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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Another freelance science mouse

A few months ago, my labmates who study chipmunks enlisted the help of one of my pet mice to test-run a chipmunk-monitoring device that they are hoping to use in the field this summer. That went well, and now they’re calling on another one of my mice for a simpler test: to see how long the glue they’re planning to use will keep their device attached to rodent fur. They want glue that will stay attached long enough for them to get good data, but not so long that the monitor becomes a permanent part of a chipmunk’s life.

Since chipmunks spend a lot of time in burrows, we chose my most burrow-loving mouse, who likes to spend all of his time hiding underneath things. He was not pleased to be forced out into the open.

Porter with the test chip glued to his back

Porter with the test chip glued to his fur

So far he hasn’t seemed to care a bit about the chip. However, he is quite annoyed that I now dig him up daily to check whether it is still attached. He’s not really a people mouse.

PLEASE just leave me alone.

PLEASE just leave me alone.

Much better.

Much better.