Backyard Behaviorism: Creating Science Fair Projects in Natural Settings

In a previous commentary I described an experiment in which response keys and a food delivery device was set in a window such that any free-ranging pigeon who happened by could peck the keys and gain access to a little snack to tide her over to supper. Over the course of the project, several of these pigeons learned to peck the key and would “hang out” around the feeder, working away for short durations of food access. Now that the school year is underway again, kids’ and parents’ thoughts turn to (among other things) projects for that upcoming science fair. The scientific study of behavior offers endless possibilities for such projects, and our Avian friends inhabiting your backyard are a ready source of behavior. Now I am not advocating or encouraging budding behavioral scientists to set traps and capture said critters. Quite the contrary! It may be illegal, and if it is not it is at least a very bad idea on many levels. Besides, observing animals behaving under natural conditions with minimal human contact requires little more than some patience and ingenuity. Here are a couple of ideas to get you and yours started.

When I look out my back window, aside from the beauty of a forest behind my house, I see a birdfeeder surrounded by birds and a sometimes more squirrels than I care to think about. For this commentary, let’s focus on the birds. I’ll write another about squirrels in the coming weeks. Birds of several species are always hanging about our backyard feeders, but I have never actually done a count of the number of birds at the feeder at different times during the day. My informal observation is that there are more in the early morning and just before dusk, but as any scientist worth her salt will tell you, hunches, guesses, and hard data are not the same. What about different species of birds? How many? Which ones? Do they feed at different times? How long does each species feed, on average? Does feed time differ as the seasons change? Does the number of birds showing up for a meal change with the seasons?

Questions like the ones above are strictly observational in nature – that is, we aren’t changing anything, just measuring behavior as it occurs without intervening to influence behavior one way or the other. Some of the best science is strictly observational (think of astronomy), and you can both learn a lot about behavior and glean good ideas for actual experiments (where you do change things to see what will happen) by carefully observing what animals (and people) do under natural conditions.  

If you want to manipulate variables, as we say, there also are many simple things to do with birds around your feeder. What happens if you change from one type of food to another? (The first question here is how would you compare the two? For a hint see this Behavior Watch commentary on baselines.) If you have two feeders with different types of food in each, do the birds deplete at the same speed? Or what happens to the number of birds that appear at feeding hour over, say a week, if you remove all the food from the bird feeder, something we call extinction. Obviously the number of birds will decrease, but how rapidly does this occur? Quickly or over several days? What would a graph of the number of visits plotted during the first hour of extinction, or across several days look like? What if you only make the feeder available at feeding time, but always play some soothing music whenever the feeder is available. What happens if you then play the music in the absence of the feeder? This would tell you something about conditioned reinforcement, about which you can learn more by searching for this topic on the web.

You can see that all of the problems in the preceding paragraph require several steps, including developing a precise definition of what you are measuring, deciding on how you will assess the reliability of your observations, and how you will decide on whether or not your intervention has really changed behavior. These are common themes in behavioral research, regardless of where it is conducted and what population is studied. But, if you want to learn about science, and especially the science of behavior, the birds in your backyard can teach you a lot.

Strike out on your own and come up with a question that interests you. And by the way, if you send me a description and the results of the final performance (including a short video if your project lends itself to doing so) of any such backyard behavior project you complete, I’ll do my best to post it on Behavior Watch.

Posted by Andy Lattal, Ph.D.

Dr. Andy Lattal is the Centennial Professor of Psychology at West Virginia University (WVU). Lattal has authored over 150 research articles and chapters on conceptual, experimental, and applied topics in behavior analysis and edited seven books and journal special issues, including APA’s memorial tribute to B. F. Skinner.