As researchers, scientists, and academics we rely heavily on peer-reviewed literature as a source to get information. Sometimes we forget that the general public, those that fund a majority of our research and have the powers as a whole to have a huge impact on our culture and environment, often don't know that this literature exists nor have access to it. As such, scientific research is mostly served to the general public in a pre-digested format - through popular or social media. This can be done really well, such as through the popular Quirks and Quarks CBC radio science show, or very poorly. As researchers, a way to invite a friendly hand to the public and share our findings is through plain language summaries. This is exactly what it sounds like, a summary of one's research in a way that can be readily understood. I told myself that whenever I created a website this was going to be a must, so here it goes! For more discussion and information on what a plain language summary is, visit Dr. Chris Buddle'sexcellent post on this subject.
Maladaptive habitat use of a North American woodpecker in population decline or A woodpecker species that is getting rarer appears to be making 'bad' choices as to where it nests
One of the largest and least predictable challenges that animals face today is the human-induced changes that are happening in the landscape. This includes not only being able to detect the changes that are continually occurring, but also to properly respond to these changes in such a way that allows for their survival. As ecologist we are often interested in understand how an animal uses its habitat, termed its habitat use; this is especially important for rare species so that their necessary habitat may be conserved and managed. Typically, an animal uses its habitat adaptively, in that it uses the habitat in such a way that increases its survival and fitness. But, there are cases where habitat use is maladaptive, or that there are aspects of how an animal is found in, or using its, habitat that is actually decreasing its fitness or survival. This typically occurs because the animal is misunderstanding or misreading signals about where is a good or bad place for it to live, or makes mistakes in the way it behaves. This can lead to an ecological trap, where an animal continually makes bad choices thus reducing its survival and/or fitness, without being 'aware' that it is making the wrong choices and thus is unable to adapt or change them. In our research we were interested in how the Red-headed Woodpecker is using the habitat during its breeding season in southern Ontario, and if it was using the habitat in such a way that was increasing or decreasing its chances in successfully raising its young (i.e., increasing or decreasing its fitness). As most of the southern Ontario landscape is no longer natural, but a landscape heavily altered by human presence and actions, we were curious to see if the Red-headed Woodpecker, listed as threatened in Canada, was making 'good' or 'bad' choices.
To answer our question we had to find Red-headed Woodpecker nests and see if the elements of the woodlots they were using (suggesting that they were 'choosing' those specific elements) was associated with the birds being successful in having a nest and raising their young, or not. Since it is difficult as a human to understand at what level in space is important to a woodpecker - is it the hole in the tree, or the tree itself, or whats around the tree that matters - we looked at several scales in space. For two summers, from 2010-2011, we monitored 60 Red-headed Woodpecker nests in Northumberland, Norfolk, and Elgin counties of southern Ontario. Once we found a nest we visited it every 2-5 days to check that it was still active. Bird nests can fail for many reasons, they are often destroyed by nest predators such as racoons, squirrels, or even snakes, abandoned by the adult birds for different reasons, or in the case of the Red-headed Woodpecker, they can be evicted from their nest hole when it it taken over by another bird, the European Starling. We recorded for each nest if it was successful (baby birds hatched and left the nest) or was unsuccessful (no baby birds left the nest). Then we measured several elements of the woodt they were found