Insects en vogue

Alternative title: Every time you see the word jewelry, know that the first time it was typed it was spelled “jewelery”. 

Insects have been on this planet for at least 479 million years (give or take).  They were here before us and they’ll be here after us.  Insects have made their mark on our culture whether it be from agricultural pests like the boll weevil or the myriad on insect mascots in sports. More interestingly, insects have made their mark in fashion throughout the ages.   Insects have been represented in jewelry as early as the ancient Egyptians but their presence in jewelry has persisted throughout many ancient cultures and have continued into our own.  Why even incorporate insects into jewelry in the first place?

There are 29 insect orders* but in the ancient insect jewelry pieces there are  only five orders represented.  These orders are homoptera (specifically the cicadas), coleoptera (the beetles), lepidoptera (butterflies), odonata (mostly the dragonflies), and diptera (the flies).  Each order also has some meaning associated with it; cicadas, beetles, and butterflies were meant to represent immortality or rebirth, while dragonflies and flies had a more militaristic meaning, although flies have been associated with evil and decay in some cultures.  It was thought that ancient people assigned these meanings to these insects from observations of their very distinctive life history stages. Different insect themed jewelry was used at different times of life. For example, jade and glass cicadas were put on the mouths of the dead in the Zhou and Han dynasties to prevent the body from decaying and ensure the person would be resurrected.  Beetles carved from soapstone were used extensively in the jewelry of the ancient Egyptians for funeral rites as well since the Egyptians linked their life cycle to resurrection as well. For times of war (at least for Plains Native Americans) the dragonfly was regarded as a spirit helper and its image was put on shirts. But, not all insect symbols were universal, in ancient Chinese and Japanese cultures, the dragonfly was a symbol of weakness and laziness, so it was used less often in jewelry.   (Source)

Image result for egyptian scarab artifact

Carved scarab jewelry dating from the Middle Kingdom period of Egypt (source)

Jumping ahead a couple thousand years to the Victorian Era, insects were made into jewelry because of the period’s fascination with natural history. Some brooches and hair pins that came from this time were designed so that the insect would appear to be shaking as if it were alive. The insects typically represented in the Victorian Era accessories were dragonflies, beetles, grasshoppers, and the most popular of all: butterflies (ugh).  Much like Portlanida’s motto of “Put a bird on it“, the Victorian Era’s was put a butterfly on it. Embroidery on clothes, pins, hair ornaments; nothing escaped the mark of the dreaded lepidopteran  butterflies were added for a fashionably symbolic touch. Butterflies during this time were believed to be representations of the soul and their life cycle was made akin to the phases of the human growth, with the penultimate as the butterfly emerging from the chrysalis and flying away aka the soul leaving the body and flying away. (Source)

Grasshopper brooch from the Victorian Era.  Look at that stone work and attention to detail.  I want so badly but will never have T_T (source)

Butterfly hairpin from the Victorian Era. It’s nice if you like diamonds I guess. (source)

Thanks to mass production, customization in online shopping, and niche stores, more insect orders are available as jewelry.  To prove this to myself, I googled lice jewelry and was brought to a cafe press page for head lice necklaces.  Sure, the more obscure orders like notoptera (the rock crawlers) aren’t going to be debuting in Forever21 or (wherever people buy jewelry these days) any time soon, but there’s a heck of a lot of insects orders represented in jewelry to choose from now.  This increase in availability of insects jewelry to a broader audience as well as popularization in modern fashion may change the motives as to why people in the 21st century adorn themselves with insects.  I think the modern motives are  less about the symbolism behind the type of insect and more about having a unique statement piece or just to show a person’s love of insects.  I tried googling my query but Google thought I meant “why do people fear insects” not “why do people wear insects” which lead to me trying to make fear and wear sound the same.  Since Google did not turn into a viable route and I can only say “fare/wear” and “fear/weer” so many times, I did the next best thing.

