Owl Sense: An interview with Miriam Darlington

We currently have a limited number of signed copies available!

Author photograph by Richard Austin

For most of her life, Miriam Darlington has obsessively tracked and studied wildlife. Qualified in modern languages, nature writing and field ecology, she is a Nature Notebook columnist at The Times. Her first book, Otter Country was published in 2012 and her latest book, Owl Sense was recently Book Of Week on BBC Radio 4.

We recently chatted to Miriam concerning her quest for wild encounters with UK and European owls.  

Owl Sense

It seems the main threat to barn owl numbers is the way our landscape has changed regarding commercial development and farming methods. What do you think is the single most important action regarding land management that could halt their decline and get their numbers growing sustainably?

 

It is all about protecting the owls’ habitat. As field vole and small mammal specialists the owls need rough grassland, where the small mammals live. The rough grassland needs to be protected, and wide enough strips around the field margins maintained and left so that a deep, soft litter layer of dead grasses can build up. This litter layer is essential for voles to tunnel through; this is what they need to survive, so it is all about helping farmers to be aware of this and funding them to manage this type of wildlife-friendly grasslands. Nesting sites are also vital; as mature trees are not replaced, and barns are unsympathetically converted, the owls will have no roosts and no nesting sites. Barn Owls need specialised, sheltered nest boxes in farm buildings. If they can feed, they can breed, and if they can breed they will continue to grace our countryside.

The volunteer work you undertook with The Barn Owl Trust was very interesting, but seemed quite intrusive to these reclusive, easily alarmed birds. What can you say to assuage my concerns? 

 

The Barn Owl site surveys that I observed and described may seem like an intrusion, but it was a vital part of the BOT’s conservation work and always carried out with the utmost care. I would describe it as a necessary intrusion, as it was part of a 10-yearly survey, an information gathering exercise altogether essential for our knowledge of how many owls are breeding in Devon and the South West. The status and numbers of occupied sites were ascertained, and farmers, landowners and general public could be advised accordingly; nest boxes were repaired or replaced, risks assessed and owners given invaluable conservation advice. I described an incident in the book where an owl flew out of the barn we were surveying, demonstrating that owls are very sensitive, the utmost care is always taken, and the laws around the protection of owls are very strict. We were working in warm, dry conditions and no harm came to the owls. The Barn Owl Trust work under licence from Natural England, knowing that if any owl is inadvertently disturbed, they will usually quickly return to their roost. However, with the risks in mind, the greatest care and respect as well as a strict protocol was always followed when surveying sites . We had to work quietly and quickly, counting, ringing and weighing young as rapidly as possible with no time wasted. Adult owls often roost away from the nest due to it being full of pestering young, so they were usually unaffected by our visit. In other cases, the adult owl(s) looked but stayed put as they were well hidden. In some cases, for instance busy working farm barns, the owls are used to all sorts of noise, machinery and disruption, and were completely habituated, and not disturbed at all. Most of the time the adult owls I saw were vigilant, rather than stressed. The young have no idea what is happening and become biddable when approached. All-in-all, the value of the data we gathered would far outweigh any small intrusions. But the general public should be aware that it is illegal to recklessly enter a nesting site without a licence, especially with the knowledge that owls are breeding there.

Historically, owls were viewed as harbingers of doom. This seems to have been replaced by the commercial ‘cutifying’ of owls. Can this still be considered a sort-of reverence – is this the best regard wild animals can now expect?

 

No, I feel we need more than that; we need to respect their wildness, not their cuteness. Humans need to remember to keep our distance; the owls are not there for our enjoyment after all, but as a vital part of a healthy ecosystem. It helps to attract our attention that they are beautiful and charismatic, and it can be thrilling to catch sight of one, but I don’t feel that simply seeing them as cute is any help at all. We need a deeper respect for them than that. We need to care for, respect and understand their needs, but I think reverence is probably too much to ask! I would say sympathy is important, and that should be taught/encouraged in schools.

I found the descriptions of Eagle Owls foraging around waste dumps quite disconcerting. Away from their natural environment, sustaining themselves on human waste seems a sad fate for any animal, let alone a magnificent eagle owl. Am I being overly sentimental and unrealistic?

Yes, it’s easy to see only ugliness there, and it seems like a shame, yes perhaps it is disconcerting, but it shows these creatures are adaptable. It is not desperation, it is opportunistic…and they were feeding on rats, not human waste, so it was probably win-win.

Staying with human and wild animal interactions, you mention recent new builds and the impact they can have. As the rate of new builds is unlikely to decline, do you think developers could do more to take wildlife into account and, if so, what would these measures look like and how would they be enforced?

I believe developers are legally obliged now, and have been for some years, by local authorities, to survey for wildlife and to mitigate for any wildlife found to be breeding there. I visited a site on the edge of my town recently where some of the houses had bat boxes and swift boxes. It is legally enforced already, but many people may be unaware of this.

Captive owls are increasingly popular, and you wrote a reflective passage concerning a little owl called Murray. Even naming a wild animal is anathema to many conservationists. However, your initial concern about a captive owl seemed to diminish as you saw the effect it had on the audience. Do you think displaying captive birds can help conservation efforts?

It is very complex. I don’t think keeping and displaying captive wild animals is the best idea, ultimately. Humans have been domesticating animals for millennia however and it is interesting to look at the long view. Although I am very uncomfortable with keeping wild animals as pets, I have witnessed two things: 1. That when they are kept properly by experienced professionals, they do not seem to suffer and can lead long and relatively safe and healthy lives; and 2. that they can have benefits; increased sympathy and understanding for the species, aspirational opportunities for marginalised people, help for suffering or socially isolated people. I’m not a scientist however. I don’t feel qualified to make the final decision on this. It’s easy to pontificate about the morality of it all, and to see the risks, but not so easy to untangle the costs to the animal and the benefits, economic, emotional and otherwise to some humans. In the end, when we wanted an animal for my family, we got a domestic dog, not an owl. I think that’s the best one could wish for, in the circumstances.

In your previous book Otter Country you describe the places you are in with as much awe as the animal you are hoping to see – the same with Owl Sense. Is it the wild place or its occupiers that move us? Even the government’s recent 25 Year Environment Plan alludes to the mental and physical health benefits natural spaces can provide; do you think conservation efforts would be better focused on wild places for their own sake or concentrate on the fauna and flora that inhabits them?

You can’t separate the two. The habitat comes first, but any expert will tell you that the animals are inseparable from their natural habitats. Look at what happened when wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite. The whole ecosystem began to restore itself when the wolves came back. My philosophy is to describe both; I feel passionately about the connections of the whole ecosystem, including the humans in it. I want to engender understanding and sympathy for that inseparableness. For most people, however, I expect going to a countryside place or a wild place is the most important, and encountering a wild animal, or knowing that there is a possibility of it will come second. I have focussed on owls and employed them as ambassadors, and animals can certainly attract public sympathy, but I suspect it is ownership of the land, stewardship of the land, the economic, health and social impacts of the land, that might win us the argument.

Your journey to Serbia to see the long-eared owls was amazing.  So many owls, living in apparent harmony in close proximity to humans. As these spaces develop, however, this balance will of course shift, and not in favour of the owls.  The only hope offered seemed to be tourism and, ironically, hunters preserving the landscape. Do you see these two options as the only solutions to ensuring the long-term survival of long-eared owls in Serbia?

