Category Archives: Being a scientist

Australian magpies are not corvids

Ah the Australian magpie.  With its glossy tuxedo plumage, heavy bill, and charismatic reputation it’s no wonder it’s a favorite among corvid lovers.  Why then, do scientists keep insisting that it’s not, in fact, a corvid?  This insistence of ours can feel arbitrary, even perhaps insulting, to a bird that superficially looks and acts like the corvids we know.

magpie

A still frame from the infamously cute video of an Aussie magpie and a puppy play-wrestling together.  

To address this question, corvid expert and my colleague, Jennifer Campbell-Smith, recently penned a terrific piece to lay the confusion to rest.  I recommend everyone take the time to read it in full.

If you do not have time, the short version of the story is that physiologically, Australian magpies, like the other butcherbirds they are classified with, lack the nasal bristles indicative of corvids.  Genetically, DNA work done in the late 80’s also showed that, while they share a common ancestor, are are phylogentically  distinct from other corvids.  There has been some back and forth since then on the details, but there’s no scientific evidence that we should be lumping them in with corvids.

comparison

The nasal feathers are those thin, wire like feathers covering the base of the bill on the crow to the right, but conspicuously absent on the Aussie magpie to the left.  Australian magpie photo: Guy Poisson

Why this bums so many corvids lovers out is a curious mystery to me.  Personally, I find the convergent evolution with respect to both appearance and behavior much more interesting than if we simply made a taxonomic mistake.  As for whether corvid lovers should continue to find joy and fascination in observing these birds well, I’ll direct you to this video and let you be the judge.

5 Comments

Filed under Being a scientist, Birding, Crow curiosities, Crow life history, Taxonomy

Yellowstone field experience

Last week I had the great pleasure of spending a week in Yellowstone National Park with both corvid expert, John Marzluff and predator-prey dynamic expert, Aaron Wirsing.  In addition to spending an entire week with these two, I also had meetings and saw presentations from folks like the golden eagle team of Al Harmata and Marco Restani, the head researcher of the wolf project, Doug Smith, Bison expert Rick Wallen, and wolf and cougar kill expert Dan Stahler.  It was an amazing week of breath taking wildlife and in depth expertise on what’s going on in the park.  This week, I thought it would fun to take a little break from corvids and just share some of the photos I took along with the stories and biological details that go with them.

Birds
Ungulates
Predators
Miscellaneous

Birds

To kick the trip off we headed outside of Bozeman, Montana to meet up with eagle researchers Dr. Al Harmata and Dr. Marco Restani.  They’ve been doing research on eagles for more than 30 years and know more about these birds than maybe anybody.  Right now, they’re conducting an ongoing study to look at the effects of lead poisoning on  eagles.  Although lead shots have been banned in waterfowl hunting and in some states like California, in most other places lead bullets are still used for other kinds of game.  The lead fragments end up in the gut piles hunters leave behind, or in the prairie dogs or other carnivores that their shooters had no intention of taking home.  Eagles scavenge these remains and can wind up with deadly levels of lead in their bloodstreams.  Elimination of lead from bullets will likely be a necessary step to protect eagles, though I expect a robust fight from the NRA and some hunting communities.

DSC_0044

DSC_0037

For corvids, spring time means nesting time and the magpies were busy at work.  Unlike crows and ravens which build more traditional looking nests, magpies make nests with roofs, further protecting them from predators.  If that’s not cool enough, magpies are known to build several of these dome nests and have been observed moving both eggs and chicks between them.

The magpie's nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree

The magpie’s nest is the big clump in the middle of the tree

A bill-load of mud to finish off lining the nest

A bill-load of mud to finish off lining the nest

DSC_0330

Seeing peregrine falcons perched along the 520 bridge on my way to school is always a treat, but there’s something about seeing them in this setting that’s all the more spectacular.

IMG_1880

At lunch time we were greeted by John’s special raven friend, Big Guy, which has been visiting him in the park for the last 15 years.  He and his mate were also busy nest building though we were unable to locate it.

DSC_0195

DSC_0252

Mountain bluebirds were such a spectacular addition of color to the park, and I was super lucky to be in the right place at the right time to snap this photo.

