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 are dead, but they do have some redeeming qualities. The museum has a collection of junco specimens dating back over a hundred years, making it possible to track the evolution of certain characters over that century. It’s pretty awesome to be able to measure juncos that were alive before my grandparents were born, and strange to look at specimen tags and think, “Just before the Great Depression… end of WWII…”
I’m measuring bills right now. I found a hint of an interesting pattern in bill measurements from my data this summer – which I won’t describe in more detail because 1) it’s preliminary, and I don’t want to mislead anyone, and 2) if it turns out to be something, I want to be able to publish it, then tell you about it – so I’m investigating whether that same pattern holds up across more sites and back through history.
Working with specimens is not like working with live birds. Avian skins are traditionally prepped and stuffed in a belly-up, head-back position that means they fit well in drawers but don’t look much like real birds anymore. Sloppy prep work doesn’t help: many of the junco specimens are unnaturally heron-skinny, dove-plump, or just odd.
Many of these birds were shot on collecting trips. Although the feathers cover up most signs of that violence, sometimes it leaves its mark where you can see.
And even the best prepper can’t make the threadbare nestling specimens look anything other than sad. I don’t know why anyone collected such young birds, but I hope they had a very good reason.
However, juncos are beautiful birds, and even shooting, skinning, stuffing, and leaving them in a drawer for 100+ years can’t rob them of all of their elegance. Without the need to minimize stress by releasing the bird quickly, I have time to appreciate the way their feathers fit together, the grey edges of the hood feathers, the daubs of peach at their flanks.
But mostly I measure their bills.