Monthly Archives: August 2015

#FieldworkFail

Recently, scientists have been taking to social media to share their stories of field work bloopers under the tag #fieldworkfail.  Things like dropping fecal samples on themselves, falling sleep while waiting for a turtle to arrive, only to be woken up by the curious turtle crawling over them, or darting a zebra and having it pass out in a precarious position.  Needless to say I have plenty of stories of my own so I thought I would share my top three favorite, or at least most memorable, field moments.

1) What’s crackin? 

At one point during my first field season I found myself spending a week’s worth of my mornings in Seattle’s International District between the hours of 5 and 7am.  Looking back, this was a bad idea.  So much so that at one point a cab driver pulled over to ask what I was doing and urge me, for the sake of my safety, to leave immediately.  But there were crows there and after months of time on the streets of Seattle I had developed an inflated sense of my safety and bad assery and decided to stick it out.  On one of my last mornings at this particular site, a women who I had previously encountered pan handeling took a seat on the bench next to mine, and proceeded to pull out what was unmistakably a crack pipe.  Unwilling to give up my data, I politely asked her to move but, much to my dismay, she didn’t seem very interested in listening.  High on crack, she then proceeded to do cartwheels over my peanuts and dance pants-less around my field site.  After a while she tuckered out and left me alone to do my work.  Looking back, I’m not sure if this was more a #FieldworkFail or a #KaeliLifeDecisionFail but it’s certainly not a field experience I wish to relive!

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

My unwelcome field participant spicing up my morning with some drug induced cartwheels

2) Sorry kids

During some of our experiments looking at the funeral behaviors, we would have volunteers stand around holding dead crows.  To protect their identity should the crows decide to hold a grudge, I had the volunteers wear rubber makes that covered their whole head.  One of my best volunteers was a fellow UW student, a mountain of a man who had a proclivity for wearing black and camo.  One of these field experiments was in Magnuson park which, if you live in Seattle, you know is one of our most curious parks.  It’s got all the features of a park you might expect like a play ground, soccer fields, trails that wander through peaceful restoration areas, but it’s also got some more curious features.  Old, WWII era airplane hangers, a block of abandoned school building and a few miscellaneous businesses just to name a few.  So when selecting a field site I picked a spot that seemed far from the potentially curious glances of parents or kids coming to enjoy a day at the park and instead nestled against one of the many buildings which appeared to have no foot traffic.  I was surprised then, when moments after starting our experiment a police car rolled up with its lights flashing.  Turns out the building I thought was rarely used was actually a pediatric dental office and I had planted my 6’6”, black and camo clad, dead bird holding, creepy mask wearing volunteer right under the side window.   Whoops!

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident...

Volunteers were required to wear signs after this incident…

3) Off with their heads!

During one of my preliminary field experiments we were looking at how crows respond to a mounted stuffed hawk.  We didn’t want them to see it before it was in position, so we would cover the bird with a piece of mesh camo fabric until moments before we were ready when a volunteer would run over and pull the cloth off.  Although the holes in the mesh were very small, as it turned out they were exactly the right size for the tip of the hawk’s bill to fit through.  One fateful day, my volunteer got more than she bargained for when the hawk’s bill caught on the mesh and the head ripped right off along with the cloth.  Unsure of what to do she balanced the head on the hawk’s shoulders and proceeded with the experiment.  All was well until right at the end, when one of the aggressively diving crows actually hit the hawk and knocked the head to the ground.   We’ll never know what was going through his or her mind at the achievement or what followed, but I like to imagine that on the block of 8th and Madison in downtown Seattle to this day juvie crows share in uncertain but excited whispers about the legend of the crow so powerful, it took the head of the a hawk in one fell swoop.

IMG_2611

Big Red is a little worse for the wear but she still gets the job done!

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Filed under Field work, Graduate Research, Just for fun

Corvid of the Month: How abundant food may be killing the Mariana crow

For most of us, it’s hard to imagine crows being anything but ubiquitous.  Here in Seattle, American crows can nest so densely, I once found myself within 50 m of three different active nests.  Such is the case for many other parts of the world too, where house crows, jungle crows, or hooded crows are an almost inescapable part of the landscape.  Given these species’ success, it might be tempting to assume that all crows welcome human presence and habitat modification.  Rules don’t exist without exceptions however, (especially in nature!) as our Corvid of the Month, the Mariana crow, tragically illustrates.