DSC_0396

Ungulates

When we first arrived to the park, we were surprised to be greeted by pronghorn.  John has been leading classes to Yellowstone for 15 years and had never seen them as far into the park as we did.  Pronghorn aren’t adapted to run very well in deep snow, so they generally avoid the higher elevations in the park until later in the year. The snow melt came incredibly early this year, however, allowing them to penetrate further into the interior of the park than usual.  While the level of early snow melt we experienced isn’t unheard of, it was unusual and fit the models that predict increased drought in this area as a result of climate change.

DSC_0047

DSC_0140

Bighorn sheep were prolific across the park.  In the winter and spring, male bighorns form large groups while the ewes and lambs heard up to do their own thing. I never got tired of seeing those big curls!

DSC_0205

DSC_0282

Bison are truly the iconic ungulate in the park.  Theirs is a story of an amazing comeback, and one that’s really not so different from wolves.  As of 1902 there remained only 23 bison left in the park, and but thanks to ranchers and the US Army administrators of YNP, new animals were brought in and over the next 50 years that small population grew to over a 1000 animals.  Now, the park supports about 4000 animals, and is considered the only place in the country that has both maintained bison since prehistoric times, and supports non-cattle hybridized bison.

DSC_0170

Right now, bison regulation within the park is subject to much debate due to the presence of brucellosis.  Brucellosis is a bacterial infection that was brought when settlers first introduced cattle to the west.  It results in the abortion of calves in animals like bison, elk and livestock.  It’s transmitted by contact with an infected mucous membrane, which generally happens when curious animals touch and smell the aborted calves.  Although it’s not fatal to the mothers, the aborting of calves represents a potential economic threat to ranchers.  Although elk are also important vectors of this disease, a rancher we spoke with echoed the opinion of the ranching community at large in saying that bison are the main problems and their departure from the park needs to be controlled.  As of 2002, the Sate and Federal government developed an inter-agency management plan to control bison and the spread of the disease, which basically means that many (think in the thousands) of animals are killed once they cross the boarder.  Lead park bison biologist Rick Wallen described to us the controversial nature of this tactic which results in, one the one hand, folks from the ranching community saying there isn’t enough being done, while on the other, members of the public decrying the park for killing such an iconic species.  Despite these culls, however, the park maintains a stable population of bison, which other than run-ins with lakes and geothermal features, are basically free from predation apart from one particular wolf pack which occasionally manages to take one down.

One of my colleagues illustrating the difference between cow (left) and bull (right) bison horns.  She also sports a radio transmitter used to track an individual bison across the park.

One of my colleagues illustrating the difference between cow (left) and bull (right) bison horns. She also sports a radio transmitter used to track an individual bison across the park.

A couple of bison playfully testing each other

A couple of bison playfully testing each other

One of the most interesting insights from Rick was the observation that bison both engage in what looks like altruistic behavior, like the time he witnessed a heard protect an injured female from wolves, to completely brutal behavior like the scene my classmates and I had the serendipitous opportunity to witness.

We happened upon this scene when checking the area for signs of a bear we had heard was scavenging some bison carcasses. Although we didn’t see the bear, we quickly noticed that there was a bison calf trapped in the water, and not too far from drowning by the sounds of its breathing. The banks of these lakes are incredibly slick, and it can be impossible for an animal to get out. We watched with bated breath, conflicted between rooting for the bison to make its escape and for it to drown, as that would mean an almost guaranteed bear and wolf sightings the following days. Finally after about 10 minutes the calf managed to pull itself from the water. While all this was going on, its heard had been nearby and quickly after the calf escaped began to approach it. We were all expecting a Disney style reunion but to our shock the entire heard proceeded to haze the calf! They pushed it about 100 m down the valley before finally relaxing their assault and letting the calf rest and start to graze. Since we didn’t see bears the next day, our best guess is the calf managed to regain its strength and make it through the night.

DSC_0211

A tree shows some ears after being used as a scratching post for a bison.

A tree shows some wear after being used as a scratching post for a bison.

