Juncos do not understand mirrors

The other day I saw a junco perched on the ledge of the front side window of a parked car. As I watched, he flew at the side-view mirror, a full head-on charge. When that didn’t seem to work, he sat back on his perch on the window, looked at the mirror, and charged again. And again. When some people passing by scared him up into a tree, he waited until they were gone, and then he flew back down and resumed his attack. He was really determined to win this fight against Mr. Uppity Mirror Junco.

I’m hoping this was a fluke. No one wants to think that their study species is dumb.

Auxiliary marking permit all set!

I just got confirmation that one of my permits – to put colored leg bands on the juncos – is approved! This is awesome. Putting colored leg bands on birds allows researchers to tell individuals apart, since we can put unique combinations of colors on each bird. For example, here are the color bands of RROA, a male House Wren who lived in Ithaca:


RROA = Red Red Orange Aluminum, with the aluminum band being the official US Fish & Wildlife band; this band has a unique number engraved on it, and all information about the bird is associated with that number. However, you have to be holding the bird in your hand to read its USF&W number, so researchers use color bands to be able to tell who is who without capturing the bird. We could identify RROA just by looking at his color bands with our binoculars – we didn’t even have to disturb him. RROA bred in our field site for three years, the longest of any House Wren there. (And yes, we called him RROA – pronounced Roe-uh.)

So what’s up with the title of this blog, anyway?

First, that’s what my research project is about: little birds (Dark-eyed Juncos weigh about 20 g; that’s the same as about eight bite-size Frosted Mini-Wheats biscuits, or 1/4 of a single package of ramen) that are tough. They are tough because they can breed at sea level or high on a mountain—that’s a lot of variation to adapt to! The high-elevation ones are especially tough, since on the tops of mountains there is snow, often into June, and the juncos have a very short window in which to raise their chicks before it gets cold and harsh all over again in the fall. They are also tough, or will need to be, because of climate change. Patterns of temperature and precipitation are shifting, and species are shifting too, but not all at once and not in the same ways, which means that habitats are changing. Juncos will need to be tough to handle that.

Second, the title reflects one of the reasons I am passionate about birds: they are little, or if they aren’t little they are fragile in other ways* (hollow bones, long thin legs, etc.), and yet they constantly astound me with their toughness. They live in deserts or on ice sheets or they stay aloft over the open ocean for months at a time. Tiny birds will migrate across whole continents, twice a year. Hummingbirds are so delicate that they sometimes have to slow down their metabolisms overnight to keep from starving to death before morning—and yet hummingbirds are very successful, and can live more than ten years. Birds are awesomely tough.


*Exception: ostriches. They do not look fragile to me at all. Ostriches, this blog is not about you.

Where the project is now

I’m in field-work-prep mode now, getting ready for the rapidly approaching field season. That means finding field assistants, getting them approved by the university, buying equipment, planning out food… We’ll be camping for much of the field work, so food is a nontrivial issue. It has to be compact enough that you can fit it in a bear barrel or bear locker (to keep the bears from eating it), it has to keep without refrigeration, it has to be cookable over a camp stove, and it has to give you the energy to do field work all day. It also has to be tasty enough that my field assistants don’t mutiny.

I want to eat your food but people are scary so I'm going to wait in this tree for you to go away

The plan is to start field work in the beginning of May—maybe. To do the kind of research where you capture and handle birds, you need permits. At a minimum, you need a federal permit and a state permit; you may also need a permit for the specific location you’re working in. I have my federal permit, but am still waiting on the state permit. Everyone think speedy thoughts at the state permitting people!

(If I don’t get the permit by May, I will go out and nondisruptively observe the heck out of the juncos until I do get the permit. But I would prefer to be able to begin banding them right away.)

Why you should follow this blog

Science! I will discuss scientific topics and describe the day-to-day process of science in unprofessional comprehensible language. If you’re interested in what a field biologist does, or if you want to think about animal behavior and evolution, stick around.

Suspense! These days everything on TV or in the movies has been spoilered all over the internet months in advance. This blog will not be spoilered. This will be a real-time chronicle of my research, so without time travel, spoilering is impossible. I might make the cover of Science! One of my field assistants might get eaten by a bear! No one knows.

Sex! Of course, this is science, so I’ll be using terms like “copulation,” “extra-pair paternity,” and “genetic introgression.” But you’ll know what I’m really talking about.


This is the blog for my research. There will probably also be thoughts on related things, such as: ornithology; behavioral ecology; animal communication; the process of research; the wilds of academia; and animals being awesome.

Who am I? I am Katie LaBarbera, a second-year graduate student in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology at the University of California – Berkeley. Before I came here, I did research on House Wrens as an undergraduate at Cornell University. Now, I’m working on a research project on Dark-eyed Juncos in the mountains near Yosemite: specifically, how they respond to variability in their habitat, changes in the weather, and climate change.

What I study - the Oregon form of the Dark-eyed Junco

In a few weeks I’ll have a page up on RocketHub as part of the SciFund Challenge, and I hope you’ll check it out. There will be baby birds in the video!