The other juncos

As I mentioned before, I don’t get to be out in the field interacting with the juncos right now. I am, however, making use of the other juncos: the ones that don’t fly away, don’t stress out when I handle them, and are always there when I go to look for them. The ones that live about twenty feet from my office.

I work in a museum, remember?

The other juncos

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Search term adventures!

Sometimes people type words into Google, Bing, Yahoo, or other nonsense words masquerading as search engines. Sometimes those words lead them to my blog. Here are some search terms that I think would make sense for leading people to Tough Little Birds: “animal behavior,” “dark eyed junco,” “scary birds,” “bird science blog,” etc.

Here is what people are actually searching to end up at my blog: “is a gecko a bird.”

So, as I blog to please you, dear readers, I will now attempt to respond to some of the actual search terms that have led people to TLB.

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Featured paper: turkeys help their relatives get lucky

Featured paper: Thanksgiving edition. And it’s doubly relevant – it’s about turkeys and family!

AH Krakauer. 2005. Kin selection and cooperative courtship in wild turkeys. Nature vol. 434, pp. 69 – 72.

Wild turkeys males show off in front of females in the hopes of being impressive enough to get to mate. While some males show off alone, others form “coalitions” of two to four males and all display for females together. However only one male in each coalition – the dominant male – ever gets to mate. So why in the world do the other male turkeys help him, if they never get to mate? Why don’t they display alone, where they’d at least have a chance at mating?

[Photo from Smart Kitchen]

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This is fun. Is fun the right word?

I’m waiting to find out if my big grant proposal will be rejected without review on an über-technicality.

Hold on while I refresh my email again… nope, still no news.

The error was a small omission of part of a section; basically a poor copy-paste job. It wasn’t my error, but I should have caught it before submitting, as should about eight other people involved in this process – some of whose job description is to catch technical errors in grant proposals, none of whom did – but in the end it’s my proposal, and I’m the one who should have caught it.

I may be allowed to fix the error, or I may be rejected on the spot, without even any helpful feedback (which is half the reason to apply for these things – even if you don’t get the funding, the feedback is valuable).

Isn’t this fun? Suspense! (whimper) Hold on while I refresh my email again…

Junco withdrawal

I miss the juncos. I see juncos around campus, but it’s not the same: they have no bands, so I don’t know who they are. (Except for the weird white-splattered junco, who doesn’t need bands to be distinctive. I was delighted to see him last week.)

I miss those warm, fragile bodies in my hand. I miss going back and finding them again and again.


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Think like a scientist: clever Hans

Clever Hans was a horse. He lived in the early 1900s, had an article written about him in the New York Times (“Berlin’s Wonderful Horse: He Can Do Almost Everything but Talk“), and has a scientific phenomenon named after him: the Clever Hans Effect.

Why was Hans clever? He could do math – even fractions! He could tell time! He could use a calendar! He could recognize currency! He could tell the difference between musical tones! He could identify people from photographs! He could not only understand German but read and spell it! Basically, clever Hans was smarter than your Honor Roll student. And he was a horse.

That seems plausible, right?


Extremely historically accurate depiction of clever Hans doing math

Many animals are highly intelligent. For example, I have no doubt that psychologist Irene Pepperberg’s late, great African Grey Parrot Alex could have performed most of clever Hans’ tasks. But, sad to say, clever Hans was a fraud.

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Kinky kakapo, lyrical lyrebird, moonwalking manakin

I’m on vacation to clear out my brain after finishing the big grant application, so here’s a lazy-blogger post: three classic bird videos.

The kakapo is a very rare, flightless parrot in New Zealand. This one has a thing for human cameramen.

The lyrebird, like a mockingbird or a mynah, shows off by perfectly imitating the sounds of other birds… and camera shutters, car alarms, and chainsaws.

Manakins, like birds of paradise, have brightly-colored males who perform elaborate dances to attract mates. The Red-capped Manakin male’s dance will be familiar to fans of Michael Jackson.

Adventure of a freelance science mouse

Two of my labmates study chipmunks. Recently they have been working with an engineer to develop a small tag that they can attach to a chipmunk to record the chipmunk’s movements. This, if it works, will let them “see” what the chipmunk is doing without actually watching–and bothering–the chipmunk, which would be great: one of the difficulties of behavioral ecology is that, for animals as for subatomic particles, observing the thing often affects the very nature of that thing.

Part of developing this tag is being able to check how well it works. Unfortunately, our lab doesn’t have any chipmunks just hanging around on which to test the tag. So instead, for an unofficial, exploratory test run, we recruited one of my domestic mice.

Oreo the freelance science mouse

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Ritual is everywhere in the natural world. From braving flight over expansive, stormy seas, to the tenuous, exhausting work of rearing chicks, to squabbling for social rank on the wintering grounds, birds tread and hop and fly recognizable annual patterns.

And so do field biology graduate students.

Our most obvious ritual is the field season. Our study subjects follow an annual pattern and so must we: the ornithologists out May through August, give-or-take; my labmates the high-elevation chipmunk researchers waiting impatiently in June for the snow on Tioga Pass to melt; those studying South American fauna gone in our winter for the Southern Hemisphere summer. Only the tropical biologists are unpredictable.

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