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!

A predator caught in the act

We were searching for junco nests when I heard the unmistakable tic-tic-tic of junco alarm chipping. We followed the sound a ways and found a pair of juncos perched on a low branch, alarm chipping for all they were worth. Strange of the juncos to be alarm chipping at us when we were so far away, before, I thought. I wouldn’t have thought they’d see us as a threat from that far away. Odd birds. Directly below the branch with the agitated juncos was a small shrub. “The nest will be in there,” I predicted, showing off for my new field assistants.

2015_snake_nest2I parted the prickly branches, and tiny pink beaks gaped hungrily at me. “There they are,” I said, pleased with myself. “Three chicks.”

2015_snake_nest

And just as I said that, I saw the snake.

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Going out with a thud-crack-ow!

I just wrapped up what I think will be my last field work on the juncos for my dissertation. It was quite the eventful trip; I saw a few things I’ve never seen before – but more on that in a future post.

We were trying to catch an unbanded male. He was interested in our playback, but had escaped from the net once already, meaning he was likely to be wary of the net now. When he flew into the net the second time, I ran for him quickly, wanting to get to him before he managed to escape again.

…Or I started to run. Then I failed to clear a large rotting log and went down.

“Are you okay?” one of my field assistants asked.

“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly, from the ground. “Get the bird!”

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Find the nest 4

Juncos love to nest near corn lilies. Usually this means they nest near the base of the corn lily, using the thick stalk and broad leaves as cover. SEAL, however, decided that his nest didn’t need to be near an upright corn lily—and I have to admit that it’s not a bad idea: it took me an extra little while to find this nest, just because it didn’t look like a conventional junco nest location.

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A pigeon walks into an art museum…

Consider the pigeon. Among birds, they are distinguished by their abilities to drink water through their nostrils and to raise their babies on a diet of human trash. It might surprise you, then, to learn that a number of scientific studies have focused on pigeons’ taste in art.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

This abstract work, in feces and found lamppost, really captures the satisfaction of finding a good place to perch.

To be fair, these studies aren’t aimed at divining pigeons’ preferences so that museums can better appeal to the aesthetics of critical tastemaker pigeons; the goal is to understand how animals perceive images. Pigeons are easily raised and trained, so they are a good model to look at visual processing in birds. And why use art? “Discrimination of visual arts is an extreme example of higher visual cognition” (Watanabe 2011). So there is logic to this. But it still produces papers with titles like “Van Gogh, Chagall and pigeons.”

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Conferences everywhere

This is the first summer in several years that I’ve decided to prioritize something other than field work. This year, I’m focusing on going to conferences and writing up my work—as well as some field work, fear not: there will be photos of baby juncos this year.

Here's a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Here’s a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Conferences are a strange combination of things. They are a chance to meet new people and spark collaborations: hey, you do that thing and I do this thing, we should do things together! But they are also a chance to size up the competition, to try to gauge where your work falls on the spectrum of research quality. Scientists naturally see each other as resources and potential collaborators, but occasionally we have to remember that we are all competing for the same limited pot of research funding, of post-doctoral positions, of jobs.

Sometimes fish, too.

Sometimes fish, too.

Given that reality, I’m always proud of how little we behave like competitors: we edit each other’s grant applications and give suggestions on each other’s job talks, even while we know that we too need grants and jobs.

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Puffins taking baths

I always thought of puffins as fairly dignified birds. They look sleek and posed in the photos you usually see, like statues of themselves. Recently, however, I discovered that to get that sleek, clean look, puffins take on some poses that would be quite hard to capture in a statue.

Just preening in a photogenic way....

Just preening in a photogenic way….

SPLOOSH!

SPLOOSH!

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