Yes. I wouldn’t call it harmony necessarily, more like tolerance! The owls have been coming to the towns for many, many years and that will not change as long as the roost trees are preserved and farming does not intensify too quickly. As with Barn Owls, the owls need to fly out into the fields as they feed on the small rodents and small birds in the farmland.. this may become threatened with changes in farming as the country becomes more prosperous. Ecotourism will probably protect the state of things, as with the large owl roosts that are so spectacular; this economically deprived country needs every help it can get. The local people have caught on to this, but the authorities have some way to go with supporting it and fully and sustainably harnessing it. They key would be to harness ecotourism wholeheartedly. And yes, the hunters wish to preserve the habitats, which is excellent. It seems like the best arrangement, in the circumstances, and probably quite sustainable.

Your French guide, Gilles alluded to a dislike towards bird watchers (les ornithos) in the provinces.  He said that, while in the countryside, he couldn’t leave his bird book on show in the car as people would slash his tyres. Things aren’t so bad here in the UK, but do you consider being a conservationist akin to being a radical and a subversive? – has protecting the environment fully entered the consciousness of the mainstream?

I think it has entered mainstream consciousness, and has some superb advocates now, but the activists should never let down their guard; we all need activists keeping an eye because right now we can never afford to be complacent – complacency is a very human trait and one that has brought us into this mess. We need to be constantly asking questions, constantly probing, curious and vigilant, and if that is a form of activism, I’m with the activists. It’s about questions and sometimes challenges, I think that’s what the best journalism, environmentalism, nature writing, scientists and conservationists do best.

You make it clear that the decision to leave the EU is not what you would have wished for. Aside from potentially losing a connection with mainland Europe, do you envisage any pro and cons for the UK environment regarding Brexit?

 

I’m not enough of an expert to be able to answer that. I was mortified to find that Britain was going to separate itself from what appeared to be a friendly and well-meaning, beneficial alliance, especially in terms of conservation regulations, but am completely naïve about the economic and the conservation implications for the future – I think we just have to continue working to call our leaders to account, and never lose sight of our priorities.


Owl Sense
Hardback | February 2018
£12.99 £15.99

 

 

 

 

Otter Country
Paperback | May 2013
£7.99 £9.99

 

 

 

Miriam’s writing centres on the tension, overlaps and relationships between science, poetry, nature writing and the changing ecology of human-animal relations.  On a personal note I thought Owl Sense fulfilled this challenging undertaking.  The personal and evocative writing, all underpinned by the ecology, biology and historical significance of these amazing animals made this a joy to read.

Miriam Darlington signing stock at NHBS

Miriam called into NHBS to sign our stock; these will be available only while stocks last.

NHBS currently have price-offers on Owl Sense and Miriam’s previous book Otter Country.

Please note: Prices stated in this blogpost are correct as of 15th February 2018 and may be subject to change at any time.

Save 25% on all Princeton University Press books

During February and March 2018, we are offering 25% or more off all Princeton University Press and WILDGuide books.

Universities are hallowed seats of learning and University Presses their beacons. Princeton University Press embrace the highest standards of publishing as embodied in the work of their authors from Albert Einstein in their earliest years to the present.

Princeton University Press pride themselves on bringing scholarly ideas to the world; they publish an acclaimed list by eminent authors in subjects that are core interests for NHBS customers. So, during February and March 2018, it is our great pleasure to offer 25% off all Princeton University Press books, available on our website and distributed in the UK.

Our current top-ten Princeton University Press titles:

Far From Land
Hardback | Due February 2018
£18.95 £24.95

 

 

Bovids of the World: Antelopes, Gazelles, Cattle, Goats, Sheep, and Relatives
Paperback | March 2016
£20.95 £27.95

 

 

The New Neotropical Companion
Paperback | February 2017
£20.95 £27.95

 

 

The Arctic Guide: Wildlife of the Far North
Paperback | August 2016
£17.21 £22.95

 

 

Primates of the World: An Illustrated Guide
Hardback | September 2016
£16.95 £24.95

 

 

The Princeton Guide to Ecology
Hardback | February 2017
£29.95 £49.95

 

 

Field Guide to the Fishes of the Amazon, Orinoco & Guianas
Paperback | January 2018
£28.46 £37.95

 

 

Trees of Panama and Costa Rica
Paperback | November 2013
£22.95 £37.95

 

 

Eco-Evolutionary Dynamics
Paperback | May 2016
£41.95 £54.95

 

 

A Mathematical Nature Walk
Paperback | October 2015
£10.95 £17.95

 

 

Browse all Princeton University Press titles

 

WILDGuides produce a series of definitive yet simple-to-use photographic guides to Britain’s wildlife. They also publish field and visitor guides to a wide range of wildlife hot-spots around the world. More recently they have embarked upon a series of photographic guides to the bird families of the world.

To complement the Princeton University Press promotion, NHBS are offering 25% or more off all WILDGuide titles until the end of March 2018.

Our current top-five WILDGuides:

Britain’s Spiders: A Field Guide
Paperback | May 2017
£17.95 £24.95

 

 

Britain’s Mammals: A Field Guide to the Mammals of Britain and Ireland
Paperback | April 2017
£14.95 £17.95

 

Wildlife of Madagascar
Paperback | October 2016
£18.95 £24.95

 

 

Britain’s Plant Galls: A Photographic Guide
Paperback | September 2011
£9.95 £16.95

 

 

Birds of Kenya’s Rift Valley
Hardback | April 2014
£11.95 £18.95

 

 

Browse all our WILDGuides titles.

Please note that all prices in this blogpost are correct as of 6th February 2018. The 25% offer will end at midnight on Saturday 31st March.

 

The 2018 Big Garden Birdwatch

Great Tit by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Big Garden Birdwatch provides the RSPB with a huge amount of data and allows them to monitor changes in abundance and distribution of garden birds throughout the UK. Image by Jannis via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

The RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch is the world’s largest garden wildlife survey – in 2017 almost half a million people submitted results! Now in its 39th year, this annual event has become vital in helping the RSPB monitor trends in the abundance and distribution of birds in the UK.

This year the survey takes place from Saturday 27th to Monday 29th January. It’s a great activity for the whole family, and all it takes is an hour of your time. Here’s how to take part:

  1. Choose a good place to view your garden. If you don’t have a garden then wrap up warm and head down to your local park or green space to take part from there.
  2. Watch the birds for an hour, counting the maximum number of each species you see at any one time. (This reduces the likelihood of counting the same bird more than once). Don’t forget to make a note of any other wildlife that you spot as well.
  3. Submit your results, either on the Big Garden Birdwatch website, or by posting a paper form.
  4. Look out for the results being published in March!

Useful links:

Recommended reading:

The Everyday Guide to British Birds
Charlie Elder
The perfect companion for nature enthusiasts and birdwatching beginners. It describes the most common and widespread species that a birder is likely to come across in Britain, and illustrates the features that make each of them unique.

 

Collins Bird Guide
Lars Svensson
The UK’s most popular bird guide. Covering Britain and Europe, the book provides all the information needed to identify any species at any time of year, with detailed text on size, habitat, range, identification and voice.

 

Britain’s Birds: An Identification Guide to the Birds of Britain and Ireland
Rob Hume et al.
Focusing on identification and containing maps, facts and figures on numbers and distributions, this breakthrough publication was devised by a team of lifelong birdwatchers, all with many years’ experience of showing people birds and producing user-friendly field guides.

Guide to the Top 50 Garden Birds
Edward Jackson and Andrew Simms
This handy fold-out guide is designed to help identify the majority of species likely to be found in a garden throughout the year. The choice of ‘top 50’ is based on the relative abundance of species recorded in the UK by the BTO Garden BirdWatch survey.

