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[Sparrows] The difficulty of walking and looking

November 1, 2012

[This is the first in a series of posts on sparrow nest-monitoring over the 2012-2013 Austral spring and summer]

I’ve landed myself some gainful employment for this Spring and Summer – a relief, I should say: work for scientists is thin on the ground at the moment, apparently all around the world. To within a fine fraction of the truth, the work involves finding sparrow nests and looking at them regularly until the eggs turn into hatchlings, and then looking at the hatchlings until they fledge. Unless they don’t fledge because they are eaten by predators, or they are kicked out by their nest-mates, or they starve. Or something. There are a lot of reasons why the time spent as a juvenile in the nest is the time with the highest per-day rate of mortality for birds.

I began my planning by having a solid think. House sparrows, I figured, have a tendency to be found around humans. They are capable of building their nests in trees and hedges, but if they have the option of a nice awning, they’ll probably take it in preference to constructing a hanging nest from scratch. So if you want to find a bunch of sparrow nests, you want to be around buildings, preferably with a ladder so that you can scoot up to the awnings and have a rummage. If they’re canny, they might not go straight to their nests if they can see you watching them – so it might be necessary to back off and watch through binoculars to see where they’re nesting. And if you want to find a lot of nests without bothering too many people (or having to negotiate access to land too many times), you want to find a big piece of land with a small number of landowners. Schools and University campuses, I figured, are an ideal solution. So I emailed the nearest University, hoping for a quick “Yep, sure. Don’t do anything stupid, ‘kay?” response.

It was not quite so simple. Over a few days’ back-and-forth emailing, I was told that ladders are the leading cause of preventable injuries. I, with my strange sciency employment situation, was effectively not allowed them. Binoculars are liable to spook students [I should point out that security came up with this one *without* being told that I am not, generally, kempt, or that I may occasionally look just a *little* homeless] – so I should report my whereabouts to security every time I come on-site.

I can meet those conditions. Hopefully the lack of ladders won’t be too frustrating. Secretly, I’m just a little relieved that I didn’t tell anyone that my field kit includes a mirror on the end of a stick (you use it to look into nests when they’re above you) – I fear they’d never have let me on-site if I’d let that one slip!

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From → Scientist

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