I’ve heard it said that the point of a PhD is to make you the absolute world expert on one particular slice of the universe. Too many incredibly smart people work on juncos for me to hope to become the world expert on them, but my several years of thinking about juncos more-or-less constantly has left me tuned to a slightly different wavelength than the rest of the world: call it Radio Junco.
Sometimes this makes me seem like a cross between a psychic and someone who has come unhinged: my brain picks out and focuses on all junco noises, so that I will stop, cock my head, and then declare “There’s a mated pair here,” or “Fledgling in that bush!” into what clearly seems like silence to my new field assistants.
Half-built nest in February
In February, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks began to build a nest in the window of a tenth-floor conference room in Yonkers, NY. Over the next four months, Jerry and Beverly—who work in that office—watched and documented the red-tails as they raised their chicks. Many thanks to Jerry and Beverly for agreeing to share their photos and videos, and thanks to James for passing them on to me!
One of the adults at the nest. Red-tails like their nests to have a commanding view of the surroundings; you can see that this fits the bill nicely.
The season of the summer disaster movie is upon us: Godzilla is stomping San Francisco, and I’m sure we’re all eagerly anticipating the premiere of Sharknado 2. To liven up the cinemas a bit, as a relief from the overabundance of sequels (I mean really, Sharknado 2!), I would like to propose a new genre mash-up: the animated talking birds disaster movie. It would be like those dancing penguin movies, or the solemn-looking owl movie (I have seen none of these…), plus disasters. The first one could be called Hailstorm!
It would not be a children’s movie. It would be terrifying.
It hailed on us a few days ago for about half an hour. The hail was mostly small, not larger than 1 cm in diameter, and the only animal reaction I saw was a decidedly alarmed chickaree—although to be fair, chickarees almost always look alarmed. I saw no evidence of damage afterwards; all of the junco nests we were monitoring weathered the storm just fine.
You know the hail isn’t too bad when you can safely hide from it in a tent.
But sometimes hail is a sharper-fanged beast.
This is my third field season. For all that I’ve been tweaking my techniques every year, it’s all starting to seem… familiar.
There’s that crazy tree… again.
The juncos don’t seem to be used to it yet, though.
ES-A does not find this at all familiar.
It’s all new to my new field assistants, too, not to mention all the new young lives starting at our field sites.
Growing up, I used to watch the Mallards breeding in the local pond every summer. The female would start out with many tiny, adorable ducklings; then, day by day, their number would shrink. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t take a few of the little fluffballs home and have them for myself. (Well, aside from the fact that a city apartment is perhaps not the optimal environment in which to keep ducks.) When so many died anyway, would they be missed? And wouldn’t I really be saving them by taking them?
I’ve been seeing similar sentiments on the internet lately: people who have found out how dangerous it is to be a baby bird asking whether it wouldn’t be best to preemptively “save” the chicks from their probable fate. They are babies in danger, after all—shouldn’t any good person help babies in danger?
Shouldn’t I just keep little YAMM for myself?
The simplest answer is that one should not steal away baby birds because it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that isn’t an answer likely to ease the consciences of animal lovers. So I’d like to talk about what it means to help wild animals, and when “helping” can be a really, really bad thing.
One of the biggest changes for me in being in the field, aside from the living-in-a-tent-and-smacking-mosquitos aspects, is becoming intensely aware, all the time, of sound. I’m listening for singing juncos, to know where the territories are; for quietly cheeping juncos, who are usually foraging, to read their band combinations; for angry chipping juncos, whose nests are nearby; for juncos giving what I think of as the ba-boo boo boo call, affectionately greeting their mates. We live in the midst of the juncos, so I’m always listening. And so I hear all the other birds too.
In early evening, with the sun bright but the air beginning to chill, we hear the daytime birds still: the juncos’ songs, loud and strong but, dare I say, less than nuanced (click on the linked text, then click the forward-arrow play button, to hear the sound).
The strange, carrying complaints of the Red-breasted Nuthatches.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.
Everyone knows ducklings: yellow fuzz, big flat bills, big flat feet, cute little waddles all in a line after Momma, and superpowers.
Photo by Farrukh*
What, didn’t you know that last part?
Several duck species nest high above the ground in tree cavities. This is safer than nesting on the ground, predator-wise, but it also means that the ducklings hatch very, very high up. And then they have to get down.
When they hatch, the ducklings weight very little, which helps: the less you weigh, the less you are hurt by falling. Terminal velocity—the fastest that gravity will make you fall—depends on weight, so small creatures are essentially safe from falling no matter how far they fall. The cushiony leaf litter on the ground helps the ducklings too. And notice how they flatten out, spreading their little legs out behind and their wing stubs out front, their bodies as spread out as possible: they are gliding—albeit not as well as a true glider like a flying squirrel, but nevertheless slowing their descent so that they can land safely.