Blue Jay Vocabulary

I wrote a guest post for the Wilson Ornithological Society that overviews how I came to complete a recently published study about Blue Jay vocalizations and what I found. Sound interesting? If so, check it out here:

Guest Post: What Do Blue Jays Say? — Wilson Ornithological Society

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What is a Scientist? Conferences

This is the first post in my ‘What is a Scientist?’ series. There seems to be a lot of distrust of scientists by a large section of the population. My hope is that sharing my perspectives about some of my experiences as a scientist can help build trust.

What is a Scientist? Conferences

I grew up knowing very little about what being a practicing scientist meant. I probably thought that all scientists wore a lab coat, that they had to be really smart, or that I couldn’t understand what they did even if I tried. I imagine that many people probably have similarly misguided thoughts about what it means to be a scientist.

In this post, I’ll reflect on my first attendance at a scientific conference. This experience was about 10 years ago and helped me understand what scientists do. I’ll also reflect on a conference that I attended earlier this year. During that time span, I went from being someone who knew basically nothing about science to someone who actually feels like a scientist. I’ll share how my opinions have evolved from when I was a somewhat blindly rebellious, 20-year-old to whatever I am now (maybe in 10 years I will have an opinion about that).

In the fall of 2012, when I attended my first conference, I was beginning my third year in an undergraduate wildlife science program. My favorite classes up to that point were those which focused on identifying, and memorizing the Latin names of, many different species. I especially enjoyed getting to know the trees of Indiana. Just a couple summers before, I had completed my first field job, which involved documenting bird occurrences throughout the Hoosier National Forest. Camping, hiking, solitude, and birds. Really a great job. In class that semester, I was just beginning to get experience with collecting data and writing about it but I certainly did not understand much about the whole process of creating and sharing scientific knowledge. In other words: I had recently gained some understanding regarding many of the different parts of Nature, which I greatly enjoyed, but I had very little knowledge about how to more deeply understand and create/share knowledge about how those parts interacted.

That year, I was lucky enough to join my university’s student chapter of The Wildlife Society to the annual conference for that society, which happened to be across the continent in Portland, Oregon. Which is a cool city! I remember arriving to the hotel near the conference center and feeling like an explorer in a foreign wilderness, given that I had no idea what to expect regarding conferences. I didn’t have anything to present. I knew few people and wasn’t particularly good friends with anyone I was with. Therefore, it was a great opportunity to meet new people and learn from them. At the time, though, I was for the most part still too shy to try to meet new people. So, as I recall, my first conference experience was largely a solitary one.

To be honest, there aren’t many specific things that I remember about the trip to Portland for that conference. I wish I had taken better notes back then. I remember visiting Multnomah Falls during a field trip, my heart beating startlingly fast as a participant in a wildlife-themed quiz bowl in front of hundreds of people, and unintentionally annoying at least one of my travel-mates by wandering off one day when we were all in the food truck area. I also remember a networking event when I got to meet Purdue alumni and learn about their careers. During my free time, I probably visited Powell’s Books and Voodoo Doughnut, which I’d recommend.

Me near Portland in 2012, at Multnomah Falls

One thing I definitely remember, however, was a feeling I had in the sprawling conference center, where there were many different rooms that were designated for specific wildlife science disciplines. For example, there might have been a room for invasive species management, another for endangered species conservation, etc. And in each of these rooms people met to either present talks or listen to others speak. There were also ‘poster sessions,’ where people stood by posters that described their research and hoped someone would stop by to talk to them. The feeling I remember when I was wandering from room to room, and from poster session to session, was disappointment/disgust. I distinctly remember feeling that presenters tended to care more about advancing their careers than about conserving/managing wildlife. I felt like everyone was focusing so much on their own discipline that they were missing the bigger picture. And it didn’t seem to me that people had the deep personal connection and adoration for Nature that had gotten me interested in wildlife science.  

A view from Portland in 2012. Note Mt. Hood in the distance.

I will be the first to admit that at that point in my life I was too quick to feel strongly and to jump to drastic, unnuanced conclusions. During my first conference experience I had a romanticized view of what it meant to be a wildlife biologist and had a tendency to rebel against just about anything. I think that much of what I felt then was wrong. I’m sure that most people at that conference did very much care about improving our ability to conserve and manage wildlife. Many people there probably had a far greater knowledge of other disciplines than I did. And certainly a large proportion of them had a deeper ‘connection’ with Nature than I could even begin to understand. However, despite my immaturity at the time, I have often thought back on my initial impressions of a scientific conference and have tried to maintain a couple traces of wisdom I had while still ‘outside of the system.’ As I’ve joined the scientific community, by sharing knowledge at conferences and via scientific articles, I’ve tried to remind myself of a couple important things based on what I saw as a somewhat blind, 20-year-old outsider:

  1. There are a lot of important things I should try to understand outside of my narrow area of expertise. I should seek a broad understanding. However, there is nothing wrong with a specific research focus.
  2. While some self-promotion may be necessary to continue doing science, it shouldn’t be the reason for doing science. Personally, I have chosen to do science to help conserve the natural world, not to feed my ego.  

