Posts Tagged ‘the animal kingdom’

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.

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.

(Speaking of the Macabre)

November 10th, 2011 | Meera

This is a preserved specimen that caught my eye after I had finished working on my birds today. On my way out, I walked through the Field’s new permanent exhibition about the museum’s role in advancing conservation science: Restoring Earth.

What’s in the jar is a Blanchard’s cricket frog (Acris crepitans blanchardi).

Cricket frogs get their name from their clear, metallic, insect-like mating call. I’ve also heard it described as the sound of two pebbles being struck together. They’re a type of tree frog, a group whose arboreal lifestyle means its members are usually rather tiny and possess unusual modifications that allow them to cling to leaves and branches. (Like adhesive toe-pads whose stickiness is built around the dynamic duo of nanoscale pillar-structures and mucus!)

Blanchard’s cricket frogs used to be an incredibly common sight in the upper Midwest, but beginning about thirty years ago, people noticed their numbers going into a steep decline. It’s still not absolutely clear why this is so, but one of the best current guesses is that exposure to large amounts of agricultural pesticides may have caused a host of physiological and behavioral changes in the frogs that interfered with their ability to properly reproduce.

I’m posting this because I was struck, especially after what I talked about last time, by how powerfully I was drawn to this particular object in the exhibit. What was alluring was precisely its eerie appearance: drained, almost milk-white, and hanging like a ghost in its jar.

Blanchard’s cricket frogs are beautiful creatures, as a quick image search revealed—I have never seen one myself, at least not knowingly.

And yet I do not think I would necessarily have walked over to and read the text beside a colorful photograph showing one of these little guys in life. This is not at all to my credit—it just happens to be true.

Now, I wonder if the exhibit designers simply wanted to showcase a specimen as it was preserved in the museum, or if, in addition, at some level they knew this about me. (And also, perhaps, about you.)

*******

P.S. This is a good time to point you towards John Bates’s blog. John is one of the curators of the Bird Division at the Field, and he’s not only a lovely and incredibly smart ornithologist, he’s also really invested in educating people about what his team does. He posts frequently (at least by my standards!) and is reliably fascinating. His latest post, about why it’s useful to preserve pre-fledgling age specimens, might be of especial interest.

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?

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.

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.

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.

Distempered

April 23rd, 2011 | Meera

From the time of Hippocrates the ancients believed that there were four cardinal fluids of the body—sanguis, cholera (or yellow bile), melancholia (or black bile), and phlegma.

These four liquids were known as humors (humor being the Latin word for ‘liquid’), and good health was thought to depend on the maintenance of a just proportion among them. The balance or commixture of the humors was known as a man’s temperament, that is, his ‘mixture’ (L. tempera, ‘to mix’)…

If the temperament…was greatly disturbed, the result was distemper

The Classical World, Classical Association of the Atlantic States

Forth at your eyes your spirits wildly peep;
And, as the sleeping soldiers in th’ alarm,
Your bedded hairs, like life in excrements,
Start up and stand an end. O gentle son,
Upon the heat and flame of thy distemper
Sprinkle cool patience!

Hamlet, Act III, Scene 4, William Shakespeare

*******



So many of our words for madness are blunt, pitiless, jarring to the ear and to the mind. Insanity wails like a siren; derangement veers headlong into an embankment like a car spun out of control. Crazy is something you spit.

But distemper, well. Distemper has a different air. Listen to the word: Its classical roots lend it a literary sort of elegance. It has the sound of a mild and floaty agitation that will eventually pass away, returning things to their properly settled and accustomed state.

Distemper: a momentary ripple in the cup of tea you’ve just stirred with a spoon.

Distemper: delicate enough to be applied to princes whose minds are at war with themselves.

Distemper: a condition that might be even a little romantic.

But words are sly, unscrupulous things.

*******



I spend quite a lot of time in Jackson Park, a lovely wooded space that runs right up against Lake Michigan on Chicago’s South Side. Ross and I often find ourselves there when we want to take a walk someplace calm, quiet, and green (or gray, depending on the time of year). It’s also where I go many weekend mornings, to join a small group of dedicated Hyde Park birders who spend two or three hours there each Saturday in search of warblers, thrushes, sparrows, swallows, ducks, herons, and the occasional thrilling raptor.

