Posts Tagged ‘birds’

Made of This

July 29th, 2012 | Meera

Friends:

It seems like a light year since I sat in front of my old apartment window in Hyde Park and typed my last post to let you know I was soon going to be spending the field season in Alaska. While I was gone, Ross emptied out that apartment into boxes and turned his key in its lock for the last time. The boxes now sit in a pod in some dark warehouse—where exactly, I cannot say—waiting for California and yet another first day.

It seems like two light years since I put my nose to the curved window of a helicopter that climbed, banked, and turned from a half-dismantled field site that had once been my home entire. The creek where we drew water and which we had crossed dozens of times flashed briefly in the rising—but was the signal land, or go away? From above, the place looked too small to have contained all of our summer’s living.

Somehow, oddly, it seems longest of all since I released two of my four-person crew from brief, late hugs, ran through the security area, and crossed the tarmac of Bethel’s tiny airport. I was almost the final seated passenger on the plane that would start my journey back to Chicago, where I am now bound for yet another last day.

I say light years because all this feels more like distance than time.

Tent, Day 3

As I go along I’ll tell you more—much more, I hope—about this summer’s living, which was sometimes easy and sometimes hard and always good. For the present there is just one small thing I wanted to talk to you about, because it has been on my mind as I have returned to this paved and chattering city.

After I left Alaska I wrote in an email that I was grateful to have had “nine weeks’ worth of that other life I’m always seeking: the one where the world is not something you are in but something you are of.” At the time I don’t know if I had more than an intuitive sense of what I intended. But since then I have been unfolding things a little in my mind and thinking about what it is I mean by being “of the world.”

The city is very much alive, and I try to be aware of as much of it as I can. Since I’ve been back I’ve been hearing my favorite kind of crackling in the trees every evening, a very welcome sound (as far as I know there are no singing insects in Alaska). Cooper’s hawks and great blue herons wheel overhead on my early morning runs through the cemetery near the place where I have rented a temporary room. Rabbits buoy over green lawns, and when I walk out to the lake after a day at the museum the air is thick with gulls.

In some ways, especially toward the end of the season, the wildlife at our field site (here it is, very approximately, on a map) was actually a little quieter—less teeming—than Chicago’s. What made me feel more present in that world had nothing to do with the abundance of life; it had something to do with using and being used by it.

It’s true that much of the wildlife in the city lives intertwined with the artifacts of human existence—true that sitting for lunch on a bench means being besieged by pigeons and squirrels impatient to brawl over your leavings. But what this usually feels like to me is the edges of two kingdoms touching: one human, one other. Both feel vast and systematic, in contact but fundamentally separate.

Things were different in the wilderness. There our human kingdom was small, and as light-footed as possible. There is no doubt we were a considerable disruption on the landscape, but the things that lived around us quickly grew used to our presence. And though they didn’t depend on us in the way that most house sparrows depend on urban infrastructure, they did begin to take advantage of us—just as they took advantage of each other. And we took advantage of them, as well.

Allen Creek Camp 2012

I’ll tell you what I mean.

There were two red foxes that made a habit of passing through our campsite of an evening, crossing the water west of our tents to hunt for hare or ptarmigan or vole or to steal an egg or two from a nest. When they did, we would see them using our tracks: those long, trampled-down paths we’d made either this season or in one of the previous two at Allen Creek.

For us the trails were unconsciously made. They snaked between various tents, or between camp and the muddy spot on the bank where we dipped buckets into water. For the foxes, they were conveniently flattened walkways over rutted, undulating terrain. One night I looked up from my journal, half-aware of a whimbrel crying foul behind my tent, and saw a canny hunter trotting directly past my door, catch in his mouth, following a short section of the path Kristine must have made between her tent and the weatherport.

Tree swallows—many miles from the nearest grove—nested in our camp. Lacking high branches, they would use our laundry lines and the tops of our tents as convenient places from which to display, calling out in their astonishing liquid voices and stopping at first one nylon roof, then another. They copulated on a great many of our tents and lines, as well. When later they began nesting in earnest, I left a pile of willow ptarmigan feathers I had been collecting next to our storage tent, and one by one they disappeared with a flick of a bill and a wave of a tail.

swallows by jake

This photo of our swallow pair was taken by Jacob Francis Jung, the kindest, gentlest extremely tall person I know. Jake is soon to become a doctor on the basis of his Bristle-thighed curlew research, but he’s also getting some excellent wildlife photography under his belt.

The ptarmigan were our closest and dearest of neighbors. One male in particular was always shooting up and barking right in front of the windows through which we looked as we ate and read and planned the day. The “Camp Ptarmigan” seemed to grow especially accustomed to us. He once fell asleep not six feet away from me after having greedily eaten his fill of overwintered berries, the red comb above his eye drooping gently in repose as I watched. Once he hopped on top of a snow-covered cooler where we were storing meat and cheese and bread and sat there preening for a long time, as if it were a hummock he’d decided belonged to him. Later a small pile of purple crap remained behind.

As for us, if we were careful not to spook anyone, well-trodden moose trails made for wonderfully easy walking through the otherwise dense masses of shrubs that lined either side of the creek or drainages. If we spotted a raven, a short-eared owl, a harrier, or a golden eagle flying low above a curlew territory we were observing, always we would turn an extra-careful eye and ear toward it; the presence of a predator sometimes called up our birds from hidden places on the ground to scold and mob.

If we found a long-tailed jaeger nest, we would monitor the area around it very carefully, because this using each other applied in all directions. We had reason to believe that curlews, for instance, took advantage of fierce jaeger nest defense behavior to protect their own incubating eggs, as if hiding behind the coattails of a bully.

Certainly at least one ptarmigan couple did this: dive-bombed by a pair of screeching jaegers, David flushed a quiet brown female nesting very close by. We checked on the nest later in the season. Unlike many others, it had not been depredated. A whirl of chicks rushed through the grasses.

7.22.12 Telolecithal

The shells of abandoned beaver lodges stippled the drainages that criss-crossed our study area. For weeks we tried to figure out where a pair of red foxes were keeping the kits we hoped they had—fancying from what we had seen that they were tucked inside a simple snow den. But later, scanning the horizon for curlews, I saw a smart, fiery shape atop the broken branches of an old lodge. When I pointed and Jake peered through the scope, he shouted “Kits!” And I yelped, “No way!”

But way, for these glorious tricksters had taken over what was built by one species and become, as water receded, an incredibly safe, hidden, warm, dry hall for housing another. Two brown babies with dense puppy coats tumbled underneath their parent on the beaver mound.

So we were happily used. And happily used others. And saw how everyone around us did the same, when they could—when they were not otherwise fleeing from or pursuing each other.

It was a single, beautifully selfish world, and this, friends, was one way I knew that we were not just in it but of it. I am laughing right now to say it, but it is true: sweet dreams are made of this.

7.20.12 Crepuscular

*******


In case you are interested, I am sharing and annotating Alaska photos very slowly, here.

While I was gone, the lovely DeLene Beeland (who just became a mother! Hooray!) wrote a review of my book which, as I told her, made me cry. This isn’t hard, as many things make me cry, but nevertheless: it is a great gift to be read with such care. The funny thing—or is it just the ordinary, inevitable thing?—is that I already feel like a different person from the one who wrote Mountainfit. All my thanks to DeLene.

Full of Food

April 29th, 2012 | Meera

Alaska, wrote John Muir, is full of food for man and beast, body and soul, though few are seeking it as yet. Were one-tenth part of the attractions this country has to offer made known to the world, thousands would come every year, and not a few of them would stay and make homes.

He wrote: How truly wild it is, and how joyously one’s heart responds to the welcome it gives.

Friends, I found myself hungry in body and soul last year, so I went north. And this year I am still hungry, so I am going north again.

Between tomorrow and mid-July, I’ll be working in the wilderness of far western Alaska, serving as a field volunteer on a Fish and Wildlife Service project. There will be four of us, two scientists and two volunteers, camping out on the vast montane tundra, studying the breeding habits of the rare, secretive, and by all accounts beguiling shorebird known—charmingly—as the Bristle-thighed Curlew (Numenius tahitiensis).

I wish I could post updates from the field like I did last summer, but unfortunately we’ll be entirely offline and out of cellphone access, so I’ll do my best to take notes and tell you a little bit when I get back about whether John Muir was right. (Spoiler: I’m pretty sure he was.)

BTCU with EJ leg flag

Photo: The US Fish and Wildlife Service, Pacific Region.

In the meantime, all my love, all my thanks for being so supportive of these excursions, and if we haven’t already talked about all this hunger business, my book Mountainfit will tell you everything you need to know. If you are new to The Science Essayist and aren’t quite sure whether you like my writing enough to spend five dollars on it, this review from doctoral candidate Sienna Latham—who studies the history of science and is one of the wonderful people who backed my Kickstarter project to get the book written—might give you a sense of what it’s like.

Be safe, friends. I’ll talk to you soon.

The Tonic of a Northern Goshawk

January 17th, 2012 | Meera

I’m leaving Chicago tomorrow to attend Science Online 2012, a small but by all accounts raucous conference that brings together scientists, science writers, and science lovers for a three-day conversation about ways to communicate science in this age we call (rather quaintly) digital.

I feel about this sort of the way you might feel about going bungee jumping: I think it’s going to be fun, but first I need someone to throw my butt off the mountain. As it happens, the person who threw my butt off the mountain was Meera-of-two-months-ago, who registered late one night while she was alone in the house, in a sort of haze of reckless abandon.

At any rate, since I’m going to miss my regular Thursday at the bird lab, I went in today to make up for it—and Dave, who has of late been almost as excited about giving me new species as I am about preparing them—had put out something wonderful for me to work on. It was thawing under a lamp when I walked in, all streaky and soft and pantalooned and raptor-y. It had a long tail, broad, pointed wings, and a beautiful curled bill. It was a Northern Goshawk (Accipiter gentilis), a bird I had never seen before either in life or death, and it was breathtaking.

According to the data associated with the bird, it had been picked up on October 12th of last year in Duluth, Minnesota; no other information about its condition or circumstances was available. But I couldn’t see any signs of injury as I prepared it, and it was very thin. Dave thought it might have starved to death; an ill-fitting end for a fierce and clever hunter. Almost every description you read of the Goshawk will tell you that it is such a potent symbol of ferocity that Attila the Hun had its image emblazoned on his helmet: a story that goes back at least to the days of the 16th-century Italian naturalist Aldrovandus.)

I knew the Gos was a bird to admire as soon as I discovered that although it mostly eats grouse, songbirds, and small mammals like rabbits and squirrels, it is also one of only a few birds of prey that will go after corvids like rooks and crows. Corvids are notoriously ingenious, aggressive, and apt to harass falcons, hawks, and owls in great black mobs. In my book, any bird that regularly chooses and vanquishes such a target must have a fine heart, a quick eye, and sharp talons.

As I was skinning, some friends from the Division of Fishes stopped by to make their rounds through the beetle room. One of them, Kevin, is a birder, and he always likes to talk about whatever I happen to be working on when he arrives. Today he told me about once being swarmed by a pair of angry Goshawk protecting their nest, and the eerie sound they made. I’ve since listened to a Goshawk’s alarm call, and it’s a gorgeously harsh, high-pitched wail that’s almost gull-like. I can imagine being startled by it in the middle of a midwestern forest.

T.H. White, whom I otherwise know only from a rapt childhood reading of The Once and Future King and The Sword in the Stone, once owned a young male of the species. He wrote a 200-page book—or, from the few excerpts I’ve read so far, something more like a 200-page love letter to a difficult, complicated and extraordinary friend—about his relationship with the bird. I leave you with his assessment of what it is to find oneself in such a kinship:

The thing about being associated with a hawk is that one cannot be slipshod about it. No hawk can be a pet. There is no sentimentality. In a way, it is the psychiatrist’s art. One is matching one’s mind against another mind with deadly reason and interest. One desires no transference of affection, demands no ignoble homage or gratitude. It is a tonic for the less forthright savagery of the human heart.

The thing about honorably preparing the fallen body of a hawk for scientific study is also that one cannot be slipshod about it. And I don’t think I was.

Northern Goshawk

If All The Human Race Had Perished

November 20th, 2011 | Meera

They live where we live and move where we move. They steal the grain from our fields and take their own measures from meals we have not yet finished eating. They seize our roofs, our railroads, and our drain pipes for their homes. Their chatter, as the rain, is little heard till it falls silent. When we kick them from our path, they scatter without fear, then quickly reappear. We have so much they need, and we have known them of old.

They were never summoned. They will never leave.

*******

Tom came into the lab last Thursday as I was carefully rolling up a small sheet of cotton, shaping it into the right form to place inside the skin of a Rose-breasted Grosbeak. I couldn’t see the specimen he was about to start on, and I have an everlasting curiosity about what that man holds in his hands. So:

“Are you working on another African bird, Tom?”

In response he made a strange sound. It was the amused noise a person makes when he is about to tell you a riddle whose ingenuity pleases him. “Mmm. Yes! But not a native one. It’s a bird you know very well, in fact.”

In fact, it was. It was a bird you know very well, too. There is very likely one present within a few hundred meters as your eyes skim over this paragraph, chipping tirelessly in your eaves with a sound like comfort and rebuke, clinging to the side of your building, bathing in the dust next to your street, or shitting extravagantly on the floorboards of your back deck.

It was a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus): a bird that is as common as dirt and only little more loved, perhaps because its personality reminds us of the worst aspects of our own nature. Though small in size, House Sparrows are bellicose in spirit—to protect their territory and their food they have, like some of us, the will to murder those more vulnerable and more rare. (They have been known to smash the eggs and kill the nestlings of competitors with their thick, finchy bills.) They lodge in nest boxes put out for more desirable confreres. They deluge and denude bird feeders, like plagues of locusts. They are like flies—ubiquitous.

What was noteworthy about this particular House Sparrow was that it had been collected in a surprising place. It hadn’t spent its life in any of the countries of Europe or Central Asia that have been its native habitat for millennia. And it wasn’t a specimen from North America, to which the species was introduced in small numbers in Brooklyn nearly two hundred years ago and across which it has since spread like a stampede. (As with some human newcomers, the House Sparrow’s arrival in America provoked a storm of avian xenophobia. But the bird itself has never spent a single breath on the worried contemplation of the difference between integration and assimilation. It quickly and simply chose occupation.)

No, this particular House Sparrow—as Tom explained, solving the riddle—had come back to the Field Museum from a research trip he and a few other Bird Division colleagues had made to Malawi.

