Kaitlyn Strickfaden

Kaitlyn Strickfaden, a research assistant at the University of Montana's Avian Science Center, is the lead author of a research paper assessing the accuracy of different wildlife survey methods. She and her team focused on two methods of reducing "false negatives" and "false positives" in counting songbirds.

Kaitlyn Strickfaden is the lead author on a paper just published in a peer-reviewed science journal. Not bad for someone barely a year out from her undergraduate career at the University of Montana.

Strickfaden, a research assistant at UM’s Avian Science Center, has been assessing the accuracy of different wildlife survey methods since December 2017. The results of her team’s research, which focused on different methods’ “false positive” rates, was published last month in the journal Ecological Applications.

“It's a long time coming, but it kind of needs it,” she said Friday. “There’s not really a lot of work that's done on false positives currently.”

Originally from northern Illinois, Strickfaden chose UM for its wildlife biology program. She soon got involved with its Avian Science Center, volunteering with research activities at the National Bison Range. A few weeks after that project ended, the Center’s director, Vicky Dreitz, offered her a position.

“A lot of the research here at the Avian Science Center, when we're looking at songbirds, is (walking through) about a 500-meter-by-500-meter area,” Strickfaden explained. She and her colleagues walk U-shaped paths, watching and listening for different species and adding up the totals.

“False negatives” — missed birds — and “false positives” — counted birds that aren’t actually there — can warp the conclusions they draw from these counts.

For instance, Strickfaden explained, “out of a flock of 15 longspurs, maybe we say that 10 of them are McCown's (longspurs) and then five of them are Chestnut-(collared longspurs), versus the reality where there were 14 McCown's and only one Chestnut, so then based on that ... we would be saying that there's a lot more Chestnut-collared longspurs than there really are.”

By the time Strickfaden arrived at the Avian Science Center, researchers there had been wanting to test whether different survey methods could reduce these errors. Its scientists typically survey in pairs for safety reasons, and they wanted to test whether having one person observing, and another recording then checking, gave fewer false positives than a single person would.

“There was actually quite a bit of it that happened before I was even a member of the Avian Science Center,” she said. Once she came aboard, she, Dreitz, and co-authors Danielle Fagre, Jessie Golding, Alan Harrington, Kaitlyn Reintsma and Jason Tack spent six months assessing the two methods.

They compiled audio recordings of 10 different Montana songbirds, then recruited 12 volunteer observers — six experts and six beginners — to listen to the compilations and survey the number of birds of each species. In some tests, just one observer carried out the survey. In others, two observers worked together.

“It turned out that the double-observer method reported significantly lower false positive rates in both expert and beginner observers,” she explained in an email, although the experts’ rates were far lower than the beginners’ rates.

The research confirmed what she and her colleagues had long suspected to be true — that two observers working together can give a lower rate of false positives than one. Her accomplishment has won praise from Dreitz, the center’s director.

“Kaitlyn’s persistence and tenacity is admirable,” Dreitz said in a statement. “Publishing her undergraduate senior research in Ecological Applications is an outstanding accomplishment and demonstrates her abilities.”

But Strickfaden hasn’t lost sight of her work’s limitations, or the ultimate goal. “Unfortunately, the false positive rates that I figured out aren't all that applicable specifically to field surveys, just because there's so many other things that affect a visitor's ability to detect birds such as the bird's behavior or environmental conditions ... So that's actually where Avian Science Center is going next, is figuring out how to get truth in field-based surveys as well.”

If “we're automatically getting better population estimates, that can lead to better and more focused conservation management for the species that actually need it.”

She won’t be around to help with those efforts at UM much longer. Strickfaden is planning to start working on a master’s degree at the University of Idaho in December and research how snow affects ungulate movement in mountainous areas.

But Strickfaden has no regrets about moving from the Midwest to Missoula. “I've loved every minute of it,” she said. “I love it out here in the Northwest, and there's a lot more opportunities for recreation, for going out and seeing amazing things versus being in a cornfield.”

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