Another thing that I didn’t think much about then, but do now, is the ecological footprint of conferences. It seems striking to me that so many people who think about the effects of climate change seem to travel vast distances by plane without considering their Carbon footprint. For this reason, I actually think that the switch to virtual conferences that happened during the worst of COVID was a good thing that shouldn’t be totally abandoned. But I suppose that should be a discussion for another post!

After attending my first conference, I completed my Bachelor’s in wildlife science, then my Master’s in applied ecology. I held several wildlife-focused positions and am now hopefully in the last year of my PhD in earth and ecosystem science. It has been a long road to understanding how data are collected, analyzed, and presented. This February, I rode along with some students from my university to Des Moines, Iowa for the Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference, where I presented my research focusing on king rail habitat (which is now rare in the Midwest). It was a long ride in a van, and there was an intense snowstorm, but we made it there and back.

My travel group and I on the way to and from Des Moines.

Though I enjoyed the company of my travel-mates, I consciously chose while there to try to meet new people at the conference. I’ve come to understand that perhaps the biggest value of a conference is simply to make connections. So, during the first breakfast, I joined someone who was sitting alone and as a result learned a bit more about the consulting industry in wildlife. At social events, though I checked in with my travel mates, I tried to be available to people I didn’t know who might be interested in talking about their science and/or other experiences.

I also very much enjoyed learning from a variety of talks and posters. I made a point to go to talks outside of my area of expertise. For example, I was fascinated by a talk about how turtles have moved around a campus in Missouri over many years. I also enjoyed the ‘plenary’ sessions, which were times when everyone from the conference could come together to listen to a speaker or speakers. I found it especially useful to learn more about Neonicotinoids, a type of pesticide used in agriculture that can likely have very negative effects on wildlife.  

And then, toward the end of the conference, it was time for me to present my research. Though I had presented posters at conferences, and talks at my universities, it was my first talk at a conference. I was excited for the opportunity to share with managers and others who could help king rails about what I had found out regarding the needs of this species. In addition to most of my travel-mates, who were kind enough to attend my talk, there were probably twenty or so people in the room when I presented four around 15 minutes. I hope that they enjoyed learning about what habitat king rails use and how much.

A view from Des Moines in 2022.

I wonder if any of the attendees of my talk felt like I had in 2012 when attending the talks of others. Did they think that I was hyper-focused on king rails and didn’t appreciate other topics? Did they think that I was just trying to promote myself? Did they think that I didn’t feel a connection with Nature? Perhaps. As a scientist, I’ve learned that I do need to stick to what I know when presenting. I probably shouldn’t speculate much about the patterns of ocean currents during a talk about king rail habitat in the Great Lakes region. And, regarding self-promotion, it is a fact that my career as a scientist will end if no one knows what I’ve been doing. So, I have to share and this may come across as an ego-driven activity. But in reality, I simply have to share what I’ve done to be able to keep doing what I love: being in and trying to understand/conserve Nature. Perhaps this goal of mine comes across in scientific talks, but the fact is that I’m there to present information and someone, like my former self, could mistakenly conclude that I don’t ‘feel a connection’ to Nature. In reality, becoming an ecologist has helped me to feel more connected to the world and its inhabitants than I ever felt before.

In summary, I’ve come to think that conferences and the knowledge that they help to share are a good thing. In general, I don’t think there is much better than people coming together to share ideas and knowledge that are meant to do good.

Note: I appreciate the support I received from my universities, and the Midwest Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies, to gain the experiences described in this post.

Virginia Rail in Cattails

My PhD dissertation research focuses on trying to help conserve secretive marsh birds. Specifically, a group of birds that are rarely seen or heard called ‘rails.’ The term ‘thin as a rail’ actually refers to this group! Because many people aren’t familiar with these birds, I thought I’d share a video that I recorded when in the marsh for research. The species in the video is a Virginia Rail, which is just a bit bigger than an American Robin.

I hope you enjoy the video! I like how the bird uses last year’s plant litter to stay safely concealed.

