About toughlittlebirds

I'm a graduate student in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at UC Berkeley. I'm interested in why animals do what they do. Disclaimer: I don't speak for UC Berkeley or the MVZ in anything I write - if you don't like something, I'm the only one to blame!

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.

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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.

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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.

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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*

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What we know about one nest

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

MABY

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.

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Field season 2013 moments in photos

I’ve started planning the upcoming field season in a serious way now—deciding on dates, interviewing potential field assistants. It’s made me think a lot about last field season, and about how much I haven’t yet found an opportunity to mention in this blog. So this post is just going to be a selection of memorable things that happened last field season, without any real theme but with lots of photos.

The coolest insect I've ever seen in person. It looked like a piece of enameled jewelry.

The most beautiful insect I’ve ever seen in person. It looked like a piece of enameled jewelry.

This nest had two chicks in it; when we took them out to band them, we found two unhatched eggs. The lighter one is a junco egg; the dark one is a cowbird egg. These juncos were lucky that the cowbird egg didn't hatch!

This nest had two chicks in it; when we took them out to band them, we found two unhatched eggs. The lighter one is a junco egg; the dark one is a cowbird egg. These juncos were lucky that the cowbird egg didn’t hatch!

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Think like a scientist: check your sources

In scientific papers we are very strict about citing sources. Not only do we put a list of our references at the end of papers, but we also indicate which reference gave us which fact right there in the text: “junco fledglings have big fuzzy eyebrows (LaBarbera 2012).” This makes fact checking easy.

Scientists writing for the general public don’t usually do this. Depending on the form of a science-for-a-general-audience column, references may all be at the end only, or they may not be there at all. When researchers write about their own research without any citations, saying “My research shows…” and “Many studies have found…” but not actually citing them, it’s up to you to either blindly believe them (don’t do this) or to check their sources yourself. If they do good research, this shouldn’t be hard.

Sometimes a "research" column is like a coot: fine at first glance, but when you look close, really creepy feet. You followed that analogy, right?

Sometimes a “research” column is like a coot: fine at first glance, but when you look close, really weird feet.
You know what I mean.

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Seeing through scales and walking with six legs

There are a lot of scientific journals out there. There are the big shots (Science, Nature), the bird journals (The Auk, The Condor), the topic-specific (Behavioral Ecology), etc. And then there is The Journal of Experimental Biology, or JEB. I love JEB. It claims to be the journal for “comparative animal physiology” but that doesn’t cover the half of it. JEB is about crazy, wonderful strangeness—strange animals and strange scientific methods. Following are two characteristically odd JEB studies: snake eyes and how walking sticks walk.

Leucistic (lacking pigment) black rat snake is looking at YOU.

Leucistic (lacking pigment) black rat snake is looking at YOU.

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