2016 Field Ad – Now Filled

[NOTE- All positions have been filled 2/2016]

We’ve now started advertising for our 2016 sage-grouse field season. This year will be a little different from normal. Most relevant to potential applicants, this year the positions will be volunteer only (room and board, but no stipend this year). We are definitely sympathetic to the opinion that all technicians should be paid, and, if possible, paid what their work is actually worth. However, when it comes down to it, the choice to get as much research done as possible on our federal grant, continue supporting the dissertation research of at least one graduate student, and yes, providing training and mentorship to technicians, outweighed the alternative (i.e. the alternative being NOT collecting any new data, running new experiments, continuing to conduct much needed population surveys, etc…).

There is a non-zero cost for technicians to join us this year, although we believe that will generally not be too high, since we do cover room and board, and there’s just not much to spend money on during the normal field season. Thinking about what costs will pop up- any pieces of winter gear not already owned, travel to the site, vehicle insurance, cell phone bills, rent at home, etc. In terms of benefits, the position should include coverage under UC Davis workman’s comp. Additionally, technicians typically receive two certifications- a BLM cert for ATV operation and an animal use certification through Davis. The less tangible advantages: working in a really beautiful place with really fascinating birds, getting trained in new techniques, and (hopefully) earning really strong reference letters. We have (or are currently) working on manuscripts that have had technicians as co-authors (although we can’t promise this), and many of our techs have gone on to great careers in ornithology, graduate school. Two former techs even joined the Patricelli lab as graduate students!

We definitely understand that for some people this isn’t enough to tip the scales, but we do believe that Chicken Camp is still a great place to spend a couple of months!

Anyway, here’s the advertisement [note please direct applications to Ryane this year]:

VOLUNTEER FIELD ASSISTANTS (3-4) needed approximately March 7 through May 5 for investigations of the behavior and ecology of Greater Sage-Grouse near Lander, Wyoming and the scenic Wind River Range. The projects are part of a larger effort in Prof. Gail Patricelli’s lab at UC Davis to understand the environmental and social factors shaping sage-grouse display behaviors- see the following websites for more information (http://www.eve.ucdavis.edu/gpatricelli/) and (http://www.alankrakauer.org).

Assistants will use video and audio recording technology to support an NSF-funded study of courtship dynamics and display plasticity on the lek. Duties include some or all of the following: maintaining camera and acoustic monitoring equipment, observation of basic courtship behavior and lek counts, capture of adult sage-grouse, radio-telemetry, data entry, and some computer and video analysis. Assistants must be flexible in their needs and comfortable living and working in close quarters in a remote field station, and able to work in adverse field conditions (mainly MUD, WIND and COLD).  Work will be daily and primarily early in the morning, with afternoon and night work required as well.

Applicants must have a valid driver’s license, basic computer skills, and have participated in at least one field biology project in the past. Previous experience/certification with off-road driving and/or ATV’s is preferred but not required (uncertified individuals will have the opportunity to get ATV certification in-field). Individuals with previous sage-grouse capture experience especially encouraged to apply. Must be able to show proof of United States employment eligibility.

Assistants will receive food and shared housing, but need to provide their own transportation to Lander and their own personal gear.  Please send a single PDF containing a cover letter, resume, and contact info for two (2) references to: Ryane Logsdon, Department of Evolution and Ecology, University of California Davis, One Shields Avenue, 2320 Storer Hall, Davis, CA 95616, or preferably by email to rlogsdon [at] ucdavis.edu.  The positions will remain open until filled, and review of applications will begin immediately.


New Section: Popular Science

I’ve added a new section under the Resources tab: Popular Science. I get questions about the kinds of things I look at, or just generally where to turn for popular science information. I’ll start to collect links on this page. Right now the breakdown will be:

  • Magazines
  • Blogs and Websites
  • Video
  • Radio/Podcast
  • Humor and Other

This is still a work in progress, so I will periodically add more content. Check back from time to time, and if there’s something missing or you want to provide an endorsement let me know!

2014 Season Start-up

Pronghorn Lodge, our home away from our home away from home in Lander.

