Clever crows!

Clever crows

Back in October I was staring out of the window of the office that I share with my colleagues, something I often do when I’m pondering a question or trying to add a tick to our “Birds Seen Out of the Window” list*, when I spotted something odd.  A pair of crows had focused their attention on a brown patch of lawn and appeared to be eating the grass.  I’m not much of a birder but I do know enough about crows to realise that grass is not a regular feature of their diet.  The same behaviour was observed a few other times after that, and on other occasions magpies were seen doing the same thing.  What could be going on?

Once I’d taken a closer look at the patch of dead grass the explanation was clear.  During our first year undergraduate induction week about a month earlier there had been a barbeque set up on that spot which had leaked hot fat onto the grass.  What the birds were eating was dead grass coated in lard, a useful source of fat to store for the cold conditions of the oncoming winter.

That’s one of things I love about urban birds such as corvids and gulls: they are adaptable and will exploit any resource that becomes available.  But how had they located the patch of fatty grass?  Were they simply exploring the lawn and stumbled across it by accident?  Seems plausible especially as they often feed on earthworms on the adjacent parkland.  Could they smell it?  The acuity of birds’ sense of smell has been the topic of considerable debate, but that’s certainly a possibility.

I was reminded to post this (originally half-written before Christmas) by a story on the BBC news website this morning about a young girl in the USA who receives gifts from the crows in her garden.  If you’ve not read it, please do: it’s a wonderful example of positive interactions between humans and the rest of biodiversity.

Crows (and other corvids) get a bad press, being often described as “evil” (surely a term that only applies to humans) and blamed for the demise of “nicer” birds – a reputation that is not completely justified, as a recent post on Kaeli Swift’s crow research site demonstrates.

So, learn to appreciate (even love) the crows in your local neighborhood; they will reward you with some entertainment as you watch their behaviour, if not necessarily with gifts.


*currently standing at 19 species and rising every month.


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, University of Northampton, Urban biodiversity

Building a blog readership takes time

Blog stats figure

This morning I had a very constructive meeting with some colleagues to discuss setting up a new blog/podcast series for the university.  It reminded me that I wanted to post something about how long it takes to build up a blog readership , specifically in the sciences.  The figure above shows the monthly number of views of my blog from its inception in March 2012 up to January 2015.  The line is a second-order polynomial, just to aid interpretation rather than to make any kind of statistical inference.

For the first year and a half of the blog’s life, monthly views were typically in the range 200-400, occasionally getting as high as 600.  Only after that was there a trend of increasing numbers month-on-month, but even that was not consistent, with some periods of low readership.  In part this relates to how frequently one blogs: more frequent = more monthly views, and I have been posting more often of late.  But that’s only part of the story and the figure also demonstrates that it takes time to build a readership for a blog.  For example, 4 posts in March 2012 attracted 402 views; the same number of posts in April 2014 received 1,469 views, and 2,120 in December 2014.

A lot of scientists (particularly early career) are starting to blog, sometimes because they think it’s the right thing to do: they see others doing it, and it’s encouraged by funding agencies, etc.  Sometimes these blogs are very successful; other times they falter after a few posts, perhaps because the writer loses interest.  I’m not in a position to offer much advice about blogging as I’ve only my own experience on which to draw, but I would say that it requires persistence: don’t assume that you’re going to get a big audience from the start, it takes time to build a readership.


Filed under University of Northampton

Evolving a naturalist – happy birthday to me!

Jeff in the tee-pee

Somehow, today is my 50th birthday.  So I thought I’d mark it with a short post about my personal evolution as a naturalist and, ultimately, professional scientist.

One of the great things about the internet and social media such as Facebook is that you can make exciting discoveries on a weekly basis.  Recently I found out something that means a lot to me on a very personal level: I discovered that a family* who lived in the same street when I was growing up in Sunderland in the 60s and 70s have digitised some old home movies and made them available on YouTube.  In our digital age in which every phone and camera can capture and share events as they happen, it’s sometimes easy to forget that owning a movie camera in the 60s was quite a rarity and the majority of kids living at that time were never filmed.   