Although much of our time in the park was dedicated to simply looking for, and observing wildlife, we also collected a couple of different kinds of data while we were there.  For the last 7 years this class has been conducting “elk follows” which means that we select an individual elk in the different parts of the park and record its activities for 15 min.  Later, we will use this data and match it up with data from the Wolf Project to ask questions about elk behavior, condition, and spatial use in light of the presence of wolves.  This big bull was taking a little rest and is a great illustration of the hardship of winter.  You can clearly see the low fat reserves on its rump, as evidenced by the outline of its spine and pelvic bones.

IMG_1883

DSC_0125

This bull is a good example of one that’s already lost its antlers, and it’s probably feeling a little lighter than its 5-point companion, since elk antlers can weigh up to 40lbs!  Antlers are the fastest growing tissue and in the height of spring and early summer they can grow up to an inch a day.  One of our faculty members, Aaron Wiring, told us an incredible story of seeing a big 6 point bull being chased by wolves in an earlier trip, only to loose one antler during the chase. A little lopsided, the bull managed to fend them off until it was finally cornered against a tree when, you guessed it, the second antler fell off.  It was all over soon after that. Talk about bad timing!

DSC_0116

Predators

A coyote makes off with the leftovers of a bison carcass.  Coyotes are often killed by wolves, and they need to be extra mindful when in open spaces near kills sites like this.  Why wolves are so predatory towards coyotes and not foxes is something of a mystery.

DSC_0224_2

One of my favorite experiences while in the park was seeing the wolves.  There’s just something about seeing such an iconic animal that lifts your spirit.  The reintroduction of wolves was, and still is, incredibly controversial.  There’s no doubt that their presence on the landscape is a threat to ranchers and pet owners alike, but I was inspired by our talk with Hannibal, a rancher who lives adjacent to the park boundary.  Despite loosing three dogs and many sheep and calves to wolves, he maintains his position that they are a necessary part of the Western landscape and deserve a place along side he and his family.  After his daughter, Hilary Zaranek, started range riding (rounding up and sleeping with the heard at night) predation by wolves dropped to nearly zero and their three current dogs seemed very happy to me.  By shifting the ranching paradigm to one where multiple ranchers join herds and share space, range riders become a sustainable and economical option for ranchers.  Hannibal and Hilary are the forefront of this shift and their dedication to the presence of wolves was awe inspiring.

IMG_1873

While we were in the park we were privy to some pretty special changes going on within the packs. Inside the park, wolves are killed almost exclusively by other wolves.   Recently, the alpha male of the Lamar Valley pack was killed by members of the competing Prospect pack after he confronted them.  His death put the alpha female in an incredibly precarious position since she will be unable to hunt after she gives birth to her dead mate’s pups and in a few weeks.  Although her 6 current pups are nearly a year old they are still too young to provide for her during this time.  As a result, she is attempting to court 4 of the male members of the Prospect pack in an effort to gain a new alpha male that will help raise her pups.  Unlike lions which will kill the cubs of a competing male, wolves will help raise the former dad’s pups after they take over.  Some readers may even be familiar with the famous story of 8, the hero ‘little wolf” who did just this.  While we were in the park the female appeared to be courting a spectacular grey male, but shorty before we left we learned that he fell out of contention.  Who the next alpha male is is up to the alpha female, and only time will tell who she chooses.

FullSizeRender

The effects of wolves in the park have been profound and their necessity to maintain a balanced and healthy ecosystem is unquestionable.  For more information on the wolves’ effects on the Yellowstone ecosystem check out this Ted talk.

One of the most interesting things we did was meet up with wolf expert Dr. Dan Stahler.  He and fellow carcass expert, Kai, lead us to a recent cougar kill and described how to identify kills as either wolf or cougar and showed us the kinds of data they collect off such kills.  Key signs off cougar kills are puncture marks around the throat, neat, cleanly picked bones, and characteristic caching (or covering and hiding) of the carcass.  Wolf kills, on the other hand, are not hidden, show signs of hemorrhaging around the animal’s back legs, and the carcasses are found dismembered.  This particular cow elk was killed and partially eaten by a cougar before being discovered by wolves and other scavengers.