Malawi is an African country of mountains, mists, and forests that is hugged, like the head of a little brother, between the shoulders of Zambia, Mozambique, and Tanzania. Its House Sparrow community, along with those that are now established in a host of neighboring countries, originated from the introduction of several small populations of birds to the coastal regions of South Africa around the turn of the 20th century. After landing in places like Cape Town, Durban, and Zanzibar—either stowaways or pets that traveled side by side with sailors on trading ships—the new immigrants came onshore, began to breed, and slowly spread inland.

Today, House Sparrows live in Malawi just as they live virtually everywhere in the world—as close to us as possible. Human settlements provide these birds with ready sources of food and an abundance of appealing nesting places. Passer domesticus is not exactly an obligate commensal (a species whose very survival depends on the benefits it receives from another organism), but it is vastly more likely to be found in proximity to people than it is to take its chances in open country.

Most House Sparrows are so spoiled by the year-round food supply our cities provide and the warm, protected cavities they find everywhere in our architecture that they have even forgone their old migratory tendencies. They are like distant relatives who, unaccompanied by invitations, came to visit with us for a week, remained a month, then three, then six, and now spend all four seasons snoozing on our sofas.

In this position, they are—domesticus in name, domesticus in nature—subject to the conditions of our lives.

Although they still seem ubiquitous to most of us in this country, House Sparrow numbers have actually been falling for several decades in much of Europe, some parts of Asia, and the United States. And given their intimate connections with humans, many of the proposed reasons for House Sparrow declines have to do with changes in how we live.

We use more pesticides in our agriculture, killing the insects nestlings rely on for food. We spill less grain and spread fewer weed seeds when we harvest crops, reducing food supplies for adults. The feral cats and metropolitan raptors that also inhabit our cities prey on House Sparrows. There is even some speculation that leaked electromagnetic radiation from cellphone towers could be having negative effects on the health and reproduction of many urban species, including this one.

They were never summoned; they will never leave. But they are not invincible.

Juvenile House Sparrow (Passer domesticus)

The 19th-century American naturalist Wilson Flagg, finding himself in what seems to have been a grimly apocalyptic mood some decades after the House Sparrow made its way to these shores, mused upon the unexpected comfort such an obstinate intruder might bring:

…since our people are resolutely bent on the destruction of our native birds, it may be fortunate that there exists a foreign species of such a character that, like the white-weed and the witch-grass, after being once introduced, they cannot by any possible human efforts be extirpated. When all our native species are gone, we may be happy to hear the unmusical chatter of the House Sparrows, and gladly watch them and protect them, as we should, if all the human race had perished but our single self, welcome the society of orang-otangs.


If Flagg is right, we would do well to keep one wary, sympathetic eye on the shadow-companions who came, and stayed, and bound their fate to ours.

On The Uses of the Macabre

October 31st, 2011 | Meera

Happy Halloween! Today seemed like an excellent day to make this post.

Entering the bird lab this past Thursday morning, I found Mary, who usually works at the sink, sitting on a stool beside the large metal prep table that dominates the room. In front of her were two plastic trays; on each, several tidy rows of specimens were arranged. The birds that made up this small collection represented three different species: Dark-eyed Juncos (Junco hyemalis), Nashville Warblers (Vermivora ruficapilla), and White-throated Sparrows (Zonotrichia albicollis).

All three are extremely common birds in the Chicago area at this time of year, either because they’re migrating through on their way to warmer southern climes, or because they spend the winter here.

And all three are known to me personally from morning walks through the Wooded Island in Jackson Park, the treed and windy urban oasis by the lakefront where I saw the distempered raccoon earlier this spring. I love the sight of dozens of dark gray Juncos against patches of snow on the ground, like a fireplace’s worth of cinders someone has rolled up into cozy little balls. Nashville warblers make jaunty little tail flicks as they forage through low trees and shrubs (often that’s all I see of them, an olive whisk-whisk-whisk before they rustle away through the leaves). And the mustard-yellow smudges next to each eye on White-throated Sparrows always make me imagine these fluffy, familiar creatures having just feasted messily on a stash of abandoned hot dogs.

The fact that Mary was working on these birds wouldn’t, in and of itself, have been of much note except that the specimens were in a form that I’d never seen before in the lab. Normally, these are species that Dave chooses to preserve as skeletons. One of the advantages of doing so is that there are many measurements it’s possible to take from a skeleton that it’s impossible to take from a study skin. To prepare a specimen for being skeletonized by the dermestid beetles, volunteers must first remove all its feathers and skin, a process called “roughing out.”

But the specimens Mary was working with seemed to have gone only part-way through this process. On the Nashville Warblers and the White-throated Sparrows, the feathers from their bodies had been removed, but those on their heads had been left in place. And on the Juncos, tail feathers remained as well.

White-throated Sparrows

In this state the specimens appeared, I confess, both fascinating and a little macabre. The juxtaposition of intact, feathered crowns, their plumage still beautifully soft and many-colored, with the dark red muscle of de-feathered bodies, created an incongruity—the likeness of life next to the unmistakable sign of death—that forced me to stop.

Why had some feathers been left on these birds?

Mary soon explained that in each of these species, subtle but significant differences in plumage coloration can be observed. Such variations raise a host of scientific questions (Are the disparities related to sex, age, or region? Can they be traced to genetic differences? Is one form of coloration more common than another, and if so, why? Does the prevalence of each pattern change over time?).

To document these variations, Mary was collecting caps from all three species, as well as tail feathers from the Juncos—because these were the parts of the birds’ bodies where the differences occurred. This way, the caps and tail feathers could become part of the museum’s collections and potentially help to answer some of these questions.

But when she was finished collecting what she needed, the beetles would go on to skeletonize the rest of the specimens’ bodies as usual, thus preserving the ability to take bone measurements from them in the future. The fact that I’d seen the birds’ bodies in this state was a coincidence: an accidental glimpse at a bit of scientific frugality.

Here are some of the variations this kind of data will hopefully help to quantify:

Junco caps and tail feathers

Juncos can have crowns that vary from a light gray to a deep black, sometimes tinged with brown—and while all Juncos have white outer tail feathers and black inner tail feathers, there can be considerable variance in the amount of white and black on the intermediary feathers. This photo doesn’t show the subtle differences in the shades of the crowns very well, but you can clearly see how much more black than white there is in the tail feathers of the bird in the foreground, and how much further out the black extends to the edges of its tail.

Nashville Warbler caps

Nashville Warblers can have a patch of wonderfully rich chestnut-colored feathers in the center of their crowns, something I’ve never noticed when birding because the tiny flecks of red are all but impossible to see amidst or underneath their otherwise gray head feathers. Adult males all have some red in their caps, but the amount can vary widely; and some adult females have a little ruddiness there, too, while others have none. These differences are unfortunately very hard to see in the photo I took, but if you squint you might be able to see some red stippling in the third specimen from the left.

White-throated Sparrow caps

Finally, White-throated Sparrows actually have two well-documented morphs, or variant forms. You can see these quite clearly in the photo above: one morph has distinct black and white stripes running vertically down its crown, while the other has black and tan stripes arranged in the same pattern. Both morphs can be found in both sexes.

DNA analysis has shown that this polymorphism in White-throated Sparrows arises from genetic differences. Both White Stripe and Tan Stripe birds, as they are usually called, show a slight preference for mating with individuals from the other morph. This opposites-attract tendency (which goes by the unwieldy name of “disassortative mating”) keeps the approximate proportion of each morph in the overall population stable, so that neither morph disappears or becomes dominant.

Most fascinating of all, at least in the case of White-throated Sparrows, the morphological variations we see in their crowns are also associated with clear behavioral differences. White Stripe males are more aggressive and more showy—they’re more likely to engage in “spiraling,” a wonderful-sounding behavior that involves singing as they ascend the branches of a tree by circling it. They’re also less dedicated providers of parental care, and less monogamous than Tan Stripe males. As for White Stripe females, they are almost as bold and selfish as their male counterparts. (This may explain why both WS males and females seek out calmer, more reliable partners from the opposite morph.) For more on this subject, I’ll point you to this excellent post by GrrlScientist, who explains the genetics behind these behavioral variations far better than I could.

What I love about my own experience of all this is that it illustrates so clearly a principle I’ve always felt to be true about the study of natural history. That is, the macabre (like beauty) is not a thing that exists as an inherent property of the world, not something with a palpable presence in time and space. Instead it arises out of the complex interaction between ourselves and the world. Even if disquiet is our first reaction to a memento mori, it need not be our last.

But to the extent that encounters with the macabre invite curiosity—like the curiosity that struck me so forcibly when I walked into the lab and saw those unusual-looking specimens on Mary’s trays, and led me to learn some of the things I’ve shared with you today—I think it’s an extraordinarily useful quality in science.

*******


I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about two additional things I hope you will investigate:

1) Flinchy, the t-shirt company co-founded by my favorite fellow bird lab volunteer, Diana Sudyka, has several new designs available for purchase. I own one of them, and can testify to its quality and attractiveness. And greater luminaries than me endorse Flinchy shirts, too.

2) I wrote a piece for the Scientific American Guest Blog this week about my rather extraordinary friend Nina and her Field Museum project, LinEpig. You can find it here, under the curiosity-provoking (though not macabre) title “Internet Porn Fills Gap in Spider Taxonomy.” Nina picked the title, because she knows even better than I do that first you catch the eye, and then you tell the story.

Nina at work

Till next time, dear readers-mine. I hope it won’t be so long again.

The 100th Species

September 22nd, 2011 | Meera

Since I started volunteering in the Bird Division of the Field Museum a little over two and a half years ago, many things have changed.

I’ve gotten much more confident and relaxed about preparing specimens than I was in my first tentative months, though I feel no less amazed by the process each time I sit down to begin.

The plastic ID card I use to beep myself in and out of the museum and to access the staff-only elevators (something which still gives me a thrill) has gotten scratched and worn.

I’ve made some wonderful friends.

And, as of today, I’ve worked on one hundred different bird species.

You can find the list in its entirety here, where it will continue to grow as Dave keeps putting out new species for me to work on. But I thought I’d give the 100th a bit of fanfare in this post, especially since it’s not a bird that tends to get a lot of fanfare.

The 100th species on my list is neither unusually large nor remarkably small, neither brightly colored nor glossy and dark. There’s nothing exotic about it. It’s just another little brown bird. Yet if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past few years, it’s that the more data we have about a particular thing, the more meaningful that data is and the more useful it is to science.

Paradoxically, the fact that White-crowned Sparrows are extremely common in our collections—according to a search I just did of the Bird Division’s database, at least 1433 individual Zonotrichia leucophrys specimens already exist in the museum, dating back to 1863—makes every additional study skin we prepare of even greater value. With a healthy-sized data-set like that, any researcher wanting to do a genetic study, track migration patterns or wing-lengths over time, generate a set of characteristics that birders or bird banders can use to age or sex a bird in the field, or answer any of a thousand-and-one impossible-to-predict future questions, will have a larger body of information to work with and a far better chance of producing reliable results.

So here it is: One big milestone for me, one precious incremental addition to scientific data, and one beautiful bird.

White-crowned Sparrow

White-crowned Sparrow

100th species

P.S. You may have noticed that this little fellow, despite being called a White-crowned Sparrow, has no white visible on its crown. That’s because it was an immature bird, probably hatched earlier this year, and had not had a chance to moult into its adult plumage before it died. Females of the species also don’t live up to their name, and look similar to juveniles—but their tails aren’t quite so long as you see here, and they don’t have any white bars on their wings. Aren’t bird names wonderfully confusing?

New World Warbler

August 11th, 2011 | Meera

I’m back in the lab on Thursdays, and this morning I walked into it to find that Dave had set out three beautiful little New World wood warblers for me to prepare. Although I loved every bird I encountered in Sweden, I found myself missing many North American species while I was away, including our vivid warblers. It was a delight, therefore, to work today on a turmeric-yellow Pine Warbler (Dendroica pinus), an Orange-crowned Warbler (Vermivora celata) with an especially large splotch of rust on its head, and a sleek Magnolia Warbler (Dendroica magnolia).

Male Magnolia Warblers always make me think of gentlemen who’ve dressed themselves in suits of the most conventional gray, white, and black—and then decided at the last moment that they simply must put on vests as bright as any daffodil.

Magnolia warbler, before

Magnolia warbler, in process

Magnolia warbler, after

*******


The English word world can be traced, through only a few straightforward steps, to an ancient Germanic compound noun meaning “the age of man” (wer: “man”/ ald: “age”). Ald, in turn, is derived from an even older verb meaning “to grow” or “to nourish.” Thus, world: that place where human beings and their affairs flourish.

It’s a fine thing, friends, to be alive in such a place: whether Old or New. Ah; it is the only thing, you may remind me. But still—and despite all hardships—a fine, fine one.

Closing the Circle

July 22nd, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

Leaning over the work table in one of the observatory’s ringing huts last week, I raised a hand to smooth the lists of birds we keep pinned to the wall. They show each of the dozens of species we might encounter here: its common names in English and Swedish, its scientific name, the five-letter abbreviation by which it is identified in our protocols, and the standard ring size it takes.

(An aside: Some of the abbreviations assigned to bird species are tiny bits of sound-poetry, delicious to say. I like it when we catch a Redpoll, and not just because they are beautiful birds. Their code, derived from the scientific name Carduelis flammea—Redpolls are also known as Acanthis flammea by some taxonomists—is like the politest little cough. CAFLA!, I announce happily as I write it down. CAFLA! Forgive me; I have something in my throat—CAFLA, CAFLA, CAFLA.)

I don’t know if my fellow volunteer Peder saw my wedding band glinting as I stood with my hand on the wall. But perhaps that’s why he said at that moment—his voice rich with the delight of a clever observation—”But Meera’s been ringed. What size is your ring, Meera?”

I smiled, both because I like Peder’s sense of humor and because there was pleasure in taking his question, which required no serious answer, seriously.

What size was my ring? Did it conform to the requirements of comfort and utility assigned to every ring we put on a bird in this hut? Was it loose enough to slide easily up and down my finger, but snug enough not to fall off? When it was placed, did someone take care not to harm me? Was it unobtrusive, in no way impeding my flight, feeding, or other natural behaviors? Did its presence on my finger serve a meaningful purpose in the world? And could you trace my history by it?

I don’t remember what I said to Peder then, twisting my ring affectionately and thinking on these questions with ducked head and wondering mind. Today—watching my brown hands fly over the keyboard, marked by a flicker of white gold—I am still sitting with them.

But when it comes to the birds, at least, I have some answers I can give.