 

RSPB Pocket Guide to British Birds
Simon Harrap
A compact and informative field guide which covers more than 200 of the most common birds found in Britain. Features concise descriptions of each bird’s main characteristics including plumage, calls and song, confusion species, habitat, distribution and status, and behaviours.

 

A Practical Illustrated Guide to Attracting and Feeding Garden Birds
Ed. by Jen Green
This is the complete book of bird feeders, bird tables, birdbaths, nest boxes and backyard bird watching. It helps you learn what to feed garden birds, from seeds, grains and peanuts to fruits, suet cakes and fat balls, as well as how to attract birds by planting the right flowers, trees and shrubs.

The Plant Messiah: An interview with Carlos Magdalena

Carlos MagdalenaCarlos Magdalena is a botanical horticulturist at Kew Gardens, famous for his pioneering work with waterlilies and his never-tiring efforts to save some of the world’s rarest species from extinction. In his book, The Plant Messiah, Carlos shares stories of his travels and his work at Kew and, in doing so, opens our eyes to the delicate wonder of plants and the perils that many of them are now facing.

We recently caught up with Carlos to chat about plant conservation, his views on extinction and lots more.


The Plant MessiahIn your book you describe your trips to some incredible places – most of which have resulted in the collection of valuable herbarium specimens and seeds for growing or storage. Where does the impetus for these projects come from? Do you get to choose the species and/or projects that you work on or are these assigned to you?

They can happen for various reasons. Sometimes, they are assigned to me, like the projects in Peru and Bolivia: there is a need for a horticulturist capable of speaking Spanish, with experience in propagation of tropical plants and therefore, they contact me and from there we start the ball rolling. However, there is always the personal interest, though this works in an indirect way. Because I have been interested for years in tropical waterlilies, especially those from Australia, I had built up masses of knowledge, contacts and experience and therefore one day, someone needs someone with those skills and they want you to join in their projects. My endeavours in Mauritius started when seeds were set in a Ramosmania plant in a glasshouse in London. After this happened, there was a need to bring back this species to the island. Since this was a very genuine reason that could be solved at a very low cost, funding was allocated soon to travel and then, any time I go, I return with many more species that need working on to secure them ex-situ so you establish a working relationship with the country. There is so much work to be done that at the end of the day, money and time are the limits to be honest, but especially, funding is the main issue I have.

The Plant MessiahMany of the methods you use for germinating seeds and propagating plants have been considered unorthodox, and this is undoubtedly one of the reasons behind your outstanding achievements. Did you find that your peers and colleagues were initially suspicious of your techniques and approach, or did you always feel supported in your methods?

I guess they are not that unorthodox after all, I will say is more in the lines of ‘if something does not work, let’s try something else’, which is a bit unorthodox but also the sensible thing to do in those cases. I guess it is always tricky to swim against the ‘mantras’ or certain situations where is easier to stick to ‘oh, it won’t work because it cannot be done’ but even when I can be a victim of this myself, I try to do my best to think that you never know if you don’t try. Horticulture is a bit complicated since there are so many aspects to take into account. Science has a big part to play in it, but there is also that bit that is more like cooking, not witchery, but no white lab coat stuff either.
In cultivation, there are too many factors, compost types, light, humidity, temperature, temperature fluctuation, pests, seasons, fertilizers, nutrient levels, and so on and so forth. It is very difficult sometimes to come from an answer as result of traditional science when trying to work out what are the best parameters for each of the 400,000 known species of plants. Good basic science knowledge is vital, but the capacity of guessing, the ability to acknowledge and correct your own mistakes, to be capable of observing very small changes in the general looking of a plant (which I guess involves good photographic memory) are equally important, throwing in a bit of ‘gut feeling’ as it can help too! Sometimes first you manage to grow a plant by ‘play it by the ear’ and if you succeed and manage to grow many, then you can do the empirical work in a more traditional scientific manner, but first, it has to grow!

Many of the processes you describe in your book are very labour intensive and appear to involve a certain amount of trial and error. With the understanding that time is of the essence for many of the species you work with, and that availability of seeds may be severely limited, how do you cope with the prolonged uncertainty and pressure that must surely exist when attempting to germinate seeds or propagate cuttings?

You try to do the obvious first. Sometimes you know that something works very well with that family, so you will try that first. If it does not work you need to come up with a theory of ‘what happened’ and then create a scenario that tries to prevent that situation happening again. When quantities of seeds are abundant, then that makes things easier since you can try many things at once. With very small quantities of material this is not possible, so you try to use safer options. Seeds that cannot be dried die if you dry them. Seeds that need to be dried to germinate can stay wet for a period after harvesting, so if the seeds have not been dried already, I may sow them without drying in a way that I can recover it later to try a dry, then wet method. If something can be undone, sometimes takes preference over some action that cannot be undone. If that fails, then try plan B. if everything fails and there is no more material, you had that experience so that next time something is available you can try something else. However, were the seeds non-viable? Were they too old? It can be a bit tricky to get the whole picture sometimes. There are quite a few general rules that help, the difficulty is to spot the exceptions to the rule. In these cases, experience is the mother of science and not the other way around, but then, you have to be sure that whatever change you want to do make sense from a natural science point of view.

You frequently state in your book that extinction is unacceptable. How do you feel about the proposals by some ecologists that our modifications to the planet have in fact stimulated evolution, and that extinctions and non-native invasions are just part of a natural process, albeit it one that our actions may have accelerated?

First, I think that even if something is naturally going extinct, it should be preserved. No-one questions that we preserve items such as cathedrals or classic paintings under the excuse that ‘oh well, naturally they will fall apart and disintegrate in time’. They are an immeasurable resource and relevant part of our heritage. Regarding the invasive introductions…this is complex and cannot be summarized in a simple statement like the one above. There are species that naturalize and do not create a massive change, they just integrate as another item in the system, others occupy heavily pre-damaged ecosystems, so in fact, and they are a symptom rather than an illness of the damaged ecosystem. Look at Buddleia and its preference for cracks in concrete, brownfields, and decaying urban environments. Conservation is in a way altruistic (every species should have the right to live, just because it is a species), but also is an act of egoism and self-preservation because they are so useful to us in many ways. The more that we can keep, the more biodiverse the planet will be. As earlier stated, it is a very complex issue. What is the impact of invasive plants on CO2 absorption? Not sure what the answer to that is, but I bet that in some cases they are sequestering CO2, but not for all the species nor all the situations either. Avoiding extinctions should be always high on our agendas. We can aim to preserve many species long term, even if we still allow for lots of human changes taking place, but only if we can stop climate change and we manage the land properly. If we think ‘yeah, is all part of a natural process’ then we have to admit that burning fossil fuels is as natural as flying rabbits from Spain to the Antipodes, and also, that climate change will lead to a mass extinction but then, it will recover in a few million years later? No thanks, I rather keep the world as it is, beautiful and biodiverse, because guess what, nearly all of it is avoidable. Key word here: avoidable.

Animal conservationists often bemoan the fact that it is difficult to get the public interested in the “non-charismatic megafauna”. So, while the whales, tigers and pandas of the world have plenty of public attention and support, the plankton, toads and flies are often neglected. Do you feel this problem exists within the sphere of plant conservation too? Are the beautiful “charismatic” plants given attention over the less visually striking species? Or do you think that plants as a whole are neglected? As an extension of this, how do you think we should go about getting the public to care about the conservation of plants?

