Tag Archives: 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.

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Filed under Being a scientist, women in science

Crows, quotes, and cooking.

In an effort to keep up with the onslaught of crow news, one of the first things I did as a newly minted graduate student was setup a daily Google news alert to the key term “crow”.  Although most of it is news about the Australian football team the Adeliade Crows, or futile efforts on behalf of desperate business districts to rid themselves of problem roosts, every once and a while some big new study will have also made the daily report.  While this is more of what I was expecting when I  signed up for the alert, it’s not what I’ve found to be the most important part.  I’ve realized that new  studies will always find their way to my desk-that’s the benefit of being a graduate student in a particular field.  No, what’s been the most savory part of this endeavor are the small, obscure observations from local and international sources.  It’s there that I’m reminded of the details that make these animals so special to me, and inspired this harried journey to try and study them in academia.

Take this recent article out of an Indian newspaper, The Hindu.  While the notes about protective crow parents are relatively banal, it’s her story about her crow visitors that struck me, particularly the last two lines of the piece.  “They do not like anything white, plain and stale. If it finds the food delicious, it calls out for others in the community.”  I found myself saying these lines over and over again both because I love their poetic feeling, and because I find myself in them as well.

When I started graduate school I knew that there were certain pieces of my life it wasn’t worth giving up, even if accommodating them would take considerable effort.  One of these things was cooking.  My husband and I love to cook, it’s an expression of passion both as individuals and as partners and something we make happen every night, even if it means eating at 9:30.  Even during my field season when he was away on the road, and I was working 14 hour days I would come home and prepare a meal from scratch.  Food is something I feel privileged to use as a form of love and expression, and nothing beats a comforting meal after a long day of discovery or failure (or more often the case, both).  And sharing that passion is a primary way my partner and I connect with our friends and family, we love cooking for others and it’s something I give up during the summer field season in exchange for all day crow watching.

Photo by Nicole Nicky

Photo by Nicole Nicky

With summer fast approaching, I’m confident this quote will float around my head as I watch crows pick at their peanuts in the dwindling hours of daylight and I’ll be reminded of exactly why I’m out there: to better understand an animal who’s avian biology is so different from ours, but whose behavior is strikingly similar. For don’t we all crave the joy of pleasurable food in the company of others?

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Filed under Crow behavior