Animals & the Environment: The Unlikely Paparazzi

by Savannah Troy

The study of animal behavior, or ethology, is a fascinating field. It is stunning to see the ways in which our human lives are both strikingly similar and amusingly different from those of other species. The most well known and publicly accessible sources of information on animal behavior are nature documentaries such as the Planet Earth series. However, the making of such documentaries is a true feat of photography skills and dedication. Hundreds of hours of stalking an animal and hauling film equipment into precarious, dangerous, and downright uncomfortable places are necessary to capture authentic footage of animals behaving in their natural habitats.

My paparazzo experience is a little different: I conduct behavioral ecology research on the Mountain White-crowned Sparrow (Zonotrichia leucophrys oriantha) at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory in Colorado. To gather my data, film equipment is the single most important tool I have. I am interested in the behavior of bird families at their nests: how often do the parents feed the young, what kind of noises does each bird make, what sort of drama unfolds in a day in the life of a sparrow? By using a GoPro and external battery rig, I film the nests for seven hours a day and have recorded some incredible things on camera.

One of the cutest interactions I’ve recorded is a mother bird entering her nest and getting settled to incubate her young. She fluffs up her feathers, sits over the top of the tiny babies curled together in the cup of the nest, and does a little shimmy back and forth to get comfortable. If it is a particularly cold day and she cannot leave the nest to get food for herself, the father bird will bring both her and the babies mouthfuls of insects. It isn’t always happy and familial, though- I have numerous clips of our nests getting eaten by rodents or weasels. The drama of seeing a weasel stalk up on the nest from behind, startling the mother bird off of it, and stealing little babies, is intense. On one nest, a ground squirrel came to steal the nestlings and we recorded the tiny mother sparrow attacking it- scratching with her claws, pecking, and flapping in an effort to drive it away.

None of these behaviors would be observable without a camera. Cameras, especially little ones, are the field ethologist’s godsends. They allow researchers to remotely monitor animals without actually being present and influencing the subjects’ behaviors. Plus, you can stick them in places that humans wouldn’t be able to sit and observe from-- my nest are typically in the base of enormous willow bushes, and we have to set the cameras between tangles of branches that conceal the nest from passers-by. It is without a doubt that technological development can be used to increase the connection between humans and nature: with more advanced photography and filming equipment, we are able to get more intimate glimpses into the lives of our fellow animals.

Hungry baby White-crowned Sparrows...these guys are only 3 days old!

Hungry baby White-crowned Sparrows...these guys are only 3 days old!