Firstly, yes, I think that plant conservation is low on people’s minds when compared with furry large animals. True that. But to be fair, a subspecies of the Javan rhino was declared extinct in Vietnam in 2011 and all the populations of this emblematic mammal are declining badly despite its cuteness, so there is work to be done with animals for sure.
I think we need to understand that plants are more important to our survival, and to the animal species survival than we think they do. With plants, we need to know them better before we can truly appreciate them. There is no Rhino without savannah and we need to look at the savannah more like a vegetation community rather than a background setting for Rhinos. Plants are the green glue that sticks the planet ecosystems together. We need to look at the system more, but systems are made of components and we cannot lose them if we want to keep the system going. It is always easier to attract funding and interest to showy plant species. Sad but true, but on the other hand, many stunning looking species are threatened and nothing much has been done. We need to raise the game in all departments of conservation. At the end of the day, it is the planet that we are protecting, not single species only. I have the feeling that avoiding plant extinction is easier than animal extinction, at least ex-situ. Yet, there are more instances of animals being reintroduced to the wild than plants. Sometimes, you need to introduce animals to recover the vegetation, i.e wolves rather than planting trees. Sometimes you may need to plant trees to reconnect two populations of large mammals. Fisheries rely heavily on seagrass and mangrove forest. Those two marine habitats fix massive amounts of CO2. Does global warming affects Panda’s favourite food? Rather than focus on animal vs plant conservation, we need to do this: to focus on single species so that they do not go extinct but also make sure that the worlds ecosystems are functioning. Easier said than done, but I refuse to accept that ‘cannot be done’. It is all avoidable.

Finally, is there a plant, either extant or presumed extinct, that you dream of seeing during your lifetime?

Only one? The trouble here is what to choose…there is so many things I do not want to miss in my life time. Never seen the redwood forest, I’ve never been to South Africa, Madagascar, New Guinea, Socotra…just to name a few incredible biodiverse areas that contain 100s of interesting ‘must see’ species. The discovery of a living fossil plant in the likes of Ginkgo or the Wollemy pine would always be very exciting…indeed the reappearance of an extinct species is always uplifting, however, if I have to choose, I go for the ‘extinction avoidance’. Mostly because, if I’m aware it is about to happen, and when it happens, it is so depressing. So I choose this: to produce and germinate seeds of Hyophorbe amaricaulis from Mauritius. Only one palm tree left, and decades of failures mean that is likely it will go extinct during my lifetime. I’m aware of this, and I cannot bear the thought of waking up one day to the news that a cyclone has split it in half.


The Plant Messiah by Carlos Magdalena is published by Penguin Books and is available from NHBS in hardback. The paperback version is due for publication in April 2018.

Science Needs You! – The NHBS Guide to Citizen Science

New Year – the perfect time for new plans and resolutions. If you’re looking for a way to make a difference in 2018 then why not consider becoming a citizen scientist and contributing to some of the biggest and most exciting scientific studies happening today? In this post we will take a look at the history of citizen science before providing you with a great list of projects that you can get involved in and a selection of books to inspire you.

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
A BioBlitz provides a useful snapshot of the wildlife present in an area, and is also a great event where the community can gather and get to know eachother.

Where did it all begin?:

Citizen science is a term used to describe any research that is conducted either wholly or in part by non-professionals. (I hesitate here to use the term “amateur” as this brings to mind individuals that are either unskilled or who are beginners in their field which, in many cases, couldn’t be further from the truth). Such projects are usually organised and managed by a professional research body or charity and areas of study can encompass anything from biology, physics and history to social sciences and technology.

The term “citizen science” was first used in the mid-1990s. However, the concept of everyday non-professionals conducting science on their own terms is by no means a recent phenomenon. For example, Gregor Mendel, who provided much of the foundation for our modern understanding of genetics, was actually an Augustinian monk for most of his life. Susan Hendrickson who discovered the largest complete fossil of a Tyrannosaurus rex dropped out of high school to pursue her passion for specimen collecting. And even Charles Darwin initially went to university to study medicine before transferring to a Bachelor of Arts degree in the hopes that he would become a country parson.

The urge to pursue the study of something, whether that be dinosaur bones or the theory of evolution, is not always associated with financial recompense and, in fact, this leads to one of the biggest benefits of modern citizen science projects: the ability to conduct studies on a scale many times larger than would ordinarily be viable. This is because most research projects, particularly those in the natural sciences, generate a huge amount of fieldwork and data. The time taken to collect and process this, as well as the cost incurred by employing people to do the work, can make them prohibitively expensive. Employing an army of citizen scientists who are willing to work for free solves both problems very nicely. The benefits are by no means one-sided however. Inspiring and educating those that get involved and the provision of vital public outreach are both incredibly important, and the psychological benefits of volunteering have long been documented.

With the advent of the internet and a whole host of new technologies which make it easier than ever to communicate and share data, it is no wonder that citizen science has exploded in such a big way over the past two decades. Nationwide surveys such as the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch and Butterfly Conservation’s Big Butterfly Count are now incredibly well-publicised and attract 1000s of volunteers. They provide just two excellent examples of how a country full of keen amateur naturalists can work together to expand the body of knowledge about our best-loved wildlife.

And it’s not just wildlife-lovers that are taking up the mantle of pioneering research. Projects such as I Like Clean Air, founded in Hackney, shows how everyday people can take their health and environment into their own hands, and collect the data they need to promote change in the places they live. Through their Be a Martian project, NASA are enlisting the help of people all over the world to analyse the data accumulated by their Mars exploration spacecraft and rovers. Even within the NHS, patient-led projects are a prime  example of how people from all backgrounds can use their own knowledge and personal experiences to further science and understanding.

Citizen Science Projects:

Image by Bio Blitz via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Moth trapping is fun for all ages and provides lots of useful data for local or national recording schemes.

So, if you’re looking for a project to get involved in, keep reading for a list of wildlife and environment-related citizen science studies that you can take part in this year. Some of them might require a bit of legwork – perhaps you will need to go for a walk (or several walks) to record what you see. Others can be accomplished easily from a window looking out into your garden and a few can even be done online.

This list by no means covers all of the options out there so, if there’s nothing here that takes your fancy, get in touch with your local Wildlife Trust or search the internet to find out what’s going on near you.

  • Nature’s Calendar – The Woodland Trust
    Help to track the effects of weather and climate change by recording the happenings of the plants, animals and fungi where you live.
  • Bioblitz – Various
    A Bioblitz is an intense period of studying all of the wildlife within an area over a short period of time. Hosted by lots of different organisations and individuals, they occur throughout the year.
  • Big Garden Birdwatch – RSPB
    Observe and record the birds in your garden over one weekend and help the RSPB identify the distribution and abundance of our favourite garden visitors.
  • Big Butterfly Count – Butterfly Conservation
    Contribute to the world’s largest survey of butterflies and day flying moths and provide vital data which will help scientists understand how climate change is affecting our local wildlife.
  • National Whale and Dolphin Watch – Sea Watch Foundation
    The data collected during this annual event helps towards understanding and protecting cetaceans around the UK. Take part in an organised event or, if you have some experience, conduct your own watch.
  • The Great British Wildflower Hunt – Plantlife
    Record the wildflowers you see in your garden or when out walking, and help Plantlife to gather information on how wild plants are faring in our wild (and not so wild) spaces.
  • National Amphibian and Reptile Recording Scheme – Amphibian and Reptile Conservation
    Record individual sightings of amphibians and reptiles or take part in a longer-term monitoring project by revisiting a sample site several times a year.
  • The National Mammal Atlas Project – The Mammal Society
    Submit your sightings of mammals using the online recording forms or via the handy Mammal Tracker App.
  • Natural History Museum
    The Natural History Museum runs a range of citizen science projects, some of which can be completed online. Their website also includes lots of useful information on setting up your own project, running a Bioblitz, and even creating a website for your own recording scheme.
  • Zooniverse
    On the Zooniverse website you can participate in research of all kinds. As well as biology projects, there are others relating to history, literature, social science and much more.

