House Wrens are complicated, mysterious cheaters

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I got my start in ornithology studying the love lives of House Wrens. House Wrens pair up to raise their babies in a manner compellingly analogous to the human “nuclear family;” but, like most birds, both partners also often “cheat” on each other (i.e., copulate with other birds). This means that the male wren may have chicks in other nests besides his own, and he may end up caring for chicks that are not biologically related to him. (Note: edited. The original version of this sentence had a mistake.)

This sets up a number of interesting questions, such as: why cheat on your partner? Are the chicks sired by outside birds somehow better? Do males know when they are caring for chicks who aren’t their own? The answer to the latter question seems pretty clear (no, the males do not know), but the former two are more challenging.

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Last (?) junco field work

I was supposed to be done with field work after summer 2015, but you know how it is. The birds call. You realize that a few more blood samples would put the patterns you’re seeing in context in an illuminating way. You miss those feathery little dudes.

DSC_0169The small amount of field work I did this year took place much earlier than my usual field work because I was sampling juncos at a much lower elevation. Down here, the juncos are breeding in mid-March. Up at my usual sites, they wait until late May. That early start happened to be convenient for me, since I needed to analyze any data I got in time to file my dissertation in mid-May.

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Going out with a thud-crack-ow!

I just wrapped up what I think will be my last field work on the juncos for my dissertation. It was quite the eventful trip; I saw a few things I’ve never seen before – but more on that in a future post.

We were trying to catch an unbanded male. He was interested in our playback, but had escaped from the net once already, meaning he was likely to be wary of the net now. When he flew into the net the second time, I ran for him quickly, wanting to get to him before he managed to escape again.

…Or I started to run. Then I failed to clear a large rotting log and went down.

“Are you okay?” one of my field assistants asked.

“I’m not sure,” I answered honestly, from the ground. “Get the bird!”

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The temperatures of field work, made visible

In the field, I become especially attentive to temperature. Is it too cold to catch birds? Are my hands warm enough to not chill a bird when I hold it? Recently, a friend very kindly let me take his FLIR ONE to the field: this is a device that fits over your phone and lets you take photos of heat. (Normal photos are of visible light.) Warmer objects show up as yellows and whites; colder objects are blue and black. The photos it takes aren’t of absolute temperature—that is, 40 degrees F isn’t always the exact same color—but rather of relative temperature: within the same photo, you can use the colors to compare temperatures, but you can’t compare across photos.

This was a lot of fun to use in the field, especially since the weather so generously gave us lots of temperatures to observe by snowing on us. Did you know that snow is cold, and humans are warmer than snow?

Now you do!

Now you do!

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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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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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Stop walking on the ground!

I’ve heard it said that the point of a PhD is to make you the absolute world expert on one particular slice of the universe. Too many incredibly smart people work on juncos for me to hope to become the world expert on them, but my several years of thinking about juncos more-or-less constantly has left me tuned to a slightly different wavelength than the rest of the world: call it Radio Junco.

Hear it?

Hear it?

Sometimes this makes me seem like a cross between a psychic and someone who has come unhinged: my brain picks out and focuses on all junco noises, so that I will stop, cock my head, and then declare “There’s a mated pair here,” or “Fledgling in that bush!” into what clearly seems like silence to my new field assistants.

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