Start looking

Science requires careful planning, foresight, and scrupulous attention to detail. Everything must be controlled so that the variables of interest can be examined. One mistake could bring everything down. Only with years of training can someone hope to add to our body of knowledge.

But if you take all of that too seriously, you’ll spend all of your time planning and theorizing rather than looking—and the most important part of science happens when people just start looking.

Peder V. Thellesen is a dairy farmer in Denmark. He has no formal scientific training. Evidently he loves starlings: he started banding them and observing their nests in 1971 and continued to do so every year, in nestboxes on his own farm and on his neighbors’ farms.

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It’s easy to see how you might fall for that gorgeous plumage. Photo by Phil McIver, reproduced from flickr under a Creative Commons license.

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Birds and turtles work hard even before they hatch from their eggs

You would think an embryo in an egg could relax. They can’t eat, or go anywhere; what can the world ask of them, besides that they grow? A decade ago it would have seemed ridiculous to talk about “embryo behavior.” Now, though, we know that even embryos have things to do.

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There’s more going on in there than you think. Photo by Chris Setter on flickr, used via a Creative Commons license.

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Very hungry caterpillars

It’s almost a pity that we introduce children to caterpillars so young. The magic of the transformation of a squishy, unimpressive tube into a living, fluttering creature apparently made of stained glass gets muddled up with the rest of the magic of childhood and is too easy to forget when we grow up. Everyone knows about caterpillars turning into butterflies, but almost no one really thinks about it.

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Photo by Andrea Westmoreland, reproduced through a Creative Common license from Flickr.

Even before they turning into butterflies (or moths), caterpillars are impressive. They hatch tiny, into a bird-eat-caterpillar world, and their one crucial job is to grow big in time to metamorphose. This isn’t a particularly complex task—there’s a reason caterpillars are basically just digestive systems on legs—but it isn’t necessarily easy, either. They need to find the right food and eat it quickly without being eaten themselves.

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Cats are in a human-made trap. It’s our duty to get them out of it.

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When I was kid, I thought I didn’t like cats. It didn’t help that every time I got near one, my eyes got itchy and my nose ran. My cat allergy disappeared around the time I went to college, where I volunteered at the local animal shelter and got a new perspective on felines. In the second year of my PhD program, I went to the East Bay SPCA and adopted a 3-year-old former stray.

I love my cat. She is 40% sweetheart, 40% terror, and 20% judgmental staring statue.

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It looks like I’m sleeping, but I am watching your every move.

I am an ecologist, an ornithologist, and a bird-lover, so I know some things about cats that a lot of cat lovers may not. It all adds up to this: humans have put cats into an ecological trap, and we continue to do so, often with the best of intentions. It is not the cats’ fault. It is our human duty to get them out of this trap, for the cats’ sakes and for wildlife.

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Birds and mirrors, revisited

I wrote about birds and mirrors a while ago, and not much has changed scientifically since then. Most bird species tested have interpreted their own reflections as other individuals, responding either with aggression or courtship. Female pigeons who view their own reflections ovulate, apparently interpreting their reflections as suitable mates. Among birds, only magpies, so far, have been demonstrated to understand that the mirror reflects their own image, although pigeons can be trained to use spatial information from mirrors correctly in the real world.

So why bring this up again? Recently I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler interacting with its reflection in a car side mirror, and took a video with my phone. Here it is (apologies for the lack of zoom):

At the time I took the video, I didn’t think much of it beyond general amusement. But rewatching it, I began to have some questions.

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Animal accomplishments that have caused my students to break into applause

I’m teaching an Animal Behavior course this semester. The lectures are 80 minutes long and exactly during the sleepiest time of the afternoon; I enjoy the challenge of getting a reaction from the students under these circumstances. Videos of baby animals in peril always get attention (some good ones: marine iguana, barnacle goose, water buffalo), but they’re so reliable it almost feels like cheating.

My students have actually broken into applause during lecture three times so far. One of these will not be discussed in detail (it involved the recitation of poetry), but the other two were in response to two quite different animal accomplishments, which I thought I would share.

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This might be why full moons are spooky

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Photo by Patrick Emerson*

The full moon is pregnant with foreboding interpretations, from the legendary werewolves who are supposed to transform under its malevolently shining face to a recent article about November’s upcoming full “supermoon” that faux-reassures, “despite all the rumors… there is no evidence linking supermoons to natural disasters.”

If you look at a full moon and shiver, you aren’t alone—but you are a bit of a mystery. In humanity’s past, the full moon should have been the safest time of the month, since our nocturnal predators tend to attack most on dark nights. The new moon should be spooky, as your hindbrain—unaware that you no longer live on the African savannah (unless you do!)—looks out for predators slinking in the shadows. This is presumably why the fear of darkness is such a common and instinctual one. But the full moon is bright: it should be comforting.

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