A female Aga and fledgling do some exploring. Photo: Matt Henschen

A female Aga and fledgling do some exploring. Photo: Matt Henschen

The Mariana crow, or Aga, is endemic to Guam and Rota and is the only corvid native to Micronesia1.  In appearance, they bear a striking resemblance to the American crow, only they’re 40% smaller (cue adoring sound effects).  Across their range they’re considered critically endangered and as of today, all of Guam’s birds have been extirpated by the invasive brown tree snake, and only about 46 breeding pairs remain on Rota.  If that wasn’t alarming enough, their numbers continue to dwindle and researchers at the University of Washington project they could be extinct within the next 75 years2.  Unlike Guam, however, there are no brown tree snakes on Rota.  So what is causing the drastic decline of this island crow?   As my colleague and Mariana crow researcher, Sarah Faegre, is beginning to tease out, the answer may lie in the delicate nature of island food webs, and the unanticipated butterfly effect that started with a few errant snails.

Like our American crows, Mariana crows are generalists and eat a wide variety of foods from insects, to geckos, to fruits and seeds.  But adult Mariana crows have one other food source they’ve come to specialize on: the humble hermit crab. Despite the presence of hermit crabs near other species of corvus, the Mariana crow’s frequent predation on them is unique, especially when you look at how they extract them.  Unlike most coastal or inland living crows that drop tough objects like clams or nuts onto hard surfaces to open them, the Mariana crow actually uses its bill to peck and break the shell at the seams to extract the vulnerable crab, a process that takes place entirely on the ground and is only shared by two other known bird species in the world (one of which is now extinct).  So what does this have to do with wanderlusting snails?  As it turns out, everything.

What's crackin' crabby? Photo: C. Brevimanus

What’s crackin’ crabby? Photo: Sarah Faegre

Rota is home to several species of native land and sea snail, though hermit crabs only utilize the larger shell of the sea snail.  Critically, these shells are extra hard and apparently impenetrable to even the most determined crow.  In the late 1930’s, however, humans introduced the Giant African Land snail which quickly invaded the island.  Two major differences between the native and invasive snails are 1) that the invasive snails have thinner shells, and 2) people were anxious to get rid of them.  So, naturally, we introduced  yet another invasive species (a predatory flatworm) and…it actually worked.  By the 1970’s the island was brimming with large, thin, empty shells, ready and waiting to be filled with hermit crabs.  Gradually, the crows learned that these shells were possible to peck open and now hermit crabs are an important staple for Rota’s crows.

Photo: Matt Henschen

Photo: Phil Hannon

On its surface, this seems like the making of an ecological disaster turned into a conservation blessing.  After all, we successfully controlled an invasive species while simultaneously creating a new food source for a threatened bird.  But in our tangled web of introduced species and ecological fallout we must considering the one remaining player: cats.  Although further study is needed, Sarah’s work3 suggests that all that extra time adult crows now spend on the ground cracking open hermit crabs may be making them more susceptible to predation by cats.

Couple the effect of cats with habitat destruction and persecution by people and the results project a bleak outlook for crow recovery.  But conservationists and researchers like Sarah are working tirelessly to better understand the threats facing this bird and how to solve them.  In fact Sarah and her husband, Phil Hannon, recently started a non-profit called Luta Bird Conservation to help raise awareness and conservation funds to better protect this unique crow.  At the top of their priorities is funding initiatives that would bring the science of crow conservation to the classrooms of local people, helping to raise both pride and awareness for the plight of this endemic species.

So the next time you look at a crow and experience a slight feeling of fatigue at such a ubiquitous bird remember; not all corvid species welcome the consequences of people and some have suffered greatly from them.  Aldo Leopold once said “to keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” The lesson from Rota, and so many others, is that the same can be said of not adding any either.

If you wish to contribute directly to Mariana crow conservation, I encourage you to send Luta Bird Conservation Inc. a check at:

Luta Bird Conservation Inc. c/o Aron Faegre
520 SW Yamhill Street, Roofgarden 1
Portland, OR 97204
Sunny, Luta's educational Mariana crow captivates the students in a local school

Sunny the captive Aga on an ambassadorial trip to a local classroom with Luta Bird Conservation Inc.

Literature cited:

  1. http://www.fws.gov/pacificislands/fauna/marianacrow.html
  2. http://www.washington.edu/news/2010/12/20/without-intervention-mariana-crow-to-become-extinct-in-75-years-2/
  3. Faegre, S. (2014) Age-related differences in diet and foraging behavior of the critically endangered Mariana Crow (Corvus kubaryi) (Masters thesis; University of Washington).  https://digital.lib.washington.edu/researchworks/handle/1773/27571?show=full

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Filed under Corvid of the month, Crow behavior, crow conflicts, Crow life history, Crows and humans, Graduate Research, New Research, women in science