News - November 28, 2013

‘Keeping the police on your side with cigarettes’

Who? Thomas Lameris, student of Forest and Nature Management
What? Research on the behaviour of the black lark
Where? Kazakhstan

‘This spring I went to Kazakhstan with a fellow student, Thijs Fijen, to do research on the black lark. The research was for Thijs’s thesis and I went along to help, partly because I speak Russian. We studied the behaviour of the black lark on the steppes of Kazakhstan. The bird is unique to Kazakhstan and southern Russia. The interesting thing about it is that the females pile up dried cow and horse manure around their nests. The aim of our research was to find out why they do that. We tested several different hypotheses that could possibly explain this behaviour. One of them was that the manure might protect the nest from being kicked over or plundered. In the end it turned out that the main purpose of the chunks of manure was to provide protection against the cold north wind. It is good insulation material.
To collect the data we raced around the steppe for two months in our Lada Niva, looking for nests and then monitoring them. That meant driving the same circuit every two days, which we’d had enough of after a while. At the start it was very cold and often frosty at night. Later it warmed up and the steppe became green. But that brought in huge clouds of mosquitoes. Something went wrong with the Lada every day, really, and we often had to clear a pipe from the petrol tank using grass stalks. And on one occasion we had to wait for days for a spare part for the car.

The people of Kazakhstan are very relaxed, but you do need to be able  to speak Russian. And it is a good idea always to have some cigarettes on you to keep the police on your side. We had to bribe them several times to avoid paying even more in fines. This happened again when  we checked in for our flight and our visas were apparently all wrong. Luckily, that could be solved with a fine too. And we caught the flight   in the end.’

Would you like to know more about the research results? On 30 November, Thijs Fijen will be giving a talk on the black lark: