Amendment: if you rescued a baby bird and it hasn’t died yet

While my previous post, grumpy as it was, is true, I left out some important things. If you find yourself in the possession of a baby bird, the best thing you can do is to get it to a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. There are a few cases, however, where this may not be possible. Some rehabbers don’t accept invasive species (pigeons, Common Starlings, House Sparrows) or domestic species (e.g. domestic ducks). Some places don’t have a wildlife rehabber anywhere nearby (although do check—you might be surprised!).

If you’re in this situation, the internet is your friend. You can find recipes for nestling bird diets and instructions on care posted by people who care for those invasive species. Don’t just try to go with your gut: your intuition is mammal-based, and will mislead you. Search for reputable-seeming internet sources, and ideally find ones where you can contact the people to get detailed advice. There is a community of starling-keepers out there who may be able to help (especially if you’ve found a starling; unfortunately, bird species do differ in the care of their babies).

The most important thing is do not try to force-feed your bird water. Birds have an opening in their throat that leads to their lungs, and it is incredibly easy to drown them. Put the bird somewhere dark and warm and do your internet research before trying to do anything else with the bird.

Also, if you do an internet search on my name, you will find my email address. I am not a licensed rehabber and am definitely not the best person you could contact, but I’d certainly prefer to be asked how to keep the bird alive, rather than asked why it died.

Please stop “rescuing” baby birds and then asking me why they died

Please, please, please do not “rescue” baby birds if they are covered in feathers. They are fine: they are hiding, and being fed by their parents, and growing, and soon they will be able to fly even if they can’t yet. If you find a naked pink baby bird, and can’t see the nest it fell out of and put it back, then please use the internet to find a local wildlife rehabilitator and bring the animal to them. They know how to keep baby birds alive. It is difficult. If you try to raise a baby bird yourself, without specialized knowledge, it will probably die. I volunteer at a wildlife rehabilitation hospital, and our care of baby birds is complicated, from determining the diet to the amount to the best way to house and eventually release them. We are constantly advised by trained veterinarians. This is not something you should be trying to do at home unless, for some reason, there is absolutely no way to get the animal to a rehabilitator (maybe you live on a tiny island in the middle of the ocean?), and even then, you should contact a rehabilitator and ask for advice. Don’t just try to guess. You will guess wrong.

I know you want to help. I know you mean well. But good intentions will not prevent you from killing a baby bird. And then you comment on this blog to ask me why it died, and I get so many of these comments, so many stories of people accidentally-but-avoidably killing birds, and it makes me dread checking the comments on this blog in case there is another one of these stories. The baby bird died because you are not a bird and not a trained wildlife rehabilitator. Let the birds raise their babies.

I covered this is in this older post, including ways that you can help birds.

This wildlife rehabilitator has a good article on how to tell if an animal needs your help.

It took me 6 years to earn this lollipop

At UC Berkeley, when you file your PhD dissertation and everything is accepted—your committee signs off on the science; the administration confirms that your margins are the correct size—you get a lollipop.



I assume at some point you also get a diploma, but no one ever talks about that. Everyone just wants the lollipop.

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If you had a lollipop that had taken you six years to earn, would you save it or eat it?

Why it’s important to clean up fishing line

Anza_duckThis handsome bird is a male Ring-necked Duck, but not a happy one. I spotted him splashing in a small lake where a tangle of thin tree branches hung low over the water. A duck having a bath, I thought. Then, as he took a break from splashing and his head drooped so low that his bill went under the surface of the water, Maybe not.

His right foot was caught in a snarl of fishing line and attached to one of the submerged tree branches. The foot was bloody and, from what I could see, the leg broken, probably as a result of his attempts to free himself. There was absolutely no way he could have escaped the fishing line on his own: it was wrapped many times around his foot, the branch, and other branches. It probably caught his foot loosely at first, while he was diving for food; then, as he tugged at it, pulled tighter and tighter, until he was trussed to that branch and pulling against his own flesh when he struggled. Fishing line is made not to snap.

