Student-written bird blogs tie experience to scientific literature

Rice University students wrote many of these bird entries, including the top posts on red-shouldered hawks and starlings. Some had to revise them considerably before I felt comfortable posting them. Others seemed to be natural writers. Here are the instructions that generated these great entries. I plan to do more of this with our wonderful Washington University in St. Louis undergrads, once I figure out the birding scene. I found the FAQ format of the assignment to be very effective.

Rice University EBIO 337 2011 Bird blog assignment

There are three of these due at 11:55 PM, 7 February, 23 March, and 6 April, to be turned in through Owlspace Assignments. Turn them in early since we can’t take late assignments. Save your work! Computers break, hard drives fail, flash drives get run through the washing machine. Use Dropbox, or an online back up, but do it wisely, or the ether can gobble your stuff up! Of course, if you are not very busy right now, you can simply turn in all three assignments way early, and just enjoy the rest of the course. All are now open on Owlspace. Also, at the same place turn in the PDFs of the papers you used for your report.

Each is worth 15 points.

The point of the assignment is for you to tie field observations of one species of bird to refereed scientific literature on that bird and write an engaging and scientifically accurate entry that people will enjoy reading. We will post all the good ones on a new blog, slowbirding.wordpress.com

What is refereed scientific literature? Refereed scientific literature is published in journals like Animal Behaviour, Behavioral Ecology, Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, Evolution, Ecology, Auk, Wilson Bulletin, Science, Nature, and Waterbirds and can be accessed through Web of Science, http://apps.isiknowledge.com/WOS_GeneralSearch_input.do?product=WOS&search_mode=GeneralSearch&SID=2CD28PDbNIni5EG2Dgj&preferencesSaved=/ , or Google Scholar, http://scholar.google.com/ . Note that you can only use Web of Science from on campus. Look at Wikipedia or Cornell’s Birds of North America AFTER, not before you have done your assignment. They are like blinders that keep you from seeing the cool stuff in the original literature. If you know more about your bird than Wikipedia has, become a contributor and update the Wikipedia site.

What should I search for to find cool stuff about my bird? You’ll get a lot more stuff if you search for the scientific name, and not the common name. I searched for Zonotrichia albicollis and got a more than when I searched for white-throated sparrow.

What should go in the observation section? Watch the bird or birds for at least 10 minutes. A couple of hours would be better, but we won’t necessarily have time for that on the field trips, so watch less time if that is your only opportunity to watch. We encourage you to hang back from the group and watch your bird. Just be sure you can catch up. Call me on my cell if you get lost (832-978-5961). Write down everything the bird is doing. Where does it go? What makes it move? Does it interact with other birds? What is it eating? Is it easily spooked? Is it singing or calling? What makes it start and stop? Where does it call from? What is the general environment around it? If you see your birds on more than one occasion what connects them? What do you think about it? Make it personal and engaging. If you have already read some of the scientific literature, it will help your observations.

What should go in the literature section? This is the main part of the blog. Here you have learned something cool about your bird, and you share it in an engaging and scientifically accurate way, written for the non-scientist general public. Be sure your paragraphs are in a nice order, and you have transitions between them. Sure fire topics are things like mating behavior, parental care, migratory behavior, conservation issues, territoriality, songs, social behavior, foraging behavior, interesting physical traits. This is not a boring catalogue, but a selective discussion of interesting things put in context. You can also talk some about the researchers and the field site. I always like to have some numbers, not just generalizations. Mention the year of the study, where it took place, and give some key numbers. Be sure to put the scientific name of the bird somewhere in there. Look at the example!

What should the title be? Blogs live or die by their titles, tags, and links. So the title should be fun. It must include the common name of the bird. Capitalize only the first word of the blog. Bird names are not capitalized.

What kinds of figures do I need? Figures make a story come alive. They should illustrate the key points of your piece. You should have a couple of photographs of the bird. Habitat photographs are also good. Capture at least 2 graphs from the primary literature and put them in your blog. Take no more than one graph from any one article, and this should be all right under fair use rules. The photographs must be from open sources if you don’t take them yourself. Check under Wikimedia.

Where should the figures go? The figures should go at the end, after the references. Each one should have a clear caption that says what it shows, and where it came from. The reason we don’t put them into the text is that some browsers don’t handle that very well, and make things harder to read.

What should I link to? Links make your blog part of the community. Link to the web pages of the researchers you are studying. Link to the field site where their work takes place. Link to the journals you used to do your research. Link to important things you find.

What should go in the references section? Use at least 5 refereed references. Because this is a blog, we aren’t putting references in the text, just at the end. They should follow the form at the end of the paragraph. They should be linked to the actual article, or the PubMed or Google Scholar version. Be sure to include the universal locator, the doi. Annotate the bibliography by putting a comment after it, as in this example. Use exactly this format for the references.

Formica, V. A. and Tuttle, E. M. 2009. Examining the social landscapes of alternative reproductive strategies. Journal of Evolutionary Biology 22:2395-2408. doi:10.1111/j.1420-9101.2009.01855.x

This paper explains the different places the two morphs nest, and discusses the significance of having two strategies.

How can I get more insight into my bird? Go to the web pages of some of the authors. They may well have some nice explanations, and might have photographs they would let you use. Just be sure to do this AFTER you have read the primary literature, and do not copy content or structure of any work found here.

Can I have a friend read over my rough draft? Absolutely, yes! This is crucial. You can trade with others in the class and read each other’s. We will not post inferior blogs on the website, but you can fix them up for posting. Try to get as many people as possible to read and comment on your entry before you turn it in.

How many times will I have to revise? If you want your entry posted on the Slowbirding site, you will have to revise it until I am happy with it. It could be once or 20 times. I will read and reread as often as necessary. Just try to pay careful attention to my comments each time.

What are the plagiarism rules for this assignment? You may not plagiarize. This means you may not use the words or paragraph structure of another in your entry. If I see your entry has exactly what is found at Wikipedia or Birds of North America Online, I will send it straight to the Honor Council. By the way, see how much more boring the entry for White-throated sparrow is on Birds of America online than what I wrote,. It’s here: http://bna.birds.cornell.edu/bna/species/128/articles/introduction/

We want your entries to be fun, to be read by birders that only count, haven’t learned to watch.

Is there an example of this unusual assignment that I can follow? I have posted an example on white-throated sparrows at http://goodbyehouston.wordpress.com/ and will post others. Any bird I do is subsequently off limits.

When do I pick my birds? Now! If you tell me what bird(s) you will do I will put your name down, and I will not do them. You can reserve all three birds now, or wait until the field trips. If you reserve them, be sure they are common enough that we are guaranteed to see them. You have the list for the first trip and should email me now with your choice, as several of you already have. Only 2 people can do the same bird.

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About Joan E. Strassmann

Evolutionary biologist, studies social behavior in insects & microbes, interested in education, travel, birds, tropics, nature, food; biology professor at Washington University in St. Louis
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