Recommended Reading:

Bradt Complete Guide to Wildlife and Conservation Volunteering
Peter Lynch
This comprehensive guide includes information on long- and short-term volunteering opportunities for people of all ages and backgrounds, from gap-year students to retirees. A must read for anyone wanting to contribute to wildlife conservation around the world.

 

The BTO/CJ Garden BirdWatch Book
Mike Toms
This enthralling book will provide you with information on how feeding our garden birds is affecting their survival, and will also encourage you to take part in the annual Big Garden Birdwatch. This annual survey is the largest monitoring scheme of its type in the world and is vital to our understanding of our garden birds and the factors affecting their survival.

BTCV Practical Handbooks
This series of practical guides aims to help individuals and groups of volunteers undertake practical conservation work. Covering a wide range of topics, such as dry stone walling, tree planting and toolcare, each book is illustrated and clearly laid out in a step-by-step format.

 

 

The Incidental Steward

The Incidental Steward: Reflections on Citizen Science
Akiko Busch
While not a primer on the prescribed protocols of citizen science, this book combines vivid natural history, a deep sense of place, and reflection about our changing world. Musing on the expanding potential of citizen science, particularly in the US, the author celebrates today’s renewed volunteerism.

 

 

NHBS Staff Picks 2017

Welcome to our annual round-up of the books and equipment we have most enjoyed reading and using this year, all chosen by members of the NHBS team. Here are our choices for 2017!

Winter Birds

Winter Birds

In Winter Birds, we find Lars Jonsson’s loving portraits of some of the birds that he observed in southern Gotland in the winter months; both the watercolours and the accompanying essays are wonderfully intimate and personal. A fascinating book to dip into on cold and windy evenings, even if (like me) you don’t know your finches from your jays. First published in Swedish two years ago, this is now available in a UK edition, with range maps for both Sweden and the British Isles alongside each species. Expertly translated by David Christie, this is one of my favourite books this year.
Anneli – Senior Manager

Orison for a Curlew: In Search of a Bird on the Brink of Extinction

The Slender Billed Curlew, Numenius tenuirostris, is emblematic of species decline and ultimately extinction. With the last fully-fledged sighting in Morocco in 1995, naturalist and traveller Horatio Clare took up the challenge of sighting this ethereal creature. With precision and clarity and in only 115 beautifully written pages, this book takes the reader on an immersing journey into history, politics, hunting and conservation.
Nigel – Books and Publications

Field Guide to Moths

Field Guide to the Moths of Great Britain and Ireland

As a newbie to the world of moths, this book is a definitive and indispensable guide to UK species (excluding micro-moths). With in-depth descriptions and distribution maps for each species and beautifully clear and concise illustrations, this newly updated guide is a valuable resource and must-have mothing companion, perfect for beginners and pros alike.
Oli – Graphic Designer

Why We Sleep

Why We Sleep: The New Science of Sleep and Dreams

Picking my favourite book of the year wasn’t easy this time, having stepped up my reading efforts this year. But since there has to be one: Why We Sleep is an exceedingly well-written book about the biology of human sleep, and especially the deleterious effects of chronic sleep deprivation that most of us subject ourselves to. Matthew Walker is a gifted writer with a knack for explaining neurobiological principles in clear language and using imaginative metaphors. It actually made me undertake some very serious attempts to change my sleeping habits.
Leon – Catalogue Editor

The Lost Words

For anyone even vaguely interested in nature writing Macfarlane needs no introduction.
His series on landscape, place and imagination has enthralled me since I first picked up The Old Ways several years ago.
Created in response to the nature-related words culled from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, words which are considered no longer relevant to a modern childhood, Macfarlane along with artist and author Jackie Morris have created a beautiful ‘spell book‘ for younger readers. A joyful celebration of both nature and language.
Johnny – Customer Services

Dinosaur MonopolyDinosaur Monopoly

Everyone at the NHBS board game club loved Dinosaur Monopoly. A new take on an old favourite, though we all agreed the T-Rex should not be the Mayfair of this board! Have fun excavating sites, bartering for ownership and making (or losing!) the big bucks!
Natt – Customer Service & Dispatch Manager

 

Petzl Tikka Headtorch

The Petzl Tikka is a brilliant head torch – with a light output of 200 lumens, you really get a lot of light for your money! Having five different light settings, it’s great for close up work, and with a range of 60m is ideal for night running/orienteering (with the added bonus of being weather resistant). From personal use, I would highly recommend this to anyone who is after a high quality head torch for a very reasonable price.
Sam – Customer Services

Mushrooms and Toadstools

Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe: Volume 1

Mushrooms and Toadstools of Britain & Europe is the long-awaited field guide by Geoffrey Kibby, the highly respected field mycologist. This title stands out from other fungi guides with its detailed and comprehensive identification and field notes, but for me the real highlights are the gorgeous illustrations and diagrams running through the whole text. One doesn’t have to be a serious mycologist to appreciate the beauty of fungi as presented in this book!
Rachel – Customer Services

Kite Caiman Binoculars

Kite Caiman Binoculars

My pick is the 8 x 42 Kite Caiman Binoculars, which are our newest edition to the Kite binocular range. They have an amazing close focus and far reaching power, they’re affordable, bright, and are great quality. The Caimans make the ultimate pair of binoculars in the field for anyone on a budget.
Bryony – Wildlife Equipment Specialist

Squid Empire

Squid Empire: The Rise and Fall of the Cephalopods

Covering hundreds of millions of years, Squid Empire tells the fascinating story of how the squishy squids we have in our ocean today became what they are. Written with humanity and wit this book is extremely approachable, even by a layperson such as myself.
Luke – Web Developer

The Plant Messiah

In his time working at Kew Gardens, Carlos Magdalena has managed to track down and propogate some of the world’s most threatened plant species. Many of these success stories are shared in The Plant Messiah and all are recounted in Carlos’s enthusiastic and charismatic style. Part memoir, part “botany-101” and part plant elegy, I found this book difficult to put down, and whizzed through it in just a day or two. It is inspiring, thrilling and educational – what more could you ask for?
Luanne – Senior Editor

Behind More Binoculars: An interview with the authors

Behind More BinocularsBehind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is the second book of interviews with birders. They are chosen to encompass a varied range of perspectives and approaches to birding.

We caught up with the authors, Keith Betton and Mark Avery, to ask them some questions about this insightful, humorous, thought-provoking and thoroughly unique approach to getting to the core of what makes birders tick.


Many of the interviewees’ route into birding was roaming the countryside near their homes during their childhood, often in rural locations. With parents now reluctant to let their children stray and wild spaces less common, do you think this presents a problem and if so, what is the best route now for children to discover and connect with the natural world?

Keith: I do see this as a problem for many young people who want to experience nature. Also, it is now more complicated for schools to organise nature rambles because of the health and safety checks that need to be made. There are still great local groups organised by RSPB Wildlife Explorers and some of the Wildlife Trusts – but just going out on your own is no longer an easy option.

