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Four and twenty blackbirds II

December 3, 2012

Things are beginning to fall somewhat into place. I’ve had a hectic few months but, not before time, I’ve really hit my stride with regard to my acoustic analysis. The issues that were debated in the literature a while back have, at least inside me, completely resolved themselves. And not a little of this is due to my blackbirds.

Despite all the controversies around measurement that threw me into a tailspin a while back, I have completed, absolutely completed, the acoustic analysis for five of my nine species, and I’ve made good inroads into the other four. I’ve taken another undergraduate student under my wing (!) to assist with my validations, which will be his honours project. Of five species that I’ve completed, I had hoped to be finished with them months ago, but the various methodological, technical and statistical issues, some of which I’ve alluded to in previous posts delayed progress to a frustrating degree. People tell me that all phds are like this, that this is the story of research. However, when time and funding are limited, it can throw even the most stoic of people into meltdown, and I’m not one of life’s natural stoics. Nevertheless, this chapter in my life is teaching me is patience, persistence and sheer doggedness to a level way beyond anything I had native in me.

Thus, my initial analyses became preliminary analyses, part of my learning curve rather than the end in themselves. My method and technique improved as I became more skilled and confident, and the subsequent data became essentially more valid and accurate as a direct result of all that initial struggle and labour. It was a lot of work. It could even have been soul-destroying, but I’m with Keats on this. Of course work, life, can be hard, and can be too hard as indeed it was in the end during that dreadful last couple of years of his life. But before that, in the late eighteen-teens, there was the fruit of his vale of soul-making: there was Ode to Autumn, and all the other wonderful lyrics, that emerged despite, because of, all the agonies of his young life. So, after all my work, what is this new version of my soul like? How is it different from before? Well, I know things, much more deeply than I did before. I am confident about what I am doing. I can defend my method. I have so intensely, meticulously, obsessively engaged with all the practical issues of my work that I am finally free to just do it; to be in the flow.

There’s also a concomitantly similar feeling to what I found towards the end of my fieldwork: all that laboriously-acquired skill that brings me to the point where I’m really good at this stuff, and suddenly, the end of the road is in sight. All that knowledge is bringing me to the place of its own redundancy.

Mind you, I don’t want to give the wrong impression. I’m not remotely finished. However, blackbirds are the last species on which I’m doing an absolutely full analysis. Without going into, I hope, too much detail, blackbirds are the last of my genus representatives. Of the three species that still remain after them, one, the robin, is a species I’ve already published work on (yes, the paper is online! As of 1st November. Check it out! ). Therefore I don’t need to do a full analysis on my current crop, as in some sense, all I’m doing with them is verifying my previous work. The two further remaining species are both congeners (ie, close relatives) of other species that I will have already analysed, so their singing styles and patterns are broadly similar to those species. Blackbirds are truly the last new territory that has to be explored to the fullest degree, and in that sense, after them, it will just be one long goodbye.

Thus, I’m feeling a little of the poignancy of that, heightened by the sheer enjoyment of being, as it were, at my very best with regard to the level of expertise I can bring to this particular analysis. Blackbirds are getting the benefit of all my cumulative technological and methodological experience, all the teething issues ironed out, while I get the benefit of exploring a new species, a novel song, that I’m able to bring all this hard-acquired knowledge and skill to bear on. I realise, even in writing this, that I’m actually having a peak experience. I’m getting to know blackbird song while I’m at my very best.

Also, because I recorded my blackbirds during the spring just past, ie, during my second field season, the recordings also benefited from all the experience of my first field season in 2011. I have a large sample size (turns out, ironically to be 24 rather than the 25 I’d thought in June, despite all my efforts to avoid that number!), and the recordings are of a high quality. Thus, while there is still a large amount of work involved – 2-3 individuals is about all I can realistically get through in a day – I’m on top of it. I’m getting there. I know what I’m doing. My previous scrupulousness has paid off. I’m actually free to enjoy this.

Anyway, I completed my fifth individual on Friday. Nineteen to go. However, I’ll be interrupted next week because I have the great pleasure of attending the ASAB Winter Meeting on Cognition in the Wild ( , at the Royal Zoological Society, London. And I mean just attend. I managed to wangle a small travel grant, but I’m not presenting, so I’m free to simply enjoy both the conference and London, which happens to be my favourite large city in the world (not that I’ve been to that many you understand, but why bother when London’s on the doorstep and why on earth look elsewhere given the breadth and depth of its stimulations and delights?). I attended the Winter Meeting for the first time last year, and it was a joy, both in the quality and variety of the talks, the intimacy of the venue, and the friendliness of the other conference-goers, both long-standing researchers and other students. So it’s little surprise that I can’t resist going back. I may even have time for a show, and a little Christmas shopping. Oxford Street I will avoid, as it would bring me out in a rash, but Covent Garden, the Seven Dials, Charing Cross Road, Leicester Square … just breathing that fume-laden air ….


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  1. You are on a good roll! It sounds like your hard work is paying off, you’re reaping both rewards and awards, and it sounds like you’re enjoying life. I am so happy for you. Love the title of your post…andI hope you get to see a show! Let us know! 🙂

  2. Dawnriser permalink

    I certainly will! I can’t wait!

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