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.
In the spring of 2015, a male House Wren and his mate built their nest inside a nestbox near a honeysuckle. His mate laid her eggs and dutifully incubated them. Then, one morning— cheep! cheep! High-pitched calls and gaping red mouths cried hungry, daddy! and the male wren was off in a paternal tizzy, collecting bugs and delivering them to his new offspring.
It was, maybe, odd that his new offspring weren’t in the nest that he had built. It was, maybe, odd that other, larger birds were also feeding his babies. It might even have been called odd that his mate was still sitting in their nest, atop whole and silent eggs. But— cheep! No time for that! The chicks were hungry!
What this male House Wren was doing, no doubt to the profound irritation of his mate, was feeding the offspring of a pair of Northern Cardinals who had nested in the honeysuckle near his nestbox.
Something is not quite right here. What is it?
This nest is a great example of juncos’ love of sloping ground. In some cases, like this one, the sloping ground is slope-y enough to call a wall. I wouldn’t call this a typical junco nest, but it’s not really surprising either: juncos are reliably creative with their nesting choices, which must make it difficult for predators to find them. This nest certainly seemed well-hidden—and it didn’t have to worry about being stepped on, either.
I’ve seen a lot of junco nests in my four years of field work. Rarely, I’ve been lucky enough to happen upon the nest of something other than a junco. I don’t find enough of these other nests to study them, so they don’t help me in my research—but boy, is it fun to find them!
Quick review: this is a junco nest.
This is not a junco nest:
Some major differences: the junco’s is a ground nest, while this one is a cup nest, suspended above the ground in the branches of a bush. The chicks are covered in light greyish fuzz instead of the junco chicks’ dark fuzz, and are maybe a bit stockier than the junco chicks.
We were searching for junco nests when I heard the unmistakable tic-tic-tic of junco alarm chipping. We followed the sound a ways and found a pair of juncos perched on a low branch, alarm chipping for all they were worth. Strange of the juncos to be alarm chipping at us when we were so far away, before, I thought. I wouldn’t have thought they’d see us as a threat from that far away. Odd birds. Directly below the branch with the agitated juncos was a small shrub. “The nest will be in there,” I predicted, showing off for my new field assistants.
I parted the prickly branches, and tiny pink beaks gaped hungrily at me. “There they are,” I said, pleased with myself. “Three chicks.”
And just as I said that, I saw the snake.
Juncos love to nest near corn lilies. Usually this means they nest near the base of the corn lily, using the thick stalk and broad leaves as cover. SEAL, however, decided that his nest didn’t need to be near an upright corn lily—and I have to admit that it’s not a bad idea: it took me an extra little while to find this nest, just because it didn’t look like a conventional junco nest location.
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?
This is the strangest nest placement I have seen from my juncos so far. The setting is a meadow with scattered corn lilies, an area favored by the cattle that sometimes graze in my field sites. The holes you see in the dirt are footprints left by cow hooves in the soft ground.
Before I studied juncos in California, I studied House Wrens in New York. Most days in the spring and summer I biked from my basement apartment to my field site, which had the no-nonsense label Unit One. The bike ride was an adventure in itself: I prepped for the field season by relearning how to stay on a bike, which I hadn’t done since childhood. (Contrary to the popular saying, it appears I can forget how to ride a bike.) On my way to Unit One I often came upon large snapping turtles stumping deliberately across the road, on the turtle-slow prowl for places to lay their eggs.
Unit One was primarily a field site for studying Tree Swallows. The front half of it was short grass broken up by regular rectangular ponds, over which the swallows stooped and swirled. House Wren territory lay past the manicured domain of the swallows, in forest dense with brush and mosquitoes. At the start of the field season I feared getting lost in it: the paths were overgrown, and I have a poor natural sense of direction.