These movies are exciting not just because one of them shows me aged about 5 years (in the blue shirt) playing with friends (I’m there from 3’53”) but because it documents, in colour and moving pictures, one of the reasons why I became a professional naturalist with a deep fascination for biodiversity. 

The grassland in which we are erecting a tee-pee is not some country meadow, the kind of wild rural landscape cited by so many other naturalists as inspiring their childhood fascination with natural history.  These grasslands had arisen spontaneously on cleared demolition sites, following the removal of Victorian terraced housing and tenement blocks, some of which were slums and others that had suffered bomb damage in the Second World War (now that does make me sound old!)

Up until the 1950s this area had been very built up, with the houses, shops and pubs serving the local families who were employed mainly in the shipyards and coal mines to the north of the town.  You can get a sense of how urban it was from this 1898 map of Southwick; the places I refer to are just south-west of The Green to the left of the map. 

Following demolition the sites were left to their own ends, and were colonised by plants, insects, birds and mammals from patches of habitat closer to the river that had either been cleared of buildings earlier in the century, or which had never been built upon at all.  There are some nice areas of magnesian limestone grassland nearby along the higher banks of the River Wear valley, and typical calcicole plants such as Greater Knapweed (Centaurea scabiosa) could be found on these post-demolition grasslands.  In fact, in the absence of horse chestnut trees, we used to play a version of conkers using the unripe seed heads of Greater Knapweed.  Was that an echo of earlier children’s games in Britain, prior to the introduction of horse chestnuts in the 17th century?  Apparently similar games were played with snail shells and hazelnuts.  

If you watch the opening minute of this piece of footage from the same series, and ignore the girls posing and playing in the foreground, the background reveals a rich flora of plants, with butterflies hopping between flowers.  The first bird species that I can remember identifying, and being fascinated by its bright colours, was Goldfinch (Carduelis carduelis) feeding on the seeds of tall thistles in the very area where this was filmed.   The first butterfly that I could put a name to was the Small Tortoiseshell (Aglais urticae), also feeding on thistles, but this time on the nectar-rich flower heads, as a pollinator.  We’d collect its caterpillars from the nearby nettles and raise them in jars.

So you don’t have to have had a rural upbringing to appreciate and benefit from nature, and to later influence your profession and passions, any piece of land can inspire interest in kids, regardless of its origin, if nature is left to colonise. Unmanaged, semi-wild green space within towns and cities has huge value, both for wildlife and for the culture of childhood.  They need to be protected just as much as rural nature reserves, including the generally disparaged but actually biodiverse “brownfield” sites, as Sarah Arnold has discussed in a recent blog post.

Some of the riverside grasslands still remain and I hope that they are fascinating new generations of kids with their colour and diversity and flouncing butterflies. But the post-industrial grasslands on which I played and looked for bugs and flowers are all gone; they were cleared and built upon in a flurry of housing and retail development in the 1980s.  Perhaps in the future they may return if those buildings are themselves demolished and the land allowed to lie undisturbed for a while.  That is what nature does: it ebbs and flows across our landscapes in response to human, and natural, interventions, endlessly changing and endlessly fascinating to the curious minds of children and scientists, no matter how old they are.


*My sincere thanks to the Scrafton family who took the original footage, made it available on YouTube, and gave me permission to use it in this post.


Filed under Biodiversity, Biodiversity and culture, Birds, Butterflies, Personal biodiversity, Pollination, Urban biodiversity

Data I’ll never publish 1: flower production and plant size in Lotus corniculatus

Lotus flower production graph 1991

For reasons that will become obvious next week, I’ve been in a reflective mood recently and this first in an occasional series of posts about “data I will never publish” is one of the results of that reflection.

