Interlude: Wait.. what?!

Research can involve a lot of reading — especially when you find yourself in a new field of study that has a long history, which means there is a substantial pile of previous research to catch up with. While my current project uses methods that have only been developed over the past few years, some of the study species have been observed for decades, and various fundamental aspects of their behaviour and lifestyle are exactly the things people were describing in the early studies.

Over the past two years, I have read (parts of) hundreds of scientific articles about all manner of vaguely related subjects. For some of these, I have looked back at particular sections so often that it’s perhaps only a matter of time before I can quote them from memory! Others I have only quickly glanced over, and sometimes I find myself reading something, only realizing when I’m already halfway through that I had in fact read it before…

Especially when browsing a lot of text for something specific, most of what you encounter is not particularly memorable. It all just blurs into one, all irrelevant for one reason or another: wrong species, different context, outdated method, and so on, and so on, and.. wait, what? Did I seriously just read that?!

Case in point:

Royama, T (1970) Governing the Hunting Behaviour and Selection of Food by the Great Tit (Parus major L.). Journal of Animal Ecology, Vol. 39, No. 3, pp. 619-668.

Yes.

Moreover, these larvae were not particularly distasteful to the human tongue

In the middle of a perfectly unassuming text about some small birds and the various insects they have been observed eating, Mr. T. Royama included a little throwaway line about, apparently, having tried some of these caterpillars for himself too. Nowhere in the 50-page text could I find any further reference to the culinary experiments that led to this conclusion. Although the article has 561 citations at the time of writing according to Google Scholar, I can find no further references to this particular peculiar line anywhere on the web.

Earlier this year, I have tried to reach out to Mr. Royama’s last known place of work and listed email-address, but with no luck. Given that the above is already half a century old and some of T. Royama’s articles predate these, there is a chance this intriguing opportunistic insectivore is perhaps unfortunately no longer alive, although he at least appears to have authored an article as recently as 2017. I have now tried to contact one of his last known collaborators, in the hope they might have any means of contacting him. Within seconds, I received a reply: “I will be away from my office for an extended period. For important matters, I can be reached at […]”. I guess this doesn’t *quite* qualify as an “important matter”, so I will simply wait and see.

Maybe whatever happened in the woods near Oxford during the 1960s will simply remain a mystery forevermore…

A brood of Parus major chicks — the more usual consumers of caterpillars.

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