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Fieldwork in East Africa: Cooperative Breeding in Superb Starlings [Video]

By Christopher Sayers
Superb Starlings help each other raise young in the unpredictable climate of East Africa, an intriguing behavior known as cooperative breeding.

In April, 2018, I  traveled to the Mpala Research Centre in central Kenya as part of an Ivy Expedition, along with three other Cornell students—Facundo Fernandez-Duque, Rachael Mady, and Sarah Toner. Our mission was to collect photographs, videos, and audio recordings of species underrepresented in the Cornell Lab’s Macaulay Library. But we also met up with Shailee Shah ‘14—a Cornell alumna and current Columbia Ph.D. student who is studying the fascinating breeding ecology of Superb Starlings.

Our team filmed Shailee throughout several days of data collection in the field with the ultimate goal of creating a short film about her work. One of the most challenging parts of the filming process was actually getting good footage of Superb Starlings—the focal species of the film! It seemed as if whenever we would finish setting up the camera and tripod to start recording, the flock of starlings would immediately fly out of frame. It was almost as if they knew we were trying to film them. Fortunately, Shailee was a much more cooperative subject as she answered our questions and described the nature of her work on cooperative breeding.

After returning to the U.S., I turned to producers in the Cornell Lab’s Conservation Media program for mentorship as I edited this piece together. I learned to use robust video editing software and bolstered my skills in multimedia productions; I hope to keep improving these skills as I move forward in life. As an emerging scientist myself, I hope to show my audience about the wonders of pursuing field research, and aim to inspire young scientists to follow in Shailee’s footsteps.

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American Kestrel by Blair Dudeck / Macaulay Library