UNNC graduate’s regional research on barn swallows wins high praise

Kuiran Zhang, a 2020 Environmental Sciences graduate from University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC), took one year to find and observe almost every barn swallow nest within her study area, a 18km * 5km rectangle across the Yinzhou district of Ningbo for her thesis research, and obtained the highest dissertation score in the School of Geographical Sciences of the year.

Kuiran Zhang

Now moving on to pursuing an MSc at the University of Michigan, Kuiran plans to work with the Bird Migratory Research Team at Peking University to expand her research scope during her break.

Kuiran’s interest in birds developed from her volunteer experience for the “Birds in UNNC” exhibition on campus in 2018, which aimed to raise students’ awareness on bird and environmental protection. She chose birds as the theme of her graduation thesis in year three, hoping to study the impact of habitat and human activities on the diversity and population of urban birds.

Kuiran made little progress in her dissertation at the beginning, because the very first topic she chose involves huge amount of observation sites, high observe frequency. Anxiety caused by approaching deadlines frustrated her and made her ill. However, it was a trip to hospital that gave her new inspiration – the unusual behavior of barn swallows in the downtown area made her rethink the factors that influence nest site.

After conducting background research, Kuiran found a research gap and changed her research direction. Her new research focuses on barn swallow nest distribution patterns along a suburban-to-urban core landscape gradient. “I chose Yinzhou district because it has developed rapidly since its establishment, starting within Ningbo’s urban core and extending out into agricultural areas,” she explained.

To fully understand barn swallows’ decision and obtain first-hand data, Kuiran visited every street and tried to find every nest in her study area. She also picked two nests to carefully observe the inhabitants’ lives, trying to interpret factors influencing swallow parents’ choices from their perspective.

Despite the inconvenient transportation and dialect barriers, she successfully collected the data of 169 nests. After thorough data analysis, she discovered that barn swallows favour older building blocks, and insect traps within radii of 500m will attract denser nests. Landscape variables “length of road” and “length of river” predict colony size more accurately in large scales than in smaller scales, and Length of road within radii of 750m explains the most variance in colony size.

As her research was completely original without many precedent cases to refer to, Kuiran was a little nervous at first. However, she was happily surprised by the high praise from the entire supervisor board.

“The loveliest thing about Kuiran’s dissertation was that it was obviously a piece of work which she had loved and enjoyed doing. The breadth of the research, the range of methodological approaches used, and the level of original thought, really made her dissertation shine. It was a total joy to read,” said Dr Odette Paramor, her supervisor.

An external examiner called it “truly excellent” after reading all the first-class dissertations from School of Geography across the three campuses, and said that it had been his favourite dissertation of the year.

Currently studying in the US, Kuiran still keeps close contact with Dr Paramor, and is preparing to send this dissertation to academic journals.

Looking back on the whole research process, Kuiran was glad that she persevered to the end, overcoming various obstacles that arose and accumulating experience step by step. “Doing things I love makes every effort meaningful,” she recalled.