Bees, Beetles and Winged Insects

Insect swag on the runway (source)

I asked the twitter universe “TWEEPS! For those of you that have insect, insect shaped, & insect themed jewelry, why do you wear it/own it?”. Since polls are anonymous I can’t definitively say that’s who’s participating, but since the majority of my followers are other scientists I’d say that’s probably who participated the most. But still, I would be able to peer into the minds of some and discover their reasoning for insect jewelry.  The overwhelming response was that people wore insect related jewelry to show their love for insects.  Although as @CrawliesWithCri  pointed out, an all of the above option would have been useful, which is one of the #regerts with the poll (limit of only four poll options is no fun).  She also pointed out that there is non-insect arthropod jewelry, which to be honest I forgot existed when I was writing this post (πーπ)Curse my insect-related tunnel vision!  Maybe I’ll write sequel post about the non-insect arthropod jewelry and see if it came about in the same way as insect jewelry.

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Results of my twitter poll, aka my best poll to date (out of three polls)

And now, the part I couldn’t wait to write about: insects in jewelry.  That’s right folks, having insect jewelry isn’t limited to insects made of metal, plastic, or gems, actual insects can be used as well! The first time I ever saw insects in jewelry was in a store at the Mohegan Sun casino a couple of years ago.  They were resin pendants with insects, mostly beetles and ants (if I recall correctly) and I had to have one.  Which I did because they were fairly cheap.  I thought this necklace was the pinnacle of looking cool and scientific.  It was a statement piece that would weird some people out but also attract the attention of others, aka other biologists aka the coolest people you’ll ever meet.  And the back glowed in the dark, so I was sold.  Casting insects in resin is great for display purposes of rarer or larger and more delicate insect (or whatever you want really).  It allows an insect to be protected from all sides for destructive forces (like beetles that eat insect collections or rough handling).  Additionally, casting insects in resin can allow for some really cool props to be made.

Not the necklace I own, but an accurate representation of what it looks like. (source) 

The next time I saw insect jewelry was in my aquatic insects course where my professor wore her trichoptera larva case earrings to class.   Trichoptera, or caddisflies if you prefer, are one of the truly aquatic insect orders (that is all members of this order have development that occurs in water, except for the terrestrial adult stage), found in clean streams for the most part.  Many members of the order trichoptera build cases as larvae out of materials found in their natural habitat.

Helicopsychidae, Snail-case Caddisfly, Helicopsyche borealis - Helicopsyche

Helicopsyche case, Photo credit: MJ Hatfield

 

Caddisfly - Oligostomis ocelligera

Oligostomis ocelligera, Photo credit: Tom Murray

Since caddisfly larvae can be raised ex-situ in the right conditions, they can be introduced to an artificial environment where gems, stones, and metal pieces are apart of the substrate and can be incorporated into their cases.  Once the caddisflies emerge as adults, the cases are left behind and then made into jewelry, or works of art.

Necklace from Wildscape. They raise up caddisflies in the genus Pycnopsyche (Limnephilidae) for the cases in their jewelry.

Wings are another popular jewelry feature.  The wings tend to be the most beautiful part of an insect (I’m looking at you butterflies) that can be incorporated into jewelry if carefully preserved since they also tend to be the most delicate part (again, hello butterflies and your stupidly delicate, scale covered wings).  I’ve seen a lot of butterfly wing jewelry online where it’s parts of the wing placed in flat cage/lockets/pendants to be sold as necklaces or earrings.  I came across an even more striking insect wing jewelry earlier this year because of someone I follow on twitter. Nancy Miorelli (@SciBugs) is an entomologist, science communicator, and guide at the Maquipucuna Reserve and Ecolodge in Ecuador.  I started to follow her after she curated @RealScientists in March.  Besides her excellent #FaceBug and life in Ecuador tweets, she also posted about structural coloration in insects (yaaaaaaas) and left a link to her etsy store.

Layered Jewel Beetle Jewelry Set - Tagua Nut Necklace and Earrings - Jewel Beetle Wing Necklace and Earrings - Purple and Green Jewelry Set

Tagua nut and jewel beetle necklace and earring set.  So pretty, so vibrant, so one day will be mine (minus the earrings).

She uses the elytra (hardened fore-wing) of jewel beetles (Ternocera aequisignata) in the creation of her pieces, as well as tagua nut; a type of palm nut grown in Ecuador that can be used in crafts. The great things about Nancy’s etsy shop (besides all the pretty necklaces, earrings, etc.) is everything is eco-friendly; the jewel beetles are sustainably farmed, the tagua nut comes from a local source, and the jewelry pieces that involve butterflies are from ones that died naturally or come from student collections at the University of Georgia.  How awesome is that?! If you want to buy insect jewelry, make sure you pay attention to where the parts are coming from; wild populations shouldn’t be depleted for the sake of looking good.  On the flip side, since insects adult insects tend to have a short time alive anyway coupled with the fact that their hard exoskeleton makes them more resistant to decaying like a mammal would, it’s easy enough to find dead specimens in good shape to be used in jewelry or decorative purposes.  Insects are also capable of being farmed and sold or bred and reared in captivity as well, alternatives to catching them wild or finding them dead.