When scientists have been doing research for a few years, most of them start accumulating a back-log of data.  In some cases this is data that may be published in the future (for ecologists that means long-term data sets, which I’ve talked about before) but other data may be fragmentary or simply too limited to be publishable.  Good data are hard won and I never, ever discard data: you never know when it may come in useful.  So in this series I will present such scraps of data that I know I’ll (probably) never publish.  Their purpose is to illustrate interesting points, to stimulate discussion and ideas, and hopefully they might even be of use to other researchers in one way or another (I’m happy to share the raw data, just drop me a line).

This first data set was collected in the grasslands of Wytham Woods in 1991 when I was a research student.  It subsequently ended up being used in my PhD thesis and in one of the papers that resulted from it (Ollerton & Lack 1998) but not quite in this form, rather embedded within larger analyses.  The graph above (click on it for a more detailed view) shows the relationship between individual plant size (measured using a calibrated non-destructive biomass index that I developed) and total flower production for that year, in the plant species Lotus corniculatus (Fabaceae), commonly known as bird’s-foot trefoil.

This plant is a herbaceous perennial grassland species which can live for quite a long time (at least 50 years).   The data show that plant size and flower production can span 5 orders of magnitude – the maximum number of flowers produced in one year by a single plant in this population was over 13,000, which is astonishing for a low-growing grassland species!

I’ve used this figure in undergraduate lectures as it illustrates several important points about many plants:

  • in theory, there is no upper limit to the potential maximum size of plants.  As long as they have appropriate growing conditions and are not limited by weather or disease or herbivory, they will continue growing.  That’s because they are modular, constructed of iterations of basic units of the plant “body”, and show indeterminate growth.
  • likewise, there is no upper limit to the number of flowers that can be produced because each modular unit can itself produce one or more flowers.
  • plants can be very plastic in their response to the environment.  The data form two clusters; the lower one (smaller plants) is from a sub-population that grew in a grassland that had never been fertilised.  The upper cluster (larger plants) grew in an adjacent area that had previously been an arable field and in which there were still fertiliser residues present in the soil.  The smaller plants are likely to have been older than the larger plants, but the latter had more soil nutrients on which to draw.

The following graph illustrates the same plants but this time it’s the relationship between biomass and number of seed pods produced.  Still a linear relationship with no sign of a plateau; female reproduction in these plants just goes on and on (as, of course, does male function via pollen dispersal.

Lotus seed pod production graph 1991

This is one of the things that I love about plants: they are so flexible in their response to growing conditions!


Filed under Biodiversity, Pollination

Student field trip to Summer Leys Nature Reserve – birds, bins and biting winds!

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Field trips are a vital component of any university degree course that includes within it elements of ecology, organismal biology, geography or environmental science.  Learning about the natural environment via lectures, books and seminars is one thing: experiencing it first hand is quite another, and adds significantly to a deeper understanding of complex environmental issues such as nature reserve management.  For that reason at the University of Northampton we’ve always strove to maintain as much field experience as possible within our degree programmes, including long field courses to the South-West USA and Tenerife (as I’ve previously documented), day trips to places such as Wicken Fen, and shorter sessions in and around our campus.

An annual winter visit to Summer Leys Nature Reserve has been a feature of our first year undergraduate teaching for many years, and focuses on the bird life to be found in this flooded and restored gravel pit.  Of particular interest at this time of year are the over-wintering waders and wild fowl, for which the reserve has been designated Site of Special Scientific Interest and Special Protected Area status.  The latter is a European-level designation which reflects the international importance of the Nene Valley for bird life.

This year’s trip took place on Thursday, which was initially bright but cold.  The field trip is not compulsory so many students decided not to turn up.  Those that attended had a great time walking the circuit around the reserve, visiting the bird hides, and learning the intricacies of both duck identification and how a site such as this is managed.

