How to Choose or Refine a Good Cam-Testable Question

May 18, 2018

So you’ve identified some questions that you think could be answered with cam footage. How do you decide which ones make the best questions for an investigation?

Will the answer provide interesting or valuable insights?

Would investigating the question yield new insights about birds? How excited are you about investigating the question, compared with other questions?

Is the question specific enough?

Broad, open-ended questions are often the first ones to surface when brainstorming. For example, “Who does more work during nest-building, the male or the female Red-tailed Hawk?” In order to begin to answer this question, you need to define what “work” means.

Are you interested in determining how much nesting material the male or female delivers to the nest, or should you consider measuring the amount of time each bird spends physically constructing the nest? Once the question becomes specific, it will be easier to decide what you need to measure.

Is our question measurable?

How would you go about collecting data to answer the question? For example, asking “How many prey items does a Red-tailed Hawk catch over the breeding season?” is an example of an unmeasurable question because the tools (i.e. the camera) won’t be able to capture all of the data (i.e. prey items over the breeding season)—we can only observe the prey items that are delivered to the nest.

If you focus a question on what happens at the nest: “How many prey items do Red-tailed Hawks feed to their chicks during the nestling period?” it becomes more measurable.

How much time do you need to answer the question?

You also need to consider if we have the amount of time needed to gather the information to answer a question. You might be interested in investigating if the frequency each chick gets fed changes as the breeding season progresses; however, most good scientific questions look for answers within a particular time frame. By defining the time periods of interest, it’s more straightforward to design an investigation capable of answering the question.

We can modify our earlier question to something with clearly defined time constraints, such as “Does the frequency of feeding attempts for each chick change from the first week after hatching to the second week after hatching during the 2018 Red-tailed Hawk cam breeding season?” By outlining the time periods of interest, we can determine when to make the measurements that will help answer our question.