I was not aware of all the symbolism associated with the insects, nor was I did I know what other insects orders were used outside in ancient jewelry outside of the beetles. Maybe next time I’m in the market for some insect jewelry, I’ll think about what the insect symbolizes instead of “OMG INSECT JEWELRY SO KEWL MUST HAVE I LOVE THE BUGZ !!!11!!1!”  So readers, why do you wear insect jewelry if you wear insect jewelry- are you an insect lover, do you like the symbolism, do you think it looks cool? Let’s chat about it in the comments.

Stay frosty!

 

 

 

 

 


*The number of insect orders is kind of debatable? I was taught 29-32 insect orders.  Different sources list  different numbers.  My intro to insect class taught me 29 orders based on this paper.

 

One topic I did not cover here is live insect jewelry. This is something that requires me to do a little more research on.  In some cultures wearing living insects has ancient roots and important historic meaning, or was once used for symbolism/protection in certain events. On the other hand there have been people that have kind of exploited wearing living insects as statement pieces.  Living insect jewelry could be a whole topic in itself.  So I’ll add it to the list of my blog topic ideas to use for another day. 

 

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I now pronounce you Toulouse and Fortescue

On July the 12th in the year of 2017, after losing track of time I left my office slightly past midnight (fear not other academics, I wasn’t working late, I got caught up reading something online and wasn’t looking at the clock).  I was muttering angrily to myself as I do in these types of situations when I noticed something on a retaining wall by the door.  It was a female stag beetle!

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What a fortuitous collection opportunity, stag beetles are definitely one of the more charismatic looking beetle families, their large mandibles give them a very intimidating looking appearance and they’re quite robust in size.  If only I had a collection vial to put her into to…

…which I did! I had the backpack I take insect collecting with me at that moment which was choc-a-bloc full of glass vials!  After some coaxing, I got Ms. Stag Beetle into the vial and then went to my apartment.  And wouldn’t you know, hanging out on the stairs up to my apartment was her boyfriend, Mr. Stag-beetle!

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And wouldn’t you know it, I had a vial just for him too.  He took a little extra coaxing to go into the vial but I nabbed him as well.  I rarely have this kind of luck collecting the larger, more cool looking insects.  Most of my insect collection consists of LBJs (little brown jobs), little anything, or immature aquatic larvae.  Since I didn’t have a kill jar on hand, I placed my two lovers in the freezer to make them unalive so I could pin them.

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The next logical decision was to then go to my twitter to see what I should name them, because I’ve never had a male/female duo of the same genus and species.  The names would be decided the next day after I pinned my beetles.  Although the names I chose are in the title the options were: Fern and George (I’m on an Arthur kick right now, we can discuss my life choices in the comments), Toulouse and Fortescue (two weird hipster names that I just really like), Caprice and Luca (play on the scientific name Lucanus capreolous), Pearl and Henry (suggested by my friend Carson), and Brandine and Cleatus (suggested by my friend Nick).

At some point, I’ll do a more in-depth overview of insect curation where I actually take good photos and remember to take photos of the process step by step.  But, for the sake of keeping this post short and readable, as well as hoarding future content, you get the quick’n’dirty captioned photo version.

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To pin a beetle you will need: 1) A beetle 2) Enamel coated pins of the appropriate size 3) Spreading board or piece of Styrofoam, something that you can stick pins through 4) A pinning block 5) Patience and a steady hand

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Beetles are pinned through the inner corner of the hardened wing covering (elytra).  The pinning block allows me to push the pin a standardized distance.  It has other levels for putting locality information and species ID labels on the pin at standardized lengths.  No pics because I’m bad at this.

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Use the pins to position the beetle’s legs and antenna in whatever pose you want them to dry in.  The beetle legs were hard to position because of how hard their exoskeleton is, so I’m not entirely pleased with them.  You can put them in a relaxing chamber to make them more pliable, but I didn’t have supplies on hand to make one.  I probably also wouldn’t have made one either.

