Checking Boxes: A Statistician in the Field

For nearly my entire life, I have lived within the home range of the Southern Flying Squirrel. However, if you asked most folks I grew up with or people around central Pennsylvanian, you’ll find is it rare to find anyone who has seen or even heard one. It’s likely they had no idea it was even a possibility! Growing up, I certainly never hear of any Southern Flying Squirrels in the woods surrounding our home. And perhaps it’s all this newfangled statistics knowledge making room in my brain by dumping stuff from undergraduate courses, but I also don’t really remember talking much about them in the Mammalogy course Rachel and I took where we were supposed to be able to ID EVERY Kentucky mammal. That course was a doozy – do you know how many little brown bats there are?! (Editor’s note: So many.  But they are in danger!)

Earlier this year instead of spending my day as I typically do (on campus working on research) I was able to join a fellow #StatStud graduate student, tagging along with her father out in the local wilderness. Steve Eisenhower is Regional Director for Natural Lands’ New Jersey preserves but since his daughter has joined the statistics department he has also expanded his work in New Jersey monitoring flying squirrel and kestrels into central Pennsylvania. These additional boxes have been added through his own personal volunteering efforts, in partnership with Shaver’s Creek, a resource for the community, and as a field laboratory for Penn State students to get hands-on experience teaching about the natural world. The extra opportunities to observe these species add to the general knowledge for conservationists, an they are a great opportunity for science outreach in these areas.

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Getting to the flying squirrel and kestrel box locations was much easier than I anticipated. As an undergrad, going out to switch out batteries and memory cards on the bird/frog call recording boxes out on the WKU biology department run Upper Green River Biological Preserve was an all day event that included lots of canoeing and traipsing through stinging nettle. This time around, I got to spend most of the day eating snacks and driving across central PA.  Our first few boxes were located within Shaver’s Creek. In addition to housing the most adorable bundles of fuzz, the flying squirrel boxes allow for better monitoring and understanding of these critters that often glide under the radar (hashtag sorry not sorry). In central PA it’s possible to encounter both Northern and Southern species. One question these boxes can help address is how these species’ ranges are shifting with global climate change. It’s thought the Northern squirrels are moving further south and observations at different locations can help to find answers. (I’m sure there’s also a lot going on with genetics – how different are species, populations, etc.)

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The kestrel boxes we visited were located on two farms, locations that  are not only ideal for attracting kestrels, which require open habitat, but also great for an extra opportunity to engage the community. You might see these fierce birds quite often, but having a family of them in a box on your land brings that extra sense of responsibility and involvement. These visits were a little more involved as chicks need to be banded. Bird banding helps to monitor Kestrel survival and movement. The age of chicks during banding is important. Ideally the chicks would be about 17 days old (squeeeee!). Too young and there is risk to their survival. Too old and they might start getting too sure of themselves and TRY TO FLEDGE TOO SOON.

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At the first box we got to see the mother fly off, annoyed at our intrusion. But the chicks weren’t ready. Cute, but not ready.

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At the second box the owners of the farm joined us and we all got to experience the banding process. These chicks were juuuuuuust right.

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One thing I left behind when switching to statistics is field work. I certainly do not want the early mornings, the long hours, or the permit acquiring headaches (I do, however, get plenty of coding related headaches…). I worry sometimes I am moving too far away from the beauty and excitement of it all. I don’t want to lose my scientist roots or my connection to the curiosity that spurs from exploration. Days like this do so much to refuel my Get Outdoors tank as well as motivate me to away say yes to learning more about how we observe and understand the world around us.

Hundreds of kestrel chicks were banded in Pennsylvania this year. I got to help with 7 of those chicks. At the start of the day I had zero knowledge about flying squirrels. Now I have seen one and learned enough to help get even more people excited about the sneaky critters that may be closer than they think.

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