To identify the species, sex, and age of a bird, a bird bander in North America relies either on personal experience with the species or on the massive handbook of bird descriptions known as the Pyle Guide. The Pyle Guide is full of confidence-instilling descriptions like “Juvenile rectrices usually pointed, but occasionally truncate” and “Male scapulars brownish-black, compared to blackish-brown in female.” To make matters still more confusing, birds can vary from site to site, meaning that the description in Pyle based on a population 100 miles distant may not be correct for your own local population. One of the best tools a bird bander can have, as they squint at a bird and wonder whether its iris is “red-brown” or “maroon” and whether that is even relevant to their local birds, is a comparison photo showing local birds.
You have to be a bit lucky to capture such photos: you have to happen to catch both birds at the same time. When you usually catch five or fewer birds at a time, as we do, the chances that any two of them will be an informative comparison becomes small. Each of these pair photos is a little special for this reason.
One of the many fun things about bird banding is that you never know who you’ll catch next: every bird is a surprise. To try to share that feeling, I’m running brief profiles of selected birds we’ve caught in a mini-blog called “Notes from the Station.” The birds profiled definitely tend toward the more conventionally “exciting,” but I try not to neglect our good common birds too—they have their own interesting stories. Each profile includes a photo of the bird and some information about it, and every one is a real bird with real data. I try to do a few new profiles each week. Check it out!
Facebird. Instagrebe. Tikstork. Linkedpenguin. Twitter. Only one of these is real, and I’m pretty sure that even on Twitter the number of actual birds participating is negligible. Birds do have social networks though—the old-fashioned analog kind, made up of flockmates and siblings and reproductive partners and rivals. Some species, like the Black-capped Chickadee, have tight-knit flocks with elaborate social hierarchies; others, like the Hermit Thrush, live most of their lives alone. These differences are surely fundamental to shaping the lives of birds, from their mundane daily experiences to how they tackle life-or-death challenges. If you spot a deadly predator like a Cooper’s Hawk, do you try to disappear quietly into the brush or do you risk your safety by giving an alarm call to warn your companions?
Recently I flew from a particularly dire version of Minnesota winter—periodic rain making no dent in the graying heaps of snow, while rendering the smooth ice-covered sidewalks puddle-pocked and slick, so that it was not unusual to find oneself sliding inexorably down an icy slope into four inches of slushy water—into the blush of spring.
This new season was in California, where I was visiting my fiancé for the weekend. (Long-distance relationships are a staple of academia; my Minnesota labmates have significant others in Seattle and India.) Three hours on a plane headed west and I seemed to have jumped forward two months. Puffed-up robins in the snow…
…were replaced with marsh wrens singing furious declarations of their virility.
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.
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.
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 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.”