We meet at the University and pack up Cedar’s little old Tacoma with the recording gear. We carry 15 grocery bags filled with one microphone, recorder, and synchronizer each; two mail buckets, that Cedar presumably stole, with the words “$1000 fine and 3 years imprisonment [ … ] for misuse or theft” full of data sheets, speakers, batteries, and spare parts; and, finally, a bucket or two of bird seed down from the lab to Cedar’s truck. Then we pile in, 5 to the cab, and head down 93. Five minutes or so past Lolo, we’ve already arrived! We open a gate with a squirrely lock that requires way too much instruction for each new member with the privilege of shotgun to be able to unlock and drive on in. A few minutes down a dirt road – that is obviously not one that anyone bothers to maintain – we reach the recording array. Stretched out over a little more than 400 meters are 15 microphone stations on “big meadow.”
This is only one of 5 arrays that allow for about 12 different possible experiment setups. We lug the equipment to whichever array we happen to be working at that day – Cedar has a pencil drawn table he uses to decide – and check the feeders for birds and seed. There is one thing I quickly learned about field experiments; things don’t always go according to plan. Assuming conditions were right, however, we began the set-up of our microphones. We set up each with one microphone, one recorder connected with a cable, and another cable that connects from the recorder to the synchronizer. The synchronizer is important because it allows each of the stations to sync up their recording times, streamlining data analysis. After we have completed the setup, we meet, 2 on one side of the array and 3 on the other, to begin the experiments. The side with 3 researchers is the where we play recorded bird calls.
These calls are meant to stimulate, or not stimulate, responses from the feeding chickadees and nuthatches. We record their feeding habits, their behavior, and their numbers in relation to each playback. The two on the other end of the array do the same, but also see if there is a reaction to the playback that occurred all the way over on the other side of the array. The goal is to gather enough experiments and information to be able to better understand the individual and social behavior of these birds, both close together and across distances. Once we’ve completed all the experiments that we can, it’s time to pack up, maybe sit by the Bitterroot River and eat some lunch, and head back.
I have learned so much while working this internship. Firstly, I had never participated in a wildlife research project before, so just to see the organization, the logistics, and the follow through of a project of this type has been illuminating in and of itself. I want to complete my Wildlife Biology degree, but the question remains, what will I be doing after I graduate? This internship has allowed me to get dirty and see what a real wildlife research project might entail. This insight will help me in the decisions I will make that guide my future. Less broadly, I have learned so much about avian behavior and identification, how to use and set up audio recording equipment, how to set up a controlled study, and much more.
What is so amazing to me, being out there, is the wildness of the area we work in. We are just 5 minutes or so south of Lolo, yet the wild has already taken hold of the land in earnest. We regularly can hear coyotes and see their tracks, we have found mountain lion tracks, we have found two ungulate carcasses that were picked clean, and have seen more raptors than you can shake a stick at. I had no idea the research area would be so wild. When we arrive, we have only just left the highway! This is further proof to me that wildness is all around us and is not something that we have to travel to.
I am still anxious to learn more, particularly how to analyze the data that we are collecting, and luckily, I have 2 more months to do so. I have gained a new awareness of how our ears can give us a whole new perspective on our surroundings. By listening intentionally, we can gain a new angle and a new understanding of our world. And we can do this anywhere, as the wild is so rich, even just outside of town.