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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
Most of our familiar birds court potential mates only at specific times of year. This is why spring is such a melodious season in many places: the male songbirds are all singing for their mates. Male pigeons, however, seem to court all the time. It’s below freezing and snowing? Why, what a great time to puff up and bow and coo at the ladies!
This seems strange because we expect courting birds to breed soon after a successful courtship. Yet pigeons court in weather that seems like it would be terrible for breeding. What are these pigeons up to? Are the males really trying to convince the females to lay eggs in mid-winter?
In the field, I become especially attentive to temperature. Is it too cold to catch birds? Are my hands warm enough to not chill a bird when I hold it? Recently, a friend very kindly let me take his FLIR ONE to the field: this is a device that fits over your phone and lets you take photos of heat. (Normal photos are of visible light.) Warmer objects show up as yellows and whites; colder objects are blue and black. The photos it takes aren’t of absolute temperature—that is, 40 degrees F isn’t always the exact same color—but rather of relative temperature: within the same photo, you can use the colors to compare temperatures, but you can’t compare across photos.
This was a lot of fun to use in the field, especially since the weather so generously gave us lots of temperatures to observe by snowing on us. Did you know that snow is cold, and humans are warmer than snow?
As endless as PhDs may seem to those in the thick of them, they do end. I am now almost exactly one year out from my planned graduation date, which means that I need to transition from collecting my data to analyzing and disseminating my results. Practically, this means that I can’t spend the whole summer out in the mountains tracking juncos, like the last three years. I need to also spend the summer running analyses, writing, and presenting at conferences.
Of course, I can go out to the mountains sometimes. Just to see what the juncos are up to. They would probably miss me otherwise, right? I’ll just collect a little more data…