I’ve heard it said that the point of a PhD is to make you the absolute world expert on one particular slice of the universe. Too many incredibly smart people work on juncos for me to hope to become the world expert on them, but my several years of thinking about juncos more-or-less constantly has left me tuned to a slightly different wavelength than the rest of the world: call it Radio Junco.
Sometimes this makes me seem like a cross between a psychic and someone who has come unhinged: my brain picks out and focuses on all junco noises, so that I will stop, cock my head, and then declare “There’s a mated pair here,” or “Fledgling in that bush!” into what clearly seems like silence to my new field assistants.
Juncos are common, but they’re not obvious birds. I’m always surprised when I describe them to a curious camper who has been living surrounded by juncos for days and the person frowns at my description and says “Huh. Never seen them.” They are small and brown, un-flashy. Their habits go against our basic concept of “bird,” too: they spend a lot of time on the ground, and their nests are on the ground, which many people don’t realize is even a possibility for birds.
This means that I, listening to Radio Junco in the forest, definitely start to sound disconnected from reality to anyone rocking to Radio Human. “Please don’t disturb the vegetation,” I said recently to a man kicking rocks at an area of grass that we suspected contained a nest, “there’s a bird nest here!” He frowned at me, said “I’m not,” and continued kicking rocks. Only when we eventually found the nest (not crushed, fortunately) and he said “It’s on the ground?” in a tone of astonishment did I understand where our communication had failed. He had been picturing a nest in a tree.
Most people don’t pay any attention to birds—or at least, they assume that anything a bird does is unrelated to themselves. People stand with their dogs directly over nests, the junco parents alarm-chipping themselves into a frenzy above their heads, and the people see: 1) me with my dog, 2) some birds: no relationship; while I see people bringing a huge predator close to babies while the parents cry “Danger! Look out, look out! My babies! Go away! Aaah!”
Young fledglings near the edge of a road have me glaring at cars and thinking, “Do you have to go so fast on the road?”
And of course the nests: “Do you really have to walk all over the ground?”
It makes me wonder what other radio frequencies I’m missing. Would someone studying frogs or spiders or mountain vegetation watch us doing our field work and cringe? I don’t think so—we’re generally aware of our environment and careful not to do damage—but then again, the people I see standing too close to nests don’t know that the damage they could do is even a possibility. What might I not know? It’s a good argument for trying to be as much of an old-fashioned generalist natural historian as possible: for trying to catch some snatches of other radio frequencies rather than just Radio Junco, or Radio Human.
As for the juncos, fortunately they’re pretty good at dealing with the world. I worried about RRYA’s and AMYY’s nest last week, situated as it was under a bush right next to a camper’s angry barking dog: the parents were alarm-chipping up a storm at the dog. The bush was prickly, good protection, but I worried that the parents might fledge their chicks to escape the predator and that the dog might get them when they left the nest. When I returned the next morning my fears were confirmed: the bush was empty. Just in case, though, we checked the area where I thought the parents would have taken fledglings—and sure enough, there were RRYA and AMYY and all their little fledglings, doing fine.
But if you care about juncos, really, try to be considerate: stop walking on the ground.