DSC_0192

Miscellaneous

A badger skull found while hiking the bighorn lambing grounds on the edge of the park boundary.

DSC_0262

On our last day I spotted a couple of yellow-bellied marmots, marking the fist time John has seen them inside the park during this trip.  I’ve never gotten such a good look at these little animals and I must say they’re very pretty!

DSC_0305

DSC_0316

DSC_0322

Antler drops are an important source of calcium for many animals in the park, and this particular one shows its age with a beautiful patina of lichen.

DSC_0075

A bison carcass lays peacefully in its resting place of Lamar Valley.

DSC_0082

1 Comment

Filed under Being a scientist, Birding, Field work

Crow curiosities: Do crows play and why?

A few years ago, on a mildly windy day, I watched a group of crows line up on the top of a building and then take turns flying off into the draft before letting it gently return them back to the rooftop to do it all over again.  This continued for at least ten minutes before I had to bid my feathered friends adieu and go to work.  Last summer, I watched two juveniles perch on a cable wire that ran from the power lines down to the ground at a steep incline.  While one of the kids was minding its own business the other snuck up and pecked and pulled its sibling’s tail until the sibling lost its balance on the crooked wire and was forced to fly to a higher perch.  Then the mischievous, ah hem, ‘pecker’ followed its sibling to the higher perch and started again. And every winter without fail, at least one person will send me the video of the snowboarding Russian hooded crow or the barrel rolling crow or the crows having a snowball fight.  Ok, so that last one isn’t real, but with all the other videos of crows at play it certainly seems like it’s only a matter of time before they start hocking little crow-sized snowballs at each other.  With all these videos and stories comes the inevitable question: Are corvids having as much fun as it looks like and, if not, what are they doing?

rolling
For scientists, this question is inherently difficult to answer.  There’s the obvious part where it still remains impossible to ask animals how they feel about their activities, but at an even more fundamental level is the question of:  how do we define play?  Play, as all things in science do, requires a very specific definition that may or may not depart from how we use the word in everyday language.  The most widely referred to definition is the following very dry and jargony sentence:  ‘…all motor activity performed postnatally that appears purposeless, in which motor patterns from other contexts may often be used in modified forms or altered sequencing’1.  And with that, what I can only imagine must be one of the most fun things on the planet to study suddenly becomes sleep-inducingly boring and the humor of the picture below is no longer confined to biologists.

wildlife bioFor now, let’s just focus on the part that said “…activities that appear purposeless.”  That leaves scientists with a different problem; how do we define ‘purposeless’ (i.e do you mean right now, or indefinitely? What if it has a purpose but I just don’t know what it is?), and therefore, how do we even identify when animals are playing and when they’re not.  Can you see the big circular rabbit hole we’ve gotten ourselves into?  Since I think most people use the catch-all definition from Potter Stewart and simply say that you know it when you see it, it can be difficult to empathize with why play has been such a difficult behavior for scientists to say a whole lot about.  Now that I hope I’ve given you some insight into why this is a difficult subject to study and thus, in many ways remains mysterious, let’s get to the fun part of talking about what we do know.

So far, observations of play in birds is limited to corvids, parrots, hornbills and babblers, reaching a grand total of about 25 species2.  To put that in perspective, there are ~10,500 species of birds in the world, making it an incredibly rare behavior among birds, and emphasizing the awesomeness of getting to observe it in our own backyards here in the PNW.

Although the snowboarding crow is probably the instance of crow play that gets the most attention, there’s actually 7 kinds of play that researchers have documented3.  Maybe I’ll try and publish my observation of the bickering crow kids, but for now, irritating-your-siblings-play is not one of them.  Here are the big 7:

  • Object play (manipulating things for no reason)
  • Play caching (hiding inedible objects)
  • Flight play (random aerial acrobatics)
  • Bath play (more activity in water than necessary to get clean)
  • Sliding down inclines (snowboarding, sledding, body sliding)
  • Hanging (hanging off branches but not to obtain food)
  • Vocal play (you know how kids go through that phase when they talk to themselves a lot? The crow version of that.)
A crow just hanging out

A crow just hanging out

So what are we to make of seeing ravens hanging, apparently joyfully, from the ends of buoyant branches in our yards or magpies playing tug of war with an otherwise ordinary twig or crows doing elaborate aerial maneuvers for no obvious reason?