I like the tall grasses and woodsy forests of the place. I like that it feels—not wild, not that—but friendly to wild things that gather at the edges of my urban life. Among the wild things that have made Jackson Park their home are a small population of raccoons. We see signs of them, we birders, when we tramp by the water—mostly tree stumps chewed to pencil points, or trees still standing that have been fenced off from raccoon teeth by the Parks Department. Since we’re there during the day, the raccoons themselves are usually quite elusive, although binocularing into the opening of a hole high off the ground in one particular tree we have often seen a pair of raccoon babies deep in striped sleep.

Lately, though, the signs Procyon lotor has been leaving us haven’t been so sweet. We’ve grown accustomed to seeing corpses lying in Jackson Park clearings or on pathways, so many unanswered complaints. And sometimes now, you can even see a raccoon moving around in daylight hours.

There was one this morning, on the bank behind the coot and the mallards. It was an exhausted-looking apparition, weaving aimlessly, as if it were a man who’d just woken up in the woods, bruised and hungover, and didn’t know where it was. Red-winged blackbirds buzzed above and below, there was the raccoon. The time was eight in the morning and it was right there in plain sight, long tail sweeping the earth on a trail normally followed only by human feet.

That kind of behavior isn’t normal for a nocturnal creature. You might, if you’d been born several centuries ago, have been inclined to say something had left that raccoon distempered.

*******



Something probably has. According to Pat, our unofficial bird walk leader, the Chicago Parks Department is on the case, and will be sending out a biologist this week to take a look. But the most likely explanation is that the raccoons of Jackson Park are dying off as the result of an epidemic. And the most likely suspect is canine distemper, an air and fluid-borne virus that infects both domestic dogs and several species of wild animals, including coyotes, wolves, ferrets, badgers, and raccoons.

As diseases go, canine distemper is extraordinarily nasty. First it causes fever, shivering, diarrhea, vomiting, and inflammation and discharge in the nose and eyes. Somewhat later, after it attacks the nervous system, the infection delivers a second miserable wave of symptoms, among them seizures, tremors, muscle twitches, weakness, and general bodily instability. It also changes behavior in ways that look a lot like rabies, making for animals that seem oddly fearless even when their usual habits are suspicious and retiring.

There is no effective treatment, even for pets—let alone animals most consider pests. Death is inexorable, but perhaps not swift enough. And juvenile raccoons are especially susceptible to canine distemper, so the young ones we’ve watched in the tree have certainly already been affected.

I think of them and their relatives: all those swirling humors mixed into painful and unfamiliar combinations, all those temperaments disturbed beyond repair. No princes of Denmark, they. These antic dispositions haven’t been put on; they’re carried in the blood. This madness has no method to it, and it doesn’t matter which way the wind blows.

*******


For a disease named after such an ancient notion, canine distemper is remarkably wet behind the ears. The very first case of the infection is thought to have been described as late as 1905, by a French veterinarian known as Henri Carré. Its precise origins are unclear, but what does seem irrefutable is that the disease never existed in wild animal populations until they came into contact with their domesticated canid brothers. It happened to wild dogs in Africa. It happened to spotted hyenas in Kenya. It happened to golden jackals in Israel.

I’ll tell you what I find incredible. Even the king of beasts isn’t immune to this chaos. In the 1990s, an outbreak of the virus bloomed within and killed many of a population of lions in the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania. Soon after, it spread to the lions of Kenya’s Maasai Mara National reserve.

(Neither the king of beasts nor man himself. Exposure to canine distemper virus doesn’t cause any symptoms in humans, but there is some evidence that it may be involved, years later, in the onset of Paget’s disease, a condition in which the body begins to break down and rebuild bone tissue in abnormal ways—making it dense, brittle, and fragile.)

*******


I wish there were some meaning to all this. If I were Hamlet I might spin a story here, tell you perhaps about a queer and painful retribution for the sin of rendering what was once wild tame. I wish the deaths of a few urban-living raccoons mattered more than they probably do to the state of the world in general. I wish the mere existence of a word so poetic reflected something true about our bodies and our minds. (That we were as mutable as fluids? As simple to mix and unmix?) I wish distemper were a romantic metaphor, instead of just a species of blunt and pitiless death.

