I’m not conducting junco-focused field work anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve lost my fondness for the little guys. I was delighted this spring to find a junco nest not five meters from my front door, well-hidden in the crotch of an ornamental tree.
A barn owl chick: fierce AND fluffy.
The injured raptors at the wildlife rehabilitation hospital are kept in roomy metal cages lined with towels. There are pillow cases hung over the doors so that the raptors aren’t distressed by the sight of humans. The individual medical records hang on the outside of each door: Barn Owl, admitted 7/4/18, Fx L clavicle. It’s meant to be a calming environment, dim and quiet, with nothing for the raptors to do but eat their food and heal. Usually the raptors sit quietly in their cages, but occasionally there is one who throws himself at the door. You can’t see him, only hear him in his frustration: crash – crash – crash!
Most of the raptors need medications at least once per day. Liquid antibiotics and painkillers, topical eye ointments, pills. This requires one person to fetch them from their cage and restrain them from harming anyone while a second person medicates them.
My first ever in-hand Slate-colored Junco!
While the thunderstorms and fog kept every other bird subdued, one species sang out boldly through the Smoky Mountain forests: my friend the junco. In North Carolina these juncos were not the birds I did my PhD work on, however; those were in the Oregon Junco group, with chestnut backs and sides and dark hoods, while these were in the Slate-colored Junco group, as all-over grey as their name implies. I was extremely excited when one of these new juncos decided to fly into our net so that I could take a closer look and hold a new subspecies of junco.
We head for the Smoky Mountains full of confidence: the Kentucky Warblers may have proved to be elusive, but every source suggests that our new quarry will be more forthcoming. The Canada Warbler is known to be a particularly aggressive bird, likely to respond quickly to our calls; the American Redstart is a common and easy-to-find species. We will catch them easily while enduring less moisture and fewer mosquitos than before.
We were targeting Kentucky Warblers in Howell Woods, but a few other species seem to have missed that memo. Perhaps they wanted us to study their migratory routes, too.
Or perhaps not.
We have ten days in North Carolina to get DNA samples from three species breeding there. Our target for the first five days is the Kentucky Warbler, a golden bird with a black mask whose population is declining. It is a highly local bird, meaning that we can’t just find them anywhere within the shaded region of a large-scale range map: we need specific location information. We get this information from eBird, following birders’ reported sightings to a place about an hour south of Raleigh called Howell Woods.
“How did y’all find us?” asks the manager of Howell Woods. “There’s folks on our road that don’t know we exist, but somehow we get birders from Europe asking about Kentucky Warbler and Mississippi Kite. I never understand it.”
You’ve gone to peek at a nest. For a moment, all the little feathered heads regard you with large, dark eyes—and then in a flurry and a tumble they are out of the nest, running every which way along the ground, and their parents are scolding you and swooping among their babies in apparent panic. Oh no! Will the babies be okay?
This is possibly the question I am asked most frequently. Sometimes the inquirer has managed to catch a few of the babies and replace them in the nest, only for the babies to promptly hop back out. Other times the babies have swiftly vanished, and the inquirer—often someone who has watched the nest over the course of weeks, growing attached to their fluffy neighbors—is left, quite suddenly, with silence and absence and a gnawing guilt.
And that reason is that I am a hoarder. But that turns out to be fortunate, because I’ve become involved in a project that just so happens to need someone to go sample some birds for them, and I already have all the tools.
In a few weeks a co-conspirator and I will head off to North Carolina and West Virginia to chase three target species:
Kentucky Warbler. Photo by Julio Mulero: www.flickr.com/photos/juliom/
Readers who have been with me a while will remember “Buddy,” the white-spotted male junco who lived near my workplace for years. Unusually-colored juncos aren’t as rare as, say, the recently-spotted yellow cardinal, but they aren’t common either. (In my field work in the Sierras we banded ~500 juncos, and only one had a color abnormality.) As a lover of both rare birds and juncos, I get pretty excited about them when I find them.
This particular junco flashed up out of a bush as I was walking past. The size, tail, and movement pattern all said “junco”—but when the bird landed in a tree and I got a good look, my brain’s bird-ID function got confused: “Big chickadee!” it suggested. “Small kestrel! Big-small-chickadee-kestrel-junco!”
Choosing your mate is an important decision. If you are a species that cares for your offspring, you and your mate need to be able to coordinate your care, and you must be able to rely on your mate to pull their weight. (Watch the albatross cam to see how the mated albatrosses depend on each other—one stays back with the chick while the other flies off to get food. If the food-getter never came back, or the chick-minder wandered off, the chick would die.) More fundamentally, whether or not you care for your offspring, you and your mate must be able to have biologically healthy offspring together.
Animals do not always get this right. The recently-in-the-news stories of Thomas the goose, who bonded with a black swan and spent his days helping that swan and his mate raise their cygnets, and Nigel the gannet, who was devoted to a concrete gannet dummy, are good examples of the errors an animal heart can make. From an evolutionary perspective, these are bad decisions: they prevent the lovestruck individual from passing on their genes to future generations. (All reports suggest that Thomas and Nigel appeared happy, so from an individual perspective, the mistake may not be so bad.)
But sometimes—very, very rarely—an error in mate choice, instead of being an evolutionary dead end, is the beginning of an entirely new lineage.