birding - Field Projects for Inquisitive Birders

By Thomas C. Grubb, Jr. , Department of Zoology, Ohio State University

The Boxwood Press; Pacific Grove; 1986

(Used with Permission)

Birds in the Classroom
The Bird Groups
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Chapter One - Ornithology as a Science

Chapter Two - Analytical Ornithology

Chapter Seven - When Do Great Blue Herons Give Up?

Chapter Fifteen - What Determines Individual Distance?

Chapter Twenty Three - What To do When You Know this Book

Appendix 2 - The Spearman Rank Correlation Test


One of the most influential field studies of birds ever performed was conducted just north of my university here in Columbus. While carrying on her duties as wife, mother and homemaker, Mrs. Margaret Morse Nice devoted many hours to studying the behavior and ecology of Song Sparrows. Mrs. Nice's account of her work is generally regarded as one of the finer examples of descriptive ornithology ever produced in North America by anyone, amateur or professional.

At the time of Mrs. Nice's study, amateurs were routinely making important contributions to ornithology. General conclusions they reached from their field work were useful additions to the body of knowledge about birds, However, from the 1950s on, as the study of avian biology became more analytical and less descriptive, contributions by amateurs became less pivotal to the discipline. One of the functions of this book is to bring the techniques of analytical ornithology to the amateur student of birds.

Descriptive ornithology, which Mrs. Nice accomplished so beautifully, requires careful observation and note-taking on the behavior of birds in their natural environment. The next step is to look for generalities, common attributes about the events seen. For example, after a number of years of watching the Song Sparrows she had color-banded, Mrs. Nice could generalize that in Columbus, Ohio, only males of the species stayed on the breeding ground all winter.

Very often, the final step in descriptive ornithology is to create some explanation, or hypothesis, for why the generality discovered should exist. To continue with the Song Sparrow example, we might suggest that males wintering in the breeding area are more likely to secure a breeding territory during the following spring. The processes of natural selection, therefore, should favor male Song Sparrows wintering in Columbus because those birds would produce more offspring during their lifetimes than would male Song Sparrows that went south for the winter. Increased reproductive success the following spring, then, is a hypothesis for what causes some males to overwinter at the northern breeding site.

Although there are a few exceptions, it seems fair to say that most amateur ornithologists have not progressed beyond the descriptive stage of the science to the next stage, which is analytical ornithology. At the core of analytical ornithology is a method for evaluating hypotheses. In particular, analytical ornithology provides a method for concluding when a hypothesis is wrong, when an explanation of cause and effect is a mistake. In our Song Sparrow example, the methods of analytical ornithology would give us a way of concluding whether we should believe that males stay north because they have a better chance of subsequently securing a breeding territory the next spring. It is this ability to detect incorrect hypotheses that makes analytical ornithology such an advance over the descriptive study of birds.

This book presents the concepts and methods of analytical ornithology by analyzing a series of hypotheses: Northern Orioles prefer to build their nests over water; the size of a woodlot determines how many species of birds live there; White-breasted Nuthatches cache food during the fall in the same part of a woodland where they will be foraging during the winter, and so forth. After the reader works through several of the chapters, he or she should be able to appreciate the steps involved in analyzing hypotheses and should grasp the general concepts of determining when a hypothesis is wrong.

With the idea of making the practice of analytical ornithology attractive and accessible, I have organized this book into four major sections. Chapter 1 takes a detailed look at how analytical procedures can be applied to the field study of birds. Chapter 2 examines in greater depth the concepts and principles of analytical science. The remaining chapters suggest how to go about analyzing hypotheses about where birds live, how they coexist, and why they make the decisions they do. Most chapters conclude with a few sources of further reading taken from North American ornithological journals. The last major section of the book, Appendices 1 and 2, contains methods for performing certain elementary statistical tests of hypotheses. As explained further in Chapter 2, knowledge of how likely an outcome is due to chance is very important in determining the probability that a finding is due to chance. As an option, a statistical test can be used in conjunction with the results obtained in every project. At the end of each chapter, the appropriate statistical analysis is outlined.

None of the projects outlined requires extensive travel, and many can be taken up whenever a few minutes or hours become available. The ability to recognize individual birds in to a prerequisite for any project. In any case, capturing and marking birds in any way is illegal without federal and state permits. Equipment needs have been kept to a minimum. Many projects require only a pencil, a notebook, binoculars, and watch. In a few cases, some simple, homemade devices are needed.

This book is intended for several audiences. First, it is designed for amateur birders, some of whom may now be involved in descriptive ornithological endeavors, such as Christmas Counts and Breeding Bird Surveys. This group of "non-traditional students" includes some of the very keenest observers of free-ranging birds, and their observations can be invaluable in amassing the facts from which hypotheses can be formulated. Yet amateurs have rarely combined descriptive and analytical ornithology. This book will have served its purpose if its broadens the perspective of the amateur concerning the various ways that the science of ornithology can be pursued.

The second major audience is the high school biology and science student. Aside from being intrinsically interesting and "low-cost" subjects for class projects or independent study, the exercises to follow could serve as models for how any kind of analytical science is performed, and what its capabilities and limitations are.

The third major intended audience is the students taking college-level courses in ornithology, animal behavior, and/or ecology. The analytically oriented projects should be useful adjuncts to many lecture topics in these disciplines of biology. Many of these field projects can be pursued during the fall, winter, and early spring when colleges are in session.