The next day, after carefully weighing the results of the twitter poll and the suggestions from my friends, I came to the decision to name them Toulouse and Fortescue.  However, I was so tickled by Brandine and Cleatus that I’ll be trying to catch another male/female duo to name them that; ideally katydids but anything will do.

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Tolouse is on the left, Fortescue is on the right.  Notice the difference in mouth pincher (mandible) and body size between the male and female stag beetles.

So, some of you may be asking what is a stag beetle?  What an excellent question reader.  Stag beetle is a catch-all name for the beetles in the family lucanidae.  The males are known for having large, fearsome looking mandibles but this trait isn’t true for all members of this family.  The identifying traits of members of the lucanidae family are ten-segmented antenna bent in appearance and often forming a club, 5 tarsi on the fore, mid, and hind limbs, and tarsal claws of the same size.

Lucanus elaphus Fabricius - Lucanus elaphus - male

The males of Lucanus elaphus, the elk stag beetle definitely have an impressive pair of mandibles. Photo credit: Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net

Platycerus depressus (QC) - Platycerus depressus - male

This male Platycerus depressus, the aspen stag beetle has a much more modest set of mandibles.                                                    Photo credit: Yves Dubuc

Small black beetle with a single nose horn - Sinodendron rugosum

Then there are the oddballs of the stag beetle family, like Sinodendron….               Photo Credit: Justin Johnsen

 

Nicagus occultus Paulsen & Smith - Nicagus occultus

…and Nicagus, which lacks the large showy mandibles of  or a “horn” like Sinodendron    Photo credit: Mike Quinn, TexasEnto.net

In the United States/Canada, there are 8 genera and within those genera are only 38 species, but there are more genera/species world-wide.  They’re typically associated with woodlands, which makes sense because their larvae feed on decaying wood.  Adults mostly rely on fat reserves from their larval stage but also feed on tree sap.  While they can stay in the larval stage for years until conditions are right to emerge as adult beetles, the life of the adult stag beetle is short.  Males fight one another with those jaws for access to female breeding rights, they mate, lay their eggs, and the adults die by the end of summer.  SUCH IS LIFE, I suppose.

I’m super excited to be adding Toulouse and Fortescue to my collection, they’ll definitely be the stars of the show, unless I get one of the elk stag beetles (that would be living the dream).  I should be going out in the field again sometime soon, which would mean more opportunities for collecting, I want some dogbane beetles next.  I think I’ll be gearing up for an insect curating post next, once I have the insects necessary.  So readers, do you have insect collections, what’s the coolest insect you’ve seen/collected this year? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Not just birds, also insects!

I’ve noticed that many, if not most, of my blog posts are about birds.  Which is fine and dandy, because I like birds.  Here’s the thing though, I’m not all about birds.  Underneath this bird loving exterior is an interior that loves the insects.  And also that interior is an exterior, because it’s not like I have a Helga Pataki-style shrine in my closet to worship insects that’s kept secret from everyone else.  That’s weird and something I only do for people 😉

steve

Moving on, insects! I haven’t been in love with insects as long as I’ve been in love with birds for, but the love it at the same intensity.  When I was applying to grad school, I was looking for both insect or bird related positions, and by happenstance I went the bird route.  I would be happy working with either in the future, because they are both equally cool and creatures I love for different reasons.

I was first introduced to the world of entomology during the summer of 2013.  I had an internship at the North Carolina Museum of Natural Science’s Nature Research Center (that’s a mouthful) working for Dr. Michelle Trautwein (@flylogeny on twitter), an evolutionary biologist and entomologist, who as her twitter handle implies, specializes in flies & their evolutionary relationships. She has done a lot of other cool  research like arthropods in our homes and the secret life of our face mites.   I was brought on to help identify bee flies (Diptera: Bombyliidae), starting off with the North American species with plans to eventually move onto other parts of the globe once I became familiar with the family and genus level traits.

Let me tell you, I really hated it at first (sorry Michelle!).  I had no insect identification experience. I couldn’t tell a tarsomere from a tarsal claw. The R what wing vein was doing what to the cubital who now wing vein? How do I manipulate the forelegs to see if they’re more slender and dainty than the others without wrecking the fly? I definitely called my mom crying once or twice from reaching the breaking point of not being able to cope with the fact I was not picking fly ID up quickly and felt super hecking stupid and useless.

