Posted by Josie Galbraith
What does it take to pull off a successful project in the urban jungle? The short answer is courage and people… pizza helps too. Last week I (along with my PhD supervisors) had a paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) – Supplementary feeding restructures urban bird communities. This was a big milestone for me, but also hugely important for getting urban ecological research and the practice of bird feeding into the spotlight. Urban ecology has only relatively recently become a thing – before then it was just a clandestine notion, whispered in dark corridors and laughed at at meetings of ‘real’ ecologists. Now though, the urban environment is a place where real ecological science happens. Bold, brave, big science! It certainly takes a great deal of courage to plunge into the ocean of urban ecological research. It is awash with houses, high-rises, industry, roads, gardens, parks, and of course people. As such, there are a myriad of challenges and barriers associated with working in these areas that just don’t exist in more natural habitats.
Native silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) at an experimental feeding station.
One of our experimental feeding stations, complete with antenna, in the garden of a volunteer household.
So how can we meet the challenges urban research presents, and make the most of inevitable time and funding constraints? Urban areas hold the greatest human resource of any habitat an ecologist will encounter – make use of it! There are plenty of keen folk willing and ready to get involved. In our study we recruited 24 householders purely through word-of-mouth and emails asking people to forward on our request. We had many more people respond than we needed, so could be more choosy with our property selection. What we were asking of these householders was pretty major – a 2-year commitment to an experimental feeding study, with those selected as “feeding properties” having to put out food for the birds every morning. We expected over the course of the project a number would find the study too onerous and drop-out. In fact, only one did. Our volunteer householders were brilliant to work with, and, while I did the key data collection, they provided plenty of additional observational information, which has been really valuable.
Urban areas are also fantastic fountains of goods and equipment, from pizza to nunchuks. We ecologists often need the weirdest things for our projects – we’ve all had those looks before at our local hardware store…
Ask and you shall receive! We found exactly what we needed for our study (a mountain of bread) by asking around.
Them: “Why do you need such a small piece of piping?”
Me: “I’m making an aspirator to suck up ants…”
Them: “Uhhhhh…*you’re so weird*…”
Local companies or businesses may be willing to donate materials support to the project, particularly if the things you need are someone else’s trash – off-cuts, end of lines, seconds. You never know what you’ll find, so it pays to ask. Our study required a mountain of bread (1580 loaves to be exact) – and we found one. Literally. A staggering amount of food gets wasted these days, and I didn’t want our study to be using food that could’ve been on someone’s plate. After a few phone calls we found what happens to our cities’ bread waste – it gets trucked to a food recycling factory before being turned into stock feed. The manager happily let us collect the bread we needed for the study each month – it was such a tiny fraction of the volumes that they process. Thanks Ecostock!
There are fascinating ecological things happening in our cities, and they are crying out for ecologist heroes to come and study them. Heroes that will boldly go where there are plenty of other humans. Heroes who will remember to involve their fellow humans and make use of all the resources cities have to offer. Heroes who are willing to push the boundaries, to redefine ecological science. Heroes that have the number for pizza delivery on speed-dial ‘cos you just never know when you might discover mutant turtles in the sewers…
Josie Galbraith is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Jacqueline Beggs and Daryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).