Observation in Science

American Kestrel (Falco sparverius)

Observation plays a very large role in the study of science, although it is often skimmed over in favor of experiments. What is the difference? In an experiment, you participate. You do something, change something, or test something. For observation, the goal is not to disturb or influence anything. Because of that, the skill of scientific observation can be very challenging.

Why? What is so hard about just observing something? You just sit and look, right?

Imagine that you wanted to observe the behavior of the kestrel in the photo above. What challenges would you face?

  1. To observe a kestrel, you have to find a kestrel. In some parts of the country, that is as simple as looking at the birds that perch on the power lines along a road. This is a favorite spot for many predatory birds, as it gives them a marvelous perch without blocking their view. Roads also offer lots of open space, making it easy to spot a mouse in the grass on the roadside.

    In other places, you may have to travel to an area where Kestrels are common. Or you may want to specifically compare the behavior of kestrels along roadsides with kestrels that hunt in natural habitats. That would mean finding a variety of locations where Kestrels hunt along roadsides and where they hunt away from roads.

  2. Once you find a kestrel, then you have to observe it without disturbing it or influencing it. That is NOT easy! Because these birds have excellent eyesight, sharp hearing, and are on that perfect perch that offers excellent visibility in all directions, it is very unlikely that you would be able to approach the bird without it noticing you. If it does notice you, you will influence the bird's behavior. Instead of focusing all of its attention on its normal activities (watching for food, watching for predators, paying attention to potential mates and rivals, etc.), it will now be devoting much of its attention to watching you. That changes its behavior, which in scientific observation is a bad thing.
  3. One solution is to find an area where the kestrel often perches, and then set up a bird blind. This is an enclosure where you can sit to watch the bird without the bird knowing you are there. Ornithologists usually set up a bird blind and then wait days or weeks to let the birds get used to it, and go back to their normal behavior.

    Once the birds are used to the blind, then you want to get into the blind at a time when there are no birds around. Ornithologists often get up before sunrise so they can be settled into the blind before the birds are active.

  4. Once you are in the bird blind, then it gets harder. You have to wait. And wait. And wait. It may take hours before a Kestrel decides to perch on the wire near your blind. You might sit there all day without a single kestrel coming near. While you are waiting, you have to be still and quiet. Noisily munching on potato chips, humming, or even scratching an itch can make a lot of noise. Also, if you can see out, then the wildlife can probably see in. Movement of any kind will catch their eye, which again is a bad thing.

    You also have to be aware of things besides motion and sound. What about smells? Many animals have a very sensitive sense of smell. Wearing perfume, eating a tuna fish sandwich, or just the normal smell of a human can disturb the wildlife.

  5. You are not just hiding from the birds. You are also hiding from all of the other animals. If you observe the behavior of birds, you quickly learn that those birds pay attention to other birds. They also pay attention to the rabbits, squirrels, and even the insects. If you startle a rabbit, you have just alerted every bird in the area that you are there. That means you have also changed their behavior.
  6. Once you have done all of that, the really hard part begins. You have to patiently observe the bird's behavior day after day until you gather enough data to learn something from it. Depending on what you are trying to learn, that could take years! Observation is a vital skill in science, but proper, scientific observation is not easy.