2017 Field Season

For the first time in more than a decade, I will not be out with the sage-grouse this season. I’ll be teaching in Davis for both the winter and spring quarters. That means I’m able to help a bit with the on-campus video projects, and look longingly at field updates from Gail and Ryane. I’ll definitely miss seeing the sage-grouse and their antics, watching spring try to overcome winter’s grip on the landscape, and our local rituals (I can almost taste a Bonzai Burger with a pint of Rockchuck Rye at the Gannett Grill in Lander).

For those of you wanting to follow Chicken Camp, you can check out Ryane’s twitter account @RyaneLogsdon. Word so far is that the beginning of this season looks like the end of last season, with a very wet landscape.

Turkey/Cat Video

Wild turkeys occasionally do goofy things, and when someone captures that behavior on video, I sometimes get contacted to try to make sense of it all. This happened last week, when a video of a flock of turkeys walking in a circle in the middle of the street around a dead cat went viral. I was quoted in articles at a website called the Verge, as well as NPR and Fox News.

About the video- which shows a flock of more than a dozen turkeys walking slowly, clockwise, at a distance of a few meters from a road-killed cat. There are a few aspects to consider:

Why do the care about a dead cat?  My thought on this is that the behavior looks like predator inspection behavior. This is a reaction to learn about a predator that does not pose an immediate danger (as a sprinting carnivore or soaring/diving eagle might). The behavior we see in the video indicates the turkeys are attentive to the roadkill, but nervous about it (keeping their distance, and also staying in motion so that they can flee more quickly). This behavior could do a few things. They could gain additional information about this particular predator (is it sleeping, will it wake up, is it about to pounce). The inspection could ensure everyone in the flock sees it and in particular that younger birds can learn about potential danger. Finally, this kind of behavior would alert a predator that they are discovered, and that an ambush attack is unlikely to be successful. For this last possibility, it resembles mobbing behavior that is found in a variety of species.

I’ve seen somewhat similar behavior when a coyote approached a flock of turkeys. The flock was alert and alarm calling, and parted as the coyote walked through. They seemed to want to keep an eye on the predator while not getting too close.

A slightly different version of this is that the turkeys may see the dead cat as something unusual and novel in their home range. Thus it could be that they don’t start by knowing the cat is a predator (or similar enough to natural predators like bobcats), but instead are inspecting to find out the danger level of this new thing they’ve stumbled across. Functionally this would be pretty similar to what I describe above.

Why are they moving in a circle?  Probably the oddest thing about this video is not that the birds care about a dead cat, but rather the eerie sight of them walking in a circle. I think there are two parts to this. First, their movements are governed by the tension between wanting to observe the cat, but also being fearful of it, which results in remaining motion but at a relatively fixed distance from the cat. To far, and they couldn’t see what’s going on, but a closer approach may be risky if the cat is a crouched bobcat instead of a dead housecat.

When turkeys are foraging they often spread out, but if they are just walking from place to place, they may move in single file. This follow the leader behavior may have something to do with the circling behavior as well. In particular, I think the size of this flock of turkeys was coincidentally perfect to create a perpetual circling motion of the flock. Possibly as the first bird continued the circular trajectory around the cat, it caught up to the last bird, who was just arriving to inspect the cat. The effect would be like the head of a conga line catching up and starting to follow the person at the end of the train.

I’ll note that for whatever reason, turkeys seem to have a propensity to get stuck in these circular movement loops. I’ve seen (in person and on youtube) fairly persistent circling behavior in much smaller groups of male turkeys exhibiting various forms of chasing or aggression.

How does this relate to other animal “funeral” and “mourning” behavior? This is a big topic and I’m not going to attempt to review everything here. Some birds are known to have “funerals”– mainly corvids like crows and magpies. My former labmate Teresa Iglesias studied ‘cacaphonous aggregations’ of scrub jays in response to the presence of a dead jay. In a lengthy set of experiments, she compiled evidence that the response to the dead jay is similar in some ways to the response to a predator, and that the behavior of recruiting other jays is likely related to the potential cue of risk that a dead jay provides. I don’t mean to suggest all such mourning behavior in animals falls under this hypothesis, but I do think it shares similarities with the behavior we see in the turkeys.

Of note- I AM ALWAYS INTERESTED IN SEEING THESE VIDEOS, AND THERE ARE VARIOUS QUESTIONS THAT COULD BE ANSWERED WITH ENOUGH EXAMPLES, SO PLEASE FEEL FREE TO ALERT ME ABOUT ANY NEW VIDEOS THAT YOU SEE.

Photo Credits

Photo: Gail Patricelli

I’ll use this page to attempt to maintain this as a list of photos that have been picked up by various media outlets and non-profits. Most of these appear on my Flickr account. Most are available for non-commercial use (check the license), so if you see something you’d like to use, please let me know!

Sage-grouse Photos

Center for Biological Diversity

Boise State Public Radio [here, here, here]

Yale Environment 360.

Nature Conservancy Blog [here , here]

Other Photos

Golden Gate Audubon 2015-2016 Annual Report

Berkeleyside [here, here]

KQED Quest

Super-moon photo sent to BLM-Wyoming, National BLM, and Department of Interior. instagram accounts.