Two weeks ago, on our way back from the beach, Ross and I encountered most of what looked like a raccoon skeleton—it was missing its skull—picked clean and made brilliantly smooth by the indifferent hunger of birds and bugs. The spine of the thing was incredible, a gentle, shroud-white curve upon the grass: half of an osseous S, one quarter of the motion you make with your teaspoon when you stir what’s in your cup.


the spine inside everything

*******


P.S. We have had a vaccine for canine distemper for over 50 years. Every domestic dog should be vaccinated, but not all are. Especially if you take your dog out to woodsy areas, please don’t let it get behind on its shots. Canis lupus familiaris may be the original source of this scourge, but that doesn’t mean a sick raccoon can’t pass what it got right back.

The Boilerplate Rhino

January 15th, 2011 | Meera

After spending 2010 engaged in a process of prodigious daily documentation, it seemed a little sad to begin 2011 without giving it something of a photographic shape. In that spirit, I’m creating a record of all the books that the year holds. It would be nice if it turned out to be a large record, since I—along with everyone else I know—would like to read more—but small or large, by Jove, it will persist unto the ages.

A good number, although certainly not all, of these titles are likely to be science books—and when they are, I’ll try to say something brief about them here.

First up, the alluringly named The Boilerplate Rhino. I’m a little embarrassed to admit that despite his prolific output and his renown, this is my first David Quammen. It was DeLene’s intriguing list of recent reading, on which his name figures three times, that finally convinced me I had to rectify that omission. This particular book collects 25 columns Quammen wrote for Outside magazine during his long and enviable tenure as its resident curious person.

I began The Boilerplate Rhino (all crisp pages, silky, uncracked binding, extraordinary cover art, and sweet new-book odor) last Saturday, perched comfortably on a bar stool at the window of the Kickstand Espresso Bar in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood—a gloriously smooth cappuccino by my hand. (I was hard-pressed to decide which perfection to sully first with my touch: the book or the coffee.) I finished it this afternoon, curled up on a couch with a cat on one side of me and a husband on the other. Over the course of that week, The Boilerplate Rhino took me on 25 little jaunts to remote Indonesian islands, snake pits in Texas, Mexican hotel rooms, and central Amazon forests. I’d say that was a pretty good deal for a mere $8 (list price: $15, but Powell’s sells mainly used and remaindered books).

Quammen writes in his introduction that one way in which a columnist can achieve both familiarity and surprise is by presenting readers with “outlandish material in a friendly, companionable voice.” If this book is at all representative of his Outside output, then it seems clear he was eminently capable of delivering on that promise. The Boilerplate Rhino is the sort of book that causes you constantly to halt in reading, shake your head violently, and shout aloud to anyone who happens to be listening.

What you shout are things like “Jesus! DID YOU KNOW that Dutch colonists of the 17th century murdered virtually all of the inhabitants on the island of Bandaneira because they weren’t compliant enough nutmeg-harvesting slaves?” Or, a little later, “Oh, come ON. How could anyone really think that capturing lizards and making them run around a racetrack made of Plexiglas, metal, and wire in flight of a human hand would tell you anything about how fast they run when escaping a predator? THAT’S RIDICULOUS…. but now I really want to see a picture of that racetrack.”

As with any collection, no matter how carefully curated, quality varies across essays. The columns I found the least satisfying, in general, were the ones in which Quammen offers self-deprecating descriptions of his difficulties meeting his monthly deadline, which he admits he was always running right up against. A frantic scramble to capture a coherent thread of meaning in the reams of research he’d done about eggs is particularly labored, though it does offer an answer to the (never-before-asked, astonishingly enough) question: If we eat chicken eggs for breakfast, why don’t we eat chicken sperm? I’ll leave that discovery for you to make on your own.

At his best, Quammen is graceful and erudite—especially when he allows non-scientific obsessions to dictate the directions of his wanderings. The luminous “Half-Blinded Poets and Birds,” for instance, beautifully explores the relationship between poetry, vision, and flight, and begins:

Milton, we know, was totally blind. So he wrote about the ways of God. But leave a man with one good eye and he is liable to raise it skyward, squint it, focus it into the middle distance. In two dimensions he will see those animals that move in three dimensions, and what lacks to eyesight can be supplied by heart and imagination. He is liable to write about birds.

How could you—and by you, perhaps I mean I—fail to keep reading?

2011.2. The Boilerplate Rhino

In Other Exciting News:

Last week I was delighted and humbled to learn that one of my posts from last year had been selected from around the web to be part of The Open Lab 2010, an anthology of online science writing. It is a tremendous pleasure to be included on this list of 50 writers. Some of them, like DeLene, Carl Zimmer, and Pal MD, I was already reading often—and some, like Lucas, are wonderful new finds. I hope you visit and enjoy as many of the finalists as you can; every single post is worth reading. I’ll let you know when the book itself goes on sale.

