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!

Who let me have a smartphone?

I held off getting a smartphone for a long time. I frustrated friends who tried to text my ancient flip phone internet links and baffled people by actually getting lost and having to phone for directions. (Who gets lost these days? Everyone has Google Maps in their back pocket now.)

But I’m going to two conferences in unfamiliar places this summer, and I don’t particularly want to get lost in Alaska or Brazil. So I got a smartphone. And now I have a camera in my back pocket all the time.

Not surprisingly, in my hands this has mostly yielded pictures of birds.

Owl Finches at the local pet store.

Owl Finches at the local pet store.

Display of birds at Cal Day, the one day a year (today!) that the museum opens its doors to the public.

Display of birds at Cal Day, the one day a year (today!) that the museum opens its doors to the public.

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Double rain

Before I studied juncos in California, I studied House Wrens in New York. Most days in the spring and summer I biked from my basement apartment to my field site, which had the no-nonsense label Unit One. The bike ride was an adventure in itself: I prepped for the field season by relearning how to stay on a bike, which I hadn’t done since childhood. (Contrary to the popular saying, it appears I can forget how to ride a bike.) On my way to Unit One I often came upon large snapping turtles stumping deliberately across the road, on the turtle-slow prowl for places to lay their eggs.

snapping_turtle

Unit One was primarily a field site for studying Tree Swallows. The front half of it was short grass broken up by regular rectangular ponds, over which the swallows stooped and swirled. House Wren territory lay past the manicured domain of the swallows, in forest dense with brush and mosquitoes. At the start of the field season I feared getting lost in it: the paths were overgrown, and I have a poor natural sense of direction.

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Is that a friendly (woolly, stingy) face I see?

Humans see faces everywhere. We see a face in the craters of the moon, in wall sockets, sideways in punctuation :-) and just about anywhere else two dots and a line are arranged in even approximately the same positions as two eyes and a mouth.

Don't those drawings of outlets look like faces?

Don’t those drawings of outlets look like faces?

Once we recognize something as a face, we process it differently from other visual stimuli. Certain parts of the brains are triggered preferentially by faces. We are especially good at perceiving faces: we can pick out matching faces faster than matching abstract patterns, and distinguish non-matching faces more easily than other images. This only works, however, when our brains recognize the faces as faces: if you flip faces upside-down, they no longer trigger the “face” switch for us, and we become much worse at distinguishing them. The same thing happens if you digitally scramble facial features, so that there’s an ear in the middle and an eye on the chin and a mouth slanting across the forehead, or any other mix-up that makes the face no longer be arranged like a face. Our brains are specialized to perceive face-shaped patterns much better than other patterns.

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Find the nest 2

This well-hidden nest took us a long time to find, even after we knew approximately where it should be. While we were searching, a man came to set up for a bike race and moved a port-o-potty right into the area where we thought the nest was, despite my protests. We worried that the parents of the nest would be too disturbed by the looming port-o-potty and the crowd of cyclists to feed the chicks, but fortunately that was not the case: the chicks grew up and fledged successfully.

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Find the nest

Juncos nest on the ground, which might seem dangerous: ground nests are more accessible to predators than nests in trees. However, a nest in a tree is certain to be, well, somewhere in a tree; a nest on the ground could be anywhere. The ground of a forest or meadow or even a campground is a complex surface, with lots and lots of places where a junco nest could be, only a very tiny fraction of which actually contain a junco nest.

In this series of “Find the nest” posts, I’m going to try to share with you the challenge of looking at a habitat and guessing where a junco nest might be, and the excitement of finding a well-hidden nest. Each post will have a slide show of photos, beginning with a zoomed-out image of a fairly large area, and progressively zooming in to eventually reveal the junco nest. All of the photos are from my field work and are of real wild junco nests.

Use the back and forward arrows and the pause button to navigate the slide show.

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