Katie and the Long-eared Owl Adventure
Size 8 rings—one was used in June to ring a Long-eared Owl chick in a nest in Handöl. Mostly we ring passerines, with much smaller rings.

*******

Many of you reading have first-hand experience with the processes and purposes of ringing (or banding, as it is called in the U.S.). You, friends, don’t have to stay for the rest of this post—although I would love it if you added a comment or let me know how you do things. For the rest of you—and for me, since I am learning these things along with you—I have written a small primer. Ready? Grab a fika. This will be long, and though I find it fascinating, it won’t be very poetic. Something sweet will help us all stay focused. :)

A Bird in the Hand

To work with a wild bird, of course, you must first have access to it. If you are ringing birds in nest boxes, as I was helping Stefan do earlier this summer, this is fairly straightforward. You simply check each nest box periodically, noting which are occupied, which have eggs, and later, which have nestlings in them.

If you know approximately how old the chicks were when you last checked on them and how old they will be when they fledge, you can pick a day to ring them—sometime when they’re well grown, but not quite ready to leave the nest. At that point, you can safely pluck the clutch of nestlings out one by one, ring them, and put them back inside. Depending on the species, you’re more or less likely to be able to ring the mother as well—flycatcher parents tend to flee the nest when you approach; tits sometimes stay inside.

Besides nest box ringing, the observatory also conducts mist-net ringing each summer. (This is what I’ve been helping with for the past few weeks, since the Great Snipe tracking began winding down.)

Mist nets are very fine nets constructed of strong black nylon, with mesh sizes that vary from about 16mm to about 120mm; you need a larger mesh to catch big birds like waders and raptors, and a smaller one to catch little birds like warblers and finches. The nets get their name, as you might imagine, because when unfurled they become virtually invisible to birds (and preoccupied humans, as I have proven on more than one occasion).

Each net comprises five vertical sections of netting separated by five horizontal threads; you set it up so that the horizontal threads run taut between two poles and the vertical sections hang loosely below them, forming several pockets into which birds can fly. Nets are usually set up in the early morning and taken down or rolled up in the early afternoon. In between, birds are active but the sun isn’t shining down too hard. If it becomes very hot, windy, cold, or rainy when you are using mist nets, they are promptly closed so that you don’t trap birds under adverse conditions.

Tom B and the net set
Amazingly, I have no unfurled mist nets among the nearly 500 photos I’ve posted of Sweden so far. Here is one from my wonderful Flickr contact Andy Jones, of the Cleveland Museum of Natural History. Ours look exactly the same, but surrounded by tall grasses and wildflowers.

Once you’ve opened a net, it is checked frequently so no bird remains caught for very long. The great majority of the time, birds become only lightly tangled, and removing them takes moments. Occasionally a bird will be more difficult to extract (in tricky cases, beginners like me should always call for help from more experienced ringers, so that the bird can be freed as efficiently as possible). Either way, you follow the same basic steps. First, determine which side of the net the bird entered on, and work on that side; next, free the feet, then the wings, then the head, since that’s the opposite order from which most bird parts encounter the net.

The removal process, though usually straightforward, is the most delicate part of the ringing operation. It requires patience, care, and a constant attention to the welfare of the bird you’re working with. You may be being swarmed by mosquitoes or gnats or tiny evil flies, for instance, but if you have a bird in hand, you can’t twitch an arm suddenly to shoo them away. (Me, if this gets very bad, I swear under my breath. I don’t think anyone but the birds has heard me yet.)

Once you’ve freed a bird, it is placed inside a cotton drawstring bag and taken somewhere else to be processed: in our case, a ringing hut.

A Minute of Science

While there are many steps in processing a bird, experienced hands can perform them incredibly quickly—usually in under one minute. It will take me longer to write about this and you to read it than it takes most birds to make their way out of the ringing hut, and I’m not even going to describe the steps in detail, just list them.

The first thing a ringer does after removing a bird from its bag is identify it. This dictates the ring size it will take, because that is dependent on the average diameter of each species’ leg. The smallest ring we have is a 0.5, which we put on tiny things like chiffchaffs; the largest, spares of which we own but almost never use because our operations aren’t designed to trap anything except songbirds, is a 93—for something magnificent like a crane.

Next, the bird is ringed using a special set of pliers with round openings. These help you to properly bring the edges of the ring together without any danger of squeezing the bird’s leg. I have seen experienced ringers do this so smoothly that I am barely ready to write down the ring number before they are done.

Stefan Rings Four Eurasian Nuthatch Chicks
Here’s a pair of ringing pliers being used on a Eurasian Nuthatch chick.

Finally, several pieces of information are taken that will be associated with the bird’s ring number.(Every country in which birds are ringed has a central database to which these records are uploaded.) Here, we sex and age the bird to the degree that this is possible using physical signs, and then take a fat score, a wing measurement, and weight. We also look for the presence of a brood patch (a wrinkly, swollen area on female birds’ bellies that indicates they are in nesting mode), and determine what stage of feather growth young birds are in and what stage of moult, if any, adult birds are in. None of this data is necessarily all that significant in isolation, but collecting it for millions of birds worldwide each year adds a tremendous amount to the knowledge we have about various species.

If an already-ringed bird is captured, all the same information is collected and its ring number taken down. When that record is uploaded, whoever ringed the bird originally is automatically notified, so they know where that individual has been. I imagine it must be rather thrilling to receive one of these notices. Perhaps it’s a little as if a message you’d put in a bottle had been found across the seas.

After all this, the bird—which, if it is typical, has stayed calm throughout—is released through a small hatch in the side of the hut. Or, if it is a fledgling, it is taken back to the area where it was caught, with its siblings if any were trapped at the same time. We do this so that young birds can easily find their way home. I have returned fledglings several times and I can’t tell you how reassuring it is to hear chicks and parents calling to each other as you approach their nest.

As I said, most often a bird is held in the hand for less than one minute. (It took me about 15 to write this, but things might have gone a little quicker if I hadn’t run out of coffee one section ago. How are you doing, by the way? Any fika left? I’ll try to be quick now, although this last bit is arguably the part I most want you to understand.)

Varför Vi Gör Det (Why We Do It)

It’s all very well to tell you what we do when we ring birds; what perhaps seems even more mysterious, at least if you haven’t thought about it before, are the reasons we do it at all. A dear friend—and I hope she doesn’t mind me quoting her, because I think her words reflect what’s in many people’s minds—commented last week on a photo I posted of a female chaffinch being processed: “I get science and all that, but from a bird perspective, where you are must be a torture chamber.”

Let’s talk about that second part first. It’s perfectly true that being caught in a mist net and ringed is no bird’s idea of a pleasant morning. To a human, handling birds is a fascinating and rewarding experience. It’s hard not to be emotionally affected, even if in a restrained and professional way, by the physical fact of a live bird in your hand. Feather to skin, a bird’s warmth, heartbeat, and softness transmit themselves directly to you in a way that can feel electric.

To a bird—there’s no getting around it—a ringer is a predator.

Having said that, most of the birds we trap are likely to have what are obviously far more dangerous encounters with actual predators every day. Many are migratory species which travel thousands of kilometers each year and face the most grueling environmental conditions. Birds are by constitution tough animals, capable of weathering stress—especially if it is temporary and causes no physical injury—very well.

I will not lie to you. The risk of physical injury does exist. But I believe it is safe to say that the overwhelming majority of the millions of birds ringed annually, under the supervision of ringers licensed by their home nations, emerge from the process completely unharmed.

If I had written this post a few months ago I wouldn’t have been able to make that statement as confidently, but thanks to a recently published study, beautifully unpacked here by a science writer I respect a great deal, I can tell you that when the records for over 600,000 mist net captures in the United States were analyzed, the average rate of injury (which includes events like wing strain, cuts, stress, or broken bones) was found to be less than 0.59%, and the average mortality rate about 0.23%.

baby blue
Most bird species show remarkable calm during handling; some—like tits—have characteristic defense responses.

While those numbers are extremely low, they would still represent an unjust harm to bird populations if ringing served no useful purpose. But it serves many—too many, in fact, to describe here in detail, especially since I am quite sure you are now, like me, entirely out of cookies and tea (I switched to tea a little while ago).

Here then—highly abbreviated—is a short list of scientific and conservation-related reasons birds are ringed:

• Ringing is the primary method of understanding bird migration. (Before the advent of ringing as a systematized process, migration was a deep and myth-producing mystery.) By recovering previously ringed birds at different points on their migration pathways, we can identify important nesting, wintering, and feeding grounds, and note changes in routes. Such knowledge is not only interesting for its own sake, but an important advocacy tool for conservationists seeking to preserve habitats or demonstrate the effects of human activity or global warming on bird populations.

• Ringing is the only way to gather data on the lifespan of individual birds and thus establish longevity records for bird species in the wild.

• Ringing and recapturing birds in the same site over a sustained period can enable us to roughly determine how many birds exist in a given population, as well as how well they are surviving and breeding. Ringing can also help to pinpoint the reasons for population changes. For instance, if a particular species is becoming rarer, but we know from nest box studies that it’s successfully nesting and raising chicks and we know from mist net ringing that the rate of juvenile survival has gone down, then we know that some condition affecting young birds, but not affecting adult birds’ capacity to breed, is responsible for the population decline—and we have a better idea of where to look next.

• Ringing game birds is vital for monitoring the impact of hunting and determining if existing regulations are effective or should be changed.

Peder with protocols
This is the protocol sheet we use to record data about newly ringed birds.

As I write, I can feel the cool contours of my own ring embracing my finger. Beyond its shape it bears no other resemblance to the small aluminum or steel bands we put on birds, except for one: both represent a promise from those who put them on.

Of the promise that was made to me, nothing more need be said. I appreciate it every day.

Birds, of course, have no such feeling about the promise their ringers make to them. But I believe it exists, despite this, in the closing of each circle around each protesting leg. To me it seems at heart a very simple vow: to know, to heed, to protect, to remember, and to look for again.

Nothing But a Promise

July 16th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

Since I had it ever-so-subtly pointed out to me today by a good Swedish friend that I had not—despite my promise to spend the summer writing—made a new post here in what was deemed too long a time, I hereby make the following solemn pledge to you all.

Come back in a few days, and I will tell you a little bit more about the steps that go into processing a bird that you catch in a mist net, the physical act of ringing, and what it’s been like for me to handle live birds. I hope that will satisfy. :)

In the meantime, in case you haven’t been following the journey on Flickr, I have this for you, too. Don’t we all feel like this sometimes—capable of crossing the world on our wings, if only something weren’t holding tightly to our feet?

Forsärla (Gray Wagtail)

The Vagrant in Sweden

June 27th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I heard it as soon as I swung the car door shut: a dizzy, fever-pitched fizz more like an insect’s song than a bird’s, slicing through the cool Midsommar night. The meadow in front of me, glowing in the eerie illumination of a June’s-end one a.m., looked no different from so many others here. What covered its slope was a dense mat of close-growing, un-gardened stalks of the humble wildflower that is known in English as cow parsley, and which in Swedish goes by the even more embarrassing name of hundkex: dog biscuits. There was no sign that this was a place where you might find something rare.

Stefan and I had just spent several hours feasting with his family on pickled and fermented herring, potatoes, roasted pork, and all manner of breads and cheeses, and with both beer and cool, sharp snaps in my belly I had been ready for bed a long time ago. Instead, we were drawing out the longest day of the year in a sleepy haze beside a village road. We had come to the dog- biscuit meadow to see a single, very special, vagrant.

A vagrant is a bird that has, by some mistake of birth or meteorology, strayed far from the path it was meant to follow in its life. Vagrants are also called accidentals, and both names go some way toward capturing the pathos of their situation: not only lost, but alone. Somewhere in the meadow’s stalks perched such an individual. It was a male lanceolated warbler (träsksångare). As songbirds go, the lanceolated warbler is not particularly flashy; it lacks the jewel-like colors of a bluethroat or a goldfinch. It is, however, marked by a beautiful series of dark striations on its breast, crown, rump, and flanks. To look more closely is to see that the lines are formed from tiny lance-like shapes, each one a thin oval tapering to a point. It is these that give the bird its name.

In looks and song, the lanceolated warbler is rather similar to the grasshopper warbler, a relative that spends the spring and summer breeding in this region. But compared with a grasshopper warbler, a lanceolated warbler will have more—and more distinct —streaking, a higher voice, and a well-defined, as opposed to a diffuse, border between the dark center and pale edge of each of its tertial feathers. I could not have identified these subtle differences on my own. But they had not gone unnoticed when the little warbler appeared here some nights earlier, and a rush of expert Swedish birders had already given their say-so to the characteristics that separated it from its common relative. Let us say that if this bird had been aspiring to sainthood, it would have been five times confirmed by the highest of priests.

Because we knew its provenance, Stefan and I also knew that as far as we had traveled to see it—150km from the observatory in Handöl to Östersund, where Stefan lives; 32km from Östersund to Nälden, where we had celebrated the holiday in a tiny lakefront cabin with his family; another 27km or so from Nälden to Bleckåsen—the tiny bird in the meadow had come much further. A lanceolated warbler within its normal range can be seen throughout Siberia, on the lower slopes of Russia’s Ural mountains, and in Kazakhstan, Mongolia, China, and Japan. At this time of year, a male of the species ought to have been nesting with a female in a wet, shrubby meadow somewhere perhaps a thousand or two thousand kilometers east or northeast of the spot where we stood. This one was calling for a mate it would never find.

It’s a bit like a sewing machine, Stefan had told me three mornings earlier, after his first pilgrimage to this spot in Bleckåsen. The sound coming from the meadow wasn’t, in fact, so far from what he had described—notes of metal whistling and punching, whistling and punching, at speed. It was an obsessive little racket, the kind of sound that might come reeling at midnight from beneath the door of a red-eyed tailor in a fairytale, running stitches through cloth faster than his hands could keep up. This was the voice of instinct, I thought—the voice of conviction in the face of loss.

We saw the source of that voice as soon as we descended the makeshift path that dozens of eager birders had trampled over in the past few days. The warbler had alit on a branch in the midst of the hundkex blooms, singing with its bill so wide open that I imagined a great stream pouring from its mouth. As it sang it turned its head fastidiously from one direction to another, throwing its call to all points. And the singing lasted for minutes on end. This was unusual behavior for its species.

I hate to anthropomorphize; I hope I manage to avoid it here. But witnessing this unabating, probably futile summons (futile, anyway, unless a female vagrant happened also to have been blown here), it was hard not to feel that it resounded with a note of desperation.

