To identify the species, sex, and age of a bird, a bird bander in North America relies either on personal experience with the species or on the massive handbook of bird descriptions known as the Pyle Guide. The Pyle Guide is full of confidence-instilling descriptions like “Juvenile rectrices usually pointed, but occasionally truncate” and “Male scapulars brownish-black, compared to blackish-brown in female.” To make matters still more confusing, birds can vary from site to site, meaning that the description in Pyle based on a population 100 miles distant may not be correct for your own local population. One of the best tools a bird bander can have, as they squint at a bird and wonder whether its iris is “red-brown” or “maroon” and whether that is even relevant to their local birds, is a comparison photo showing local birds.
You have to be a bit lucky to capture such photos: you have to happen to catch both birds at the same time. When you usually catch five or fewer birds at a time, as we do, the chances that any two of them will be an informative comparison becomes small. Each of these pair photos is a little special for this reason.
One of the many fun things about bird banding is that you never know who you’ll catch next: every bird is a surprise. To try to share that feeling, I’m running brief profiles of selected birds we’ve caught in a mini-blog called “Notes from the Station.” The birds profiled definitely tend toward the more conventionally “exciting,” but I try not to neglect our good common birds too—they have their own interesting stories. Each profile includes a photo of the bird and some information about it, and every one is a real bird with real data. I try to do a few new profiles each week. Check it out!
Facebird. Instagrebe. Tikstork. Linkedpenguin. Twitter. Only one of these is real, and I’m pretty sure that even on Twitter the number of actual birds participating is negligible. Birds do have social networks though—the old-fashioned analog kind, made up of flockmates and siblings and reproductive partners and rivals. Some species, like the Black-capped Chickadee, have tight-knit flocks with elaborate social hierarchies; others, like the Hermit Thrush, live most of their lives alone. These differences are surely fundamental to shaping the lives of birds, from their mundane daily experiences to how they tackle life-or-death challenges. If you spot a deadly predator like a Cooper’s Hawk, do you try to disappear quietly into the brush or do you risk your safety by giving an alarm call to warn your companions?
It’s been… 20 months (yikes) since my last post, and some stuff has changed! I’m back in the San Francisco Bay Area where the juncos look right – none of this slate-colored nonsense – and I now co-run a bird banding station.
When people want a different perspective on the world, they may go to the mountains, or the ocean, or admire the endlessness of the night sky. Landscapes so vast as to approach incomprehensibility let you feel small, temporarily lifting the weight of consequence from your shoulders.
You can get a similar effect rather closer to home by seeking out the opposite: worlds so small that you become incomprehensibly vast, and therefore as irrelevant as a distant snow-crested peak.
If a magical being pops into existence in front of you and demands that you choose a non-human animal into which you will be reincarnated, one of the first things you should consider is: how many babies does the species have, and how big are they? If you want a good shot at surviving past infancy in your second life, you will want to select a species that has just a few, big babies. Elephants are a good option, with their single giant offspring; ditto whales. Large sharks are a solid possibility, often birthing just two large babies at a time (but you’ll want to be careful that you don’t pick a species—such as the sand tiger shark—in which many embryos are formed in the uterus, and then all but two are eaten by their siblings before birth).
You will most certainly not want to choose to be a species whose offspring look like this:
Recently I flew from a particularly dire version of Minnesota winter—periodic rain making no dent in the graying heaps of snow, while rendering the smooth ice-covered sidewalks puddle-pocked and slick, so that it was not unusual to find oneself sliding inexorably down an icy slope into four inches of slushy water—into the blush of spring.
This new season was in California, where I was visiting my fiancé for the weekend. (Long-distance relationships are a staple of academia; my Minnesota labmates have significant others in Seattle and India.) Three hours on a plane headed west and I seemed to have jumped forward two months. Puffed-up robins in the snow…
…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.
If any animal ought to be able to expect a safely uneventful life, it’s the compact, guinea-pig-adjacent tuco-tuco. These South American rodents live in burrows underground, popping up into the dangerous above-ground just long enough to grab some veggies for dinner and then retreating again into their tunnels. Male tuco-tucos have the occasional reckless phase, during which they travel above-ground in search of tunnels inhabited not by familiar females but by attractively novel females; but aside from that, they stay underground.
Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that the danger also came from underground, pushing through its own tunnels, burrowing upwards like a hungry tuco-tuco. Late on June 2nd, 2011, and continuing through June 3rd, in the area around the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcanic complex in Chile, more than one thousand earthquakes shivered the earth. They came more and more frequently, until by midday June 4th they were coming more than twice per minute, a near-constant shuddering.
At 3:15pm a spot on the mountain exploded and sent a 5km-wide ash and gas plume into the sky.
The early stages of a scientific career are designed to be unstable, slingshotting you from place to place as you acquire new skills. I bucked this paradigm somewhat in the first years after finishing my PhD, teaching and working on local projects in order to stay in the Bay Area; but the lure of learning from a cool new lab (and having health insurance) proved irresistible. At the end of August this year I moved out to Minneapolis to start a postdoc.