Young crows playing tug of war. Photo c/o Bob Armstrong

Young crows playing tug of war. Photo c/o Bob Armstrong. (The white eye of the bird on the left is not from disease or injury, but is the protective nicitating membrane that many animals have, in case you were wondering.)

Let’s start with the conventional wisdom that everyone grows up hearing: Animals play to practice skills they need to be successful later in life.  Cats play with strings to hone attack skills, dogs wrestle to practice fighting skills their wolf ancestors would have needed as adults, etc.  The problem with this wisdom is that despite all the intuitive sense it makes it turns out it’s not very…true. In mammals, it has been shown over and over again to be unsupported.  In birds it hasn’t been looked at as extensively, and there’s at least one exception I know of that showed  ravens play cache (hide things) to evaluate competitors so that they know who is most likely to steal their cache once the steaks are raised and they’re actually hiding food4.

Other then that, the vast majority of data across both birds and mammals have shown that animals who play most often or most fiercely are no better hunters or fighters later in life than their peers.  Same goes for the studies that have compared animals that are allowed to play with those who were not5.  No difference.  So is it as easy as saying crows play just because it’s fun?  Well the problem with that is that play can be risky. Playful, distracted kids are often snatched up by predators or accidentally killed by a miscalculation of their environment.  With the level of risk that’s involved it seems unlikely it’s not doing anything for them. To make matters more complicated, although animals don’t seem to be better at the skills they appeared to be practicing, some studies show that they do seem to be better off overall.  In mammals we’ve seen that they’re more successful parents and have longer life expectancies6.  So what might be the adaptive value of fun?

Although there’s still much to be learned as far as testing play in corvids, right now I’m inclined to agree with play researcher Lynda Sharpe, who wrote a piece on this topic for Scientific American which I encourage everyone to check out.  Stress is in no way unique to humans, and it can be as debilitating and deadly for animals as it is to us.  Play is a great way for animals to hone their stress response so they’re less high strung as adults7.  Not to mention the complex, stimulating nature of play helps the brain grow8.  So why do crows play?  Learning about their peers, gaining new experiences in a low risk way, honing their stress response, and growing their big brains all seem like a good excuse to have a bit of fun to me.

Literature cited

1. Bekoff, M. and Byers, J.A. (1981) A critical reanalysis of the ontogeny of mammalian social and locomotor play.  An ethological hornet’s nest.  Behavioral Development, The Bielefeld Interdisciplinary Project.  pp296-337.  Cambridge University Press.

2. Diamond, J, and Bond, A.B. (2003) A comparative analysis of social play in birds.  Behaviour 140: 1091-1115

3. Heinrich, B. and Smolker, R. Play in common raves.  In: Animal Play: Evolutionary, Comparative and Ecological Perspectives.  Ed: Bekoff, M and Byers, J.A. Cambridge University Press

4.  Bugnyar, T., Schwab, C., Schloegl, C., Kortschal, K., and Heinrich, B.  (2007).  Ravens judge competitors through experience with play caching.  Current Biology 17: 1804-1808.

5. Thomas, E. & Schaller, F. 1954. Das Spiel der optisch isolierten Kasper-Hauser-Katze. Naturwissenschaften, 41, 557-558. Reprinted and translated in: Evolution of play behaviour. 1978. (Ed. by D. Muller-Schwarze.) Stroudsburg, PA: Dowden, Hutchinson & Ross.

6. Cameron, E.Z., Linklater, W.L., Stafford, K.J. & Minot, E.O. 2008. Maternal investment results in better foal condition through increased play behaviour in horses. Animal Behaviour, 76, 1511-1518.

7. Meaney, M.J., Mitchell, J.B., Aitken, D.H. & Bhatnagar, S. 1991. The effects of neonatal handling on the development of the adrenocortical response to stress: implications for neuropathology and cognitive deficits in later life. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 16, 85-103.