To many birders—especially the ones who make a fetish out of each new species, but even those who don’t—vagrants are objects of fascination. It’s no trivial thing to be able to look upon a creature that you’d otherwise never expect to see. Real though they are, vagrants are so out of place, so unexpected, and so carefully inspected for signs of authenticity that seeing one is perhaps the closest any of us will come to seeing a unicorn or a mermaid.

Even if you can relate to it, though, you might dismiss this motive for visiting a vagrant as thrill seeking. That’s why, when Ulla first heard about the lanceolated warbler, she resisted making the effort to see it. Her serious heart didn’t want to think of itself as longing after the unusual and the rare. But days later, when the warbler failed to leave, Ulla too drove up to the incandescent meadow late at night. She listened, and she felt her heart contract.

Ulla didn’t have to explain why. What runs beneath the urge to see a vagrant is something more powerful than the desire to collect a rara avis. The wonder we feel, I think, is centered on the knowledge that this creature once had a plan—had an object, had a bone-deep, gene-deep map to follow—and somewhere along the way, got lost.

Since I have spent most of my life in search of such a map, the vagrant’s fate is bittersweet heartache to me. I cannot tell you how often I have found myself envious of another creature’s indelible blueprint. I have coveted the existence of periodic cicadas, which lie years in the buried dark readying for one great emergence, and somehow know exactly what to do when that day comes.

But I never realized how devastating certainty can be when it comes undone. There’s very little use in having a blueprint if you cannot follow it, and small comfort in a well-planned route if you find yourself so far off the map that you cannot return. It wasn’t until I heard the vagrant in Sweden that I understood my good fortune. I happen to know I am wandering; I understand there’s no such thing as a home that doesn’t change with you. And so, I now believe with all my heart, I can never be lost.

*******

We should go forth on the shortest walk, perchance, in the spirit of undying adventure, never to return—prepared to send back our embalmed hearts only as relics to our desolate kingdoms.

If you are ready to leave father and mother, and brother and sister, and wife and child and friends, and never see them again—if you have paid your debts, and made your will, and settled all your affairs, and are a free man, then you are ready for a walk.

—Henry David Thoreau, “Walking,” 1862


*******

P.S. As most of you know, I’m writing a little book of essays about my summer adventures. In case you were wondering what that might look like, consider this post—which will appear in the book, with revisions—a preview. And thank you, as ever, for reading.

Hands-On

June 12th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I’ve never believed my hands were particularly nice looking. When I was 12, I was envious of the long, slender fingers on my friend Beth. You couldn’t really hope to be an artist, I thought, without the right pair of hands. Either you were born with both the temperament and the digits—which, according to all the Jane Austen and Lucy Maud Montgomery novels I was reading at the time, arrived together—or you were doomed to a prosaic life.

I’ve also never believed my hands were particularly strong or skilled. When I started volunteering at the Field Museum two and a half years ago, it was the first time in my life that I’d really done anything useful with them. But that work, satisfying as it is, didn’t do much to transform my hands into Tom’s hands—which I watch whenever he’s working on a study skin or a taxidermy mount in the lab. Tom’s hands perform the most deft and precise motions. Yet they’re also large, callused, and muscular, and marvelously capable looking. They’ve been out in the world.

A week ago, I returned to the observatory from a long afternoon of tracking. I had just fallen from my too-tall borrowed bicycle onto a dirt and gravel road while speeding downhill, and I was feeling particularly incompetent as I walked into the yard, brushing at my bleeding lips and forehead. There I found Jennie—who grew up here in the Swedish countryside—out by the shed, fixing the bottom of the observatory’s power boat by nailing wooden planks together. “You can do anything,” I told her, meaning “I can’t.”

My hands don’t know as much as Jennie’s. They haven’t built many things, or used many tools, or been trained to keep me alive when the world goes all to hell. They’re nice hands and all; they’re just not very experienced.

Or they weren’t until now.

For the past two and a half weeks, my hands have been busy carrying field equipment, helping me push my way through birch branches and willow trees, reaching out for balance on rocks, brush, and muddy ground as I stumble up and down mountainsides, wielding rakes and paint brushes, hauling stones, helping to pull a boat by its rope, measuring and cutting wood, and—today—building an owl-sized nest box with a hammer, nails, and a great mess of splintery wooden planks.

And do you know what? Small signs of change are showing themselves on my hands. They’re a little scratched up. They’re dry and rather rough. They’ve got some cuts and scrapes and blisters on them, and a good amount of dirt seems to be baked into a couple of my fingerprints.

My hands still aren’t Tom’s hands, or Jennie’s. They’re definitely not getting any more artistic. But they’re engaging with the world in ways they’ve never done before. And I like the way they feel.

small signs of change


P.S. Here is the nest box I made today:

My first Tengmalm's Owl-sized Nest Box

And here is the Great Snipe nest I found, a few hours later, hands on my antenna.

Finding #25

Stopgap

June 10th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

I keep making mental notes about things I want to tell you, and then finding that it is suddenly midnight and I don’t have it in me to write about the ferocity of lemmings, how it is possible to hear water levels changing, why I forgive the mosquitoes their pursuit of me, what almost-fledged nuthatches sound like when they are frightened, or the way you can see rainstorms coming for hours in the sky before they actually let fall their first fresh drops.

More on these subjects later. For now, I wanted to pop in to tell you one thing:

There is at least one Great Snipe here in the mountains with the grounds to take out a restraining order against me.

Convinced she had a nest and determined to find it, I spent an inordinate amount of time today tracking and flushing, tracking and flushing, tracking and flushing the poor creature, looking each time for that longed-for circlet of dried grass containing a clutch of four perfect mottled eggs. I never saw any such thing in the locations from which she scissored herself up when I came close.

Johan has already found seven such treasures, so it’s clear that some birds are currently nesting. But after having observed that this particular female (transmitting on channel #20 on my receiver) was never found in exactly the same spot twice, I concluded that she probably hadn’t actually built herself a nest yet. I’ll go back to that spot in a few days and check again, and hopefully by then she will be well on her way to motherhood.

In the meantime, I’ll do a little penance in my head for harassing her so today.

tools of my temporary trade
Teaser view of my radio antenna. I’ll do a post about that and the rest of my equipment soon. I swear.

Things I Learned in the Space of Two Hours in Handöl

May 30th, 2011 | Meera

The Science Essayist is volunteering at a bird observatory in Sweden this summer.

1. Tits prefer mosses and lichens for their nests; flycatchers prefer grasses…and sometimes, reindeer hair.

2. Reindeer hair is white, slightly oily-feeling, and very soft. I would not mind stroking a reindeer.

3. Pied flycatcher eggs are tiny and a beautiful pale blue, like the color of American robins’ eggs; blue tits lay bigger, creamy eggs mottled with brown.

4. There is at least one blue tit out there in the world that is not averse to building its nest on top of a dead relative: we found a corpse tucked into the bottom of an active nest box, buried under several strata of moss, its head perfectly preserved and its body mostly eaten. It was strange and interesting, and also made me feel oddly homesick for the lab.

5. Sometimes the smallest creatures are the fiercest. (Well, I knew that one already, I suppose.)

I should have more for you soon. In the meantime, I bid you a very good night from that special time of day over here where the sun is neither setting nor rising, but hanging out just under the horizon being beautiful.

Extinction of Silence

May 12th, 2011 | Meera

That it was shy when alive goes without saying.
We know it vanished at the sound of voices

Or footsteps. It took wing at the slightest noises,
Though it could be approached by someone praying.

We have no recordings of it, though of course
In the basement of the Museum, we have some stuffed

Moth-eaten specimens—the Lesser Ruffed
And Yellow Spotted—filed in narrow drawers.

But its song is lost. If it was related to
A species of Quiet, or of another feather,

No researcher can know. Not even whether
A breeding pair still nests deep in the bayou,

Where legend has it some once common bird
Decades ago was first not seen, not heard.

—A.E. STALLINGS

My friend Megan sent me this poem two years ago, after I posted a photo of Long-tailed Widowbirds filed in a narrow drawer. I still think of it every time Dave sets me loose in the collections with a key, as he did today.

Wanting a little preview of what I’m likely to see in Sweden, I poked around for a few minutes after I was done with the birds I prepared. I opened cabinets and pulled out narrow drawers—newly purchased European bird guide in one hand and unfamiliar finches in the other. I retrieved what was once shy.

Most of the skins I looked at this afternoon were a hundred years old. Not so moth-eaten, not so far—still, they were faded, a little, and unable to convey the full measure of a life marked by song and flight. Nothing I wanted to see could vanish or take wing at my footsteps.

I am fonder of the museum’s drawers of specimens than I can say. But I am ready to be out with the birds this summer. We shall see what kinds of silences they sing.

Euplectes progne delamerei


Through Rose-breasted Grosbeak Glasses

May 5th, 2011 | Meera

Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)

I spent another lovely day at the bird lab, preparing two Grasshopper sparrows (Ammodramus savannarum) and this Rose-breasted grosbeak (Pheucticus ludivocianus). The whole time I was there I felt calm, happy, useful, and at home.

When I got back I had two voicemails and seventeen emails about various stressful work- and finance-related events, and these things deflated the pleasantly optimistic bubble that forms around me on Thursdays. But looking at this photo, and showing it to you, returns a tiny piece of it.


On Getting a Kick in the Pants, or What I Have in Common With the New York Times

April 25th, 2011 | Meera

I’m not sure if it’s a cultural artifact so much as a pathological personality trait, but—like many of you, probably—I like asking for things about as much as I like sudden attacks of indigestion. I don’t know why, since I get asked for things all the time and it never makes me think ill of the people who ask me; still, for whatever reason, it’s a hard thing to do.

I say this to preface the biggest act of asking I have ever committed.

What you see above is a video I made for a Kickstarter project. In case you’re not familiar with Kickstarter, I’ll explain that it’s a website that people can use to raise money for creative projects of any stripe. You set a funding goal and a time frame, describe what you want to do, and create what Kickstarter calls “rewards” that people who pledge money to your project will receive. If you meet your goal in time, Kickstarter sends you all the pledges (and a project can keep raising money past its goal until the predetermined end-date). If you don’t, no one is charged.

As you’ll see in the video, what I’m asking for is a small amount of financial support for a little book of essays that I’d like to write while I’m in Sweden for two months this summer. I’m going there to volunteer as a field assistant at a bird observatory. In between the lake and the mountains I think I’ll find more peaceful writing time than I’ve ever had in my life, even though I’ll be working hard every day.

The book will be called The Language of the Birds, and it’ll be about all sorts of things—science, nature, myth, stories, what I see and hear around me at the observatory. It’ll be a lot like what I write here on this site, in fact. Which is why, like the New York Times, I know I may rub some people the wrong way with this request. No one likes to pay for things they’re already getting for free.

If you feel that way, I totally understand. In fact, I’ll tell you right up front, because I was not born for sales, that even if I don’t get funding, I’ll still write the book. It just might not take physical form, and I won’t be able to print broadsides using excerpts. (A broadside is a kind of old-fashioned means of publishing text—often poetry or literature—decoratively, on poster-sized pieces of paper.)

I decided to start a Kickstarter project because the site has been on my radar for about a year now, and whenever I look at it I find amazing, beautiful, brave, funny, exciting projects. They make me happy. I’ve pledged money to four so far, only two of which were started by people I actually know. (You can see the projects I’ve funded here. Two of them are still raising money. See if you’re interested in them, too!)

Since I—like many of us—don’t have a lot of disposable income to throw around, I’ve never pledged a large sum of money to any one project. But each time I’m glad to know my contribution helped someone make something cool. And while in the 14.5 hours my Kickstarter project has been live I’ve already become indebted to a few very generous friends (Thank you, you guys. You make my heart swell.), what I hope and expect is for the funding to happen through lots of small donations.

There’s more about my plans, including where the money will go, on the project page. And thank you—no matter what happens. If you’re reading this, you’re already making what I do here worthwhile.

Edited to add: As of about 3pm this afternoon, less than 24 hours after I launched the project page, you guys have fully funded my little book. I am beyond pleased; I am totally bowled over. You could not bowl me more over if you tried. Since there are still 29 days of funding left, I’m going to think about what I might be able to do if we hit another, slightly higher target. I’ll update the project page when I come up with something brilliant. And once again, thank all of you so much for your encouragement.

Ex ovo omnia

April 14th, 2011 | Meera

Peregrine falcon egg

Mary Hennen, who has run the Chicago Peregrine Program for over two decades, was out and about today monitoring several wild peregrine falcon nests in the downtown area. When she got back to the lab she had with her a clutch of three eggs from a nest on South Wacker. The nest, and its eggs, were abandoned after the male of the pair was killed in a fight with another peregrine last week. When this happens, Mary explained, if it’s early enough in the nesting season and the eggs aren’t very far along in incubation, the partner that’s left will often cut their losses and find a new mate with whom to try again. I guess it’s hard being a single parent, no matter what species you belong to.

More on the city’s peregrines at this wonderful blog I discovered today. Stephanie Ware, a Field museum staff member and volunteer falcon watcher, writes the updates.

Medium-Sized Mysteries

April 7th, 2011 | Meera

I continue to spend Thursdays in the prep lab. While I’m there each bird represents a small, self-contained mystery. What species is it, and is it new to me? Where did this particular individual come from—the collision monitors, a rehabilitation center, a museum security guard who saw something on the path outside and brought it in? How did it die? Was it healthy and well-fed on its last day? Was it young or old? I can answer most of these questions as I go along, using the bird’s outer (and inner) appearance and the information on its tag.

I also like to think about the bigger mysteries the Field’s specimen collection is designed to help researchers answer. How do bird populations change over time? Which ones are increasing, and which decreasing? Are migration routes and timings affected by global warming? Can we see evolution at work in the shape of a wing, or a bill, or a foot, if we go back far enough?

Sometimes, though, I get a glimpse of medium-sized mysteries: curious, spontaneous questions raised by the specimens themselves.

I.

In late September 2009, on a stormy night in Minnesota, hundreds of birds from a wide variety of species flew into a tall structure—a telephone tower or something like it—and were killed. The dead made their way, via the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, to the museum. And eventually, after a long rest in the freezers (we’re behind on specimen preparation), Dave began taking them out for processing. When that happened, he noticed a strange thing. If birds of those particular species had been found at that time of the year in the Loop, the vast majority of them would have been juveniles. But the Minnesota birds were almost all adults, with fully ossified skulls and well-developed gonads. This held true over the entire range of birds (which include sparrows, warblers, thrushes, grosbeaks, and ovenbirds, just going by what I’ve personally prepared).