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As we walked and recorded I kept a running total of the birds that we identified. Highlights included three Great White Egrets standing together on one of the islands, the greatest number I’ve seen at one time in the county, and an indication of much more common these spectacular birds have become in the last decade, as county bird recorder Mike Alibone has discussed on his blog.  They have bred in Somerset since 2012 and hopefully will do so in the Nene Valley in the not too distant future    You can just make out the birds in the centre of this image:

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Another highlight was the large number of Bullfinches that we saw foraging along the paths and in the low trees, at least 20, all of which were females.  Some were very confiding and we could approach them to within a couple of metres, such as this one:

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Ducks were plentiful, with good numbers of Wigeon, Gadwall, Tufted Duck and Mallard, fewer Shoveler, a couple of Goldeneye, and a single Pochard.  There were also large flocks of Lapwing and a couple of unidentified waders, possibly Redshank.

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The final total of birds was a respectable 39 species and our half-day trip ended as cold winds brought in heavy cloud, rain and then finally a sudden fall of snow. By which time we were back in the warmth of the campus, enjoying a cup of tea and catching up with emails.



Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, University of Northampton

Bumper Big Garden Birdwatch this year!


As I posted yesterday, this weekend is the RSPB’s Big Garden Birdwatch, the world’s largest wildlife-watching event, and one that’s been running for 36 years.  I completed my hour of surveying between 09:04 and 10:04 this morning, and it’s been a bumper year!  Armed with a notebook, binoculars, and a cup of coffee, I recorded all the different bird species I observed in the field of view from the tall silver birch to the left across to the patch of brambles on the right (my “garden”, as you can see, encompasses parts of my neighbours’ gardens too).

In 2013 (the first year I did the BGBW at this house) I recorded a disappointing 6 species; in 2014 it was 8 species; this year it’s been a whopping 15 species!  They were (in order of first observation, with numbers of birds):

Robin – 1

Collared dove – 3

Chaffinch – 4

Dunnock – 3

Magpie – 1

Blue tit – 4

Coal tit – 1

Lesser redpoll – 4

Blackbird – 4

Greenfinch – 5

Carrion crow – 1

Great tit – 2

Wood pigeon – 2

Goldfinch – 4

Blackcap – 1

Not bad for an urban garden!  Did you do the BGBW this weekend?  How many species did you count? Was it a higher count than last year?


Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Gardens, RSPB, Urban biodiversity

Big Garden Birdwatch this weekend

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This weekend the RSPB will be running its annual Big Garden Birdwatch, a great example of citizen science in support of biodiversity monitoring.  No matter where your garden is or how small it might be, if you have time, please do get involved.  Even a return of zero birds is useful information because it tells us where birds are not occurring.

As I have for the past couple of years since we moved into this house, I’ll do my hour of watching on Sunday morning from the bedroom window.  Hopefully the current cold weather will persist and bring birds into the garden that are normally found out in the wider countryside.

Happy birding!


Filed under Biodiversity, Birds, Gardens, RSPB, Urban biodiversity

Garden chickens and biodiversity – some thoughts

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Keeping chickens as a hobby is very popular at the moment and many gardeners are finding space for a few chooks in their own patch.  It’s been particularly trendy amongst urban gardeners, ourselves included: we have a run with 6 hens that make us self sufficient in eggs and chicken shit (the latter a vital addition to our soil’s fertility).  They are also fascinating, relaxing animals to watch as they go about their chickeny business of scratching, pecking, clucking, and dust bathing.  They are intelligent, social, inquisitive birds, that I’d recommend to anyone who has the space to accommodate a decent sized run and (importantly) the time to look after them.

There are plenty of magazines, books and websites offering advice on keeping hens on a small scale.  One of the most active and interesting blogs is The Garden Smallholder which generally has some good advice and ideas.  Back in November, however, a post about preparing a new kitchen garden caught my attention, specifically the fact that the writer’s chickens were let out onto the plot and that:

Chickens are great at scratching and turning over soil with their enthusiastic feet, and excellent pest control too

Let’s think about that last point, that chickens provide “excellent pest control”.  It’s a statement that I’ve seen repeated many times in books and articles, and it usually doesn’t solicit any comments.  But the logic behind it is that hens can differentiate between “pests” and “non-pests” in a garden, that they will gobble up the slugs and cutworms, leaving behind the worms, beetles, spiders, and other beneficial (or neutral) invertebrates.  This is nonsense, of course: chickens will eat anything they find and do not differentiate between the different elements of soil biodiversity*.