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.

364

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.

337

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.

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.

Things I Hear When Cicada-Tympana Thrum

July 28th, 2010 | Meera

A small, straight twig, held steady between the spokes of a rotating bicycle wheel as it speeds up, slows down, speeds up, slows down, falls still, and then is set to spinning again.

The last gasps of an aerosol can, shaken and sprayed by a determined hand, liquid and air shunted out together through a tiny hole in ragged, pulsating bursts until nothing more remains to be ejected.

A wind-up car that you turn with a key, released at its tautest on a table and allowed to travel as far as it will go, the key in its back clicking down in lengthening ticks its brief, meandering adventure.

The world’s most precise drummer gently sweeping a metal brush back and forth, back and forth, back and forth across his snare, in a lull between the blare of the saxophone and the whalesong of the bass. His hand moves so fast you can hardly believe it, a blur to look at; but he slows. He stops. Gives over his gentle solo.

A bullet-shaped UFO, lights wavering, hovering in the dead silence of the night—approaching its landing spot, cutting its engine, and gliding to rest before my disbelieving eyes.

Superstrings, vibrating with the precise harmonics required to create the fundamental material constituents of our universe and all that it contains.

Sand slipping through an hourglass, each grain squeaking against the sides of that narrow channel before falling, with the clink of a coin, into the bottom chamber.

A stream of water dripped onto a hot stove. Sizzling. Silence. Water into air.

Summer.

Camping, or the Art of War

July 27th, 2010 | Meera

故曰:知彼知己,百戰不殆。不知彼而知己,一勝一負。不知彼,不知己,每戰必殆。
So it is said that if you know your enemies and know yourself, you can win a hundred battles without a single loss.
If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose.
If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself.

—Sun Yat Sen, The Art of War, ca. 6th century BC

There are moments during a camping trip (I learned last week) when the whole endeavor starts to seem absurd in the extreme; when the attempt to temporarily reconcile being “in nature” and simply being yourself, an ordinary 21st century Western-hemisphere-living Homo sapiens, just does not feel like it is working very smoothly. One of these moments is when, having finished brushing your teeth by flashlight, you walk a few steps over from where you were in order to spit out your mouthful of $5 organic, biodegradable, wind-turbine-produced Tom’s of Maine toothpaste onto a slightly more distant patch of dark, loamy dirt so you won’t have to put a foot down on your own spit as you circumnavigate the camp site.

Another is when you find yourself dragging a six-dollar load of firewood through sandy, uneven terrain, swearing because you are pulling a cart with only two wheels and a tendency to nick you in the ankles as you go. Or when you are flapping at your nascent fire with a damp t-shirt as raindrops fall on your face, willing the frail sparks it contains to catch hold of the split logs you have brought it—nay, bought it, with the sacrifice of your poor ankles—your not-quite-burnt offering to the still-capricious god your ancestors first harnessed nearly a million years ago. In these moments it seems funny that Kafka never wrote about camping.

Then there is the time when you put rocks on your food. Is this new to you? It was to me, as I had never been camping before except for one night last fall in the Michigan Dunes, and that did not really count because we had a car and were approximately 12 feet from the nearest other tent, modern bathroom, and Dairy Queen location. But on this trip it was explained to me that, when camping, one’s nightly go-to-bed-ritual involves putting rocks on one’s food. I learned this from Megan, my camping partner.

“It’s just a precaution,” said Megan last Monday night, our first on the car-free, bicycle-free, human commerce-free, exquisitely beautiful Rock Island State Park in Wisconsin. “You never want to have any food near your person, so you have to keep it outside, but in order to keep it safe from raccoons or whatever, you pile rocks on top of the bag.” She proceeded to place a few heavyish stones on top of both our flimsy garbage bag and equally flimsy food bag: just three or four rocks on each, leaving large swathes of plastic exposed. “There,” she said, pleased, “and we can put our pot right on the top of our food bag. Then if something tries to get in it’ll fall off and make a loud sound and scare it away.”

I laugh, now, to think of this breezy confidence in the pot.

