Birds As A Career

An inside view of Hubbard Brook Research Forest in Northern New Hampshire.

Hi everyone!

I’ve been graciously invited to share some of my personal stories as a student in ornithology. As a new finch owner and a long-time bird-lover, I hope that some of my tales will be interesting to friends of TWFA 🙂

The most remarkable field job I have worked took place in the forests of Northern New Hampshire’s White Mountains. I drove straight from a remote field site in “Cold Mud-pit,” Wyoming (the unofficial but accurate name for our trailer camp in the sage-brush), so the transition to the beautiful green mountains could not have been more welcome.

I was part of an 8-person team of field assistants: three “banders,” and five “nest-searchers” — I was the latter.  We were working on a joint project under Cornell University and the Smithsonian, in Hubbard Brook Research Forest. We stayed in a station that was closer to a series vacation condos than a field camp. We had real beds, a huge kitchen, and multiple couches! To give a sense of context, many, MANY field positions involve months of camping with little access to showers or perishable food. My job in Wyoming had a trailer as base-camp.

Getting up at 4 AM had some benefits: beautiful sunrises were common over Mirror Lake.

Getting up at 4 AM had some benefits: beautiful sunrises were common over Mirror Lake.

We were studying every aspect of reproduction of the local breeding population of Black-Throated Blue Warblers (Setophaga caerulescens). These dapper little birds are neotropical migrants, wintering in Cuba and Panama and arriving in the northeastern U.S. to breed in early May each year.

Males are a crisp slate blue with a black mask and throat patch, and brilliant white underbellies. The mnemonic for their song is “beer, beer, please”, but in reality each male had his own variant of repeated trills and buzzes that allowed us to nearly identify individuals by song.

Females are a drab yellowish olive, with distinctive white spectacles and a square-shaped patch on their wings. Whereas territorial males are always rattling the canopy with their whistled song or buzzing furiously at both nearby ladies and intruding gentlemen, females slink about the brush with the slyness of any protective mother. This makes locating their highly camouflaged nests among the most challenging of tasks for even experienced nest searchers.

Our lovely lady GWAG: green over white, aluminum over green.

Our lady GWAG: green white, aluminum green.

I coaxed a male in close by playing recordings of BTBW song.

I coaxed a male in close by playing recordings of BTBW song.

The banders used fine nets (“mist nets”) temporarily erected between two poles to catch both males and females from territories in our site. We attached a Fish and Wildlife numbered aluminum band to each bird, plus 3 randomized color bands for individual identification of birds from a distance. Each bird came to be known by the pronunciation of his set of bands: GWAG, RPAK, and WRRA are just a few.

As a nest-searcher, I kept meticulous maps and written notes of each male’s territory and his reproductive status. The surest way to locate a nest was to catch a female sneaking around with her bill stuffed full of nesting material: tree bark, spiderweb, small twigs.

Nests are complete within hours, and there are few behavioral cues that will lead you to a nest once completed, so we obsessively watched and searched territories that may contain nesting ladies.

Most nests were in viburnum, "affectionately" called hobblebush.

Most nests were in viburnum, “affectionately” called hobblebush.

The silver object is an "iButton" that records the nest temperature every minute, night and day.

The silver object is an “iButton” that records the nest temperature every minute, night and day.

Because we monitor nests throughout the breeding season, we acquire data on the reproductive success of each male and female on our site. We know numbers of eggs, duration of incubation, nestling success rates, temperature of nest (using small, battery-sized recorders), video recordings of nestling feeding, and even insect abundance (from regular surveys).

A screenshot of a dutiful father, WPKA (white pink, black aluminum). Caterpillars were the food of choice for nestlings.

A screenshot of a dutiful father, WPKA (white pink, black aluminum). Caterpillars were the food of choice for nestlings.

This data has been collected religiously each summer since the 1980’s, providing a wealth of information we can use to track the behavior of this species over time. A few publications include an investigation of what determines a female’s choice to produce a second brood, and how El Nino weather patterns affect warbler nest success.

The job involved early and relentless hours and strenuous hikes through humidity and treacherous terrain. However, I also had the privilege to watch dedicated mothers settling down into their nests like vaguely bird-shaped balls of feathers, and males carrying two-inch caterpillars back to feed hungry little faces.

Many of these behaviors are very familiar to all of you who keep or observe birds, and I see them every day in my own zebra finches… And they are the reasons that many of us have fallen in love with bird-kind. 😀

As many of you know, nestlings are not terribly attractive. We gave these squirmy/squishy fellows US Fish and Wildlife aluminum bands and hoped we would see them again the following season.

As many of you know, nestlings are not terribly attractive. We gave these squirmy/squishy fellows US Fish and Wildlife aluminum bands and hoped we would see them again the following season.

Anyway, thank you for listening! I am currently in a Ph.D. program under the wonderful Geoff Hill, whom I would deem the Master of Bird Coloration, at Auburn University in Alabama.

My research has been stalled by the unfortunate dictatorship of the flawed university animal-care-and-use administration, but next year I should begin my work on white, yellow, and red factor canaries.

I hope to keep you updated about life as a bird researcher, and perhaps shed some light on the mysterious and often-maligned world of captive bird research. Happy birding!

-Becca

My very rudimentary website.

A scruffy fellow in-hand :)

A scruffy fellow in-hand 🙂

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3 Comments

  1. Pingback: New Voices in the Aviary |

  2. Pingback: Fledglings Available for Adoption in Alabama | The White Finch Aviary

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