For this reason we don’t allow our hens to free range on our vegetable patch: we want to keep the soil’s fauna intact, allowing the earthworms to aerate and turn over the soil, let the beetles eat the slugs, give ground-nesting bees some space in which to live, and so forth.  A few weeks of digging with chickens present would destroy all of that.

The vast majority of invertebrates that live in the soil are not pests and a significant  proportion are certainly good for our gardens (particularly the earthworms and carnivorous beetles).  Allowing your chickens to feed freely on these animals will significantly reduce your soil biodiversity, which is a bad thing in its own right (if we accept that these animals are a measure of your soil’s “health” and productivity), and could reduce the numbers of invertebrate-eating wildlife, such as thrushes, hedgehogs and toads, visiting your garden.

If you want your chickens to eat garden pests my advice would be to take the pests to them: scoop up several slugs with a trowel, throw them into their run, and watch the birds excitedly scramble for their treat.  But remember that slugs play a positive role in the garden too, demolishing huge amounts of garden waste in compost bins and (in our garden) eating up cat shit.  That’s a topic for a future post though.


*I made a comment to this effect on the Garden Smallholder post but the blog owner saw fit not to allow it to appear.  Draw your own conclusions from that.


Filed under Bees, Biodiversity, Birds, Ecosystem services, Gardens, Personal biodiversity, Urban biodiversity

What do academics do once the research is published?


At the University of Northampton we run a programme of generic training workshops aimed at research students (MPhil and PhD) from across all disciplines.  I contribute to several, including one called “Getting Published”, usually run with my colleague Professor Ian Livingstone.  This focuses on academic papers/articles (phraseology varies with subject) and covers all of what you might expect such a workshop to feature, including asking about motivations for wanting to publish research*, when is the right time to publish your research**, issues about co-authorship***, and so forth.

One of the key aspects of the workshop is a flow chart of the process of getting published, beginning at “do the research”, moving on to writing it up, choosing a journal, submitting to a journal, peer review, dealing with reviewers’ comments, writing a covering letter, coping with rejection, re-submission to the same or a different journal, celebrating acceptance, etc.  All fairly standard stuff.

By this point we’re about three-quarters of the way through the workshop, so I ask a question:

“OK, you’ve gone through the whole process (which can take anything from months to years) and your paper has been published.  You’re very pleased, of course.  What do you do next?”

Responses at this point are typically a blank expression, or perhaps “What else is there to do?  The paper’s published, we’ve done our job.  Move on to the next”.  In other words, the general feeling seems to be that the process stops when the research is published.  I politely suggest that this is not so, that you’re still only part-way through the process, and explain why, starting with this table:

Clinical:                                  48.9%

Biological Sciences:           37.8%

Environment:                       37.3%

Physical Sciences:              42.3%

Social Sciences:                   55.4%

Business:                                57.2%

Humanities:                          77.5%

These figures are the percentages of un-cited research papers (in 2005, by broad discipline) published in the UK for the period 2000 to 2004.   The total number of un-cited papers is 122,771****.  There are other similar statistics available, some with broader time windows, but they all point to the same conclusion: in all disciplines, a high proportion of research papers are never referred to by other researchers in the field.  And in some disciplines it’s the majority of papers.

That’s not to say that the research is no good, or even that it’s not being read, but it’s certainly not being cited.  Citation is not the only measure of the “quality” of a piece of work of course, but it at least indicates that peers have read the work, and citation is central to a range of widely used metrics, including the h-index.

This usually comes as a shock to the postgrads, as it does to many established academics!  The low average citation rate of papers is mainly a response to the sheer volume of research currently being published, as I’ve discussed previously in relation to the field of pollination ecology.

How do researchers in a field decide which papers they are going to read and/or cite, and which they ignore?  It’s been suggested that academics often have quite conservative citing patterns, referring again and again to the same work or authors in their own papers.  How can a researcher break through this conservatism and have their own work cited?