Mark: It is a bit of a problem – but arguably the problem is in the parents’ heads. Looking back, I think I was a bit too cautious with my children and I was a lot less cautious than many parents. It is to do with what is normal – when I was a kid I headed out into the countryside all day and apart from a few bruises and grazes never came to any harm, but very few children get that delicious freedom these days.

I was encouraged that so many birders end up working in wildlife/conservation. What do you think inspires a young birder to move into conservation and not just focus on birds?

Keith: This is more a question for Mark I think. But they need to have passion for the bigger picture of conservation and not be thinking about earning much money.

Mark: Doing something that you feel is worthwhile and working with kindred spirits is a great way to spend your working life. You spend a lot of time at work – why not get a real kick out of it!

Behind More BinocularsAs the title suggests, all the interviewees were using binoculars and telescopes from quite an early age. I had binoculars from an early age (ostensibly for plane-spotting) but preferred to use my normal sight. Is it possible to be a birder without binoculars? Can you think of the gains and losses from using the naked eye instead of magnification?

Keith: The likes of Gilbert White in the 1700s made do without binoculars as they had not been invented, but today they are easy to obtain and don’t have to cost a fortune. Using all of your senses to detect nature is important, but unless you can see the details of the plumage you are missing out on so much.

Mark: Ears are important too. I’ve sometimes recorded how many species I detect and identify by sound before sight and it’s usually about 40% of them on a walk around my local area. Being attuned to nature comes with time. I have been walking down a busy noisy street in London and heard a bird call way above my head (often a Grey Wagtail – a bird with a loud simple flight call) and looked up to see it. No-one else paid it any attention of course. If I’d seen anyone else looking up I’d have known they were birders.

There is lots of travelling in this book; I’m going to avoid the obvious question regarding carbon footprint and concentrate on the positive. Jon Hornbuckle’s alarmingly dangerous travel adventures also resulted in him helping protect endangered birds and forests in Peru. What are the benefits travelling birders can bring to the birding and conservation movements?

Keith: If there were no people watching birds and wildlife in many of the world’s national parks then I think a significant number would be turned over to agriculture. If we all travelled everywhere the world’s carbon emissions would increase to the extent that climate change would accelerate further. But if birders travel to conservation areas then the local people have a reason to want those areas to be saved.

Mark: No, the obvious question is the best one. Why do nature lovers travel so much when they know it harms nature? Beats me!

In the ‘Last Thoughts’ chapter of the book you mention that the demographic for birders is rather mature and mainly men. You claim this gender balance is improving and bearing that in mind, what do you think a similar book to yours would look like in twenty years time?

Keith: While the gender imbalance is shifting I doubt it will ever reach 50/50, so such a book would probably still contain more accounts from males than females. The average age in both of our books was around 50-60, and partly that’s because you want to talk about what people have done in the past – and older people have more stories to tell. But it would be good to move that average age down a bit!

Mark: I think the differences in birding and nature conservation in 20 years’ time will be more interesting than the gender of who is talking about them. But I hope and expect a more even gender balance.

Behind More BinocularsThere was often some discussion about ‘boots on the ground’ verses ‘reports and research’ approach to birds and conservation. What are your thought about the right balance between meetings, media and marketing strategies verses getting your hands dirty in ‘the field’?

Keith: You need both – but the danger is that too much money can be devoted to discussing a conservation plan and then not enough to make the plan happen. One of my biggest concerns is the obsession with safety audits before even a simple action. I was really struck by Roy Dennis’s account of being at an Osprey nest tree that was at risk of falling down and just needed a few nails and strips of timber to keep it in place. None of the staff sent to inspect it could fix the tree as there had not been a full safety audit, so Roy just climbed up and did it himself. That’s boots on the ground (well boots on the tree actually!).

Mark: Conservation needs both. I started as a scientist working in the field – and loved it. But if you work for an organisation, and you rise up the hierarchy, you are going to spend more time wearing a tie, sitting in meetings and less in the rain with sore feet. We really do need people with a wide variety of skills to change the world. I do think though, well I would wouldn’t I, that having some senior people who have come through the ranks and know what it is like out in the field and at the base of the organisation is a good thing?

I really enjoyed Barbara Young’s interview, she had so much energy and conviction. I imagine her strident views and no-nonsense approach shook a few people up and she was convinced that nature conservation is a political issue. Do you agree – should nature conservation be more political, should birders and anglers for example see common ground, put differences aside and be a stronger political voice – should they even back a political party which shares their values or is that too far a step? If it is too far a step, how do you think the voice of birders and conservationists can be heard in the modern media blizzard that everyone is subjected to?

Keith: I’ll let Mark answer

Mark: Nature conservation is self-evidently political because it depends on altering people’s behaviour (and often they don’t want to change). You can’t increase Skylark numbers much without influencing hundreds or thousands of farmers. It’s difficult to talk to them all and persuade them to farm differently, but a change in incentives or legal requirements can get to lots of them. And that’s politics! Whether you use a stick or a carrot is politics. I don’t for a moment claim that birdwatchers must be political, but nature conservationists have to influence politics to have much impact. And the organisations to which we pay our subscriptions have to do a better job, as came out in a couple of interviews, at making that case. I don’t think that birders and anglers have completely overlapping views, but they do have partly overlapping needs – and that’s why they should work closer together on some issues (even if they fight like cats on others).

I can see why searching for rarities would be so addictive and many of the interviewees are very keen on recording them: what rarities do you expect to see turning up on these shores and which birds might go from rare to common in the UK over the next ten years?

Keith: Already in the last ten years my main birding area (Hampshire) has lost Yellow Wagtail and Tree Sparrow as a breeding species, and soon we may lose Willow Tit and Wood Warbler. We are likely to gain Great White Egret and Cattle Egret as breeders in the next ten years. As for real vagrants I think we’ll just keep getting a few new ones, although species that are declining in Europe (such as Aquatic Warbler) will turn up much less often.

Mark: Experience shows that we aren’t very good at getting these guesses right! Pass!

My final question maybe should have been my first, but can you tell me what inspired you to start interviewing birders in the first place?

Keith: It struck me that some of the real trailblazers of ornithology (such as Phil Hollom) were not going to be able to share their stories for much longer and so I sat down and got him to tell me about his life. Mark had a similar idea and came up with the idea for Behind the Binoculars. He wanted to interview me for the book. I agreed, and as it was still an early idea I suggested some other people who might be interesting to interview. In the end we realised we both had lots of ideas, and we agreed to work as a team.

Mark: They are interesting – sometimes peculiar, sometimes inspirational but interesting all the same.


About the authors

Keith Betton is a keen world birder, having seen over 8,000 species in over 100 countries.  In the UK he is heavily involved in bird monitoring, where he is a County Recorder. He has been a Council member of both the  RSPB and the BTO, currently Vice President of the latter.

Dr Mark Avery, many moons ago, worked for the RSPB and for 13 years was its Conservation Director.  He is now a writer, blogger and environmental campaigner and is prominent in the discussions over the future of driven grouse shooting in the UK.

 

 

 


Behind More Binoculars: Interviews with Acclaimed Birdwatchers is available to order from NHBS

Signed Copies Available

NHBS attended the recent BTO Conference and Keith has kindly signed some stock of Behind More Binoculars; we have a very limited stock, so should you order, please state ‘signed copy’ in the comments and we will do our best. If you want to catch up on the first volume of interviews we currently have a special offer on the hardback edition.

From all of us at NHBS, we wish you plenty of happy and successful birding adventures in 2018.