Conservation Grant Reviewers Needed

The St. Louis Zoo has an extensive field conservation program (The Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute). They are looking for ecologists/wildlife biologists/conservation biologists to help serve as grant reviewers- see the details below. Grad students, postdocs, or profs welcome. Besides helping a great organization make good decisions on important conservation allocations, this can be good experience for grant writing and would look good on your CV.

If interested, please reply directly to Luis Padilla  padilla [at] stlzoo [dot] org with the following information. Even if you are not needed this time, they may be looking for more external reviewers for future rounds as well.

  • Name
  • Email
  • Institution
  • Department/Graduate Group
  • Title/Position
  • Short (1-2 sentence) description of general areas of interest/expertise

About the grants and reviews:

I am Director of Animal Health (Head vet) at the Saint Louis Zoo and have been tasked with getting some anonymous reviews for some of our internal field conservation projects. Our field conservation “unit” is the WildCare Institute.

The Saint Louis Zoo’s WildCare Institute funds projects twice a year that are within the scope of work of the zoo’s research and conservation centers. As part of the “Field Research for Conservation” (FRC) fund, studies can get up to $10,000 per project. The panel that decides on which projects to fund is a mix of our own scientists, curators and conservation staff. However, we usually seek outside reviews by people with the scientific expertise in the field of study being proposed. Those anonymous reviews are distributed to the committee and they help us gauge whether a project is based on solid science, since the panel may not have the discipline expertise to otherwise comment on it.

To that effect – I am hoping that you can help review some of the proposals from this cycle that may fall within your area of expertise. If this is something you are able and willing to do within the next few weeks, I will forward the full proposals and some pointers on what is useful to include in the reviews. We don’t expect very lengthy reviews – most of them are 1-2 paragraphs.

The person submitting the proposal will get a summary of reviewer comments, as well as feedback on why a project was / wasn’t funded. The reviewers themselves remain anonymous, except to the person soliciting reviews (in this case me).

 

 

Make the First Move: SciComm advice

Today I listened to a panel of Science Journalists at a COMPASS* science communication event.  There is such a thing as bad science journalism, which has created some distrust and fear on the part of some scientists regarding how their research might be translated for the masses. The panel put together 4 accomplished journalists to hear their perspective and to learn advice for how to make sure interactions with science writers turn out as successful as possible.

The fine print: The following are from my notes and don’t represent everything that was covered. Also, I didn’t write down which journalist said what, so these statements may not represent the experience or opinion of individuals on the panel.Those panelists were:

Moderator: Nancy Baron, COMPASS
Journalists:
Chris Joyce—National Public Radio
Ken Weiss – Pulitzer Centre on Crisis Reporting
Erica Gies – Independent Journalist
Lauren Sommer – KQED/NPR

 

Some keys for communication with journalists:

  •             Be enthusiastic.
  •             Use short sentences and ditch the jargon.
  •             Provide the big picture/Context/Why it matters.
  •             Talk about how you got into it, why you are passionate about it.

A big message from the workshop was that researchers should be proactive in the process of getting their research out to journalists.

Even before contacting someone in the press, do some work ahead of time to be able to concisely discuss the context or rationale for the research, and to be able to do so in everyday language (no jargon). To me this sounds not too different from giving an elevator talk, which we should all be able to do anyway.

A contact email is more likely to succeed in tempting a journalist if it stands out. Make the email title catchy or provocative, not boring. Start with the problem or context before the research result. Provide hooks or links to other big stories (even outside of science).

It’s not just about the research. One thing (especially for radio/TV) is to see the discovery happening. Radio likes the sound of the environment, walking through the marsh. That can mean you shouldn’t wait until the paper is out- within reason- journalists don’t care as much about that, the peer-reviewed manuscript is only part of the story and usually not the most interesting part.

Don’t get too hung up on avoiding press because you are worried about scooping yourself with respect to journal embargoes. Obviously if you have research you think has a good shot for one of those top journals, be careful, but there are definitely ways to talk about your research without violating journal policy. Journalists should be willing to hold a story if an embargo does come into play. The opinion of the panel was that most writers would rather start on the story farther in advance anyway since they will have more time to get the story right. Also, on a hot paper, journalists know you will be fielding interviews from many news outlets, so they like to be able to get in before the crush.

How to help journalists get it right:

  •             Be patient! They are not experts in the field.
  •             If you don’t think they are asking the right questions, you can suggest to them what you think the right questions are.
  •             You can ask them to pause during an interview and recap to make sure they are getting the picture.
  •             A writer is more likely to agree to share a particular tricky part
  •             Analogies are great to help with complex topics.
  •             Provide names for other people they can talk with.

 

To deal with controversial topics, you can give them a heads up of people they will hear from with different view points, why they find your work problematic, and why you don’t think they are right.

For talking about uncertainty in science without killing the story, be prepared by determining limits of how far you are willing to go in terms of confidence in your conclusions. Journalists won’t publish a story if it is so filled with caveats there is no message or story. They would rather talk in bold confident terms (their editors even more so). If there is uncertainty, you can still talk about the stakes of knowing the answer, and why continuing to search for the answer is important.  Don’t lead with your caveats.

Final message:

“Journalists are not your partners, but they can be your tools”

 

*Mark Schwartz says: COMPASS is the group that coordinates Science Communication for (among others) the Leopold Fellows, The Smith Fellows, The Wilburforce Fellows and Liber Ero fellows (i.e., ALL  the major ecology/conservation fellows programs interested in fostering engaged science).