Why would this be the case? Dave says that for now, he truly has no idea. So he’s working on collecting data about the entire group of specimens, and while he’s doing so he’s talking to his colleagues and trying to formulate theories that could explain this strange occurrence. Eventually, they’ll either come up with a brilliant explanation, write a paper about it, and let everyone in the community know, or they’ll remain stumped, write a paper about it, and invite everyone in the community to help figure it out. It seems like a pretty wonderful process: an example of the way science is supposed to work.

bay-breasted warbler
(This is a bay-breasted warbler from the Minnesota tower kill.)

II.

At some point in the day today I was looking for the box of yellow pins we use to fix study skins to the foam boards on which they dry, and it turned out Dave had spirited them over to the sink. When I got there I discovered that he was sitting in front of a giant tray of American woodcock carcasses, opening them up, and—if they were female—pulling out their ovaries and oviducts with a pair of tweezers and pinning them to little pieces of cardboard. Then he was putting them into a jar of formalin.

Why would he do such a thing? Well, it’s like this. The museum has a large number of woodcock specimens, collected as they pass through the area during fall migration. At some point Dave noticed that a lot of the female woodcocks had very large and well-developed sexual organs—a characteristic typically associated with the height of mating season. A few of them actually had eggs that were at the yolking stage. I saw one that was clearly yellow and as big as a large marble! Maybe, he thought, the birds were mating as they migrated. (An unusual behavior, worthy of study.) Also, he had a vague memory of someone, not a full time museum staff member but a scientist who’d passed through the lab, having been interested in a question like this—years ago.

So Dave decided to preserve the ovaries and oviducts of all the female woodcocks in the division’s freezers, against the event that that person—or someone like them—would eventually want to check the organs for sperm. He only regretted that he didn’t have the time or space to put them in liquid nitrogen so that the DNA they contained would be preserved. This would allow the future hypothetical researcher to also ID the sperm and find out if the females were mating with different males on different nights of their migration route. As it was, pinning out the ovaries took him hours (and was absolutely fascinating to watch). I made him let me take a picture.

american woodcock ovaries-oviducts, pinned for preservation

Medium-sized mysteries: maybe their answers will be of great scientific import; maybe they won’t. But it’s fascinating to see them appear without anyone even looking for them, like bits of flotsam washing up on the shore.

Hi.

March 17th, 2011 | Meera

I did this.

my own imperfection

That is all.

Not For the Faint of Heart

March 10th, 2011 | Meera

While preparing three fall birds, prosperous with pre-migratory feasting, something occurs to me that I’ve wondered about before, so I ask Mary about it.

“Mary, do the bugs* like fat?”

“Mmm, not really. If they’re eating well, they’ll go through anything; they’ll eat through cartilage, tendons, you know. But if they’re being fussy you’ll just come in and find big gobs of fat they’ve left behind.”

There is a pause while I consider the word “fussy” in relation to flesh-eating beetles.

“They’re spoiled,” I decide.

“Yeah. They are.”

Later, we have a conversation about whether it is theoretically possible for fat to be deposited between the two layers of fused bone that make up an adult bird’s skull. Mary says she’s seen what looks like exactly that in the course of cleaning out skeletons from the bug room, but she isn’t sure it’s a documented phenomenon.

It isn’t too long after both these chats that I take a break to enjoy the ham and cheese sandwich I’ve brought for lunch.

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*Beetles aren’t true bugs, but everyone in Birds and Mammals calls the dermestids “the bugs,” and the room they live in is the bug room. I am not sure if the Entomology Division objects to this.

Hope is the Thing with Feathers

February 23rd, 2011 | Meera

I confess. I think Emily Dickinson is wrong about hope.

She says it has feathers, but she never sees it fly. Instead it rests, and chooses for its perch a place where it is bound to be battered. Its tune is sweet, she promises, but what it sings has no lyric—no signification—only the form of an abstract and unreasoning melody. It will never change its tune, or learn from circumstance. And it will never cease, she thinks—unless perhaps it will, in the sorest of storms. All-admiring, she tells us it feeds on nothing. Not even a crumb. How then can it grow strong? On air? What manner of dumb, lofty hope is this? It doesn’t act like any bird I’ve ever met.

Feeling as I do, you may understand the little twinge of chagrin that pricks me every time I look down at Christopher Cokinos’s Hope Is the Thing with Feathers: A Personal Chronicle of Vanished Birds. During the week and a half I was reading it I found myself assailed by the urge to hide its cover, or cluck at it under my breath. Emily’s line seemed, and still seems to me, a fatuous title for a book that tells the extinction stories of six North American species. I know I don’t appear irritated in this photograph, but we might attribute that in part to the fact that I was sitting in paradise at the moment it was taken.

2011.6. Hope is the Thing with Feathers (Christopher Cokinos)

Not only sitting in paradise, but listening to the persistent five-note dirge of Mourning Doves (Zenaida macroura) and watching them vibrate into and out of my friend Sarah’s back yard like nervous specters. (Until recently, Mourning Doves were believed to be the closest living relatives of the Passenger Pigeons (Ectopistes migratorius) Cokinos chronicles in the second section of his book, and although genetic analysis has now changed that designation, there is an undeniable visual similarity between the two species. Both have long tails, bluish-gray backs and rusty breasts; but the Mourning Dove’s coloring is altogether paler and less audacious than its extinct counterpart—a fitting uniform for a ghost.)

Ghostly interactions of all kinds permeate Cokinos’s book; he leans on them heavily to lend resonance to his urgent plea for us to “save what is left and restore what we can.” Many of the apparitions he conjures are deeply affecting, especially when they surprise him as much as they do us. What first sets him off on his journey through annihilation is just such a pair of startling ghosts: two escaped Black-Hooded Conures fleeing a Sharp-Shinned Hawk above the watery landscape of a Kansas marsh. The shock Cokinos feels upon seeing the brilliantly colored conures, so incongruous in the vast, featureless skies of the eastern United States, leads him to the discovery of another “exhilarating smear of green.” Native sons, not accidental immigrants, the now extinct Carolina Parakeet once occupied the same space. From this phantasmic starting point, Cokinos crafts a sincere and exhaustive portrait of the life and death of Conuropsis carolinesis, as well as of the sportsmen, naturalists, plumage-hunters, egg-collectors, and farmers who extirpated it from one breeding ground after another. I know I complained about his title, and I shall go on to complain about his ghosts—but this is nothing if not a thorough and impressively researched book, absolutely loving in its approach to its subject.

Cokinos fascinates the most when he offers remarkable and concrete details about the complex interplay of human and bird behaviors that rendered each lost species vulnerable. He explains, for instance, that when fired at, the gregarious Carolina Parakeets refused to break their flock to flee but only “swarmed in disbelief” around their fallen peers. Some shooters found it “inglorious” to continue hunting the birds under these circumstances, but these were few. Most, rather, took advantage of their targets’ collective desolation. It is an arresting set of images—a single shot, what appears to be a confused, bereaved throng, a convenient massacre—and Cokinos offers it gracefully, without descending too far into the realm of the maudlin. I was hungry for this kind of specific insight.

The extinction of the Heath Hen (Tympanuchus cupido cupido) is perhaps the most poignant of all the melancholy losses Cokinos reviews, because it is the only one that took place in spite of a dedicated (if somewhat less then perfectly formulated) official effort to prevent it. In the late nineteenth century, Massachusetts declared thousands of acres on Martha’s Vineyard—the bird’s only remaining habitat—a reserve area. It outlawed poaching. It created a small management team to maintain the surviving Heath Hen population. But those who were sworn to protect the bird misunderstood the forces that were whittling down its numbers; they believed predation to be a much greater threat than it actually was, and failed to recognize the loss of genetic diversity among the small number of Heath hens that remained. Many of the final few birds, rendered susceptible by inbreeding, were ultimately devastated by a highly infectious parasite.

Cokinos’s fastidious research habits infuse this desolate story with extraordinary richness; he tracks down the copious and often contentious correspondence between the ornithologists, conservation officials, and game wardens charged with saving the Heath Hen, visits the site of their last home, and recounts each recorded sighting of “Booming Ben,” the very last Heath Hen. (Ben hung on for years after the deaths of his relatives, and was watched for and videotaped fanatically by birders and scientists alike.)

Unfortunately, this preoccupation with last specimens—though perfectly understandable, given how much import we all associate with even the most trivial lasts in our lives—tends to detract from the larger significance of Cokinos’s message. He ruminates for pages over the minute contradictions between multiple reports of the last sighting and last shooting of a Carolina Parakeet. And he grows so obsessed with Press Clay Southworth, the little boy who supposedly killed the last wild Passenger Pigeon, that he spends months pestering county officials and librarians for access to old census records and land titles in a romantic attempt to figure out where the tragic event took place. Having done so, he makes strange, oddly banal and self-indulgent pilgrimages to what he has determined are the most likely spots. He even tracks down and interviews Southworth’s daughter.

It is these ghosts—the ones that Cokinos forces into existence in the hope of reaching epiphany—that move me the least. When he pursues them, he veers dangerously close to what feels like a lewd, almost pornographic relationship with these lost species. He seems half aware of this himself when he visits 16 skinned specimens of Carolina Parakeets at the University of Kansas and, gazing down at them, is “caught in a matrix of awe, grief, disgust, and desire.” The beauty of their viridian plumage strikes Cokinos as “obscene” against the white tray on which they lie; yet he wants desperately to steal a tiny bit of feather, to own a piece of the ghosts that remain. What I find lewd is not that desire itself—how could I, when I myself am so drawn to the beautiful physicality of the dead that I work with collected specimens week after week—but his shameful reaction to it. Wanting the feather fills Cokinos with an immediate sense of self-loathing. In that moment, he seems like nothing so much as an ascetic terrified of a single sinful thought. Isn’t it when we harbor fear of our very nature that we are the most in danger of succumbing to it?

In the end, I am less interested in chasing down ghosts than in understanding how we may keep species alive. Clearly, that is true of Cokinos as well—but the latter is a far more difficult endeavor, and much less poetic. So the hope he promises in his title is, like Dickinson’s, a flimsy affair. It consists, in part, of a discussion of the frankly fantastical possibility of resurrecting recently extinct species through DNA cloning techniques. Though Cokinos allows that the scientific difficulties involved in this endeavor are probably insurmountable, he finds comfort in the thought that we, as a species, “are nothing if not dogged in our cleverness. We imagine. We pursue.” I am less comforted—or perhaps less convinced of our cleverness.

The other half of Cokinos’s hope comprises weak admonishments to write to politicians, volunteer with conservation groups, and engage in what he rather self-deprecatingly calls “the rote chores of the perpetually guilt-ridden”—recycling, riding bikes, eating locally and organically, forgoing child-bearing. Even he seems frankly more depressed than invigorated by these efforts, admitting that sadness is a natural, and useful, first response to the pain of extinction. But, he urges, our second response ought to be hopeful. We ought to give back some of the “life, beauty, and solace” that the world offers us.

He does not explain—at least not to my satisfaction—how we might accomplish this.

I suppose he is in good company.

“Hope” is the thing with feathers -
That perches in the soul -
And sings the tune without the words -
And never stops – at all -

And sweetest – in the Gale – is heard -
And sore must be the storm -
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm -

I’ve heard it in the chillest land -
And on the strangest Sea -
Yet – never – in Extremity,
It asked a crumb – of me.

Adventures in Taxidermy

January 27th, 2011 | Meera

I really don’t mean for this to be a bird-centered website, or for every other post to be about my beloved prep lab at the Field Museum—I’ve had an essay sliding around in my mind for a few weeks now about ice, for instance, and mean to get to it as soon as possible.

But since I’ve reached a bona fide milestone in my bird-taxidermy education, I wanted to share it with you: over several long hours today, Tom and I finished mounting the Cooper’s Hawk (Accipiter cooperii) I’ve been working on. It still needs to dry out and settle in the freezer for a few months, during which time I’ll take it out occasionally to re-preen and re-tape it; but all the major steps in its preparation are basically complete now. This is very exciting for me because unlike the first taxidermy mount I worked on with Tom (that gorgeous Snowy Owl I was telling you about last week), I actually did the lion’s share of the labor on the Cooper’s. I skinned it, set its eyes, replaced the tissue we removed from its wings and legs with cotton, carefully slit the membranes around each individual feather in the tracts along its neck and back to keep its plumage from tightening up as its skin dried, made a body for it, wired its legs and head to its body (Tom took over the most with the parts involving wiring), and sewed it up. I feel much more of a sense of ownership over it, and the next bird I do will probably be a solo endeavor—not least because Tom is leaving soon on a six-week field research trip to Malawi.

Ownership or no, however, there is no way this bird would look as good as it does now if it hadn’t been for Tom assuming the reins whenever anything got too tricky, especially when it turned out that because of a change in the way we decided to arrange the wings, the body I’d made was a little too wide. He was able to maneuver the hawk’s wings into position despite the fact that the tight fitting body meant there was very little give in the skin around its back and chest. After he mounted it on a base he’d made earlier this week, I spent a long time adjusting its pose and pulling its feathers into place with a pair of tweezers. I think it looks alert and alive, which is really neat. You’ll see in the picture below that it’s currently being held in position with pins and tape; those will be removed once it’s dried completely.

Cooper's Hawk, mounted (2)

I’m especially pleased to share this news with you at such a timely moment: yesterday, the Cooper’s Hawk that had been trapped in the Library of Congress reading room for a week was finally freed, with the help of a couple of starlings as bait (poor starlings, but at least now no one can say they aren’t useful for something). By the way, take a good look at the photo in that news story and compare it to the one above: the LOC bird is still a juvenile, and the one we worked on in the lab was an adult. There is a dramatic and beautiful change in plumage and eye color that takes place when a bird reaches breeding age. The patterns on the breast feathers of adults are a warm red color, while those of juveniles are a dull brown—and eyes go from yellow to red in the transition.

Prep Lab Vignette

January 21st, 2011 | Meera

Tomorrow will be the coldest day we’ve seen this season, but today I am in the prep lab and it is warm enough—a rare thing—for me to take off my cardigan while I work. Because I have dinner plans tonight I am wearing, instead of my usual t-shirt, a sober wool dress: warm in gray and black and with a white bar running across my torso. In a moment it will be peppered with flakes of sawdust, but for now I feel myself sleek, a version of a Laughing Gull in modish breeding plumage. I sit. I take up my birds.

