First trip of the final junco field season

As endless as PhDs may seem to those in the thick of them, they do end. I am now almost exactly one year out from my planned graduation date, which means that I need to transition from collecting my data to analyzing and disseminating my results. Practically, this means that I can’t spend the whole summer out in the mountains tracking juncos, like the last three years. I need to also spend the summer running analyses, writing, and presenting at conferences.

Of course, I can go out to the mountains sometimes. Just to see what the juncos are up to. They would probably miss me otherwise, right? I’ll just collect a little more data…

We do not miss you. Look, why don't you not come here, and we'll send you a postcard maybe?

We do not miss you. Look, why don’t you not come here, and we’ll send you a postcard maybe?

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Find the nest 2

This well-hidden nest took us a long time to find, even after we knew approximately where it should be. While we were searching, a man came to set up for a bike race and moved a port-o-potty right into the area where we thought the nest was, despite my protests. We worried that the parents of the nest would be too disturbed by the looming port-o-potty and the crowd of cyclists to feed the chicks, but fortunately that was not the case: the chicks grew up and fledged successfully.

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Find the nest

Juncos nest on the ground, which might seem dangerous: ground nests are more accessible to predators than nests in trees. However, a nest in a tree is certain to be, well, somewhere in a tree; a nest on the ground could be anywhere. The ground of a forest or meadow or even a campground is a complex surface, with lots and lots of places where a junco nest could be, only a very tiny fraction of which actually contain a junco nest.

In this series of “Find the nest” posts, I’m going to try to share with you the challenge of looking at a habitat and guessing where a junco nest might be, and the excitement of finding a well-hidden nest. Each post will have a slide show of photos, beginning with a zoomed-out image of a fairly large area, and progressively zooming in to eventually reveal the junco nest. All of the photos are from my field work and are of real wild junco nests.

Use the back and forward arrows and the pause button to navigate the slide show.

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Do birds have a sense of smell?

Not too long ago, the generally-accepted answer to this question would have been: “Not really—a few birds do, but most don’t.” This was largely based on the observation that most birds have very small olfactory bulbs in their brain relative to their overall brain size. As we observe bird behavior, however, we are are increasingly realizing that most birds can and do use smell regularly, often for very important things.

Let’s begin with the birds that have been known for a long time to use smell. Kiwi birds are unique in having their nostrils on the end of their bills, rather than close to the base of the bill like all other birds. Kiwis stick that long bill into the soil and use their nostrils to sniff for insects and worms.

Brown Kiwi chick. Photo by Smithsonian's National Zoo*

Brown Kiwi chick.
Photo by Smithsonian’s National Zoo*

It makes a lot of sense that kiwis have a good sense of smell, even if you think that birds in general don’t, because kiwis seem to have evolved to be the avian version of a small fuzzy mammal. Kiwis evolved on the islands of New Zealand, where the only mammals were bats. The small-brown-fuzzy-nocturnal-snuffling-in-the-dirt-for-worms niche was open for the taking, and kiwis—flightless, nocturnal, and covered in long thin feathers that are highly reminiscent of hair—took it. A good sense of smell goes with that niche.

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Chicks with attitude

2014_attitude1

Mammals—including us—use facial muscles to communicate, by, say, smiling or frowning. Reptiles and birds don’t do that: they don’t have the right muscles for it. If you think a bird looks grumpy, or angry, or has any similar human-type facial expression, you’re projecting your human perceptions onto an animal that really doesn’t work like that. (Now, whether the bird actually is grumpy is a different matter; I’m just saying that you can’t tell if it is by looking at its face.)

So the appearance that all these junco chicks have of possessing some serious attitude is merely an entertaining illusion.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

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Juncos underground

Juncos nest on the ground (usually; sometimes they will nest higher, even reusing old robins’ nests, but I’ve never seen this myself. It’s probably because I’m short). This makes their nests tricky to find, since in the first place, there is a lot of “the ground” to search, and in the second place, you have to be really careful where you step while you search.

They don’t just nest on the ground, though: they often hide their nests underneath things. Some of them are quite good at it.

YABI's nest. What do you mean, you can't see it - it's right there!

YABI’s nest. What do you mean, you can’t see it – it’s right there!

See, there it is!

See, there it is!

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