8. Ferchmin, P. A. & Eterovic, V. A. 1982. Play stimulated by environmental complexity alters the brain and improves learning abilities in rodents, primates and possibly humans. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 5, 164-165.

13 Comments

Filed under Being a scientist, Crow behavior, Crow curiosities

A scientist’s thoughts on The Crow Box

The first time I watched the writer and hacker Josua Klein’s crow vending machine TED talk as a college undergrad, I was floored.  It was my first exposure to Betty, to the capabilities of crows to manufacture tools, and the success of the vending machine filled me with ideas.  I used clips from the talk for a variety of public outreach presentations and they were always met with the same kind of GTFO amazement that I love watching people experience as they learn about crow intelligence.

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food.  No big deal.  :)

Betty just doing her normal New Caledonian crow thing of making hooks out of wire to pull up buckets of food. No big deal. 🙂

As I moved on to graduate school, however, and began to be fully immersed in the scientific community of crow nerds, I started to hear rumblings that gave me some pause.  Rumblings that suggested the vending machine wasn’t all that it was cracked up to be and in fact, had not worked as it was implied in that TED talk.  Since I’ve never worked personally with Klein, I’ll let my fellow crow scientists speak for themselves on the issue.  You can find one of the graduate students he worked with relating her experience during a reddit AMA here, and as well as the correction that the New York Times Magazine was forced to run after publishing an article on Klein’s effort with the vending machine.  If you don’t want to read them, suffice it to say the main point is that Klein gave people the impression that it had been tested on zoo and wild crows when it hadn’t.

The Crow Box

The Crow Box

Leading the public to believe that we’ve arrived at conclusions when we haven’t is the stuff of stress dreams for scientists, and it’s why the peer review process is the foundation of good scientific practice.  By taking “results” that were only in the early stages of being tested and bringing them to the attention of the public without permission or support from the scientists he was working with, Klein burned his bridge to the folks who had offered to help him test the idea, and probably any other crow scientist he might approach next.

Which brings me to the recent article I read titled “This Machine Teaches Wild Crows to Bring You Coins for Peanuts.” No, it doesn’t.  It might, but probably not.  No one has been able to train wild crows to bring specific items in exchange for food, the website selling the machine even points this outGabi Mann did not intentionally train her crows to bring her things.  They did this of their own volition which is why her collection is as diverse and unique and beautiful as it is.

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

Gabbi showing me a sampling of her favorite gifts from the crows

The suggestion that this machine could train crows to bring you quarters, seems to hold about as much water for me as saying you could use a dog whistle to train wild wolves to roll over on command.  The reason that the machine worked on captive birds in the Brooklyn apartment where it was originally tested is that, in captivity, you have a certain amount of leverage over an animal.  You can motivate it with food or treats or affection.  The chances that a wild crow would go to the effort of looking for coins when it could simply skip that step and look for other food seems insurmountable.

All that being said should you turn your nose up at The Crow Box if the idea intrigues you? No, go for it! Maybe yours will be the mind to figure out how to motive wild birds to participate. Or, perhaps you don’t care if it works or not, you’re just in it for a new experience or the joy of trying.  Trying and failing is part of discovery and I see no reason people should wash their hands of it if it sounds like fun.  Plus, even if it doesn’t work, you may end up learning different, but just as amazing things about these birds.  Just don’t hold it against the crows if they decide it’s simply not worth the trouble and leave it to you to go collect the quarters you lost buying The Crow Box.

1 Comment

Filed under Being a scientist, Crow behavior, crow intelligence, Crows and humans

Notes from the field: That golden moment

I am a huge fan of podcastes of all kinds. Especially when I’m working a pair of very “avoidy” birds and I’m basically in for several hours of watching an unchanging pile of food on the ground, an earbud with a good story is the key to maintaining my focus on the sidewalk, rooftops and trees for any incoming birds. One of my favorite podcasts is The Story Collider which describes itself as “stories about how science touches people’s lives”. I highly recommend it for both science geeks and non-scientists alike, but I imagine it resonates deeper with those who feel engaged with science on a more regular basis. A common theme of these stories is “the golden moment”, and whatever that may mean for the storyteller. Which got me thinking: What’s my golden moment?