Rocks piled, we went to bed, a process delayed somewhat by the need to remove 20 or so languidly migrating daddy long legs from the tent, where they had each begun to make themselves comfortable. We were righteously annoyed with the daddy long legs (and, I think, Megan was righteously annoyed with me, because she thought I had been none too careful keeping the tent flap zipped shut). Then we realized that the reason there were so many of them in there was that we had brought in our backpacks from the outside several hours prior, with the intent of keeping them dry, and had not thought to check them for stowaways. Amateurs, we. Plucky-hearted, but amateurs for all that.

Stowaways evicted, we went to bed. Slow, hypnagogic conversation followed—the kind of conversation you can only have if you have awoken at 5 in the morning, driven six hours, taken two ferries, and traversed nearly four miles of bumpy, sandy trail in order to set up your tent and haul in firewood. The kind of conversation one hopes will meander, gently, into sleep and never, never be interrupted by a sudden tilt of the head and the sharp, suspicious whisper: “Did you hear that?”

She did hear that.

“Maybe it’s a deer,” she said.

But they were clacking, rustling, tearing sounds, exactly the kinds of sounds that a raccoon might make with its lithe little fingers it if had gotten up in the middle of the night to help itself to a snack from inside a plastic bag or bags upon which you had just placed a wholly ineffectual number of rocks and one small metal cooking pot.

The sounds grew bolder as our eyes widened.

Stumbling groggily out of the tent and waving a flashlight in the general direction of the food bags revealed two moderately-sized raccoons getting totally all up in our shit, y’all—raccoons which, surprisingly to me, did not immediately move away but stood their ground until there was a good deal of yelling and additional flashlight waving. Even as we approached the scene of the crime for the first time, the bandits fleeing a little way through the trees, it became clear that the rocks—as we had arranged them—were to these creatures but a laughable entertainment on the way to delicious refreshments.

In the minute or two since the noises began, the garbage bag had been ripped apart, leaving a mass of spilled corn chowder carnage. The food bag had several holes in it. Indeed—I gasped—through one of these points of forced entry, the bastards had already made their first major theft! For a torn, empty bagel bag lay abandoned a few feet away.

We stamped our feet. We wrung our hands. We consulted. What could we do? Clearly the bags themselves were vulnerable to raccoon claws, and even if we succeeded in covering them fully with rocks, raccoon hands could move those rocks aside. I would have put our food in our backpacks, but Megan worried that raccoon teeth might tear through them, and then we would be without food and usable packs. I also would have brought the food inside our tent, but at this Megan steeled herself. “If you do that,” she warned me through her own gritted teeth, “I will throw it out!”

Her voice rose an octave.

I raised an eyebrow.

She raised the specter of a pack of hungry raccoons looming out of the night, sniffing out the food in our tent, surrounding us, and scrabbling at our shelter with their every sharp part.

I capitulated.

At last we understood two fundamental truths about our situation: One: The raccoons would be back. Again and again, probably, through the night. We could not stay up shooing them away. And no matter what we did, they would probably get our food eventually. Two: Even though we were bound to fail, we had to do something. If we did not, the night would be full of the sounds of raccoons feasting undeservedly, and we’d be sleepless anyway.

Since the packs and tent had been vetoed as storage spaces, the only materials we had left were the rocks that had failed us so spectacularly in round one of this unwanted warfare. Could we do better with them?

At first I did not think we could, and though I set to collecting stones from around our campsite I did so with a reluctance that did not match Megan’s grim determination. But that’s because all I had, at that moment, was indignation. Megan had a plan.

She had noticed that the raccoons (dextrous but not that strong) had a much easier time tipping rocks over than pushing them aside. If, she reasoned, we stacked the rocks around the bags, leaning them only if they were too heavy to topple, we would do better. She also began dragging a few large logs of rotting wood over from where they had been arranged around the fire pit, yelping only slightly at the colonies of bugs she unearthed in the process; these logs were even heavier and more raccoon-proof, and could form a sturdy perimeter to the fortress she intended to build.

As our construction went on, and we achieved double and triple layers of rock and wood around our bag of food, I began to see the virtue in the strategy we had adopted. And when, in a final stroke of genius, I said “Aha! The cart!”—meaning, the lousy, two-wheeled cart with which we had hauled our firewood back to the camp site—the final piece of our anti-Raccoon program fell into place.

We set the cart on top of the rocks, and piled atop the cart itself our bag of leftover firewood. The fortress was complete. In all, its creation had taken more than an hour of concerted effort by flickering flashlight.

This is what it looked like.