 

Improbable Destinies: An interview with Jonathan B. Losos

Jonathan B. Losos with his favourite research subject: the green anole

Jonathan B. Losos is an evolutionary biologist, currently at Harvard University. He is best known for his research on speciation in Caribbean anoles, a genus of iguanian lizards. Previously, he has authored Lizards in an Evolutionary Tree: Ecology and Adaptive Radiation of Anoles. His latest book, Improbable Destinies: How Predictable is Evolution?  is an incredibly enjoyable romp through evolutionary biology, examining the phenomenon of convergent evolution (i.e. the process by which different organisms have evolved the same or similar traits independently over time), and asks the question: how repeatable is evolution really? After reading this book recently (see also the review I left for the book) I contacted Jonathan to talk some more convergent evolution with him.

1. As a biologist, I can understand your fascination with convergent evolution. But to introduce yourself to the readers, what drew you to study this one topic out of all the fascinating aspects of evolution? Was this interest there from the beginning, or did you chance on it as your research progressed?

I’ve been interested in convergence ever since I learned about evolution because convergence of species living in similar environments is such a great demonstration of the power of natural selection. However, when I conducted my doctoral work on Caribbean Anolis lizards, I truly became fascinated by the phenomenon.

2. In your preface, you write how your PhD project on lizard diversification in the Caribbean supported ideas on convergent evolution. Right after writing up your thesis, Gould published his book Wonderful Life, in which he stressed the importance of contingency, arguing that evolution is unpredictable. You write you were taken with his book. How did you go about reconciling Gould’s views with your own?

Evolutionary biology is unlike most sciences in that it is a historical science. We can’t just do a key experiment or derive an equation and solve the problem. Rather, like detectives, we have to build the best case to understand what happened in the past. In addition, as Ian Malcolm said in Jurassic Park, life finds a way. In fact, evolution occurs in myriad different ways – almost any way of evolving you can imagine has occurred somewhere, some time. In this way, evolution is an inductive sciencewe can’t derive general rules for first principles; rather, we have to go out in nature and develop many case studies. Only in that way can we recognize the general patterns from the interesting exceptions.

It is in this light that I reconciled my one research on Anolis lizards, which indicated that evolution has travelled very much the same course four times on the different islands of the Greater Antilles (the large islands of the Caribbean), with Gould’s ideas that evolution, for the most part, is unpredictable and unrepeatable. I considered the Anolis situation to be one of the exceptions, fascinating, but out of the ordinary.

3. Part two of your book describes a plethora of field studies, including your own work on Anolis lizards, which by and large show that evolution is repeatable. Some people, botanists especially, have raised the objection that such findings could also come about by phenotypic plasticity. You have addressed this objection yourself experimentally and found that phenotypic plasticity only plays a limited role. Have others done the same, and is this something that is routinely considered and excluded as a possible explanation in this kind of research?

Phenotypic plasticity – the ability of genetically identical individuals to produce different phenotypes when exposed to different environmental conditions – has long been known. However, until recently, it was mostly considered to be noise in the system, non-adaptive phenomena that mostly served to prevent natural selection from producing evolutionary change (the reason being that natural selection might favor one variant, but if different variants in a species were genetically identical, then selection wouldn’t lead to any evolutionary change). However, in recent years we have realized that plasticity may be an important part of the evolutionary process. Although phenotypic variation (i.e., variation in traits such as anatomy, physiology) among individuals in a population may not be genetically based, the ability of a species to produce different phenotypes in different conditions is itself a genetically based trait that may evolve adaptively. Thus, species may evolve to exhibit great phenotypic variation as a response to living in many different environments. As a result, the amount of research on phenotypic plasticity has skyrocketed in the last two decades.

Improbable Destinies

4. Towards the end of Part Two, you point out another weak point of most field experiments. They generally start off with genetically related populations and so are likely to be predisposed to generate parallel evolutionary responses. Furthermore, statistical analyses might filter out the exceptions to the rule. Has experimental work by now moved on to using genetically dissimilar starting populations to investigate if convergent evolution is powerful enough to funnel different populations towards the same evolutionary outcome?

I wouldn’t say that this is a weak point of field experiments. Rather, it is a consequence of the hypothesis that is being tested. If you want to understand why guppies evolve to be more colourful in the absence of predators, then the appropriate experiment is to create multiple replicate populations of guppies in different conditions and see what happens. But, as I wrote in the book, we would expect very similar, closely-related populations to evolve similar adaptive responses to the same questions. One approach would be to conduct parallel experiments on many different species of fish to see the extent to which they adapt in similar ways (or in differing ways). Right now, I’m unaware of anyone doing this. However, different researchers sometimes ask the same question with different species, and this is the most likely way we will be able to address this question.

5. Part Three of your book looks at long-term laboratory experiments with bacteria. It seems here too, results initially suggested convergent evolution is the rule. Until exceptions starting cropping up on the longer term. Does the answer to the question whether evolution is repeatable depend on the timescale over which you look? Are we too focused on the short-term if we conclude that convergent evolution is the rule, rather than the exception?

That’s a keen observation. In Rich Lenski’s Long-Term Evolution Experiment, the story after 14 years was that evolution is pretty repeatable. Then, 30,000+ generations into the experiment, one of 12 experimental lines evolved a very different adaptation, one that still hasn’t been matched in the other 11 lines after another 14 years. So, yes, the longer one conducts a study, the greater the chance that rare, unique adaptations will occur (and we must remember that 30,000 generations are a drop in the evolutionary bucket). On the other hand, as Rich Lenski himself says, if the LTEE is continued long enoughmaybe for 300,000 generations – then perhaps the other 11 populations will discover the new adaptive solution as well. So, yes, definitely, these studies need to be continued much longer. Most studies today, LTEE’s fame and influence notwithstanding, are much shorter in length (note: Loses and Lenski edited the book How Evolution Shapes Our Lives. ed.).

6. You conclude your book by saying that in the short term evolution is predictable, but that the world of biological possibilities is a vast one, and that in the long term, chance events have had a large impact. Given the many books dedicated to the topic of convergent evolution, and the way it speaks to people’s imagination, do you think we have overestimated the importance of this mechanism? Are we too keen on seeing patterns where there are none?

Well, we need a bit of historical perspective on this question. Until recently, we thought of convergent evolution as relatively rare. Great examples of the power of natural selection, worthy of being in biology textbooks, but not at all common. Now, thanks to the work of Simon Conway Morris and others, we realize that convergence is much more pervasive than we used to believe. This has been a valid contribution to our understanding of evolution. Nonetheless, some workers have gone too far, in my estimation, in emphasizing the importance and prevalence of convergent evolution. It is a common and important aspect of evolution, but it is not the only story.

Improbable Destinies is available to order from NHBS

The 100 best articles for ecologists

Keeping up to date with the latest research is a key part of any career in science. However, the push for researchers to publish early in their career and at frequent intervals means that there is now a seemingly unconquerable body of literature available to sift through. Because of the time-consuming nature of reading, processing and assimilating all of this information, the unfortunately result is that many researchers only find time to read the “hot” papers that are well publicised, or they focus primarily on papers that are recent and well-cited.

Image by brownpau via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
The days of searching through library index cards are now a distant memory.

The advent of online journals also means that the days of physically searching for articles using paper records and traipsing around library stacks to locate a particular journal edition are a thing of the past. One result of this is that students and researchers who use the same or similar online search terms are likely to be directed to the same sub-set of papers, to the exclusion of other thematically similar but less relevant articles.

