Alumni guest blog by Kylie Denny: Have critters, will travel

Kylie Denny in Council, Idaho, tagging a Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel in 2021.

My love for wildlife research started as an innocent interest about a project I heard about during my junior year while studying animal behavior and environmental studies. Even though I might not have known it when I took the job, the summer I spent in Vermont studying grassland songbirds was the true catalyst for my career. Looking back at that summer I spent running around hayfields looking for Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows, it is hard to think that I could have been doing anything else. It seems that the pieces of my life have fallen into place perfectly, and I couldn’t be more pleased with the path I’ve been walking since that summer in Vermont.

In addition to my love for research, I also have a love for travel. It is almost like I get this itch that can only be scratched by exploring somewhere new. In some ways, wildlife research and travel are the perfect combination. Since I graduated in 2018, I have been working as a seasonal wildlife technician on various projects across the country. Most of the work I have done has been focused on songbirds, but in the past year and half I have started to branch out into game birds and small mammals. I always thought that I would not want to work with a game animal, but why? I didn’t have a good reason. It has taken me a couple years, but I have come to the realization that it is not necessarily the species that is important to me, but rather the question the research is purposing to answer. I think I could be happy studying just about anything as long as the research was meaningful and impactful.

A Northern Idaho Ground Squirrel.

In the past four years I have gained experience in various field techniques. I have learned how to band birds, nest search in various habitats, track animals via telemetry, capture grouse, trap small mammals, conduct vegetation surveys, and so much more. Additionally, I have learned how to manage large datasets, plan for and train large numbers of technicians, and how to communicate effectively with both the general public and the scientific community. It is safe to say that I have learned a lot in the past four years! Although it may seem silly, the intricacies of research are not the things that I value most about my time doing field work. With every project I complete, I learn a little bit more about the kind of leader I want to be. This is what I value most. It seems to me that almost anything can be accomplished with a good leader, from the trivial issues to the all-encompassing ones. A quote from my favorite book (The Way of Life) fully encapsulates the type of leader I aspire to be: “A leader is when people barely know that he exists … when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will all say, ‘We did this ourselves’.” Sometimes you have to learn this lesson the hard way, and boy did I learn it.

Kylie banding migrant songbirds that are crossing the Gulf of Mexico near Gueydan, LA in 2020.

Another lesson I have had to learn the hard way? Finding a balance between work and play. This is the thing that I have struggled with the most since I graduated and started doing field work. I have always been a hard worker that will stop at nothing to get the job done, and sometimes this quality can get the best of me. I cannot stress enough the importance of a work/life balance. I know firsthand how easy it is to get caught up in work. Although I am still trying to find the balance that works for me, I have come a long way! I make a point to take time for myself every day to do something I enjoy; I try to take most weekends off to go out and explore. This is something I would recommend to anyone, not just my fellow field biologists. Don’t forget to get out and have fun!

Given everything I have done since graduation, I feel that I am ready for the next step in my career. Within the next couple years, I hope to enter graduate school. Although I was not successful this year, I intend to apply to the NSF GRFP for next year to earn my own funding for graduate school. If I were to get the funding for next year, I would have the freedom to propose a study that is tailored specifically to my interests. This freedom is so compelling to me that I’m willing to wait to attend graduate school for at least another year. As for what I want to do after graduate school, I’m still not sure. And I’m perfectly okay with that.

Where it all began…Kylie with a male Bobolink in Shelburne, VT, 2017.