A yellow-bellied sapsucker held in a hand
Yeah, apparently “yellow-bellied sapsucker” is an ACTUAL bird name and not just an insult exchanged between Old West gunslingers. Photo: Andrew Burchill

Ahhh, to the seasoned ornithologist—of which I definitely am one—the morning chorus of birdsong is as familiar as an old friend. There, can you hear that cooing? That must be a dove.

And what about the high-pitched, chirpy noise?  Because of my very experienced ear, I can clearly tell, um, that… it is… probably a songbird? Yes, a… red-headed songbird. Very common in these parts, I must say.

Oh, and you’re curious about that twittery, raspy, whoopy thing too? Uhhh… a fluffy-backed–no, a horned… um, I think it’s called a.. rough-faced… bush-babbler.

About me

Okay, listen: I, Andrew Burchill, behavioral ecologist that I am, may or may not be an ornithology expert. In fact, I may or may not know anything about birds whatsoever. Yet I am here in Houghton, Michigan to suss out the secret mechanisms that build bird communities on Isle Royale National Park.

Normally, I live as a PhD Candidate in Arizona studying the collective foraging behavior of ant colonies. (Essentially, I ask how huge families of ants manage to coordinate healthy meal-planning and grocery shopping.) I spend most of my time staring at these tiny black ants, wondering what they’re doing:

Although studying ants and birds is clearly different—you know, with the feathers and the beaks and what have you—all science is rooted in data. Years of teaching myself statistics and analyzing gigantic datasets have made me a whiz at examining data.

About Isle Royale

Isle Royale National Park is—you guessed it—an island, or technically a series of islands in Lake Superior. Ignoring its rich and varied history, I can say that Isle Royale is basically a big, mostly-untouched island full of birds and moose and beavers and (kinda) wolves. Every ecologist will hear about this special place during their education. The island has functioned almost like a giant, contained lab experiment for the last 60 years, where scientists monitored how predators (the wolves) interact with prey (moose). But because of inbreeding, the wolf population essentially dwindled away, and efforts are ongoing to transplant more wolves to the island.

an intern points off in the distance towards Isle Royale
Please disregard this poor man humiliating himself by trying to frame the incredibly distant, unseen Isle Royale. Photo: Kelly B.

Although technically considered a part of Michigan, Isle Royale is much closer to Canada than anywhere else. In fact, the NPS headquarters in Houghton is a six-hour ferry ride away from the island! It certainly isn’t the easiest place to get to. As the Isle Royale staff like to say, it is the least-visited but most-returned-to national park in the lower 48 states.


About the project

And speaking of “least-visited,” I personally have not yet actually been on the island yet. Because of COVID, both the official housing on the island and the official ferry to the island is operating at half-capacity. But that’s okay because there is still PLENTY of data that needs to be analyzed!

Dedicated volunteers have been surveying breeding birds every spring since the mid-1990s. They walk specific trails, pausing at pre-defined spots and listening for bird calls. Unlike me, they are so experienced that they can identify the species based on the songs and calls around them. It’s my job to take this mountain of data and uncover how the bird communities on Isle Royale have been changing over time. This is especially important, because bird populations across North America are plummeting. My work will let us know if the songbirds in this amazing national park are also in danger!

Published by Andrew Burchill

As a biologist, data scientist, and public land enthusiast, I am very excited to work with Isle Royale National Park this summer. In fact, becoming a government scientist is my main career goal! I see this as a wonderful way to continue my love of field work, data analysis, and public outreach. I am currently finishing up my PhD work on collective animal behavior and complex adaptive systems at Arizona State University. My thesis focuses on how teams of ants, without leaders or language, manage to cooperate to solve very complicated challenges. Although I will never rescind my view that social insects dominate the terrestrial biome, I am ready and eager to start studying animals that I don’t need a microscope to look at… in this case, birds! I can’t wait to start digging through the decades of bird breeding data that has been collected at Isle Royale.