Science in Seattle


Looking at the hard copy of my recent publication, I can’t hep but marvel at how clean it looks and feels.  Each sentence is as crisp as the months long editorial process could make it and each section offers a critical addition to the simple narrative: Crows gather around their dead to learn about danger.  As any of us in field biology know, however, the austere, concise nature of our publications make every effort not to betray the dirty, messy, sometimes chaotic process that defines the research experience.

Equipment breaks, ideas don’t work, field sites get destroyed, animals refuse to cooperate, money runs out, these are all par for the course for any field biologist, and any “field” is going to come with its own hazards.  My field, of course, was the city of Seattle.  By now, most readers are familiar with the look of our experimental set-up; a masked person with a “UW research” sign holding a dead crow.  We could have made the sign the size of a billboard and it still couldn’t have eliminated the sense of shock those latex masks instilled in people.  So you can maybe imagine how conducting those experiments in the heart of downtown, in people’s parks and neighborhoods, went over.  But you don’t have to.

biosphere 2A few months ago an excellent new popular science publication, Biosphere Magazine, approached me about doing a story detailing my experience as an urban field biologist.  Today, with their permission, I’m posting the story in its entirety.   I hope it gives you some insight into the research process, but I also hope it encourages you to check out this delightful new publication.  I have no doubt it will feed your hunger for science.  Enjoy!

Read the full article



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4 responses to “Science in Seattle

  1. zombiedisco101

    thanks, and other anecdotal cyber cheese puffs:
    – 1) from a cluttered non-science desk with an Internet connection in Florida, my browsing head linking to -) the NY Times story in the Seattle Times 10-6, -) a google search, -) and your blog and this story in (and turn-on to) “Biosphere” — thanks for that, and thanks for writing stuff that’s interesting to read
    – 2) to PA1 (personal anecdote 1), fun and games; from ’81-’85 my wife, black Lab and I lived a couple miles north of the U, and would often walk down 20th St. to Ravenna Park on Sunday mornings; often we’d see usually 2, sometimes 3, crows sitting on the wires than ran over the sidewalk from utility poles to houses; the first time the “poop bombing” happened, the crows were silent as usual until we passed under the wires, then started cawing loudly; we turned and looked back and saw a fresh white poop on the sidewalk that had just missed us; a few walks later, in the same place, we saw two crows looking north in our direction and we stepped across the parking strip and around the utility pole, as the crows watched us and remained silent; we did this on our walks each each time we saw crows on the wires over the sidewalk, except for another time when we were lost in conversation and didn’t notice the silent crows sitting overhead, until they started cawing loudly, we looked up and back and saw the poop on the Lab’s back just above the base of her tail, which I wiped off with a handkerchief; after that we made a point of not walking under crows sitting on the wires over the sidewalk on that 12-15 block stretch of 20th St.; maybe this wasn’t crow fun and games, but we were always suspicious since a) they never cawed at two people and a dog as we approached, b) never cawed when we simply stepped off the sidewalk and around the utility pole and wires they sat on, but c) cawed loudly only after they had pooped as we passed underneath
    – 3) to PA2, fun and games with other birds; if you equate “smart” with “creative fun,” then an unexpectedly smart bird here in Florida is the wood stork; I can’t find a photo link to put here that really shows this, and have only seen it happen 3 times in the 15 years we’ve lived here, but soaring wood storks are a sight amazing because on the ground they are as doofus looking as a bird could be, dirty and stained by the sulfurous and muddy water of the swales, ditches and canals they feed from, with eyesight evolved for that close-to-ground grocery shopping; and they fly from place to place in straight lines just above the treetops; but, sometimes if you’re lucky, you can see them several hundred feet up and wheeling (soaring in wide circles) as they ride the thermal updrafts ahead of approaching thunderstorms, and make any black or turkey vultures nearby look like flight wannabes; once I saw just two wood storks wheeling in circles in opposite directions, and coming together close enough to touch wingtips but just missing, again and again as they slowly drifted off with the thermals; it was an inspiring thing to see, like the Attenborough ref below
    – 4) to PA3; sometime after seeing David Attenborough’s “Bowerbirds: The Art of Seduction” BBC 2000 ( with the part on the Vogelkop bowerbird at 27:00, I found a link on the web that I can’t find now of a transcript of Attenborough giving a speech (I think it might have been at the Explorers Club in NY?); anyway, in the speech he was talking about documentary field work, and he told a story of filming the sequence on the Vogelkop bowerbirds in Western New Guinea; night came and he was waiting alone in the blind for the male bowerbird to return, with the rest of the crew waiting down a hillside and listening through the mic clipped to his shirt; dawn came and the bowerbird returned; Attenborough wanted to alert the crew down the hillside but was afraid whispering might scare the bird off, but the crew did not need to be told the bird was back because the person listening on the headphones could hear Attenborough’s heart suddenly begin to pound in his chest
    – 5) so that’s what I see when I read what you write, and thank you for the third and last time; over-and-out from the geezer fantasy theme-park ride called Florida

    • zombiedisco101, thank you for you kind words and anecdotes.
      1) My adviser likes to tell the story of a women who had been feeding magpies before her husband, who was wary of the birds for cultural reasons, decided to try and scare them off with some shots from a BB gun. From then on the magpies greeted him every morning by white washing his and only his car. Even if the couple switched the car’s locations in the driveway they knew the correct vehicle to vandalize.
      2) I just recently visited Florida and can attest to your interpretation that wood storks are something of a joke on the ground but are quite a vision when seen soaring high above.
      3) I actually spent 3 months in Australia researching satin bowerbirds before coming to grad school so they have fond memories for me. And any comparison to Sir David Attenborough is any science communicator’s dream so that you for that as well 🙂

  2. Dexter Chapin

    thank you I teach Zoology here in Seattle. A couple of years ago, one of my students did a senior project at UW on crow funerals. I hope your paths may have crossed. I read your postings with interest and amusement. More important they give me information to convert my crow-hating wife to a more positive position.

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