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Birds as friendly faces

A birder’s brain responds to photos of familiar bird species in a way that is, neurologically, “strikingly similar” to the way that anyone’s brain responds to photos of familiar human faces (Tanaka & Curran 2001): birders seem to use a similar strategy to recognize birds as everyone uses to recognize people they know. If you are a birder, this probably isn’t surprising; certainly, to me, recognizing a bird species feels similar to recognizing a friend. And it isn’t only birders: the study also looked at “dog experts”—which I did not know existed before I read this—and found the same pattern when those experts looked at photos of dogs. If you are passionate about models of cars or architectural styles or garden flowers, I wouldn’t be surprised if you experience the same thing.

(Bafflingly, the study reports that the photos it showed to the birders included “the robin, sparrow… oriole… [and] hawk,” none of which are actually individual species. Which sparrow, guys? Didn’t you talk to your birders at all while you were studying their brains?)


The sparrow, obviously. (Rufous-collared Sparrow, San Jose, Costa Rica.)

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Find the nest 5

This nest is a great example of juncos’ love of sloping ground. In some cases, like this one, the sloping ground is slope-y enough to call a wall. I wouldn’t call this a typical junco nest, but it’s not really surprising either: juncos are reliably creative with their nesting choices, which must make it difficult for predators to find them. This nest certainly seemed well-hidden—and it didn’t have to worry about being stepped on, either.

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Spinning science

Recently I was discussing my dissertation progress with another volunteer at the bird banding station. “I have all the data,” I said, “I just need to figure out how to spin it.”

She looked taken aback. “Well, it’s data,” she said. “It’s information. You don’t spin it; it just is.”

“Right,” I agreed quickly, in my best Objective Scientist voice. “Of course.”

I thought about this exchange a lot over the next few weeks. It had been a while since I had talked about my research at length with a non-scientist, and her reaction to my word choice made an impression. Why had I said “spin”? Did I mean “spin”?


“Spin” your data? Outrageous!

I paid more attention than usual to the word choices my colleagues made, and quickly realized that we all talk about spinning our data. We also talk about interpreting our data, and framing our data: similar and related concepts, but not exact synonyms for spinning the data. “Spinning” sounds underhanded, deceitful. It sounds like we are making the data say what we want it to say. Shouldn’t the data speak for itself?

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Birds in the hand again (finally!)

Today was my first day volunteering at a local bird banding station. This place is great: they have been banding birds for decades, recording population changes and individual measurements, and they care a lot about both the birds and the data.

More importantly, though:  I finally got my hands on some birds again.


Lincoln’s Sparrow, obviously delighted to be involved.

It’s been a while. I had an abbreviated field season this summer, so I haven’t held a bird since July. Since then I’ve been applying for postdocs and writing my dissertation, both of which involve a lot of sitting inside and staring at a computer screen. I need some bird time. That is, after all, the whole reason why I’m applying for postdocs and writing a dissertation: because I love these guys.


Male Ruby-crowned Kinglet showing his “crown”.

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Thanks for your patience!

Black Crowned Crane appreciates your understanding.

Black Crowned Crane appreciates your understanding.

Hi loyal readers,

I just wanted to say thanks for hanging in there – I’ve been short on posts these last few months. It’s not that I’m out of cool biology to cover! Rather, it’s that I’m trying to write my dissertation and apply for some postdocs with coinciding due dates, so all of my writing-about-science-ideas energy has been going towards those goals. Once the postdoc applications are submitted, I’ll be able to write more here again. (And these postdocs, if I got any of them, would make for some great research blog posts—cross your fingers!)

In the meantime, here are some more birds that appreciate your patience with me.

Southern Lapwing says "thank you" with a swagger.

Southern Lapwing says “thank you” with a swagger.

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Conferences everywhere

This is the first summer in several years that I’ve decided to prioritize something other than field work. This year, I’m focusing on going to conferences and writing up my work—as well as some field work, fear not: there will be photos of baby juncos this year.

Here's a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Here’s a Mew Gull chick to tide you over in the meantime.

Conferences are a strange combination of things. They are a chance to meet new people and spark collaborations: hey, you do that thing and I do this thing, we should do things together! But they are also a chance to size up the competition, to try to gauge where your work falls on the spectrum of research quality. Scientists naturally see each other as resources and potential collaborators, but occasionally we have to remember that we are all competing for the same limited pot of research funding, of post-doctoral positions, of jobs.

Sometimes fish, too.

Sometimes fish, too.

Given that reality, I’m always proud of how little we behave like competitors: we edit each other’s grant applications and give suggestions on each other’s job talks, even while we know that we too need grants and jobs.

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