Let me be clear: This is what it looked like in the morning. Virtually untouched. Oh, a few small stones were pushed away in the night; we heard them. But no edible was thieved. No raccoon had impregnated our fortress. We had won.

In truth, as you are no doubt saying to yourself, it was never a battle—though at minutes to midnight, whispering strategy to my fellow-general in the damp, close air of our war-tent, it started to feel like one.

It was never a battle because the stakes were never high enough. We had so little to lose: some smoked fish, a few eggs, a bag of green beans, beets, and potatoes, a hunk or two of cheese, sweating in cling-wrapped envelopes. As for the raccoons, well. For them it was an exercise in mischief as much as a well-planned food-gathering sally; at least, I like to think it was. Less tactical than curious, they, and presenting far less formidable a foe than a black bear or wily coyote.

Nevertheless it was deeply, profoundly satisfying to wake up in the morning and see that we had succeeded in fending off our tiny and adorable enemies. This satisfaction, too, took on something of the absurd. For hadn’t we spent all that time coming here, to this exact place, precisely to be in an environment inhabited by raccoons (and deer, and eagles, and chipmunks, and daddy long legs)?

Indeed. But what of it? Here, at last, I think, in this absurdity, Megan and I found a happy marriage between being ourselves and being in nature. For surely there is nothing so natural as the desire to fend off another creature who wants to steal your food. And nothing so very Homo sapiens as the desire to beat the little bastards that stole your bagels with nothing but a pile of rocks, a plastic cart, some firewood, and a little human ingenuity.

Thanks to M. Humphrey, military mastermind, for all photography in this post.

Oiling The Devil’s Darning Needle

June 6th, 2010 | Meera

In the fall of 1889, just past the height of bug-season in his home state, Henry C. M’Cook—then-Vice-President of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia and Vice-Director of the American Entomological Society—wrote a lively article for the North American Review in which he outlined ways of mitigating the reign of the pestilential mosquito. Four pages into his arguments, he found himself distracted (as we all are, from time to time) by a dragonfly.

I have read of a school—if memory serves me truly, it was situate in that highly-developed center of American civilization, New York City—whose session was broken up by the advent of an innocent dragon-fly through an open window. An alarm raised by one scholar passed through the entire room: “A devil’s darning needle! A devil’s darning needle!” The ominous phrase, piped in the shrill quaver of terrified childhood, alarmed the teacher, and the agitation became so general that the school had to be dismissed as an act of humanity.

I love the gentle sarcasm in that. “Act of humanity.” Dr. M’Cook, you were one sly scientist.

In their 2005 book A Dazzle of Dragonflies, Forrest Mitchell and James Lasswell explain that the dragonfly-epithet “devil’s darning needle” has its origins in the Europe of the Middle Ages. The long and slender shape of the insect’s body, combined with the superstitious belief that it, like the fly—consort of Beelzebub—was in league with the darkest of forces, produced a myth durable enough to make the journey with the colonists to the United States. Today in Iowa, the authors write, “devil’s darning needles sew together the fingers or toes of a person who falls asleep…in Kansas, they may sew up the mouths of scolding women, saucy children…and profane men.”

Dragonflies, of course, do no such thing. In fact, creatures belonging to the order Odonata—Latin for “toothed,” a reference to the chewing mandibles dragonflies share with most other insects—and the infraorder Anisoptera—Latin for “unequal wings,” because dragonflies have broader hindwings than forewings—have no sting, let alone needlepoint. They are perfectly harmless to humans, if not to their prey: smaller insects, including ants, bees, and the mosquitoes that so irritated M’Cook.

I tell you these things today because I spent the morning at Promontory Point, winding my way along the rocky strand where Lake Michigan hits Hyde Park—and, by the by, watching a levitation of dragonflies dart back and forth across the path and wheel between tall grasses. (I could find no consensus on the proper collective noun for dragonflies, if any exists. Mitchell and Lasswell offer dazzle; I went my own way.) Whatever you call them, they were magnificent: swift and glittering and alarmingly unpredictable—I had to duck, once, to get out of the way. So erratic were their flight paths that they seemed almost invulnerable to the greedy swoops of the ring-billed gulls that flew overhead.

I’m not sure which of the hundred or so species of dragonfly known to be seen in Illinois I was looking at. But there must have been at least two distinct kinds dancing in between each others’ wings, because all were fully grown, but some were large and some were small. Dragonflies, like almost all other winged insects, have already gone through their final molt by the time they are able to fly, and so every dragon in the air is an adult.

