Postgraduate Lives: Niall O'Dea, conservation biologist at Oxford University

'Give me the sound of a toucan'
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The Independent Online

I always wanted to be a biologist. My mum says my first word was "cat", way before I said "mum" or "dad". I love the outdoors, animals and nature. In the school holidays, I went to biology camps, where I spent hours putting nets into mud and seeing what bugs I could catch.

I'm from Newfoundland, Canada, and I did my BSc in biology, primarily looking at marine conservation. At the same time, I did a BA in philosophy; I've always been torn between the humanities and the scientific side of my personality.

After my degree, I did voluntary work in the Caribbean on fish conservation and then got a Rhodes Scholarship to study at Oxford. For my MSc dissertation, I worked in Ecuador, looking at the effects of small-scale agricultural practices - such as slash and burn - on bird communities. Slash and burn means cutting the forest down and burning the land to open it up for agriculture. It's the most pervasive form of habitat destruction in the Andes.

My research was focused on what is known as cloud forest, where it is very humid with a huge amount of rain and a lot of cloud cover. It's phenomenally good for a wide variety of plants and animals and it's a habitat that is disappearing faster than any other on earth. For my DPhil, I'm looking at strategies that can be used to select areas where birds can best be protected. I'm now funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

I spent four months in Ecuador, based first in Maquipucuna and then in Mindo, one of the best-known places in South America for birds. Spending most of my time with the birds didn't give me quite the chance I'd hoped for to practise my Spanish, but I did learn about 200 bird calls. Even now I listen to CDs of bird calls as I travel around England by train.

I was a project leader, I had a field assistant and an Ecuadorian guide. Other people volunteered to come out and help - I believe this was because of the area's charisma rather than mine. An avid birder came from London, and some friends came out from Oxford to help me with data collection. I had them tramping through the forest, measuring trees. Now I spend most of my time in Oxford, sitting in front of a computer, doing data analysis. Writing up the research is the less fun bit, but then it's not easy getting up at 5am to tramp through cloud forest either.

If I had to choose one favourite bird, it would be the plate-billed mountain toucan. On a misty morning in the Andes, with the sun just rising, you can hear the sound of these birds calling to each other from miles away, and it echoes across the mountains.

caitlind1@aol.com

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