I held off getting a smartphone for a long time. I frustrated friends who tried to text my ancient flip phone internet links and baffled people by actually getting lost and having to phone for directions. (Who gets lost these days? Everyone has Google Maps in their back pocket now.)
But I’m going to two conferences in unfamiliar places this summer, and I don’t particularly want to get lost in Alaska or Brazil. So I got a smartphone. And now I have a camera in my back pocket all the time.
Not surprisingly, in my hands this has mostly yielded pictures of birds.
Owl Finches at the local pet store.
Display of birds at Cal Day, the one day a year (today!) that the museum opens its doors to the public.
Not too long ago, the generally-accepted answer to this question would have been: “Not really—a few birds do, but most don’t.” This was largely based on the observation that most birds have very small olfactory bulbs in their brain relative to their overall brain size. As we observe bird behavior, however, we are are increasingly realizing that most birds can and do use smell regularly, often for very important things.
Let’s begin with the birds that have been known for a long time to use smell. Kiwi birds are unique in having their nostrils on the end of their bills, rather than close to the base of the bill like all other birds. Kiwis stick that long bill into the soil and use their nostrils to sniff for insects and worms.
Brown Kiwi chick.
Photo by Smithsonian’s National Zoo*
It makes a lot of sense that kiwis have a good sense of smell, even if you think that birds in general don’t, because kiwis seem to have evolved to be the avian version of a small fuzzy mammal. Kiwis evolved on the islands of New Zealand, where the only mammals were bats. The small-brown-fuzzy-nocturnal-snuffling-in-the-dirt-for-worms niche was open for the taking, and kiwis—flightless, nocturnal, and covered in long thin feathers that are highly reminiscent of hair—took it. A good sense of smell goes with that niche.
I’ve been neglecting my blog-writing duties lately, preoccupied with the annual Big Grant Proposal Deadline. My grant proposal is on sexual selection in juncos. What part of juncos is sexually selected, you ask? Why, that flashy tail, of course! They’re practically peacocks!
LANK showing off his sexy tail
You’re not quite there yet, little one…
I’ve also been TAing a class on animal behavior, so while I don’t have many extra words to spare right now—I need them all for that grant proposal—I do have a wealth of animal videos that have been brought to my attention by my fellow animal behavior fans. Please accept some videos in lieu of words.
Here is a video of a bird even drabber than a junco who attracts females with his sexually selected aesthetic tastes in things like flowers, shiny beetles, and slightly… er… less attractive items as well: the Vogelkop Bowerbird.
And here are some flies that—well, you should just watch it to believe it. It starts with them gulping air bubbles into their heads, and that’s not even the weird part.
Why are they like that? Sexual selection! Females in this species prefer their males as hammerheaded as possible.
Hey, why not?
Mammals—including us—use facial muscles to communicate, by, say, smiling or frowning. Reptiles and birds don’t do that: they don’t have the right muscles for it. If you think a bird looks grumpy, or angry, or has any similar human-type facial expression, you’re projecting your human perceptions onto an animal that really doesn’t work like that. (Now, whether the bird actually is grumpy is a different matter; I’m just saying that you can’t tell if it is by looking at its face.)
So the appearance that all these junco chicks have of possessing some serious attitude is merely an entertaining illusion.
What are you looking at?
Juncos nest on the ground (usually; sometimes they will nest higher, even reusing old robins’ nests, but I’ve never seen this myself. It’s probably because I’m short). This makes their nests tricky to find, since in the first place, there is a lot of “the ground” to search, and in the second place, you have to be really careful where you step while you search.
They don’t just nest on the ground, though: they often hide their nests underneath things. Some of them are quite good at it.
YABI’s nest. What do you mean, you can’t see it – it’s right there!
See, there it is!
Photo by Q
This sign was posted on the physics building at Stanford. If anyone knows more about this sneaky junco, tell us in the comments!
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.
This is my third field season. For all that I’ve been tweaking my techniques every year, it’s all starting to seem… familiar.
There’s that crazy tree… again.
The juncos don’t seem to be used to it yet, though.
ES-A does not find this at all familiar.
It’s all new to my new field assistants, too, not to mention all the new young lives starting at our field sites.
One of the biggest changes for me in being in the field, aside from the living-in-a-tent-and-smacking-mosquitos aspects, is becoming intensely aware, all the time, of sound. I’m listening for singing juncos, to know where the territories are; for quietly cheeping juncos, who are usually foraging, to read their band combinations; for angry chipping juncos, whose nests are nearby; for juncos giving what I think of as the ba-boo boo boo call, affectionately greeting their mates. We live in the midst of the juncos, so I’m always listening. And so I hear all the other birds too.
In early evening, with the sun bright but the air beginning to chill, we hear the daytime birds still: the juncos’ songs, loud and strong but, dare I say, less than nuanced (click on the linked text, then click the forward-arrow play button, to hear the sound).
The strange, carrying complaints of the Red-breasted Nuthatches.
Red-breasted Nuthatch: such a small bird for that big noise.
Last year, I started the field season as soon as the university spring semester ended, because my field assistants were undergraduates and needed to take their finals before heading off into the mountains. That turned out to be too late, as we found that some of the juncos had started breeding without us. So this year I found some awesome non-undergraduate volunteers and went out earlier.
But I might have started a little too early.
My tent, our first morning in the field.
We’d known it was going to rain, and I thought it had – a particularly light-sounding rain pattering on my tent throughout the night. When I woke up I thought my tent had been covered in seeds washed loose by the rain. Then I stuck my head outside.
In fact it was better than rain: drier, and still permitting us to boil water for breakfast.
Our stoves boiling water for breakfast.