I saw a flash of blue, though I do not think what I saw was little enough to have been the impossibly wee Elfin Skimmer (Nannothemis bella). And it is a little late now for the Green Darner (Anax junius), a common sight around Chicago in the spring and fall. (The Darner is one of a tiny number of dragonflies that migrate seasonally. Recent study suggests that the most persevering of these creatures may cover round-trip distances as long as 16,000 kilometers. This is, coincidentally, nearly identical to the length of my own annual migration between Chicago and Singapore—a fact that floors me. When I get off that plane, I am bone-tired, dog-tired, dead-tired: but apparently not dragonfly-tired. I am shamed by insect-endurance.)

what keeps you steady

The other reason I tell you these things today is that the last time I got as close to an Anisopteran as I did this morning, I was in the New Orleans bayou, a year after Katrina. I remember being surprised then by their calm fearlessness: the way they would land on the edges of leaves right there under my nose, and turn their heads, set with eyes as heavy and faceted as precious stones. They let me come close enough to feel the air brush away from their wings as they took off again, and maybe their tranquility came from the sure and certain knowledge that they far outnumbered our curious band of swamp explorers. The coastal plains of Louisiana are dragonfly country. The air there is thick with the sound of their flight.

Which is why it is so hard to think of the way that country has changed over the past six weeks.

Consider this:

I. Oil Prevents Emergence

By the time we see a dragonfly, it has reached the end of its multifarious life cycle. Female dragonflies lay their eggs in or near water, and the nymph and larval stages both exist aquatically. The larvae of some species may spend a few months or as long as several years underwater before crawling above the surface to metamorphose into their final, satin-winged forms.

(I love thinking about this life, by the way—a life so focused on growth and preparation, in which the fulfillment of one’s basic plan for existence is vital, of course, but temporally inconsequential. I imagine myself like this right now, hunkered down, eating and growing and having no idea of what ultimate shape I will take, what satin wings I will have.)

But on the Gulf Coast, oil has flowed into the salt marshes where dragonflies lay their eggs—spread itself like a blanket over their underwater atmosphere. As long as its black covering remains, dragonfly larvae from eggs laid weeks or months or years ago will be unable to split the water’s surface without at once covering themselves in pitch.

II. Oil Looks Better Than Water

Like many other insects, fish, and mammals (though not humans), dragonflies are sensitive to the presence of polarized light. The light receptor cells in their retinas are full of the photoreceptive protein called rhodopsin. So are ours. But in the human eye, rhodopsin molecules within each cell are arranged haphazardly, with their axes running at random angles. As a result, our eyes collect light indiscriminately. We have no way of differentiating scattered light, whose waves vibrate in all directions, from polarized light—in which vibrations have been restricted to a single plane.

In dragonfly eyes, rhodopsin molecules within each light receptor cell are aligned in parallel. That means the molecules preferentially absorb beams of light whose waves are vibrating in the same direction and enter the eye in the same orientation: thus hitting all those neatly arranged rhodopsin molecules at just the angle towards which they collectively lean. In other words, dragonfly eyes are especially greedy for polarized light. And since large, flat bodies of water like ponds, lakes, and oceans polarize light as they reflect it, that’s a pretty helpful attribute for an insect that hunts, mates, and lay its eggs over water.

Except water isn’t the only thing that reflects polarized light. Not by a long shot. Dark-colored cars do it. Glossy black tombstones do it. Both have been shown to confuse insects like dragonflies, which often choose to mate above such objects instead of above water, and even attempt to lay their eggs on these strange, inhospitable surfaces.

And then there is crude oil. Thick, black, shiny crude oil, the kind covering vast swathes of the Gulf of Mexico at the moment. In the late 1990s, a group of Hungarian scientists found themselves intrigued by the odd behavior of dragonflies that hovered and mated around the shiny black surface of the open-air waste oil reservoir in Budapest. By comparing the number of dragonflies that were caught in traps containing plain water, salad oil, and crude oil, the researchers convincingly demonstrated that the glittering creatures “can be deceived by and attracted to crude and waste oil.” In fact, their results suggested dragonflies actually prefer crude oil to water, probably because oil more strongly polarizes light.

On the Gulf Coast, then, it seems more than likely that as we speak, dragonflies are taking oil for water.

We are oiling the devil’s darning needle—just when it would, perhaps, do very well to sew together our fingers and toes.

Photo: Gerald Herbert/AP

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.