Blue Jay Calls: Hawk Mimicry

On Monday I was leaving campus at the end of another long day. My partner and I were in the library parking lot and I was worn down after a lot of time at the computer working on dissertation research. I decided to study wildlife to be outside, but after data are collected—especially as one’s career progresses—most time tends to be spent inside analyzing data and writing about it. As we were about ready to get into our car, I heard what I was pretty sure was a Blue Jay imitating a Cooper’s Hawk from a row of oaks that bisected the parking lot. I’d seen a Blue Jay in the oak trees in that direction just before I heard the interesting call.

Here is the type of call, uttered by an actual Cooper’s Hawk, that I thought I’d heard:

XC554004 Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) :: xeno-canto

Like I often do, I wandered away toward a bird with little or no explanation. Maybe I said, “there is a Blue Jay over there.” Luckily, my partner is an ecologist, so she understands—or, at least accepts—my strange behavior.

As I approached the tree line, it became clear that indeed a Blue Jay was imitating a Cooper’s Hawk while foraging. Here is the footage:

Foraging Blue Jay Imitates Cooper’s Hawk – YouTube

Blue Jays have been observed on many occasions imitating/mimicking other species. Often, I’ve noticed, they imitate their potential predators. There are several reasons that the jay I saw could have been imitating a Cooper’s Hawk. Given that it appeared to be foraging alone, the bird might have been calling as a way to deter other birds from competing for a valuable food source. Little acorns were just beginning to form on the oaks, but I think the jay was eating something else on the ground. The Blue Jay might have been just showing off a unique call which it had learned that could, when combined with the other calls in its repertoire, impress another jay. It is also possible that the bird was indicating nearby danger, though I don’t think that was the case in this instance. However, when I studied Blue Jay vocalizations for my Master’s research, I frequently observed jays imitating predators (Red-tailed Hawk, American Crow) as I approached Blue Jay nests. It was as if they were indicating danger to their mates by imitating a species that was dangerous to them. Or maybe they had been trying to scare me off by imitating something that scared them.

My favorite memory from my Master’s research is the afternoon when I heard a pair of Blue Jays utter uncannily-convincing American Crow calls as I approached their fledglings. A recording from that day of that call type, as well as other Blue Jay call types that I described in a recently-published study, can be found at the below link. The most convincing American Crow call is at the very end of the file called ‘NamesAndCalls_Row3.’

The vocal repertoire of Blue Jays (Cyanocitta cristata): spectrographic snapshots and suggested nomenclature | Zenodo

Yesterday, when I was leaving campus on my bike, I noticed a Cooper’s Hawk flying high overhead. I was only a few hundred yards to the northwest of where I’d recorded the Blue Jay on Monday. I put down my kickstand and watched as the hawk boldly flew above me, clearing carrying something in its talons. Was it my Blue Jay friend?!? No, I was able to tell, it was some kind of rodent. A little relieved, I pedaled home.

This morning, at around 7:00 am or so, I was sitting in the backyard with my loyal canine companion at my feet. We were both thinking about what we wanted to accomplish today. As I thought, I listened to several Blue Jays calling around the neighborhood. Within the last couple weeks, a pair of Blue Jays successfully hatched young from the sycamore behind our house and ever since I’ve been listening to the calls of hidden fledglings as they beg for and then noisily receive food. But this morning it was just adult calls, mostly the ones that jays utter when they are flying and attempting to stay in contact with allies. The calls suddenly changed to what I call ‘Burry Descending Jay,’ and several American Robins began ‘tutting,’ so I wondered if they were concerned about something.

Then, like a low and straight arrow about 15 feet above the ground, a Cooper’s Hawk flew from east to west across our backyard almost right over me. And the jays kept calling, as if I needed to be convinced more to share about the special birds that we call Blue Jays and one of the many challenges that have shaped them. Gradually the ‘tuts’ of the robins stopped and the Blue Jays resumed calls that generally don’t indicate danger. I carefully listened for what jays and other birds will teach anyone who pays attention. And all, for the moment, again became calm.

Snowy Owl by Roadside

My parent’s and I were lucky enough to come across a Snowy Owl* that was perched beside a central Michigan road. It was the first time that my mom had seen a Snowy Owl in-person, after years of watching the fields during car rides, and the first time that my dad had seen one in 8 years (despite searching with me every year). I’m glad I captured the moment, and hope you enjoy it:

*Snowy Owls are the largest owls in North America, based on weight. They breed in the arctic, though many (like the one above) migrate south during the winter, when they are commonly found throughout the northern U.S. If you ever would like to go ‘owling’ (I’d encourage it!), please be respectful and try to avoid flushing any owl you might find. Many owls, including Snowys, spend long periods during the day roosting. So, when they are forced to fly, precious energy is unnecessarily used and they are exposed to potential predators. The video found at the following link provides a great overview of how to be respectful to owls and other birds you might want to observe: https://vimeo.com/149465659

