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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Fat bird season

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It’s the time of year when migrants come through the banding station on their way from their breeding grounds in the north to their wintering grounds in the south. We see a greater variety of species now—not just those who like to breed here, but everyone who thinks our patch of forest looks like a good place to stop for a snack. It isn’t just that these are different species, though: these birds have a different feel to them. These are travelers on a genuinely long and perilous journey. We banders are, I hope, just a blip in any bird’s day—a frightening moment to be shaken off by mid-afternoon—but the days we interrupt for these migrating birds are epic days.

This is physically manifested, on the birds, as fat.

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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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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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Learn about speciation from that one weird duck at the park

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Every park has at least one weird duck. It’s the wrong colors—all white, or patchy white; its bill bright storybook orange or its face weirdly red and lumpy. Next to the other ducks it looks oversized and bulky, like a linebacker in a crowd of quarterbacks.

How new species form, and what determines whether they last, is one of the major topics in evolutionary biology; and much of this topic is embodied by that one weird duck.

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Parallel universes

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Male Common Yellowthroat, a frequent visitor at the banding station.

Unusually heavy rains have put much of the banding station underwater for the past three months. One side effect of this is that, on the days when the area is sufficiently dried out for us to squelch out in our rubber boots and band birds, the mud shows the tracks of everyone else who has been out there before us.

Usually the denizens of the banding station of whom I am aware are the birds we catch in the nets and band. These tend to be small- to medium-sized songbirds. The mud reveals an entirely different set of creatures living in the area.

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Raccoon hand prints near a human bootprint.

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Bathtime, carefully

For birds, cleanliness is not optional. They rely on their feathers for flight and insulation, and only replace those feathers once or twice each year. In between molts, they need to keep their feathers as whole as possible.

Feathers, like our hair, are made of protein; and like all organic things, they degrade over time. Sunlight hastens this degradation, but certain aspects of the feathers themselves can slow it: dark feathers colored with melanin last longer in sunlight, for example. Of more concern, though, are the many creepy-crawly things that like to eat protein, and will happily hang out in a bird’s feathers, munching and laying eggs.

To combat these parasites, birds coat their feathers in protective oil from the preen gland located at the base of their tail, and they bathe.

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But they have to be careful. Small wild birds are lunch for everything from feral cats to Cooper’s Hawks, and no bird wants one of these sneaking up on it while it is obliviously scrubbing behind its ears. So they bathe in bursts, a plunge into the water followed by a quick look around.

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Did anybody see that?

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