Choosing choughs: how Dr Connie León's PhD led to the BBC

When ANU Fenner School Alumna Dr Connie León began lockdown 2020, she couldn’t have predicted she would be approached by the BBC to appear on TV, speaking to her research specialisation, during a pandemic. But with the help of a deft cameraman, Leon, who completed her PhD on the social structure of white-winged choughs with Professor Rob Heinsohn, made an appearance on Chris Packham's Animal Einsteins alongside five chough families.

“I was approached twice before the show actually happened.” Dr León explains. “The first time was around 2016, and they approached my supervisor, Rob Heinsohn who contacted me to set up a meeting. Production came to Canberra to meet the choughs, but they were not selected. I was contacted again a few years later and it also didn’t work out.”

But the tide turned in 2020.

“I had a Zoom meeting with a show researcher and the producer. I did my best to talk the choughs up as the most magnificent birds, which is how I honestly feel about them, to make sure they got chosen. I just really enjoyed the idea of other people getting to see how charismatic and funny they are, and this time it worked!”

Chris Packham's Animal Einsteins is TV program that explores the varied intelligent ways many species use skills to survive. Dr León and the choughs appear in episode 5: Con Artists. The segment discusses the way in which white-winged choughs live in closed, super-social groups, with a twist. 

Chough families comprise of a key breeding pair, and then a social network of up to 20 birds. This network of relatives is dedicated to working together to raise the extremely high-maintenance children produced by the breeding pair. When the work gets tough because of drought or shortage, young choughs from other groups are lured to join a rival family, to help redistribute the labour of raising chicks. To achieve a successful recruitment, choughs perform a dance, using feeding signals to lure youngsters from other families into the folds of their own.

The segment was three days of filming five different chough groups, which ended up appearing as five minutes of television. Dr León recalls that filming the choughs for the segment was one of the most-fun experiences she’s ever had.

“Because of COVID, nobody could come from the UK, so it was just me and a super-expert Australian cameraman, Ben Cunnigham. I helped him to record choughs’ sounds with a massive microphone that allowed me to hear the quietest calls choughs make. I was very nervous about my choughs not doing all the cool things I’ve seen them do, but they were great, and at the end I felt unexpectedly proud of them, in a maternal sort of way. I was also very nervous about the interview, but Ben was great and left it for the last day, so I was more comfortable talking to him. I have the best memories of those three days; even the weather was perfect.”

A photo of choughs being highly social, taken by Dr Connie Leon.

To study choughs, Dr León started off by studying a Masters in Environmental Science at The Fenner School.

“I heard of the Fenner School back in Chile when I was working at a Biodiversity Conservation lab. My supervisor and mentor there, Dr. Javier Simonetti, told me about the Fenner School, a place where environmental and sustainability issues were studied from an interdisciplinary perspective.”

As a biologist, Dr León knew she wanted to work with environmental and biodiversity conservation topics, but wasn’t sure how. As she progressed through her Masters at The Fenner School, Dr León began to notice how the School facilitated architects, sociologists, ecologists, and a range of specialists, to all work in topics related to environmental issues. “It was very exciting,” She adds.

Eventually, Dr León was introduced to the choughs toward the end of 2013. It was her first year in Australia and her supervisor, Rob Heinsohn, took her to look at some local chough groups for a short Masters project.

“Rob was the most supportive and encouraging supervisor I could’ve asked for. I was instantly hooked by the chough’s charismatic behaviour, how they all seemed to move together while “talking” to each other.”

Moving on from her Masters and doing a PhD with the choughs, she fell in love with them.

“I’ve always been fascinated by social animals, and I had to observe groups for hours at a time, recording all interactions between group members, which was so interesting and heartwarming. The way they take care of each other, preening and feeding not only their young ones but everyone in their groups, it’s just wonderful to witness. That made me want to learn more about how their populations and groups are composed, and how they are affected by their environment.”

Dr León’s PhD project specifically examined the genetic population structure of choughs, looking at how groups are genetically related and dispersed, and how ecological factors such as climate and urbanisation impact the birds’ social lives.

“Even though my PhD was very focused on behavioural ecology - which was a course I took during my Masters that I loved - I always kept the environmental focus on, and asked questions about, how urbanisation and climate change might affect choughs’ social structure. That’s why when I finished my PhD I decided I wanted to focus my work in helping protect our environment in some way.”

As a result, Dr León has started working in the ACT Government, at the Office of the Commissioner for Sustainability and the Environment.

“I feel really lucky to have a job where I get to do investigations about sustainability projects in Canberra (a city I love!), working alongside passionate people that have my same interests and motivations.”

She’s clear, though, that the choughs will always hold an important place in her research story.

“I always think of them.”

Sounds like she’s been recruited.

Photo of choughs taken by Dr Connie León

Updated:  31 May 2021/Responsible Officer:  Director, Fenner School/Page Contact:  Webmaster, Fenner School