Sandhill Cranes, Egg Hatching

Last weekend, my partner and I stopped during a road trip by a small pond amidst natural habitat in southeast Michigan. While we were stretching our legs, and our dog was diligently collecting sticktight seeds on his fur, we heard the excited, sharp and rapid bugles of a few sandhill cranes as they glided down to the water’s edge. They were noticeably bigger than the Great Egret that was wading nearby. Their slate-gray feathers, I thought, offered a striking contrast both to the flowering goldenrod behind them and my memories of this summer when I got to see Sandhills in their rusty-brown plumage.

Seeing those cranes last weekend reminded me that this spring, when I was walking through the marsh for fieldwork, I happened upon a Sandhill Crane nest at a special time. One chick had just hatched and another was breaking through its egg. Before I respectfully left the area, I recorded video footage that I’m sharing today.

I like to think that those chicks, along with their devoted parents that are heard in the video, are preparing to head south for the winter, or maybe even have embarked on their journey already. Given that the chicks I was lucky enough to see were about 70 miles north of the pond where we stopped at last weekend, the thought even crossed my mind that maybe I had seen the chicks again, all grown up. Though that is very unlikely, I like to think that the birds in the below video will soon be awkwardly leaping with others and adding to the amazing, seemingly-joyful chorus of thousands of migrating Sandhill Cranes at nearby places like Phyllis Haehnle Memorial Audubon Sanctuary.

Traveling Songs

I wrote and recorded a song about traveling, which I’ve shared below. If you’d like to give the song a listen without further reading, go for it! The following text is just a little background about the song.

The lyrics came to me, nearly all during the same session, after I completed a summer mostly on the road for field research, just after I got back home after another week-long (but vacation-related) road trip. I’ve been recently listening, and re-listening, to many songs by Townes Van Zandt, a songwriting folk musician who lived from 1944 to 1997. Though some of his songs were performed by quite famous people, like Willie Nelson (who sang Van Zandt’s ‘Pancho and Lefty’), Van Zandt himself seemingly didn’t attract a particularly large audience despite regularly performing, at mostly small venues, nearly to the end of his relatively short life. I feel lucky that I heard his name mentioned, in an interview, by another one of my favorite musicians (Devendra Banhart).

Van Zandt produced, without question, many of the most impactful, thought- and feeling- provoking songs that I’ve heard. There is a sincerity about his way of communicating that, to me at least, is endearing. And his songs often tell poignant stories, including those that are funny and/or sad, which I appreciate.

Another reason, I think, that Van Zandt’s music has resonated so much with me is that his lyrics often focus on being on the road as a traveling musician. Though not as a musician, I have been on the road a lot in the last ten or so years. For wildlife-related projects and/or graduate school, I’ve worked in 11 U.S. states. During several summers (including this one), I’ve spent months living out of my vehicle and/or out of a tent to be close to the wildlife that I’ve studied. This has caused me to on hundreds of occasions be a stranger in a new place, usually in little towns where I’m easily noticed, getting to know it for a short while before moving on. Van Zandt’s lyrics often describe a love for the road that is mixed with sadness about leaving loved ones behind. I relate to that. Here is one of his travel-focused songs (‘Snowin’ on Raton’; I also recommend the interview in that video).

When I wrote ‘Traveling Song,’ I drew not only from my own experiences but also from what I’ve learned from, and imagined about, people like Van Zandt. People who, it seems to me, spent their life traveling to pursue beauty and freedom that, to some degree, harmed themselves and others.

What is a Naturalist?

As you may know, my blog is entitled, ‘Thoughts of a Naturalist.’ A worthy question, which I’ve never discussed here, is: “what is a ‘naturalist’?” For many of us, the word carries much meaning and perhaps even is a big part of our identity. Nature-lovers, philosophers, environmentalists, and ecologists all likely tend to use the word at least a little differently. If you have an opinion that you’d like to share about what being a ‘naturalist’ means to you, please share your thoughts as a comment. I’m curious how my views, which I’ll share below, relate to yours.

I think that it is probably fair to say that I’ve been a naturalist—at least a budding one—since I was in high school, even though I don’t remember using the word then. At that time, I began going out to natural areas with the primary goals of paying attention and learning. I remember walking through a nature preserve near to my house teaching myself to identify trees, which was perhaps inspired by mother’s and grandmothers’ interest in flowers. My naturalism probably started even earlier, when my grandfathers got me ‘hooked’ on fishing.