A Brown Creeper starts my day. It makes me smile with how long its forked tail is, how stiff—like a rudder for a tiny boat, except no boat would move quite like I have seen creepers move, in that dance that is all scuttle and scratch up and down tree trunks in spirals, like ninjas scaling a fortress wall. To see a creeper is to see a spider, a cicada, a gecko in bird form.

The bird I am holding has coloring that guidebooks will tell you is “cryptic,” which means it’s designed to camouflage rather than advertise. The term is lyrical, but not therefore inapt. Life is a kind of war. If your coloring must speak, let it be coded. I peer into the patterns of brown and white that cover the creeper’s wings—searching for hidden meanings. Instead I find a splash of copper, rusty and bright, hiding on its back like a gift.

I touch a finger to its bill. The thing is curved and sharp but not as curved and sharp as the creeper’s toes: three-in-front-and-one-behind and each ending in long, long claws whose tips prickle and stick to my skin like Velcro just as they prickle and stick to bark. I have to pull the creeper’s toes away from one hand with the other. If I let them they would cling to my fingerprints. If I could devote the rest of my life to becoming a tree, I would let them.

The radio plays Elgar, plays Rodrigo. I hum the music under my breath. So sweet it hurts. The radio is melancholy today.

Dave, behind me, is cheerful. He has received a box. From it he draws dozens of birds, collected in South Africa ten years ago, prepared by a skilled hand, and given to the museum by a university. “It’s like Christmas came again,” he beams. The colors of these birds are startling: crimson, indigo, black with the sheen of a river at night. Olive with the sheen of satin. He lays them out in large, shallow drawers. They form a palette that would make an artist weep.

I pull my stitches closed on the Brown Creeper and clean its feathers of their final day’s dirt: all the grime it did not have time to preen away itself. To dry and fluff them with a little puff of compressed air, I walk to the opposite side of the room. I am glad for this excuse to look over Peggy’s shoulder. Peggy is the museum’s resident artist, and today she is sketching the taxidermied Snowy Owl Tom let me work on with him some months ago. Last week I put the final touches on it, filling in with epoxy the tiny gaps that formed between its round black lids and its beautiful yellow glass eyes as its skin dried and shrunk. Now it sits just out of reach on a counter, wearing a sign Tom made. “PLEASE DON’T TOUCH ME—FRAGILE! :)”

But Peggy isn’t touching our Snowy. She’s doing its portrait. I try not to be too obvious about it but I am staring at her while I dry my feathers. She’s working in pencil, for now, on a large sheet of paper as white as the owl itself. She’s drawn guide lines to help her with size and scale, and she’s working on sketching its head and wings. It looks magnificent: regal, curious, intelligent. Life-sized, or perhaps a hair larger.

The radio plays Mahler. The scientist, the writer, and the artist are listening.

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On Tame Sows and Wild Boars

December 30th, 2010 | Meera

When I got to the prep lab this morning, Dave had set out two birds for me to work on: a Savannah sparrow (a species with which I am becoming quite familiar) and a sleek, long-tailed Yellow-billed cuckoo. As the cuckoo thawed, however, it became clear that it had begun to spoil—this happens sometimes when a specimen doesn’t make it to a freezer soon enough after its death—and that it wouldn’t, therefore, make a good study skin. Birds whose tissues are breaking down have skin that falls apart easily, and they inevitably lose a great deal of feathers as you go along. So Dave put the cuckoo back in the freezer to become a skeleton on another day, and drew out as a replacement an exquisitely tiny Golden-winged warbler (Vermivora chrysoptera). As I’ve gotten more comfortable working on small birds, Dave has given me a good many warblers to prepare—but this Golden-winged was the first of its kind that I had ever seen. While he was taking it out of the freezer, he also told me that they aren’t a very common find around here—and so I hoped I would do a good job with the perfect little creature he placed by my tray.

Fortunately, she was kind to me, and turned out beautifully. (I can use the pronoun with confidence because later I placed a pair of magnifying goggles over my head and personally examined the minuscule, very slightly raised, very slightly shinier spot behind her kidneys that Dave, with fantastic authority, indicated as her ovary. To me it looked like a microscopic, colorless oil slick sitting on top of a larger, vaguely less lustrous oil slick. Sexing birds when it isn’t mating season is an exercise in seeing what does not want to be seen.)

But besides being beautiful (Golden-winged warblers have, as their name suggests, bright yellow plumage on their wings—but they also have golden crowns, striking patches of jet black on their faces and throats, and the most modish gray feathers you can imagine cloaking their backs), it turned out that the bird I met today was also a player in a long and fascinating history.

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Here’s how it goes. The first thing you ought to know is that the Golden-winged warbler happens to have a kind of aural twin. One of the main songs you’re apt to hear these birds sing is a two or three-note whistle that is usually described as a high, gentle buzzing, like someone breathing in and out over the surface of a nail file. But hearing that song isn’t always enough to make a positive identification, because another warbler—the much more common Blue-winged—buzzes in a very similar way. And it’s especially apt to do so if it has a little Golden-winged blood in it.

Here’s why it might. The two species of warbler don’t look all that much alike; although they share the same basic colors, the way those colors are distributed on their bodies is quite different. But DNA tests reveal that they’re incredibly similar genetically. In fact, scientists believe that two or three million years ago, Blue-winged and Golden-winged warblers were one and the same. At some point, though, glacier movements across North America caused the population to split into two groups: one isolated somewhere around Missouri, and the other somewhere up in the Appalachians. And from this separation came speciation.

For more than a million years, Golden-winged warblers and Blue-winged warblers were kept apart from each other mostly by dense forests, a habitat in which neither is able to thrive. Eventually, however, humans began clearing those forests and farming them—then abandoning that farmland and allowing a sparser collection of trees and shrubs to grow back. As this change in the landscape occurred, sometime between one and two centuries ago, Golden-winged warblers began moving north and Blue-winged warblers south. And because they still share so much genetic material, when the two meet, they are happy to breed with each other.

If a Golden-winged warbler mates with a Blue-winged, the two produce a reliably identifiable hybrid offspring known as a Brewster’s warbler. (A Brewster’s warbler is then able to mate with either a Golden-winged or a Blue-winged warbler in a process known as a backcross; these pairings, and their successive pairings, produce all manner of other subtly different and unpredictably plumaged birds, as well as—occasionally—another reliably identifiable hybrid known as a Lawrence’s warbler.)

Unfortunately, besides making for an incredibly complicated family tree, this habit of hybridization has spelled a precipitous decline in the Golden-winged warbler population. That’s because Golden-winged warblers are significantly more likely to mate outside their species than Blue-winged warblers, and—much to the chagrin of avian anti-classists, I presume—once they’ve done so, their hybrid offspring aren’t able to find mates as easily as pure-blooded birds. The combination of these two things has meant that, as the species have crossed paths over the past century or so, Blue-winged warblers are making pretty good headway at displacing Golden-winged warblers.

What truly amazes me about all this, beyond the fact that it’s biologically fascinating, is that I know perfectly well the whole story was present in Dave’s head as he handed me that sweet little specimen this morning—even though the only thing he said was “We don’t get too many of these.” Sometimes I wonder what it can possibly be like to know as much as he does about birds; how it must feel to have all this detail stored away inside him as comfortably and naturally as, for instance, you or I might store our feelings about our best friends.

You may have heard, if you live in Chicago and happen to be a newshound, that Dave’s retiring from the Field after 35 years of service. He’ll still be there every day for the next year, but when he does eventually leave it will be a loss beyond words to the division. I can’t tell you how lucky I feel to have spent the past two years working in his lab. And do you know what? If I were that Golden-winged warbler, I’d feel lucky to have passed through it too.

P.S. I owe a debt to Todd McLeish’s excellent Golden Wings & Hairy Toes: Encounters with New England’s Most Imperiled Wildlife.

P.P.S. Anyone curious about the title of this post might want to take a quick look here.

An Avian Initiation

December 26th, 2010 | Meera

Sometimes you have to sneak yourself in love with home, sideways, long after the fact of your leaving. It’s been more than a dozen years and I’m still figuring out what I love about the place where I grew up: how to be fond of what I once felt was pricking me in a hundred tiny ways. I’m still learning that I actually enjoy the hot, damp embrace that held me tight for so long, until I slipped free from it and catapulted into the cool, dry world. It is very easy indeed to love Singapore for my family, big and crazy and beautiful; but loving it for itself is a little more complicated. The reasons not to can loom large.

Which is why it’s a good thing I finally got the birds involved on this last visit. By 6am on December 3rd, our second full day in Singapore, having slept briefly but well under the rhythmic orbit of the ceiling fan in my sister’s guest room, and having woken early to the loud and familiar provocations of a male Asian koel (the koel is a type of cuckoo with a fantastically hard-to-ignore two-note whistle; you can hear it if you follow that link or if you ask my mother, mimic-extraordinaire, to produce it for you), Ross and I were standing outside the gate of the sleeping house, watching the stippled moon in the still-black sky. We were waiting for local birder Kim Seng to come and give us an initiation into the avian family of my funny little island—a family which, although it is perhaps not that big, definitely has its share of crazy and beautiful.

We were prepared to be pleased.

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Dragonfly as Jabba the Hut

(Ross’s happiness at being outside is more the result of bugs than birds, so it was a good thing carpenter bees, orb spiders, termites, dragonflies, and ants as long as your fingernail also accompanied us on our travels.)

The day was long, but galvanizing—one of those days that would take more stamina to write about than it did to live. We hiked through muddy, green-smelling rainforests (some parts of which were located right next to immaculately maintained golf courses being hoovered dry by attendants, but still). We wandered about wetlands thick with water birds and bathers of all kinds. We bore the burning afternoon sun as we peered into the sky at raptors soaring above flat grasslands, shot through with wide paved roads and enormous pools of leftover rain. We saw, or heard, or both, 55 different bird species, including various shrikes, doves, kingfishers, terns, sandpipers, herons, mynas, sunbirds, flowerpeckers, eagles, bulbuls, orioles, tailorbirds, flycatchers, warblers, babblers, and cuckoos. We were spoiled by flying, calling, preening life. And while I really can’t speak for Ross, I can tell you that I fell in love on at least four separate occasions that day.

Do you want to hear about my new loves? Because, listen, they are total charmers, these four, and not one of them happens to make its home on this side of the earth—so if you’re not ready to start looking up airfare from where you live to where they live, you might want to stop now. Ready?

Here we go, in order of appearance.

Greater Racket-Tailed Drongo (Dicrurus paradiseus):
We’d been hearing this bird in the gloaming for several minutes before I actually saw one; Kim Seng had pointed one out, but I hadn’t been fast enough with my binoculars to catch it in my sights before it took off from the tree where it had been perched. The greater racket-tailed drongo is a skilled mimic that practices a huge variety of calls—partly, ornithologists believe, so as to attract a large, mixed-species group of fellow insect-feeders to its side. Having done so, it can hover above them and snatch up any prey they happen to disturb but fail to catch. In exchange, the drongo keeps an eye out for predators; and if one should arrive, it cries an alarm in the language of its hunting companions.

The call we heard that morning, though, was not borrowed. It was a sweet, pure, three-note song that rose into the air like glass. To me it sounded, more than anything else, like three drops of water dripping clear and cold into a stream. In truth, based on its limpid voice alone, I was half in love with the greater racket-tailed drongo sight unseen. We kept hearing those exquisite notes as we hiked through the moist morning shadows of Singapore’s sprawling Central Catchment Nature Reserve (so called because it serves as the main catchment area for the handful of reservoirs that surround it). And after a while, as the sun began to rise upon the trees, I spotted one for myself.

Drongos are an inquisitive, aggressive family comprising about two dozen species of mostly black birds, distinguished by their long and often unusually shaped tails. Some have forked tails, some curled, and some—like the greater racket-tailed drongo—have besides all else two lovely, elaborate tail feathers shaped like flags: feathers that trail far, far down from their bottoms and twirl in the air as they fly. But I saw this one sitting, straight-backed as a teacher, on a long exposed branch by itself. I watched it through my binoculars for as long as it would let me, hoping to hear it let those three perfect drops of water fall. The drongo, though, was silent. I was not worthy of its wheedling. It simply sat, with its tail like a straightened Dali mustache, and its crest a pompadour as good as any the Fonz ever wore, and let me admire it.

Greater Racket-tailed Drongo
(Photo by Nimesh M.)

Blue-Tailed Bee Eater (Merops philippinus):
Our first encounter with blue-tailed bee eaters took place very shortly after our first encounter with the rather impressive, and comparatively rare, grey-headed fish eagle. This particular eagle was perched in a tree by the edge of the MacRitchie reservoir, apparently sleepy, full, and quite undisturbed by our attentions. It felt like a privilege to watch him so hungrily and for so long, but after we had spent a good long while observing the mild-mannered raptor through Kim Seng’s spotting scope, we found ourselves distracted by two smaller, brighter, and much livelier forest inhabitants. The bee eaters, which is what they were, kept flying off from, and then alighting on, the same branch—a not uncommon behavior among avian predators.

Their restlessness was welcome, because it meant that we had a chance to see their brilliant plumage—iridescent green, orange, yellow, chestnut, black, white, and, of course, blue—from all directions and at all angles of light as they swooped and dived like a pair of painted circus acrobats in search of breakfast. If the drongo had won me over with his voice, these two stole it with their dress and deportment. They were absolutely fascinating; even Ross was besotted with them. And do you know what? I think they knew it. We kept seeing and recognizing blue-tailed bee eaters as we went along for the rest of the day, even as we moved to different areas and different habitats. Perhaps, in fact, they wanted to be recognized. After all, if you were a bird so gorgeous as this, wouldn’t you care to show off?

Bird - Blue Tail Bee Eater
(Photo by najeebkhan2009.)

Dollarbird (Eurystomus orientalis):
This was another bird we’d heard earlier in the morning (sending out a low, unmusical cackle not unlike an upset squirrel), but I hadn’t been able to see. Dollarbirds are colorful, almost clownish-looking birds, a little bigger than a blackbird in size; they have bluish-green plumage, bright orange beaks, and clear, round spots of white on the lower half of each wing, as big as dollar coins and as bright. They belong to a family of birds known as rollers, all of which are known for the gymnastic tumbles and spins they sometimes perform in flight, especially during courtship. Unfortunately, the dollarbird we saw—which graced us with its presence as we crossed a boardwalk over the water in the middle of a lush mangrove swamp—was either already mated or content, for the moment, to remain a bachelor—for it stayed in its position on a solitary tree branch overlooking the water for as long as we cared to watch.