March 4:  It’s hard to believe that it’s already been a week since we loaded up the Durango and trusty Dodge pick-up (“Snowchief”) and headed out for Wyoming. A thousand miles, one-and-a-half books on tape, and one smoky hotel in rural Nevada, and we’ve exchanged the warm California winter for the icebox that is Lander. Although it had been about nine months since we last said goodbye to our second home in the sage, pulling into town always makes me feel like I’ve never left. From the friendly guy at RadioShack to the burgers and brew at the Lander Bar to the dips in the road as we leave the highway in Hudson, it really does feel like a time-warp has just removed everything that’s happened since we pulled up stakes last year. It is actually kind of eerie.

In spite of the familiarity of the place, field work is not exactly like Groundhog’s Day. Each year has it’s own set of challenges though. The first week was a bit of a “hurry up and wait” affair. We rushed to get the trailer out of storage in Riverton, only to find, when we de-winterized it, that the water heater wasn’t working. A night in the RV park with the heater running fixed that problem, and we got it up the hill the next day in hopes of get camp up and running quickly. Unfortunately, high winds east of us prevented the work trailer delivery from Casper on both Friday and Saturday. This has happened only once or twice before (last in 2011), and we actually asked some of the crew with flexibility to delay their arrival.

Waiting for trailers meant waiting in a hotel room PACKED with our gear.

This had the added benefit of not having people driving during the snowstorm that hit on Saturday. We only got a few inches in Lander, but temperatures dropped to about zero. We more or less stayed in the hotel, staying out of the cold and catching up on computer tasks while we waited for the trailer delivery. With no good place to unload, or gear stayed in the hotel rooms as well. Finally one office trailer arrived on Monday gave us room to unpack the RV and make some living space. The second office trailer (yes, our first 3-trailer camp since 2008) came just in time for several assistants.

Two office trailers, for the first time since 2008! A Wyoming metropolis rises in the sage.

While we may not have been ready, the sage-grouse seem to be, at least a lot more than last year. With minimal snow on the ground and what seems like healthy sage for them to eat, we’ve already seen males and in some cases females on the lek.

By Tuesday we had the whole crew, and were able to welcome them to Chicken Camp 2014 edition! Welcome back Frank, and welcome Jess, Julia, James, Sam, and Sean!

Sage-Grouse leks: One of the greatest shows on Earth!

I’m kicking off my blog for the 2013 research season with a brief description of what makes sage-grouse such a great bird to study for someone interested in animal behavior and evolutionary biology.

Male sage-grouse courts a female.

One of North America’s most spectacular birds is also a species that not many people have seen. I’m referring to sage-grouse: I study the more widely distributed greater sage-grouse (Centrocercus urophasianus); I have yet to personally see the less common Gunnison’s sage-grouse (Centrocercus minimus), but that is definitely on my wish list. Given the spectacular plumage of a male sage-grouse in display, why are these birds so hard to see? A quick look at a female sage-grouse tells you the girls are built for crypsis- well adapted to blending in with their environment. For most of the year male sage-grouse also play the hiding game, so unless scared into flight they may pass unnoticed. Yet for a couple of months in winter and spring, males come into their traditional display grounds (called leks, from a Swedish word for “child’s play”) and put on one of the greatest shows on earth. These leks are often in fairly remote areas, and males typically attend them only in the early morning hours. Both of these reasons help explain why getting a look at this spectacle can be a bit of a challenge.


These unusual breeding clusters have captivated not only birders but evolutionary biologists as well. In about 90% of birds, both parents provide some care for the nestlings. In those cases, females are often choosing their mates at least partly on the material benefits they get from this partnership, whether it be the quality of the male’s territory or his ability to provision the female during incubation or the chicks once they’ve hatched. [Note- in many birds males and females mate outside of this pair bond, but that is a tale for another day]. Lekking species are therefore unusual among birds in that males don’t form a bond with their mate nor provide any child care. Scientists are still trying to unravel some of the puzzles that leks represent. Why do males cluster together to display, rather than searching around for females, following females around, or spacing themselves farther apart and defending larger territories like most other birds do? If males aren’t helping raise the kids, why are females so picky? What benefits do females get from choosing one male instead of another? And given that females often pick only a few among the many males on a lek, why do the “loser” males bother to stick around?

