Getting ready…

Suddenly it seems like everything is happening at once. The project for which I spent months measuring museum specimens has abruptly transformed (with the help of some key collaborators) into analyzable data, with statistical models and graphs and potential paper titles. The start of the field season, so far away for so long, is next week. And I’m giving a guest lecture to a large class today, which, although I’ve done it before, has been the occasion for some minor panic on my part.

After all this I will relax with some Sanderling bowling.

After all this is over, I will relax with some Sanderling bowling.

Continue reading

Spend your weekend watching these live bird cams

First, and undoubtedly oddest, is the Piip Show, which is a “bird reality show” (read: livestream from a birdfeeder shaped like a bar) from a Norwegian television network. Apparently this is an experiment in “slow tv,” which I did not know was a thing. Follow this link and click the red arrow in the bottom-left corner of the picture to watch live, or scroll down a few lines to watch a popular clip (the birds are at the end of the clip). As an American, I’m enjoying watching the exotic-looking-to-me birds like Blue Tits. Thanks to Rachel for the tip!

The Decorah Bald Eagles are back, and as I type this, a very small small grey-fuzzed chick is struggling to get out from under its rather bemused-looking parent.

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains a number of excellent bird cams. My recent favorite has been the Laysan Albatross one on Kauai, HI, not least because the time difference means you can watch it in daylight even when it’s quite late for you if you live in the continental US. Also, the chick looks like a wet mop. The chick is named Kaloakulua and was recently identified as female. Sometimes she is visited by nonbreeding adult albatrosses doing lovely practice courtship dances, and it’s interesting to see how long the chick is left alone as the parents forage: sometimes they don’t return to feed her for weeks.

Continue reading

Safe behind these castle walls, eggs: how birds’ nests protect their precious contents

Recently I was lucky enough to spend some time in Spain, where the land is dotted with hilltop castles and the winding narrow streets of the old cities are encircled by sturdy stone walls. I crouched behind crenellations, pretending to be a bowman awaiting attack, and climbed dark winding staircases glad that no defending army waited at the top.

Winding staircase in the Olvera castle. Photo by Q. Stedman

Winding staircase in the Olvera castle.
Photo by Q. Stedman

It’s exciting and romantic to imagine castles and walled cities in the flush of functionality, but it’s hard to ignore that the motivating force for those structures was real, unromantic, gut-knotting peril and fear. The people who lived in those cities put up thick stone walls with their hands because they thought other people were going to come and unromantically kill them—which they sometimes did.

Gulls standing guard over Tarifa.

Gulls standing guard over Tarifa.

When birds build nests, they’re responding to that same threat. Eggs and baby birds are easy targets for anything from mice to snakes to deer to toucans. To keep them safe, birds too rely on stout walls, secret passageways, and defending armies.

Continue reading

Why be shaped like a snake? (Also, weasels)

Here’s a puzzle: you’ve gone to all the bother to evolve fins, then limbs, and then even limbs with all these complicated joints and toes and whatnot—and then you lose them. Limbs all gone.

You're just a head and a tail now. Why, corn snake, why?

You’re just a head and a tail now. Why, corn snake, why?

This seems counterproductive, to say the least. Yet it isn’t just the snakes going in for the serpentine body plan: caecilians, amphisbaenians, and legless lizards lost their legs, too, and they aren’t evolved from snakes—these limbless animals all lost their limbs independently.

To understand how being snake-shaped might be adaptive, we’ll also consider some animals that are almost—but not exactly—snake-shaped: the mustelids, or weasels.

Least weasel. Photo by Sergey Yeliseev*

Least weasel. Photo by Sergey Yeliseev*

Continue reading

What we know about one nest

On July 1, 2013, we caught a female junco who we banded MABY.



An already-banded male, ARKM, seemed very upset about this. Sometimes juncos do hang around when we band their mates—it’s rather sweet to see them reunite when the banded birds are released—but ARKM’s behavior seemed different to me, so after we released MABY, I lurked behind a tree and watched.

Sure enough, ARKM went down to the ground: he had a nest.

ARKM and MABY's nest, just under the rock.

ARKM and MABY’s nest, just under the rock.

Continue reading