So why did I love the dollarbird despite its refusal to engage in the acrobatics for which its family is famous? Because it was doing something equally endearing instead: it was sunbathing. As I watched through the scope, it stretched out both wings till I could see those bright white spots, letting them hang long and relaxed below the branch on which it sat. At the same time, it rested its head on the branch, turned it to one side, and closed its eyes. It could not have been exposing more of its feathers to the warm Singapore sun unless it had been supine on the ground. And in this pose, the dollarbird looked extraordinarily relaxed. I find it difficult, actually, to describe just how relaxed. Let me just say that this bird looked like it was in it for the long haul. It seemed, friends, as if it were a bird that had learned one really awesome yoga position, and meant to milk it for all it was worth.

Since I often find it hard, myself, to really let go and unwind, what I fell in love with was this dollarbird’s sheer dedication to hanging loose.

佛法僧  Broad-billed Roller-雄亞成
(Photo by Kevin Lin, titled “Broad-billed roller” but showing what looks to me like a dollarbird, and in a pose very reminiscent of my own yoga-practicing friend.)

A moment after we saw the dollarbird, I met the bird I fell hardest for that day.

Brahminy Kite (Haliastur indus):
The Brahminy Kite is a bird shrouded in history and lore, although I didn’t know any of that when I spotted it in the sky and began staring at it like a schoolgirl in love. It was keeping company with a fierce little Japanese sparrowhawk at the time—waiting, perhaps, for it to make its kill. All I knew then was that I was looking at a singularly handsome bird, and the more so with the sun shining through its wings as it banked and glided above me, making it look like it was haloed in gold.

Brahminys have white head, neck, and breast feathers; the tips of their tails and the lower shafts of most of their wing feathers are also white, while their primaries are dipped in black. But the rest of their plumage (and this is the thing that made this one look so golden when I saw the sun casting itself over its wings) is a rich, glossy chestnut color, a reddish brown that is like the warmest possible wood: like a cedar chest someone has oiled with care every day of its life. They are gorgeous creatures.

Early scientists, it appears, were troubled by the Brahminy’s regal appearance, since its habits were so vile and ignoble (it, like most kites, is primarily a scavenger). But mythology has always given this beautiful bird its due. In India the Brahminy is revered, regarded as it is as the modern earthly manifestation of the Garuda: the massive bird-like mount upon which Vishnu rides. And among certain Indonesian peoples, the keenness of the bird’s talons is believed to derive from a magical stone it hides in its nest and on which it sharpens its claws. You can steal it to sharpen your own knives, the stories go—but only if your eyes are tightly shut as you reach inside the Brahminy’s nest. If you dare to so much as peek while your blind, robbing hand stretches out, the stone will disappear, or transform itself into a nestling.

Me, I would never be so bold. Not with such a king of birds.

Brahminy Kite - Haliastur indus
(Photo by Mike (NO captive birds) in Thailand.)

I have to admit that it’s a little scary to look so deeply at a place so familiar. It’s a little disorienting to find yourself falling in love with home, and realizing just how tiny a fraction of it you ever understood. But when it’s birds that carry you along, it doesn’t feel like falling at all.

It feels like flying.

An Outfield of Flycatchers

November 4th, 2010 | Meera

On April 17, 1822, while traveling in the prairie lands of southeastern Arkansas, John James Audubon discovered a small, rather drab little bird about the size of a sparrow. It had a crown and back of dark olive, two white bands across its wings, a pale gray throat and upper breast, and light yellow underparts. Though in appearance it was very nearly identical to several other birds already known to science, Audubon knew he had never before heard this distinctive two-note call, a high and rasping buzz which the creature let out repeatedly in flight. He identified it as a new denizen of a large family of tree-dwelling passerines known for swooping from branch to branch, deftly capturing insects on the wing. It was this skill that gave them their name: Flycatchers.

When, six years later, Audubon formally described his new avian find in an early edition of Birds of America, he named it “Traill’s Flycatcher.” This was a nod to the Scottish physician and amateur naturalist Thomas Stewart Traill, someone who had helped Audubon exhibit his drawings to an audience across the water in the years before the budding artist had become quite as famous as he was going to be.

The name was a thoughtful gesture—but one that did not last very long. In the years since Audubon made his discovery, ornithologists have separated Traill’s Flycatcher into two distinct species: Alder and Willow Flycatchers. The two are virtual twins, but have different voices. (That is, according to the books. I can tell I still need more practice as a birder, because they actually sound very similar to me—although the Alder has a call that more resembles a zipper being swiftly tugged, and the Willow one that is more like a sharp sneeze.)

Neither, in any case, has hung on to a common name that recalls Traill. Researchers agree that the bird Audubon saw that day was what we would now call a Willow Flycatcher. Only its scientific name, Empidonax trailli, retains a Latinized trace of the good-hearted man Audubon meant to honor. (Such is the caprice of species; for more on the scientific and philosophical underpinnings of classification, I urge you to read this post by the talented DeLene Beeland.)

Despite what some consider its unremarkable appearance, the Willow Flycatcher does have several notable qualities. A few, for instance, are capable of defending themselves against the brood parasitism of the Brown-headed Cowbird—which shares the cuckoo’s disagreeable habit of laying its own eggs in other birds’ nests and abandoning them to the care of unsuspecting adoptive parents. According to a number of observers, Willow Flycatchers that find cowbird eggs in their nests have been known to bury the unwanted artifacts. They do this by pushing the alien eggs into the bottoms of their nests and adding more material on top—effectively entombing them within a new layer of nest lining. It’s not clear whether the flycatchers do this strategically with cowbird eggs, or as a simple response to any foreign material within their homes; either way, it’s a pretty delightful response to a base attempt at moochery.

And unlike songbirds, parrots, and hummingbirds, each of which must learn their vocalizations from adult teachers, flycatchers—Willows included—emerge from the egg knowing the song dialects particular to their species. Even when young flycatchers are deliberately tutored with the songs of similar but unrelated species, what comes out of their beaks when they begin to call is emphatically the sound of their own kind. Confuse me not with your zipping pip, you Alder, for I am a sneezing Willow! They are examples, in other words, of birds whose mother tongues are somehow encoded in their genes. (I cannot tell you how much I envy them. I myself, lover of all discourse and code, know only about three words of Punjabi and about a dozen of Cantonese, the languages my parents’ families speak.)

I tell you all this, of course, because I prepared a Willow Flycatcher today in the bird lab, and was enchanted by the soft lemon-sorbet plumage it carries on its belly and the inside of its tail.

Willow Flycatcher

P.S. As Diana reminds us, Willow Flycatchers are fairly common birds. But the Southwestern Willow Flycatcher—one of the ten or so subspecies that populate the United States—has been on the decline for many years now, mostly as a result of habitat loss and fragmentation. It’s been classified as endangered since 1995. The story of its struggle to survive has taken some fascinating turns lately.

A Special Providence in the Fall of a Sparrow

October 7th, 2010 | Meera

Are not two sparrows sold for a farthing? and one of them shall not fall on the ground without your Father. But the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Fear ye not therefore, ye are of more value than many sparrows.

—Matthew 10:29-31, King James Bible

A hundred or so years ago, when I was seven or eight or nine and more foolish and more wise than yet I knew, I used to be dropped off at Sunday school while my parents attended the main service of our church. I hesitate to define exactly what I believed, or thought I believed at the time, about religion and the origin of the universe and the fate of all mankind. I can tell you that I asked an impertinent question now and again—usually regarding the ethics of this or that divine action—usually resulting in little satisfactory return except the swift corrugation of the Sunday school teacher’s forehead. Tiny doubts in my tiny head notwithstanding, I think it’s fair to say that for a long time I took the existence of God for granted. But rarely did this move me. God was vast, distant, and confusing. He didn’t have a lot to do with the particulars of my life.

It was different with this verse from Matthew, which I remember encountering and which (to an animal-obsessed child who stalked stray cats and scanned the ground under each tree for the injured bird I knew I would one day find) seemed infinitely comforting. A creator who would flood all his sinning children so he could start over from scratch was not for me; one who noted every fallen sparrow, on the other hand? That meant something in my world.

Today, I no longer believe in a celestial presence who counts my value in the currency of sparrows (incidentally, the onomatopoeic Hebrew word צפור/tsippur, normally translated as “sparrow” in this verse, can refer to any small chirruping bird). But I do believe in the fervent daily efforts of the Chicago Bird Collision Monitors—who are out in force every single morning for much of the year looking out for creatures that are each still worth, in the minds of most, far less than a farthing.

Some days ago, a CBCM volunteer noted, carefully bagged, and brought to the Field Museum the lovely little Savannah sparrow I skinned today. (Most of the CBCM’s finds are window-kills, but this particular one came in with a broken neck that looked to me like the work of a cat.)

Because of that volunteer, a new specimen has been added to the scientific archives of the museum that could one day be of use in protecting the lives of other birds. And if the sparrow had been injured instead of dead when it was found, it would have been cared for.

Fear ye not therefore, birds of Chicago.

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Not a whit, we defy augury: there’s a special
providence in the fall of a sparrow. If it be now,
’tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be
now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the
readiness is all: since no man has aught of what he
leaves, what is’t to leave betimes? Let be.

—Hamlet Act 5 Scene 2

P.S. For a different kind of peek at a Savannah sparrow, visit my fellow volunteer Diana Sudyka’s painting and post at her exquisite blog, Tiny Aviary.

The Very Distillate of Life

August 12th, 2010 | Meera

When I see men able to pass by such a shining and miraculous thing as this Cape May warbler, the very distillate of life, and then marvel at the internal-combustion engine, I think we had better make ourselves ready for another Flood.

Louis Joseph Halle, Spring in Washington

I don’t know much about Louis Joseph Halle, but after I read what he’d written about the Cape May warbler, a bird I’ve encountered once or twice before in the lab, I tried to find out as much as I could about him. It turns out that Halle was a Harvard-educated American naturalist, political scientist, and philosopher; he worked in the publishing and railroad industries, served in the U.S. Department of State, became a professor of foreign policy at a university in Switzerland, and wrote some twenty books explicating both politics and science. Whatever else one might say about him, in other words, he was clearly a thoughtful, observant man. And here he was, thrilled to the very core by the mere sight of this tiny yellow bird, about half the length of my hand—elevating it, in fact, above what was perhaps the single most revolutionary invention of the modern industrial economy. “The very distillate of life.”

I love that phrase. It is exactly the sense I have whenever I look at a bird, the strange feeling that I am witnessing an extraordinarily compressed and clarified form of life. Bird life, it seems, passes on an entirely different time scale than the one I inhabit; and it is privy to an entire universe of sensory information that for me is locked away.

But why does the Cape May warbler in particular deserve such heady praise? I’m not sure what Halle had in mind, but beauty and delicacy must have had something to do with it. These are petite creatures, usually less than five inches in length and weighing under half an ounce; if I slid one into an envelope, it would cost only 44 cents to mail the floaty thing anywhere in the United States.

It strikes me that the contrast between the bird’s diminutive size and the fierce good looks of its plumage must have been part of what so charmed Halle. Breeding adult birds have dark black bars streaking vertically down their necks and fronts: their scientific name, Dendroica tigrina, refers to these as tiger stripes. (The bird’s common name turned out to be less cogent; after ornithologist Alexander Wilson first identified and described one in the Cape May region of New Jersey in 1812, no further sightings of it were made there for over one hundred years. The birds live and breed in the forests of North America, then migrate south to the West Indies for the winter. An enviable arrangement; I would do the same, if I could.)

224 (Physiology of Recent Fears)

Stripes are not the only attribute Cape Mays share with their big-cat namesake. They can be keen and relentless fighters, and have very frequently been observed fending off other species of birds from territories that they consider their own, flying at the intruders until they leave the area. This seems to be especially true during the migration period, when food sources (Cape Mays feed on insects, fruit, and nectar) may be of heightened importance. In one paper, Cape Mays were observed to be the assailants in 98% of the aggressive actions that took place around a particular kind of fruit tree, even though it was a food source that at least 11 other bird species also enjoyed.

But there’s more to this little creature than good looks and chutzpah. In 1948, a University of Illinois student observed a Cape May repeatedly seizing upon the opportunity to drink sap out of the holes left behind by Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, a type of woodpecker. “Whenever the sapsuckers’ feeding was interrupted by any cause and the tree was free,” notes the admiring birder, “the Cape May Warbler immediately moved to the spot and began to climb on the bark from hole to hole draining the sap that could be obtained at each spot.”

Or consider this note from a 1908 book about bee-keeping, which is guilty of delicious anthropomorphism but does accurately represent the clever variety of the Cape May’s approach to feeding:

Almost every year the bee-keepers are met with complaints from their neighbors about how the bees are eating up their grapes. It has been pretty well established that bees never touch the perfectly sound fruit; and until recently it was supposed by all fruit-growers, and even by some bee-keepers, that bees made a small round puncture through the skin of some soft grapes…but more recently we were successful in finding the real culprit, and that was in the form of a little bird, quick of flight, scarcely if ever to be seen around the vines when any human being was present.

This bird…called the Cape May Warbler, has a long sharp needle-like beak. It will alight on a bunch, and, about as fast as one can count the grapes, will puncture berry after berry. After his birdship has done his mischief he leaves, and then come on innocent bees to finish the work of destruction by sucking the juices of the pulp of the berry…the birds are scarcely ever “caught in the act.”

So, tiny, beautiful, fierce, and crafty. The very distillate of life, indeed. And lovely as the Cape May continues to be in death (as you can see from the study skin above), its true glory, surely, lies in how intensely it lives.

Cape May Warbler

Photo: Mitchmcc.

Whip-poor will

June 3rd, 2010 | Meera

The so-called goat-sucker lives on mountains; it is a little larger than the owsel, and less than the cuckoo; it lays two eggs, or three at the most, and is of a sluggish disposition. It flies up to the she-goat and sucks its milk, from which habit it derives its name; it is said that, after it has sucked the teat of the animal, the teat dries up and the animal goes blind. It is dim-sighted in the day-time, but sees well enough by night.

—Aristotle, “The History of Animals,” c. 350 B.C.

The Whip-poor-will is a bird of many distinctions.

For one, it has a marvelously ridiculous common name, supposedly derived from its insistent three-note call, which resounds through the forests of the eastern United States all through the night. (Listen to that recording, will you? As you know, I adore both birders and namers of birds, but transliterating the exquisitely alien trills and whistles of birdsong into syllables we can spell and pronounce does little but highlight the paucity of human language when compared to its avian counterpart.)