Conducting research in an urban environment, especially a study as conspicuous as mine, has it’s benefits and drawbacks. Drawbacks include: Confrontation over the study itself, people or pets unknowingly interfering with experiments, sometimes unpleasant or slightly risky work environments, etc. But the advantage is easily summarized: I get to engage with all kinds of people about my research. I derive and immense amount of joy from explaining my study to folks, especially in the company of children. There’s one particular moment in the course of the experiment, however, that stands out from the rest.

At a certain point in the study I have the masked person walking around instead of remaining stationary. Today I found myself conducting just such a trial and, frankly, these tests can be rather awkward. I can hear people whispering about the masked person, what they might be doing (often they don’t notice their “UW CROW RESEARCH” sign) and rarely are they emboldened enough to ask and, frankly, it’s probably for the best because I need my full attention on my birds during these tests (I’m working the camera while my volunteer walks around). As you can imagine, it can be a bit uncomfortable to cause such a stir and then just keep walking leaving people to scratch their heads (or think worse) about what they just saw. But occasionally the golden moment happens. That moment when they’ve noticed the mask, perhaps even read the sign and are eagerly discussing what a bizarre scene they’ve just witnessed with their companions when, boom, in comes the crow. Suddenly, without my needing to explain it, every onlooker can see precisely what’s happening: A crow knows that person and they don’t like them. An explosion of scolding, body language and flight patterns makes the target of their animosity well known. During these moments without any effort or intention, people are experiencing science. They’re watching crows and potentially learning something new about them. They will not know the full back-story to what’s going on of course, but there’s enough information laid right out there for them that conversations about crows and their intelligence and antics are inevitable. Suddenly the bird so many people ignore becomes the object of fascination and attention. These are the moments that I believe create changes in attitudes about crows and, more broadly, what science research looks like. These are my golden moments.

Leave a comment

Filed under Being a scientist, Graduate Research

Notes from the field: Reflecting on my first season

This year, my field sites range through the east side from Mercer Island to Kirkland.  My first field season, however, took place throughout downtown Seattle and included the ID, First Hill, the Central Business District, SODO, Belltown, and South Lake Union.  I went to high school on Mercer Island and, while certainly a victim of the “MI bubble” as we called it, generally felt pretty familiar with the west side.  I went into my field season last year anticipating to learn a lot about birds, which I did, but what I had not expected was to learn as much as I did about the city and the people it harbors.  In fact, I doubt there’s anyway to become more intimately familiar with the real identity of a city than to spend from dusk to dawn on its streets, just watching.

Watching from the same spot on the sidewalk for 2 or 4 hours, invites the attention of all kinds of people.  Lots of these are people who, come nightfall, remain on the sidewalk.  Partly what I learned from these interactions is that they too watch the crows, and delight in sharing their stories.  My favorite was someone who told me that the reason crows can be seen methodically wiping their bills on branches is because that’s how they mark their landing spot for next time.  I suggested that it’s likely a way for them to keep their bills clean and well manicured (like fingernails, bird beaks never stop growing), but he couldn’t be dissuaded.  It was such an ingeniously creative idea, I didn’t blame him for being so stubborn.  The other was a man who informed me that if it were up to him, we would be wiping out the crows.  “They attack the eagles and I just can’t stand for that, it’s unpatriotic”, he explained while wearing a sweatshirt emblazoned with an American flag and a proud eagle head.

It wasn’t all positive, of course.  There was the woman at six in the morning in the ID who causally sat down next to me and started smoking crack.  Or the guy who sits on the walking bridge to the ferries who threw a stroller onto the street below where it landed about 3 ft away from me. But mostly it was just unintentional conflict.  Arriving to an experiment site with a desperate amount of limited time only to find someone sleeping the location I had established as the feeding/experiment site.  Or people eating the food I had set out.  That was tough.  How do you ask a hungry human being to not eat food off the ground because it’s for birds?  In some places I just started bringing snacks.  In others, folks with whom I had previously bonded with over the crows could address these folks by name and explain the situation for me.  That was easier but it still felt…bad.