My brother and I at one of our favorite fishing spots, with a tiny fish.

During those many fishing trips, I learned to patiently sit outside and to pay close attention to my surroundings. I thought about where fish were likely to be, when they were likely to be there, and what they would want to eat. Not only did I get exposed to an incredible diversity of life—including aquatic vegetation, several fish species, and a variety of other animals—but I also learned to be comfortable outside. And to be there alone.

My definition, part 1: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and learning. 

A naturalist could be defined simply as ‘someone who studies natural history.’ This includes amateurs of all skill levels. The term ‘natural history’, like ‘naturalist,’ has a variety of meanings. Here is website—which I think is worth checking out especially for naturalists looking for a sense of community—where people explain what natural history means to them. As I see it, natural history is the story of a landscape, including its living and non-living parts. The timeframe of that story could be a day, a season, a year, or many years. For example, by noting when you see the first monarch butterfly each year, you are on the path to learning something about that animal. Just like by observing what plants the monarch caterpillar eats, you learn something. Before you know it, you are thinking about how the butterfly depends on the landscape, how the landscape depends on the butterfly, the long history they have together, and how changing the landscape could cause the butterfly to disappear and then cause the landscape to change further.

Stages of Monarch butterfly development
Monarch butterfly stages of development on a milkweed leaf.
Photo credit: US Fish and Wildlife Service

An ‘ecologist’ is also a word to indicate someone who studies relationships between living things and their environment. However, in my experience, this term tends to be used to indicate someone who does so professionally. Not all ecologists, however, are naturalists. Not in my opinion, at least. I think that the best ecologists tend to be naturalists (though not necessarily vice versa). It is possible to be an ecologist who doesn’t spend considerable time in the natural world and who doesn’t even want to. An ecologist’s work could be done solely in a lab and/or on a computer and not require any trips to the field (i.e., the forest, the prairie, the river, etc.). Results generated from such ‘field-less’ investigations can be valuable, especially if they are cautiously interpreted and cause field work for further examination. If ecologists do go to the field for work, their trips likely pertain to formal data collection in some way.

As a naturalist-ecologist, I cherish the times I get to go to the field for my ecology work. I do my best to observe a wide variety of phenomena. The birds singing, the plants flowering, mammal tracks in the snow, the way a river is flooding, etc. However, when in the field for research, I have a job to do and generally cannot sit and take it all in for two hours or so like I otherwise might. I have 5 radio-tagged birds to track (for example), a field assistant to coordinate with, and a manuscript to write based on the data that we collect. In other words, I’m out there primarily to take something (data) rather than to feel something. I get the impression that there are some ecologists who only ever go to the field to take. I don’t consider those people to be naturalists.

My definition, part 2: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world without the primary goal of taking something.

I’m not saying that those who go to the field to hunt, fish, take pictures, or formally collect data aren’t naturalists. Most naturalists, I’d guess, actively do or have done at least one of these things (I think that going fishing taught me to be a naturalist; when I fish again it will be as a naturalist). My point is that partaking in these activities alone shouldn’t indicate that someone is a naturalist. Some of the best naturalists are certainly hunters, for example, given the necessity in many cases of paying close attention to the natural world and being quiet (which I think generally go together). But there are also hunters who simply want to drink beer and shoot at things and pay little attention to their natural surroundings. Similar to naturalist-hunters, there are some ecologists who carefully observe and reverently experience the natural world while taking careful measurements so that we can better understand and conserve it. There are also ecologists, though (a small minority, it seems), whose primary goal is to collect data that will corroborate a pre-defined story that they want to tell in a scientific journal to advance their careers and perhaps feed their egos. Don’t get me wrong – I think ecology is a great profession that tends to produce solid and useful knowledge. I just wanted to point out that the process of taking, even in ecology, can come at the cost of experiencing and some people may want only to take.

My best moments in the field don’t tend to be when I’m collecting data. Rather, they usually occur when I can go out there to just sit and think about what is going on around me and to better understand what has led to what I see. Those thoughts and natural observations actually could help me with ecological research later, and probably are required for the best ecology to be done, but that’s not why I go seek the natural world on Sunday mornings. My weekly trips to the field are mainly to nourish what some would call my ‘spirit.’ I go there to feel connected to a location—often achieved by purposefully not thinking—and to understand how I fit into a larger place. Sometimes I get distracted and don’t pay attention to my environment or begin focusing on what I can take. But at my best, when I’m out there, I’m a naturalist.           

My complete definition of a naturalist: A naturalist is someone who seeks experiences in the natural world with the main goals of paying attention, feeling, and/or learning without the primary goal of taking something.