The Whip-poor-will also has a marvelously eerie scientific name: Caprimulgus vociferus, literally “noisy goatsucker.” Unlike the mythic Chupacabra, birds of the genus Caprimulgus, to which the common nighthawk also belongs, were not believed to drain the blood of goats, but to drink their milk instead. This is, if you ask me, a more palatable proposition: but it is equally fictitious. Aristotle himself—an august thinker, to be sure, but wrong about so very many things—thought this to be true.

The story may have arisen because of the birds’ incredibly wide bills, which apparently looked to ancient observers as if they would be very useful for sucking at goat teats. In fact, what those bills are suited for is gaping open in flight and snatching up large insects, which are what make up the majority of the Caprimulgus diet.

In sum, the Whip-poor-will is a medium-sized, ground-nesting, nocturnal bird with beautiful mottled plumage consisting of a complex pattern of browns, grays, blacks, and whites: a confusion of earthy colors that makes it almost invisible when still. And it is very, very beautiful.

I can tell you quite confidently just how soft that pretty plumage is—it is as downy as an owl’s—because I spent an hour and a half skinning a lovely little female Whip-poor-will this morning in the Field Museum’s bird prep lab. The number on her tag began with the initials “FC,” which means she was collected as a wounded bird by the Flint Creek Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Northerly Island, Chicago, and unfortunately didn’t make it. In fact, as I was handling her I noticed that her right humerus was broken, probably the injury that brought her to Flint Creek.

Here she is. Dave, the collections manager in the Bird Division, was very happy to have her as a study skin; I don’t think we see too many Whips in the lab.

154

Alchemy of an Arizona Evening

May 16th, 2010 | Meera

When the sunset shares space with the waxing moon, follow a curve-billed thrasher’s crazy mimetic call—all whistle, click, and buzz, with no beginning and no end—up the rocky side of Hayden Butte in Tempe, Arizona. He will be sitting, alone like you, on the edge of an overhead line, and he will not be disturbed.

If you stand just underneath his beak—but just—his notes will fall into your hair and trickle over your upturned face like the water that ran down your naked skin in the morning. You are grubby with the heat of the day and the breath of strangers, and the thrasher’s song is a shower.

It does not matter how you look, standing there with your arms out and your eyes closed and the thrasher singing you clean, because listen, my friend. Who is he really going to tell?

On Skin and Bones

May 25th, 2009 | Meera

There is a wonderful H.G. Wells story in which a taxidermist, puffed up like a Magnificent Frigatebird (Fregata magnificens), lists the feats of stuffing and mounting he has achieved so far: an elephant; a moth; a great auk; several human beings. His litany culminates, to the narrator’s enthrallment and horror, in the following remarkable boast.

“But all this is merely imitating Nature. I have done more than that in my time. I have—beaten her.”

He took his feet down from the mantel-board, and leant over confidentially towards me. “I have created birds,” he said in a low voice. “New birds. Improvements. Like no birds that was ever seen before.”

“…Some of the birds I made were new kinds of humming birds, and very beautiful little things, but some of them were simply rum. The rummest, I think, was the Anomalopteryx Jejuna. Jejunus-a-um—empty—so called because there was really nothing in it; a thoroughly empty bird—except for stuffing. Old Javvers has the thing now, and I suppose he is almost as proud of it as I am. It is a masterpiece, Bellows. It has all the silly clumsiness of your pelican, all the solemn want of dignity of your parrot, all the gaunt ungainliness of a flamingo, with all the extravagant chromatic conflict of a mandarin duck. Such a bird. I made it out of the skeletons of a stork and a toucan and a job lot of feathers. Taxidermy of that kind is just pure joy, Bellows, to a real artist in the art.”

From “The Triumphs of a Taxidermist” by H. G. Wells.

I have thought about Wells’s lunatic taxidermist many times recently, because four months ago I began preparing bird study-skins as a volunteer at the Field Museum in Chicago. The birds I prepare are mostly local species, but some are migrants that are passing through; since I live in a city, many have died flying into windows. A vigilant group of bird-lovers rehabilitate the ones that make it through this experience alive; the ones that don’t are brought here, where they wait in a freezer until a pair of ready hands takes them up.

Pinned Colaptes auratus (Flicker)

My service here is a natural outcome of a triptych of fascinations with birds, death, and the body, but it has not come easily. It is difficult to skin and stuff a bird. It is especially intense work for someone unused to such meticulousness (most of the other volunteers at the museum are artists, their hands practiced with small tasks). My progress often feels halting; consulting my log, I see that my eighth bird, a European Starling (Sturnus vulgaris), was quite successful, while my twelfth, a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius), ended up “a little ratty-looking and with lopsided wings.” Today is a small milestone: I have my twentieth bird in my hands.

It is a gorgeous male Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea) in full spring plumage: its body a brilliant red the color of teachers’ ink, and the flight feathers on its wings and tail a shiny charcoal black. (I will do a female of the same species next; her plumage is a much less impressive dirty olive-yellow.)

There is a small array of touches I run through with every bird before I begin. I gently pull on its limbs, loosening them to make the bird easier to handle and checking for any signs of broken bones. I fold them up again. I stroke the tiny feathers on its head until they lie smooth and flat. I touch its bill and lightly feel the small, stiff, hair-like rictal bristles that surround it, if they are present. Not every bird has these odd-looking feathers, like short cat whiskers, and I like them particularly because when I see them I imagine the bird in full and glorious motion, its head jerking back and forth as it feeds. (The function of the rictal bristles is something of an open question, but one guess is that they protect a bird’s eyes from the sharp wriggling of insects held in its bill.)

I do these things partly because I wish to memorize the bird in its original state. I need a picture in my mind to which I can return when later I must do my best to arrange its wings, feathers, and feet as they were in life. But partly, the gestures serve as an act of reverence for the creature I am handling. The back room of a science museum may also be a place where ritual is born.

Lohengrin‘s aria happens to be playing on the radio as I carefully pry open the Tanager’s stout bill, my fingers running over the two tiny teeth along the edges of its upper jaw that helped it pierce the skin of fruits when it was alive. I tuck a small piece of cotton into its mouth with a pair of forceps, to absorb any blood that might otherwise seep out and stain the feathers. Something about this gesture comforts me, although I know that this does not make sense.

Next I expose the Tanager’s breastbone and underbelly by parting its feathers with my fingers. Casual observation may not reveal this, but in most birds, feathers don’t cover the surface of the skin uniformly. Instead, they grow in dense, linear tracts, between which the skin itself is bare. I push the feathers to the left and right, uncovering a ribbon of skin that runs from the neck down to the lower abdomen. On some birds this is relatively easy, but very often the feathers don’t wish to stay where I put them, and from this moment on it will be an endless battle to keep them out of the way (without tugging too many of them out of the skin) as I work. The more beautiful a bird, the more carefully I arrange its feathers, and the more I curse them.

Soon I am opening the bird from neck to underbelly with a series of light scalpel cuts down the skin of the midsection. Then I gently separate the skin from the abdomen and breast, peeling it up and away and depositing small amounts of sawdust on the exposed flesh to dry it a little and prevent feathers from sticking to it. The songbirds I usually work on can have paper-thin skin that tears at a thought, but in general what I find amazing is how elastic it is—and how, once it begins to come away, the muscle underneath seems like an entirely separate entity. It is perverse to say so, but I sometimes feel like I am peeling an orange, the skin designed to first protect, then reveal, the flesh. The evening after I skinned my first bird, I couldn’t stop prodding my own arms. I squeezed the skin between my fingers and tugged, noticing how of a piece my body felt to myself, and realizing how false that impression was. Once you have skinned a bird, it is hard not to imagine the whole animal kingdom opening up this way.

When I have eased the skin far enough apart, I slip a small pair of scissors beneath the Tanager’s esophagus and trachea, snipping them both and making sure I don’t accidentally pierce the skin on the back side of the neck. Lohengrin is still playing in the background; the low, mournful singing suits my sober mood while I complete this task. There is not much room for sentimentality in the lab, but something about the sound of the scissors closing with a sharp click always ruffles my focus for just a split-second. It’s such a pragmatic sound, so decisive; it’s the kind of sound that should emerge from the workshop of a competent seamstress. And yet here I am, disassembling a bird.

I can go a little faster, now, because the next several steps are relatively straightforward. One at a time I clean each limb, pulling the skin over the wing and leg bones, cutting them just below the shoulders and the knees, and cleaning the parts that remain. In the process I open up three small tears in the Tanager’s skin, one near the left knee and two near the left wing. They concern me only a little. It is amazing how forgiving a study skin is when it is completed; feathers will cover those holes, and there is no need for me to stitch them up. I only dab them with a little water to keep them from enlarging further.

By this time, I have almost entirely separated the bird’s body from the skin. Before I remove it, I turn the Tanager over so its back is facing me, and probe down the base of the tail for a small, putty-colored, heart-shaped swelling. This is the uropygial gland. In life, it secreted oils that the Tanager rubbed over its feathers as it preened, helping to preserve them—in death, the opposite is true. If not removed, the oils will seep through the skin and yellow its feathers. I scrape out the gland as best I can, then cut the bird’s body away just above it. I also scrape away any fat on the rest of the skin, for the same reason. You can tell a lot about a bird from how much subcutaneous fat it has. Most store more fat during winter, for instance, and migrating birds slowly use up their fat stores as they work their way along their journeys. This Tanager has very little fat. (I bless it for that, since it makes my job much easier.)

Now I am ready to pull the bird’s skin inside out over its head. I realize that this sounds gruesome. But the mere fact that it is even possible, and that the skin can later be pulled back over the skull like a sweater, with (if you are skillful) not a feather out of place, strikes me, like so much of what I do in the lab, as a complete magic trick. The Tanager is kind to me today; the skin works over the skull easily, I have no trouble pulling it away from the ear openings, and I am able to take out the eyes cleanly. As always, I marvel at how much space they take up in the skull; if our eyes were as large, I imagine that they’d go all the way up to our brow bones and down past our cheekbones—which would, perhaps, be a small price to pay for such acute eyesight.

After making some cuts in the top and sides of the skull, I pull the back of the head away and clean as much of the surrounding flesh as possible. I take out the tongue, which always surprises me with its sharp shape, almost another feather itself. I shall draw a veil over the removal of the brain, which in a bird that has been previously frozen is not the neatest of tasks. With a cotton ball dipped in water, I clean out the skull cavity, then hold the bird’s head up to the light. Scarlet Tanagers belong to the large and varied order Passeriformes. Passerines share a number of common characteristics, one of which is that the bones of the skull gradually calcify over the course of a bird’s lifetime, fusing the bones so they become hard and continuous. This happens to human babies, too. I’m looking for evidence of tiny, grainy-looking calcium deposits, as opposed to areas where the bone is smoother and more translucent. The Tanager’s skull is fully calcified, which is not surprising; the color of its plumage announces its adulthood.

Carefully, carefully, I pull the skull back into place. The skin is an empty pouch, ready to be filled. In order to do so I perform a series of actions: push a cotton-topped dowel up into the Tanager’s skull, to serve as a makeshift backbone; fill the eye sockets with more cotton; tie the two wingbones together across the breast, to keep the wings close to the body; pull the wingbones back into the skin; tie the feet together, to keep them organized and out of the way. Then I eye the size of the bird’s body on my tray and form a cotton replacement for it that is approximately the right size (a difficult task that is easy to misjudge). The body has a thin “neck” that I pull through the bird’s mouth with my forceps, settling it into place and tucking its base into the skin. I thread a needle, stitch the bird up as neatly as I can (would that I were a more competent seamstress), tie its bill shut, and finally smooth its wings and take a look.

Relief. The Tanager does not have the smooth, compact perfection that it had before I began, but it doesn’t look like it was recently killed by marauding crows, either, and its lovely plumage is largely intact. I take a moment to breathe before I arrange pins methodically around the bird’s body on a piece of foam board, so it can dry in the proper shape. Incidentally, let no one tell you that scientists do not have an artistic impulse: On my first day, the collections manager of the Bird Division gazed at the finished skin I had spent four hours preparing (I have since cut this time down to an hour and a half) and explained, gently, that he preferred the birds’ heads to be pushed back, like so, beak parallel to the board, and their tails to be spread just a little wider, like so, fanned out slightly beneath the feet. True, a specimen with a low bill is easier to store flat in a shallow drawer—with a spread tail, plumage is easier to examine—but these small attentions in position, I note, also make a skin lovelier to contemplate.

Conscious of the hope of beauty, the pinning process alone can take me a full fifteen minutes or longer, depending on the size of the bird I have in front of me—since tucking one wing into place may dislodge the other, and feathers, as I have explained, are disobedient. But eventually I am finished. Exhausted and proud, I wash up before making a label for my bird and pinning it by its side. “Prep. by: M. Sethi,” the label says, among other, more scientifically pertinent, information.

35 (Otus Asio)

Lohengrin has long since finished his aria, replaced by the sound of somber voices discussing climate change. They barely penetrated my consciousness while I was working, but now that I am listening, their conversation seems appropriate for my task here today. It’s a small thing, perhaps, preparing a study skin. It has no immediate purpose other than the deep scientific goal of furthering our understanding of the world we live in, part by feathered part. I never know how the birds I prepare will be used. Not long from now, an ornithologist may slide one out of a drawer to examine, or a scientific illustrator turn one hand to hand, staring at its coloring and shape. One day, perhaps years from now, they may teach a researcher how they are related to each other, or how their populations changed over time; their bodies may demonstrate, through silent, urgent, signs, the true peril our world is in. In some terrible future, not easy for me to contemplate, they may represent the only remaining examples we have of species that once filled the skies.

I think this knowledge is partly why, although I love the wild, brazen arrogance of Wells’s visionary taxidermist, I cannot relate to his desire to improve upon Nature. How can we improve what we can barely preserve? My limited experience with taxidermy is so suffused with wonder over what is that it leaves very little room for dreaming up what is not.

I can’t tell what these birds we prepare in the lab will reveal to science someday. All I know is how much they have taught me, in death, about their counterparts in life. I never forget a bird I have skinned. When later I see one swooping from a tree or singing overhead my breast fills with such pure joy that it is almost painful. I make one last adjustment to the Tanager’s feathers before I leave it be. I may not have created it, but I have earned a sense of ownership over it. And that is triumph aplenty.

This is The Science Essayist’s inaugural essay. Future pieces may well be more technical, more personal, more specific, or more contemplative—I have no idea. Your feedback will always be welcome. Also, a special note to anyone who came upon this page while searching for help on making bird study-skins: The Manual of Ornithology: Avian Structure and Function has been an invaluable resource to me as I continue to learn about the ins and outs of bird bodies.