Before I studied juncos in California, I studied House Wrens in New York. Most days in the spring and summer I biked from my basement apartment to my field site, which had the no-nonsense label Unit One. The bike ride was an adventure in itself: I prepped for the field season by relearning how to stay on a bike, which I hadn’t done since childhood. (Contrary to the popular saying, it appears I can forget how to ride a bike.) On my way to Unit One I often came upon large snapping turtles stumping deliberately across the road, on the turtle-slow prowl for places to lay their eggs.
Unit One was primarily a field site for studying Tree Swallows. The front half of it was short grass broken up by regular rectangular ponds, over which the swallows stooped and swirled. House Wren territory lay past the manicured domain of the swallows, in forest dense with brush and mosquitoes. At the start of the field season I feared getting lost in it: the paths were overgrown, and I have a poor natural sense of direction.
I soon learned the paths. I learned where to turn off to reach each numbered nestbox in which the House Wrens nested. I found a robins’ nest. I learned where to expect mud and thorns, where to look for the local beaver, and where to listen for basking turtles who, startled, would plop into the water as soon as I came close.
The House Wrens were easy to study in several ways that the juncos are not. They nested in our nestboxes, so we didn’t need to search everywhere for their nests: we just checked the nestboxes. The nestboxes had hinged sides; you could open the side, take out the chicks, measure them, and put them back.
There was a bit of a risk in this, though: reaching your hand into the nest was a thing done blind, fingers feeling for eggs or chicks. There was always the possibility of your fingers meeting something you didn’t want to touch. There was a rush to that tactile suspense, though: we don’t often feel blind for mysterious things. The best moments were, when checking on a nest that had held eggs on last inspection, feeling not smooth ovoids but warm, delicate, silky-fuzzy bodies: hatched chicks!
The wrens’ nests were beautiful and various. They built their nests with all sorts of materials: not just twigs and grass but feathers, snake skin, and hair from the tails of the horses that grazed in a nearby pasture.
The wrens paid strict attention to their nests. I once experimented with knotting loose nets of differently-colored thread around the eggs, in the hopes that the thread might rest loosely on the chicks after hatching and allow me to tell which chick had hatched from which egg. I had it on good authority that this had worked with another songbird species. The wrens, however, would not have it: within an hour they had meticulously removed all of my carefully-made thread nets from their eggs.
I loved Unit One, for all its mosquitoes and thorns—except when it rained. When it rained, the already-moist soil became mud and puddles, and water collected on the leaves of bushes that brushed against me as I walked past. There was the rain from the sky above, and then there was the rain from the bushes on all sides: double rain, leaving me absolutely drenched from head to toe. I had “water-proof” gear, but I quickly discovered that anything that isn’t made of thick rubber, and as heavy and hot to wear as that implies, is not truly water-proof.
So it would rain, and I would be sodden and cold, flinching from the clammy caresses of dripping bushes. But there was still work to do: the wren chicks were safe and dry in their nestboxes and so could be measured even in the rain, as long as you didn’t get them wet or cold in their moments outside the nest. I brought an umbrella, propped it open on the ground, and measured the chicks underneath it, my legs sticking out into the rain. Afterwards I would pick small slugs off of the umbrella before closing it, and off of my legs and boots. The slugs were always numerous when it rained, exulting in a world made, temporarily, thoroughly friendly to them.