What can we learn from 1500 junco bills?

Every scientist has a few favorite science stories: those papers or sets of papers that we read early in our careers and then reread often, that we think of when we imagine our own ideal research program. One of mine—not exactly a hidden gem, as it’s in all the textbooks now, and is the subject of a very good general-audience book, The Beak of the Finch—is the Grants’ work on Galápagos finches. Peter and Rosemary Grant have spent decades documenting how bill size and shape in these finches fluctuates as rainy years and droughts change the food available on their small island. It’s as complete a picture of evolution in real time as anyone has ever drawn, and a powerful argument for predictable rules (like “bills must be the right size to open the seeds that are available”) leading to unpredictable outcomes in the complexity of a natural system. It’s beautiful.

I wanted to see if I could see similar patterns in the juncos. Like the finches, juncos are primarily seed-eaters. Unlike the finches, the juncos are not neatly contained on a small island; and unlike the Grants, I did not have 30 years to study them. Fortunately, I work in a museum, which is basically a biological time machine. Want to know what junco bills looked like in 1915? No problem!

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Thus my time communing with the long-dead feathered denizens of the specimen drawers. Where the Grants had had to live through the decades of data they acquired, I took a shortcut.

Like all shortcuts, however, there were some downsides. I did not get to live in the Galápagos. Also, I was very limited in which juncos I could measure: I might be interested in juncos from a certain mountain range, but if a junco from that range hadn’t been stuffed and placed in a drawer 70 years ago, I was out of luck.

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House Wrens are complicated, mysterious cheaters

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I got my start in ornithology studying the love lives of House Wrens. House Wrens pair up to raise their babies in a manner compellingly analogous to the human “nuclear family;” but, like most birds, both partners also often “cheat” on each other (i.e., copulate with other birds). This means that the male wren may have chicks in other nests besides his own, and he may end up caring for chicks that are not biologically related to him. (Note: edited. The original version of this sentence had a mistake.)

This sets up a number of interesting questions, such as: why cheat on your partner? Are the chicks sired by outside birds somehow better? Do males know when they are caring for chicks who aren’t their own? The answer to the latter question seems pretty clear (no, the males do not know), but the former two are more challenging.

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The very confused wren and the birdwatcher who noticed

In the spring of 2015, a male House Wren and his mate built their nest inside a nestbox near a honeysuckle. His mate laid her eggs and dutifully incubated them. Then, one morning— cheep! cheep! High-pitched calls and gaping red mouths cried hungry, daddy! and the male wren was off in a paternal tizzy, collecting bugs and delivering them to his new offspring.

It was, maybe, odd that his new offspring weren’t in the nest that he had built. It was, maybe, odd that other, larger birds were also feeding his babies. It might even have been called odd that his mate was still sitting in their nest, atop whole and silent eggs. But— cheep! No time for that! The chicks were hungry!

What this male House Wren was doing, no doubt to the profound irritation of his mate, was feeding the offspring of a pair of Northern Cardinals who had nested in the honeysuckle near his nestbox.

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Hurray for California rain

California is in the middle of a severe drought. Winter is the rainy season here, and the last two winters weren’t rainy. The drought’s major human impact has been agriculture-related: California grows a hefty portion of the US’s fruits, vegetables, and livestock, all of which require water. The drive to my field sites takes me through the agriculture-heavy Central Valley, and the drought was clearly apparent this summer. The fields were all cracked dry earth and yellow grass, with the rare irrigated green square standing out like artificial turf. One afternoon late in the field season, a light rain sprinkled as we drove through the valley, and we rolled down the windows and cheered.

The Central Valley is thirsty.

The Central Valley is thirsty.

Concerns over agriculture affect everyone; but beyond them, and more personally, I can’t help seeing the drought through the lens of a field biologist.

I have colleagues who slip and slosh through mud all summer to study Black Rails—or who hope that there will be mud to slosh through, anyway, because the small, secretive Black Rail relies on the existence of marshes in which to hide from predators and hatch its comically large-footed chicks. Less rain means fewer and smaller marshes for the Black Rails.

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How I got into research

In the sciences we think a lot about how to recruit more [insert underrepresented group here]. There are a lot of challenges to this, such as that many people may not know that there are real paying jobs to be had studying animals/chemicals/theoretical physics, or that many entry-level research positions pay next to nothing so you have to have a certain level of financial security just to start out in the field. But even if you know the jobs exist, and even if you have figured out the finances somehow, you still have to have the confidence to go for it, and that can be difficult. It’s easy to think that you don’t know enough to start research, or that everyone else must know more than you do.

So this is How I got into research: or, I promise you are not less qualified than I was, so just go for it.

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Shutdowns and outages: when infrastructure fails science

Last night, my university’s campus suffered a power outage, possibly due to the theft of copper grounding cables. Everyone—well, everyone not trapped in an elevator—was ordered to evacuate campus, which turned out to be a good call, because a backup generator then exploded, spitting flames two stories high. (No one was seriously injured.)

My scientist colleagues and I, while worrying about the trapped elevator people and the explosion, had one more thing to sweat over: our samples. If the freezers in our building go down, they can take years’ worth of research samples with them. One of my labmates had just returned from the field the previous day, and all of her summer of work was potentially thawing out that night.

OH NO!

OH NO!

Today, the country has a government outage. The government shutdown is already having widespread effects, and these will only worsen if it continues. I am lucky in my experience of the shutdown compared to most people: I am not losing the food stamps I depend on or the wages I have earned, for example. But the effects are still shocking. This morning I received this email, from the government office that issues banding permits and bands to people like me who band birds to study them:

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