On the other side of the spectrum were the people on their way to work or who were renting the pricy downtown apartments who “see you everyday and just can’t figure out, and now must know, what you’re doing”.  They too were delighted to tell me about crows.  Mostly they insisted I come to their house because “there are more crows at my house than anywhere else in Seattle.”  But they could also problematic, and usually in ways that threatened the whole seven day experiment and not just a few minutes of it.  I am now an expert at identifying the sometimes surprisingly subtle line in the sand between public and private property in a city.  When you’re throwing food on the ground, or asking masked people to stand around, this distinction can mean the difference between a successful experiment, and security being called and days of wasted work.  But even on public property, food on the ground is in a constant state of peril.

Something I don’t know if a lot of Seattlites are aware of are the omnipresent human street sweepers.  I’ll never forget watching the 2013 LGBTQ pride parade (well, less watching than quickly walking by it between trial sites) and feeling such pride and joy that so much proactive passion has paid off in this state, only to return to Belltown at five the next morning to find the sidewalks covered in apathetic rainbow garbage.  But, like clockwork, the street sweepers came out to erase the evidence of people so figuratively and literally intoxicated with activism they forgot about the other battles to care about (like the planet).  The street sweepers themselves were always a roll of the dice.  Some would not hear one word about leaving my pile of food for the experiment while others laughed and obligingly kept moving.  Many grew to recognize me as I moved on from one site in the city to another and would happily use it as an opportunity to take a break from work and engage with someone who would give them the time of day.

Then there are all the stories of people who span the spectrum.  I listened to two men emerging from the 5 Point at 5:00am, causally exchange a story of witnessing sexual assault (and doing nothing).  There was the time I overheard a group of people talking about a friend on their way to jail over what, suffice it to say, was a graphic murder.  They were not happy once they discovered I was filming during this conversation.  Not on purpose, but their conversation was in the line of fire for filming my experiment site.  This was maybe the most danger I was ever aware I was in during my field season.  But some calm(ish) explanation of my research diffused the situation and led to, you guessed it, crow stories.  Then there was the guy who, unaware that the woman he was talking about was standing near him concealed in one of the experimental masks I use, proceeded to annihilate me personally to a friend.  He was certain that that woman who is usually always here “watching birds” was a lazy, entitled piece of shit who is wasting her parents money.

Excuse me, I'm doing a research study, will you please wait here while I take of this mask?  And watch my camera?  (Shortly after this photo was taken I had professional looking signs made)

“Excuse me, I’m doing a research study, will you please wait here while I take of this mask? And watch my camera?” (Shortly after this photo was taken I had professional looking signs made)

But stories like those are less common.  What really demonstrated the spirit of the city to me were the dozens of people who, after being approached by the muffled voice of a creepily masked person, agreed to watch my video camera while I ran to remove the mask.  You see, the most important piece of data I collect is the time it takes the birds to return to the food site after the “dangerous” person leaves.  If it consistently doesn’t take them long then I can surmise that the presence of this person isn’t resulting in a change of feeding behavior.  If, on the other hand, I show that their feeding behavior dramatically does change then I can say that seeing people associated with dangerous things like dead crows or predators causes birds to avoid areas they hang out in, even if those areas are good food resources.  Ideally, I had a volunteer be this person, and maintained my position a ways away as the friendly feeder person who innocently stands around watching the birds eat.  But volunteers were in short supply, and sometimes I had to show up to an experiment site, throw out the food as myself, the friendly feeder person, and then run to a hiding spot and don the mask.  At the end of the exposure period I needed to leave to remove the mask and collecting this key data point was contingent on finding a person willing to hear me out while I wore this crazy mask, wait for what, to them, was an unknown amount of time, and, critically, not steal my video camera.  Over the course of my field season I asked dozens of people of all stars and stripes (I was on too critical of a timeline to be judgmental or picky) and not one of them ever bailed or took my camera.  Like I said, I received an unexpected education of this city and the result was learning that the vast majority of people here are in fact extremely wonderful.

And bathroom codes.  I know the code to every Starbucks bathroom from SODO to SLU.

2 Comments

Filed under Being a scientist, women in science