(This is a 3-hour time lapse video of the lek. The males appear as small black-and-white specks at the bottom of the frame)

Lekking animals also tend to be high on the charisma scale. Besides the spectacular sage-grouse and their cousins the prairie chickens and sharp-tailed grouse, other lek-breeders include some of the most beautiful and acrobatic birds out there, including birds of paradise, neotropical manakins, peacocks, cock-of-the-rock, some hummingbirds, and ruffs. When we see a species in which males are larger or more colorful than females, we presume these differences are related to an evolutionary process called sexual selection, where one sex- often the males- competes either directly for access to females or indirectly by producing the best advertisement among the other males. This certainly seems plausible for sage-grouse; not only are adult males almost twice the weight of females, but they have a range of specialized feathers, brightened skin patches, and other unique structures.

Male sage-grouse showing his inflated vocal sacs.

The distinctive air-filled vocal sacs are actually part of the digestive system; once inflated with air, powerful muscles just under the skin help move and shape the them during display. In spite of decades of research and routine collection by hunters, we are still finding surprising structures in these birds. Just recently we discovered that male sage-grouse have an almost songbird-like syrinx (sound-producing organ analagous to the human larynx) capable of producing two tones at once. All of this adds up to the bizarre appearance of the male that has presumably evolved through sexual selection- the males with the more elaborate versions of these unique features get to mate with more females and pass on more copies of their genes to the next generation.


These differences between males and females extend to courtship behaviors as well; males and only males have a characteristic “strut” display. A male’s strut serves to attract females to the lek from across the landscape, to woo females once they are on the lek, and most likely to help claim their small patch in the midst of all the other males. Each display lasts about two seconds and involves coordinated movements of the wings and body.

For sage-grouse, courtship is not just a visual spectacle. Males produce a variety of sounds during the strut display. The first two notes actually are not vocalizations at all, but instead made by rubbing stiff, pointed breast feathers against the inside of the wings. This is somewhat analogous to how crickets chirp. Making sounds with feathers may sound unusual, but it has evolved repeatedly in birds. Some common species in the Bay Area that do this include Mourning Doves (the ‘wee-wee-wee-wee’ made during take off) and Anna’s Hummingbirds (the loud chirp made at the nadir of the male’s dive display).

Spectrogram of a sage-grouse display. The two feather-produced 'swish' notes occur at about 2.6 and 3.6 seconds. The first low frequency 'coo' note is at 4 seconds, and is followed by the pop-whistle-pop at about 4.3 seconds. You can hear this in the video above.

The remaining notes are true vocalizations made by the syrinx, although unlike most birds they are made with the beak closed. These sounds start with a series of three low frequency ‘coo’ notes, and conclude with an up-down-up ‘whistle’ note sandwiched between two staccato ‘pops’. You can see these in the spectrogram- this is a visual representation of sound and you can read it much like reading music, with time progressing towards the right, pitch becoming higher towards the top of the figure, and the darkness representing something like loudness. Females may care about some very subtle differences in these sounds when they are looking for a high quality mate. Researchers have compared sound recordings of successful and unsuccessful males and found differences in the relative timing of the two ‘pop’ notes, and maybe the loudness of the whistle. What is amazing is that the differences between ‘Mr. Right’ and ‘Mr. Wrong’ are on the order of less than a tenth of a second. Females may have quite the ear when it comes to picking their mate!


That’s a quick introduction to sage-grouse in the spring. I feel extremely lucky to have heard and seen this show for the past several years as part of my research at the University of California, Davis. Along with Professor Gail Particelli, graduate student Anna Perry, and our intrepid field crew, we will be conducting research into several aspects of sage-grouse behavior and ecology from our field site just east of the Wind River Range in Wyoming. Over the next couple of months I’ll be discussing what it takes to set up a camp like this, how we use new technologies (including robotic birds!) to study courtship in this species, and review some of the conservation studies out of our lab. I hope you’ll join me for our 2013 field season!


This is my new website. Stay tuned as I get it going- this is my first foray into WordPress. I will slowly be migrating content from my other website. Apple will be ceasing support for their .mac hosting by June 2012 so until then I may have things in both places.

Looking forward to adding much more here in the coming months!