 Nat Does Science Pro-tip: To emotionally wreck your parents move somewhere 8+ hours away and call them in hysterics over a problem they can’t help you with.  To make it extra serious, make sure you’re the type of person that only cries under extreme stress or never cries in general, so they know it’s serious B)

Eventually though, weeks later after a lot of trial and error, practice, looking at keys, comparing what I had to specimens in the collection, considering marriage to bugguide.net, I finally understood fly anatomy and identification.  And then life became awesome because as it turned out, I really really liked to identify bee flies.  It was a challenge, a hunt to find the right identity, an enjoyably tedious process for me.  I identified a whole lot of flies that summer, and the cool thing was I discovered a new bee fly from Madagascar! Even cooler, we got it published formally as a new species! I was also asked to come back the next summer to do more fly ID, which I did.  Identifying bee flies was my gateway drug, so to speak.  Taking introduction to insects and aquatic entomology in grad school is what kept me hooked.

Bombylius sp. - Bombylius

Bombylius bee fly (Photo: Matt Pelikan)

I had a job interview recently, and as a semi-joke I was going to say my greatest weakness was that I wasn’t an insect.  I even thought up a whole spiel to go along with my answer.  It went a little something like this:

“My greatest weakness is that I’m not an insect.  My skeleton is on the inside, not on the outside so I cannot withstand strong forces, like falls from high places.  I’m not able to lift things 10-50 times my own body weight like an ant.  I cannot tell you the health of a stream or an ecosystem simply by being present or absent.  Nor can I pollinate the plants we need to live or can theoretically remove of or utilize all the carcasses and dung that get left behind.  I have to deal knowing my demise is eminent while insects go until they die.  I live my life with worries of the future- when will I get a job, do I have enough money, will I find love one day, while insects live in an almost ignorant bliss: eat, mate, die- no emotions attached.  Yes, my greatness weakness is that I cannot be as useful as an insect, instead I can only try my best to be as good as one”.

I find insects to be kind of marvels of life.  You find them all sizes, all places, all life styles.  They persist even where most things cannot, like the grylloblattids that live in glaciers and the tok-tok beetles  in the Namib desert that pull water out of the mist to survive.  While most people tend not to think of or out right hate insects, without them we’d be completely effed.  Who would recycle ALL the poop in nature?  What would the freshwater fish eat?  Who would pollinate all the non-wind pollinated plants?  Who would take care of the bodies?  Who would provide a food source for many of non-insect animals? Where would many host specific microbes live without an insect host?  I’m sure you can make an argument for the importance of any vertebrate or invertebrate using this logic, but insects are special- they make up 40% of all known eukaryotic species, and it’s known that we still haven’t described all the insects out there.  They’re major contributors to life on this planet so…

Lacewing Larva

Lacewing larva carrying debris (Photo: Bob Patterson)

Another reason I love the insects is the variety. Insects come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and life styles.  This one of the reasons I like birds; there’s big birds, little birds, yellow birds, blue birds, birds with crazy feathers, etc. etc. etc.  Insects are the same way, but insects took the diversity dial and cranked it all the way to flavor town. They come in just as many colors and patterns as birds do, some even come with glitter. A bird is a bird is a bird but for insects- members of the same suborder can look entirely unrelated. Some insects even look like sticks, butts, and poop.  I’m not even going to delve into aposematic coloration or camouflage because those topics  warrant their own post.  Insects are much more easy to get a hold of than birds in some regards, you don’t necessarily need a permit to touch them and the equipment to catch them is minimal, you could just use your hands for some.  I also think the accessibility of insects (they’re everywhere, you don’t have to be awake at a certain time to observe them, minimal permissions/equipment required to catch+handle, ability to cultivate in the right setting) make them a more useful tool than birds to be used for public education, in some regards.

Platycotis vittata (Fabricius) - Platycotis vittata

Oak Treehopper (PhotoMike Quinn, TexasEnto.net)

Insect identification also feeds into my love on insects.  There’s a certain kind of rush I get following a dichotomous key to winnow the choices of what family/genus/species is in front of me.  And then when you get to a point where you can start skipping steps and jumping ahead to start later in a key, man oh man, is that fun.  My love of the ID/hunt isn’t a surprise to me, I’ve always loved learning what something is.  I’ve spent 3 hours keying out one beetle. The part of insect ID I love the most is whenever I have to look at the wing venation.  There’s something so elegant how the veins and cross veins are arranged in the wing to form different patterns and shapes.