On the face of it, this may seem like a good thing, but it ignores the fact that methodological and conceptual insights are often to be found in papers which are not directly related to one’s own research; papers that would have been found more frequently when searching in a “bricks and mortar” library. It also means that older papers, which are still of importance for providing a good grounding in both methods and concepts, may be overlooked. By ignoring these older papers, the risk of repeating work that has already been undertaken or explored, is also higher.

With these concerns in mind, Franck Courchamp and Corey Bradshaw from the Université Paris-Saclay in France and Flinders University in Australia have taken it upon themselves to produce a list of the top 100 articles that every ecologist should read. Their key objective was to propose a list of seminal papers that, regardless of date of publication or specific subject area, would provide ecologists with a well-rounded understanding of ecology.

To create this list, they first assembled a long-list of 544 paper which were nominated by a group of 147 ecology journal editorial members; individuals that were recognised as experts in their field and who have an excellent knowledge of publications in their subject area. This list was then ranked via random-sample voting by 368 ecology experts and the top 100 papers collated into a comprehensive and varied reading list.

A century and a half after its publication, Darwin’s paper on natural selection remains a key ecology text.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the number one paper on the list was Darwin and Wallace putting forth their theory of natural selection. Published in 1858, this entry also represents the oldest paper on the list. More surprising was the average age of the top-ranked papers, with a huge number of them being from the 1960s and 1970s whilst very few were included from the 21st century. Most of the papers were not published in journals with a particularly high impact factor and, in many cases, they did not receive an unduly high number of citations, indicating that citation-based selections are not always the most appropriate when selecting papers for background reading.

The final list provides ecologists with an excellent starting point for establishing a well-rounded understanding of basic ecological theories. Whether you’re an early-career scientist, a well-established researcher or even a keen amateur with an enquiring mind, there is plenty here to expand your knowledge.

The list of 100 papers, together with a description of the methods and discussion of the subject, is published in Nature Ecology and Evolution and is available to view online.

 

 

Flight Lines: Interview with Mike Toms

The Flight Lines Project is a collaboration between the British Trust for Ornithology (BTO) and the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA). Using a unique combination of art, stories and science, this project aims to explore the lives of migrant birds and to highlight the challenges they face in a rapidly changing world.

In this interview with Flight Lines author, Mike Toms, we talk about the relationship between art and science, the importance of volunteer ornithologists and cultural differences in our attitudes to birds.


Flight Lines author, Mike Toms

I’m curious about the perceived division between the arts and the sciences. While it’s true that many artists portray images of the natural world in their work, there are not many situations where artists and scientists are required to work together towards a common aim. Flight Lines is obviously a wonderful example of this – where did the idea for the project come from and what do you consider to be the most important thing that came out of it?

There is growing evidence that audiences exposed to science and conservation messages through the creative arts are more likely to show meaningful change in their understanding, which suggests that those of us working in research should seek now opportunities to communicate the impact of our work. Flight Lines was made possible by the generous legacy left by Penny Hollow and the kindness of her executors. Penny, a long-standing BTO member was a regular at the Society of Wildlife Artists (SWLA) exhibitions, a great supporter and a lay member of the SWLA. The bringing together of artists and scientists to raise the profile of our migrant birds was a fitting tribute to her interests and something that we had been looking do alongside our programme of research into migrant birds. Not only has the project enabled us to tell the stories of our summer visitors to new audiences but it has also helped to underline how art and science can work together to effect change.

Flight LinesOur knowledge of where our migrant birds disappear to each year has vastly increased with the development of ever smaller and more advanced tracking devices and locators. What do you think will be the next big technological advancement in the study of bird migration?

It is the arrival of smaller and smaller devices that has revolutionised our understanding of the movements of migrant birds. The level of information that can now be collected through the use of GPS-tags and satellite-tags means that we can identify the sites and habitats used by migrant birds throughout the year. In some cases, such as with those tags that communicate via the mobile phone or satellite network, the information collected can be presented to the public in near real time, greatly adding to wider engagement with the science that is being undertaken. For the smallest birds, the tags used have to be retrieved the following year in order to download the data. As miniaturisation continues, we will soon be able to track the movements of Swallows, House Martins, Whitethroats and other small migrants in near real time. That will be a significant advancement for our understanding.

Whinchat, Blakeney by Richard JohnsonIn the UK I think it would be fair to say that we have an above average obsession with birds and their welfare. This is in stark contrast to many of the countries you discuss in the book, where birds are often viewed mainly as food or hunting trophies. What do you think is responsible for this difference in attitudes?

It is incredibly important to recognise the cultural differences that exist between countries in terms of how birds are viewed. Many of these are deeply rooted and extend back through generations, each shaped by local beliefs and opportunities, by living conditions and by trade. The hunting of migrant birds in North Africa, for example, is shaped by at least three different drivers: some are hunted for food by people living in very poor communities; others are hunted because of cultural beliefs, and many are hunted because there is a sizeable market for such commodities within the Middle East. It is important that we recognise how attitudes towards birds differ across the globe so that we can deliver approaches to conservation that are sensitive and appropriate.

Flight Lines trip to Senegal, West AfricaThe subject of supplementary feeding is currently a hot topic with the recent publication of an article in Science showing how great tits’ beaks have changed size due to the use of garden feeders. However, the messages we receive about feeding our garden birds are very mixed. Do you think the amount of supplementary feeding that occurs in the UK is a good thing overall?

The provision of supplementary food is one of the most common deliberate interactions between people and wild birds, supporting a wild bird care industry within the UK worth an estimated £210 million each year. Despite the huge amount of supplementary food provided in gardens we know surprisingly little about its impacts, which is one of the reasons why the BTO has been funding research into this topic over many years. Supplementary feeding may increase the overwinter survival of small birds, shape the communities of birds living alongside us and alter migration patterns and behaviour. It may also change the dynamics of competition between species or aid the spread of new and emerging diseases. Before we can say whether or not it is a good thing we need to improve our understanding of the associated costs and benefits, and look at these in relation to other human-bird interactions, such as climate and habitat change.

Scissor stone curlew by Harriet MeadCitizen science schemes are an incredibly powerful force in terms of obtaining large quantities of data and you frequently mention in your book how much of our knowledge about bird populations comes from the tireless efforts of volunteers. Do you think that being involved with a citizen science project is also empowering to the individual and can help to break down some of the boundaries between “professional” scientists and amateurs, making science and research more accessible to them?

The terms ‘professional’ and ‘amateur’ are often used incorrectly, suggesting that staff are professionals while volunteers are amateurs, when what is really meant is that staff get paid and volunteers don’t . Many volunteers are experts in their field, sometimes the expert, and the right approach to citizen science should recognise this. We know from various research studies that volunteers participate in citizen science for a whole host of different reasons, some linked to internal values – such as feeling good about yourself – and some to external – such as sharing expertise, contributing towards charitable objectives. A well run citizen science project should make the science being carried out more accessible to participants, enabling them to see how their contribution is being used to answer a particular research question and empowering them to recognise the impact that their involvement is facilitating.

Do you feel that your art is influenced by your love of birds and wildlife and, conversely, do you feel that your art affects your appreciation of the natural world?

Some of my writing – the prose and poetry – is influenced by the natural world and by the sense of place. This feeling for the natural world is equally evident when I am participating in BTO surveys, especially the Nest Record Scheme, where significant time is spent immersed in nature, watching birds and their behaviour in order to find and monitor nesting attempts.


Flight Lines is published by the British Trust for Ornithology and is available to buy from NHBS.