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Meeting report – Long-term studies of birds

A joint BOU/EGI (Edward Grey Institute) conference,
University of Oxford, 11-16 April 2003
by Fiona Proffitt

This year, the BOU and Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology (EGI) combined their respective annual and student conferences to create a five-day session on the theme of Long-term Studies of Birds . The conference brought together 177 ornithologists from 19 countries, ranging in experience from students to 'old hands’.

The 16 plenary talks – delivered by a powerful line-up of ornithological heavyweights - convincingly demonstrated the value of long-term studies of birds. Fred Cooke kicked off on Friday evening with an inspiring account of how perseverance and ingenuity can overcome even the most daunting of tasks - in his case, revealing the bizarre biology of threatened Marbled Murrelets on Canada’s rugged west coast.

The following morning, Chris Perrins delivered the BOU’s Alfred Newton Lecture on the Wytham tit study which, having started in 1947, is in the premier league of long-term studies. It was a treat to hear this famous study described in Chris’ authoritative and quietly humorous style. Marcel Visser later went on to compare the effects of climate change on tit populations in Wytham, The Netherlands and Corsica. Other case studies ranged from Eurasian Sparrowhawks in Scotland (Ian Newton), Red Knots in West Africa and Europe (Theunis Piersma) and Common Guillemots on the Welsh island of Skomer (Tim Birkhead).

As someone who has played a small part in a few long-term studies, it was gratifying to hear not only how much they have informed us about particular populations, but how much they can reveal about fundamental issues in biology. This was the focus of Ben Sheldon’s and Ian Owens’ thought-provoking talks, which provided plenty of inspiration for future research, along with some persuasive arguments for those who hold the purse strings. Both gave examples of issues that can only be explored through long-term studies, including: senescence, population cycling and long-term variation in the strength and direction of natural selection. Ben argued that birds are 'the’ model system for studying evolution and showed how recent advances in statistics and genetics, coupled with a wealth of long-term bird data, allow us to explore interesting evolutionary questions.

However, given current obsessions with publication rates and citation rankings, the huge commitment of time and resources demanded by long-term studies can seem unattractive. In the concluding talk of the conference, Ian Owens produced a bold analysis of the economics of long-term studies, showing that they do pay off in terms of number of citations and accuracy of parameter estimates.

Other invited speakers provided some powerful examples of how long-term studies have been used to address applied problems, including: effects of shellfish fisheries on waders (John Goss-Custard); declines of Grey Partidges (Dick Potts), Stone-curlew (Rhys Green) and British songbirds (Jeremy Greenwood); and impacts of industrial fishing on seabirds (Sarah Wanless and Mike Harris).

On the fourth night of the conference, with most people suffering from information overload, Tej Kumar Shrestha entertained us with a refreshingly unorthodox talk on the birds of Nepal. After three days of hard-core science, it was great to hear Nepal’s natural wealth described in such colourful terms as “tropical birding honeypots” and (in reference to the Sarus Crane) “symbols of peace, harmony and good luck.” Tej’s enthusiasm for his country and its birdlife was plain and his talk provided plenty of incentive to see them for yourself.

Interspersed among the plenary talks were 26 student talks which covered a wide sweep of subject matter and provided a change of pace. Altogether, they spanned about 50 bird species from four continents – ranging from bustards of Africa to Streaked Shearwaters of Korea - and a diversity of fields, from biogeography to parasitology. The standard of presentation was impressive, particularly considering that over half of the speakers were not native English speakers and many were giving their first conference talk. Unfortunately, reluctance to use microphones meant that some were not audible, which was a great pity.

Two afternoons of workshops – covering ten topics plus a field trip to Wytham Woods – offered a welcome change from listening to talks and an opportunity to debate topical issues or learn a new skill. While presentation styles varied, most people found something of interest.

Thirty posters were on display throughout the conference, with a special poster session on Sunday night catering for those who like to discuss their work over a glass of wine. As with the talks, the quality of science, variety of subject matter and standard of presentation was extremely high.

One of the great features of this conference was that plenty of time was allowed between sessions for informal discussion and catching up (while topping up those all-important caffeine and blood sugar levels). These are often the most valuable times of all: a chance to make contacts that could change your career or help solve some research conundrum.

Talking to strangers became easier after a few drinks - the local pub and late night bar were packed with conference delegates on the final two nights with the Scandinavian and Dutch contingents impressing with their ability to turn up to 9am talks after late-night drinking sessions. The only formal social event of the conference, the BOU Annual Dinner at Somerville College, rated highly as a social occasion.

This conference was a departure for both the EGI and the BOU in terms of its length and timing. Judging by the comments on the feedback forms, delegates were divided on the convenience of an April conference and some thought it slightly too long. However, most agreed that it was an extremely well run and enjoyable conference. Will Cresswell (ex-EGI), Steve Dudley (BOU) and their assistants are to be congratulated in coming up with an excellent line-up of speakers and making such a large meeting run so smoothly.

Conferences have the potential to be incredibly stimulating, inspiring, fun and exhausting events. In my view, this one excelled on all four counts.

Taken from Ibis 145, no.4 (October 2003)

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