What does a field ecologist do all day?

Forage – Drive – Walk – Binoculars out – Scan – Walk – Walk – Sight geese! – Walk (carefully now) – (Tele)scope out – Scan – Shuffle closer – Who’s that goose? – Scribble in notebook – Adjust scope – Scribble – Repeat last two steps as required – Pack up scope – Walk – Walk – Walk – Drive – Walk – Sight geese! –

….and it continues.

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Look! There’s one!

When I’m out and about, in the field or at conferences, I’m often asked how I build my dataset. For social network analysis, one can either record associations between individuals in a flock (being in the same place at the same time) or interactions (where individuals do something together – groom, sex, fight – any of the activities available in a town centre near you after the pubs chuck out). My geese are fairly chilled out and interactions are pretty rare, certainly outside of the breeding season. My main data are from recording associations. Geese do join together in big flocks, particularly in winter, but they spend a lot of the time in small groups of 5-10 birds. This hierarchy (a few large flocks that split into lots of little flocks) allows me to pick out which birds each goose spends the most time with.

In many ways, I’m a human GPS. Recording where the geese when I see them means that I can also estimate how many sites they use, and how important each site is.

In addition to the basic where, when, how many info, I record observations of the birds’ behaviour – particularly those that have implications for how effectively each bird might pass on disease. At the moment I’m sorting out my observations and making sure that I’ll be able to answer fascinating questions like is being vigilant linked to being important in your flock?

Quite apart from keeping me off the streets, this is important stuff: when a flock becomes diseased, how might social structure alter? Will the flock stay together or break apart? Will we end up with birds flying about everywhere?

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