“Noisy starlings and roaming cows” My time as a research assistant in the mountains of Madrid

Back in January of last year, I decided to scout around for research assistant positions so that I could gain some useful field experience ahead of starting my PhD at the University of Glasgow. I was lucky enough to be accepted as a volunteer on a cool project investigating a colony of spotless starlings (Sturnus unicolor) in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountainous region of central Spain. Here’s a (very long overdue) post about my experiences!

Hatched in 2002, the starling project is lead by senior researcher Diego Gil from the Behavioural Ecology and Endocrinology group at the Museo Nacional de Ciencias Naturales (Natural History Museum of Spain). Located in a quiet woodland about an hour’s drive from Madrid, the fieldsite for the project is home to a colony of spotless starlings. Using a network of around 250 nestboxes, each year Diego’s team follow the starling population and use them as a wild model system to investigate questions on avian breeding strategies, behavioural patterns, parental care and physiology. Interestingly, in Diego’s fieldsite area the nestboxes are the limited resource, and so they are often fought over – making nest sabotage a common occurrence!


Photo credit Jacinto Oliveira

Spotless starlings are similar in size and appearance to your standard Eurasian starling, but (most of the time) aren’t spotty. In general, a starling pair has two clutches of eggs per year during the breeding season from March to June. Usually, the first clutches are very synchronised across the colony over a few days, and the second are spread out over a couple of weeks. I arrived in June for the second brood, when many of the clutches were in different stages of development. A typical day out in the field collecting data involved a mixture of the following tasks: locating nestboxes and checking these for hatching eggs, taking the colour of eggs using a photospectrometer (as an indicator of parent health), changing batteries (2 kilo bricks) on microchip readers, welcoming hatching chicks to the world, weighing each chick and inevitably, being pooped on. When the chicks reached two weeks of age, they were ringed by a licenced person and additional measurements were taken such as body weight, leg length and wing length, as well as blood samples for paternity analysis.

Baby birds, how cute!” Well, in my opinion, these chicks looked like feathered aliens and had comically large beaks – like most young birds! Some of the chicks also screeched like banshees as soon as you took them from the nest. It was painful.

Aside from checking nestboxes in the day, we also took several night treks through the field with the goal of identifying which individuals were the parents. As the adult birds are chipped, individuals could be identified by carefully scanning the box with a reader while the female is inside. The microchips also allowed for daytime activity patterns to be recorded by readers, so data can be collected on parental care. Sadly, by arriving for the second brood, I had missed the fun of catching, ringing and microchipping the adults at the beginning of the season (but you can read all about that on fellow volunteer Simon’s blog here!). As you can imagine, traipsing around the fieldsite at night involved a lot of tripping on roots and rocks, remaining wary of nearby roaming cows, blinding teammates with your head-torch, all whilst trying not to think about escapees from the nearby prison.


During my visit I stayed at El Ventorrillo, a charming little house and field station in the middle of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains for museum researchers. The house came with a nice housekeeper who always talked to me in Spanish but more often than not received my confused expression in response (sorry María Jesús!), and also some cow neighbours who occasionally turned up at the front door. The humans staying at El Ventorrillo were all zoologists of some description with a broad range of interests – from phylogenetics of cave-dwelling crustaceans to salamander host-parasite dynamics, lizard biogeography and of course, the starling team. Most of the residents spoke Spanish, and/or English, and as the only non-bilingual person in the house this was a stark reminder for me of how priviledged I am to have English as my native language. Here I also made a promise to myself I would make a good effort to improve on my Spanish…


Just your average visitor to the house

For me, the best thing about living in a house full of zoologists was the shared fascination of creatures weird and wonderful. One particularly memorable occasion was when a group of us went out at night to find an uncommon moth native to the Guadarrama region, Graellsia isabellae (or “Spanish moon moth”). After clambering over train tracks at the nearby station (near the floodlights was our best bet at finding the moths), we managed to find a male and a female!


Ok, I admit we didn’t find them on the same tree.

Whilst in Spain I was lucky enough to see a lot of wildlife, including but not limited to: a family of greater spotted woodpeckers, bonelli’s warblers, a European bee eater, griffon vultures, black vultures, many white storks, azure-winged magpies, golden oriole, red kites, hobby (or a hobbit, as Diego pointed it out as!), wall lizards, natterjack toad, common frog, roe deer, a baby smooth snake (my first snake find!) and countless insects I wish I could name.

If you are in a similar position and are heading towards doing a PhD, or if you would just like to work with wildlife, I’d thoroughly recommend taking some time out to volunteer on a research project abroad. Along with copious insect bites and bruises, I have also gained valuable experience doing field research, met some inspiring researchers, made great friends who have given me some very useful tips for the future, plus I even got a bit of a tan (which has long since disappeared living in Glasgow…). Moreover, I have fallen in love with the Spanish culture (especially the food and wine) and as a result will definitely be back again, pronto!

More information on Diego’s  starling project here: http://www.behavecol.es/en/research/spotless-starling-sturnus-unicolor-breeding-colony~3

Information on the Behavioural Ecology and Endocrinology Group: http://www.behavecol.es/en

Madrid Natural History museum website (Spanish): http://www.mncn.csic.es/


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