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!
Well… yeah. What’s your point?
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?
Now you do!
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…
We do not miss you. Look, why don’t you not come here, and we’ll send you a postcard maybe?
In the past month I have been occasionally visiting local third-grade classes with some colleagues to deliver a lesson on adaptive variation. It isn’t as dry as that makes it sound—there are puzzles and tiny spoons and squishy fishing lures. We are fun scientists. Science is fun! Science is fun but if you don’t put the fishing lures back in the bins and pay attention, we won’t get to start, okay, I know they’re gross, please don’t throw them, thank you, as I was saying, science is fun!
It has been interesting to see how much difference there is between classes. One class squirmed and giggled whenever we suggested that animals might need to find, as we put it, “boyfriends and girlfriends.” Another class was completely unfazed. “Yes,” one student in that class clarified, “they need to find mates.” Every class so far has known about camouflage and what hummingbirds eat.
This is the strangest nest placement I have seen from my juncos so far. The setting is a meadow with scattered corn lilies, an area favored by the cattle that sometimes graze in my field sites. The holes you see in the dirt are footprints left by cow hooves in the soft ground.
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.
Display of birds at Cal Day, the one day a year (today!) that the museum opens its doors to the public.
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.
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.