If you meet a time-traveling ancient Egyptian, talk about birds

The next time you come across an ancient Egyptian mummy in a museum, rather than thinking of looming pyramids and cursed tomb robbers, consider this: that mummy was probably a better birder than you are.

Okay, I don’t know if the ancient Egyptians would have considered it “birding” – I doubt they maintained life lists. But they certainly knew their birds to a degree that I doubt many in the modern era could equal. The Oriental Institute’s exhibit “Between Heaven and Earth: Birds in Ancient Egypt” showcases just how thoroughly birds permeated every aspect of ancient Egyptian life. They painted birds and sculpted them, drew them in their writing as hieroglyphs, raised and shepherded and ate them, and saw their gods embodied in their forms.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile.Photo Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

Barn Owl sculpture. Owls were unusual in Egyptian art for being depicted face-on instead of in profile, as most animals (including humans) were.
Photo by Anna Ressman. Courtesy of the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago.

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Statistics: not lying is harder than you think

In order to make sense of the data I collect, I use statistics. The statistical tools available for data analysis these days are pretty incredible, leaps and bounds ahead of the simple, classical statistics like chi-square, which worked great – if you had perfect data.

Field biologists like me don’t have perfect data. We have really, really terrible data, from a statistical perspective. We have unbalanced sample sizes, measuring 15 birds here, 21 here, 9 there; we have data with weird things in common, like measurements from different groups of nestlings, some of which are siblings; and we always have tons of noise in our data – because it was weirdly rainy that year, and also hot, and also the oak trees put out more acorns than usual, and that one chick was from a runt egg, and…

Excuse me, I generate only AWESOME data.

Excuse me, I generate only AWESOME data.

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Three specimens

In the course of my junco specimen bill measuring – I’ve measured 561 so far – I’ve handled ratty specimens and fine ones, old and not-quite-so-old. (Most of the specimens are from before 1950, so they’re all fairly old.) It’s fun to see how much variation there is even among individuals from the same subspecies and the same state. Here are my three favorite specimens:

This male has lovely red-brown spots on his head.

This male has lovely red-brown spots on his head.

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Think like a scientist: levels of analysis

Today’s discussion question is: why do the lovebirds Sam and Jesse spend a lot of time together?

Jesse and Sam pause in their destruction of a picture frame to wonder what business it is of yours how they spend their time.

Jesse and Sam pause in their destruction of a picture frame to wonder what business it is of yours how they spend their time.

“Well,” someone says, “it’s because lovebirds’ brain reward centers are stimulated when they interact with their mate. Happy molecules trigger happy receptors, and the birds get happy. So they seek out that reward.”

“No,” someone else says, “it’s because a lovebird that interacts with its mate more has a stronger pair bond, making it less likely to be cuckolded. Lovebirds who spend more time with their mates have more chicks and so pass more genes on to the next generation.”

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Sounds and video from Cornell’s Macauley Library

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macauley Library of sounds and videos has been fully digitized and posted online for browsing for free by everyone. It is really fun to explore.

Ever wanted to know what an Oilbird sounds like? It sounds like this!

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Check out a colorful mantis shrimp swiveling its crazy eyes, then listen to it making sounds eerily like those of a drum set!

Go eye-level with Adelie Penguins, get close enough to a sea turtle to count the scales under its chin, then listen to a baby walrus ruff like a puppy!

Here is an article from the Lab of O – scroll to the end for links to: the earliest recording (a Song Sparrow from 1929); the sounds of an ostrich chick still in the egg; the haunting clarinet-like moan of the idri, a lemur; a bird of paradise apparently imitating a very melodious UFO; and a cute video of an American Dipper living up to its name by bobbing and dipping.

And then explore the library yourself! Hooray for open-access science.

The perils of searching the literature

Back in the day, there was no internet, and researchers had to search for papers by actually searching. In a library, with old copies of journals. Sometimes they wrote to authors, and the authors mailed them physical copies of their papers. (When you publish a paper, journals still offer you the option to order hundreds of these physical copies, called “offprints.”) I know, right? Ridiculous.

Now we can just search online. Instead of sifting through piles and piles of journals, I search, download, and in mere seconds can have the paper I wanted saved on my computer under some totally non-obscure name like “fledgling_conflict+habitat_yellowwarbler” that I will definitely not forget the meaning of in a week.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Judgmental fish thinks you will definitely forget what that file name means.

Yet despite this incredible technological progress, there are still some perils to searching the literature:

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Why I don’t collect

“You work in a museum and you don’t collect? At all?” My officemate glanced up from labeling specimen tags to give me an incredulous look.

“Yep,” I said.

I work in a museum filled with hundreds of thousands of specimens, and I do not add to them. I do not collect: i.e., “sacrifice” (kill) birds in order to add them to the museum’s collections. Many researchers would consider this to be poor teamwork, even poor manners – here I am measuring bills, benefiting from others’ collecting work, and not contributing! What is my problem?

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

Dark-eyed Junco specimens that I have measured

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