One answer is to promote your work after it’s published and the workshop offers some ideas on how to do this:

  • Send PDFs of your papers to other researchers, whether you know them personally or not.  I’m always happy to receive copies of papers that I might otherwise miss.
  • Deposit copies with your institutional electronic repository (at Northampton that’s NECTAR)
  • Tell the world about it using social media, either general (Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn) or academic (ResearchGate,
  • Send announcements to email discussion groups in your field
  • If you blog, write a post about it (as I did for the pollinator extinctions paper last month)
  • If the work is particularly novel/important/high impact, consider writing a press release with your institution’s press office, or at least a news item on the website.
  • Consider writing up your research as a non-academic piece in a magazine or newspaper for a wider, public audience (see comment below)
  • Present the work (and cite it) at conferences & seminars (the old fashioned way…..)

This kind of “self promotion” is anathema to some academics, for reasons that are not clear to me but may relate to misguided notions about sullying the purity of their work with grubby advertising, something that’s been discussed over at the Dynamic Ecology blog.

But if you don’t promote your work, no one else will do it for you!  Doing research and writing books and papers is a creative endeavour just as much as any of the arts or music.  Would we expect an artist to not advertise the work they do?  Or a musician to keep compositions to themselves.  No, they have exhibitions and concerts, and use advertising in all its forms, to promote their work.

Ultimately a piece of research is only as good as its reception by the audience at which it’s aimed: some brilliant research findings have been ignored for decades because it had disappeared into academic obscurity.  This is likely to happen even more in the future, I’d suggest, given the amount of work that’s being published.

Do you have other strategies for promoting your work?  Or do you disagree with some of what I’ve said?  Feel free to comment, I’d be happy to hear from you.

*”earning money” occasionally pops up as a (naive) reason, so we have to point out that academics rarely get paid for their academic publishing, other than (meagre) book royalties.

**As soon as is feasible, even if it’s a short literature review.

***Make sure everyone, especially supervisors, is clear about which work will be co-authored, which will not, and why.

****Source: PSA target metrics for the UK research base, Office of Science and Technology, DTI (2005)


Filed under History of science, University of Northampton

Did you remember to thank the insects for Christmas?

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This year I decided not to re-post my traditional “Thank the insects for Christmas” piece, in part because I don’t want to bore the good readers of this blog with too much repetition, but also because the idea has been taken up by the Urban Pollinators Project at the University of Bristol, and developed into an infographic (on which I advised) that you can view here.  The BBC News Website used the information for a nice article called “The insects that made Christmas“.  So look back on your Christmas dinner, if you had one, and give thanks to the many invertebrates that made it happen!

The other reason for not doing a full re-post of that piece is that I was feeling worn out by a long university term that ended not with a whimper, but a stressful double-bang of publication of our pollinator extinctions paper (and the associated media interest, which I may talk about early in 2015) and the release of the results of the Research Excellence Framework, which I coordinated for my department.  We were pleased with the outcome, with over 40% of our research papers rated as “world leading” or “internationally excellent”, and most of the rest being “recognised internationally”.  For a young, mainly teaching-focused, non research-intensive institution such as the University of Northampton (which doesn’t enjoy the facilities and funding of older, larger universities), that’s an impressive result.

A final bit of news is that this blog made it onto the MySciBlog survey 2014, by Paige Brown Jarreau (Louisiana State University) who asked more than 600 science bloggers “to list up to the top three science blogs, other than their own, that they read on a regular basis”.  The initial results can be found at Figshare, and I’ve inserted network graphic below (click on it for a larger view).  The size of a node is proportional to the number of respondents who read that blog regularly and my blog is part of the green section near the top, tucked just under the dominant Dynamic Ecology.  It’s gratifying to know that other bloggers are reading this in significant numbers!

Thanks to everyone who has read my blog over the past year, particularly those who have commented on the ideas and information I’ve presented: best wishes to you all for 2015!

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Filed under Biodiversity, Ecosystem services, Pollination, University of Northampton