Image result for types of insect wings

Can’t find the original source for this, it just takes me to a pinterest page and it’s from a bing search

Insect antennae are another one of my favorite parts of insect identification, for similar reasons to the wing venation.  I like how the different forms look and the extremes they can go to.

This blog is definitely due for more insect posts in the future, especially if future plans end up panning out (cue dramatic music). Insect coloration would definitely be something interesting exploring, like how are insects colored and what those colors can do or mean.  There’s also insect lifestyles and life histories; aquatic insects or the scavenger types are what I’d like to write about.  Maybe if I can get a hold of a net I could do a post about collecting and curating insects for a collection.  The possibilities are endless.  So how do y’all feel about insects; love’em or hate’em?  What would you like to know about insects?  Let’s talk about that in the comments below.

Chrysina woodii, mating - Chrysina woodii - male - female

Wood’s Jewel Scarabs making more scarabs, but seriously so pretty. (Photo: Edward L. Ruden)

 

Stay frosty!

Bald Eagles: The worst birds. But it’s not like I’m biased or anything!

If you follow me on twitter (@NatDoesScience) you’ll notice that on occasion, I tweet about Bald Eagles.

This is mainly because I still haven’t seen one in the wild, despite the fact that they’re not as rare as they’re used to be.

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Map of Bald Eagle sightings reported to eBird, Year Round, All Years

And it’s not for lack of trying, I religiously look at the eBird for Bald Eagle sightings in my area, within a reasonable driving distance.  The Richmond area isn’t itself a Bald Eagle hotspot, but they’re around and get reported somewhat regularly, and yet…

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I have very strong feelings about Bald Eagles, most of them negative and involving a very creative string of swears.  Not because I haven’t seen one, oh no that’s perfectly fine I am so content with not seeing a Bald Eagle, yeah they aren’t that cool and so everyone has seen one but me yeah that doesn’t really matter it’s whatever.  It’s because they aren’t as cool as everyone makes them out to be, I could easily name birds that are easily 20-30% cooler than Bald Eagles and are also found in the United States.  With that, I bring you the Fourth of July edition of:

My Top Five Reasons Why Bald Eagles Aren’t All That and a Bag of Chips 

1) They don’t actually have an impressive call 

Bald Eagles do not sound as cool as movies or fictional television portrays them. In movies, they have an almost scary, murderous scream, a sound you’d hear in your worst nightmare being chased by velociraptors. The cold, hard reality is this is what Bald Eagles actually sound like. This is what The Entertainment Industry wants you to think Bald Eagles (and to be fair every other predatory bird) sounds like, a Red-tailed Hawk.  You know what bird actually sounds like a Red-tailed Hawk without needing a voice-over?  Blue Jays.  You know what bird sounds like a tweenage girl squealing at a One Direction concert?  Bald Eagles.  I personally enjoy the description of the Bald Eagle call in the Birds of North America entry which reads as:

    “Voice characterized by Bent  as “ridiculously weak and insignificant.” Described by Brewster “weak in volume and trivial in expression…it consists of seven or eight notes given rather quickly, but haltingly and with apparent difficulty, as if their author was choking or gasping for breath. It cannot fittingly be called a scream, but is rather a snickering laugh expressive of imbecile derision, rather than anything else. My notes render it thus— Ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ki-ker .”

#savage

2) As far as hunting goes, they’re pretty meh 

“Wow, a predatory bird that eats fish, how special,” said the Osprey, Stellar’s Sea Eagle, and African Fish Eagle rolling their eyes, “Don’t forget they eat mammals and birds too,” smirked the Cooper’s Hawk, Sharp-shinned Hawk, and every owl in existence (side note: can birds actually roll their eyes?).  Bald Eagles are pretty much like every other predatory bird in terms of diet; fish and mammals, sometimes they hunt waterfowl as well.  But are they throwing goats off cliffs like the Golden Eagle?  Are they diving at 180 miles per hour to make a kill like Peregrine Falcons? Are they coordinating movements to hunt like Harris Hawks? Are they itty-bitty serial impalers like shrikes? Nope, just the standard swoop and grab.  Which is okay, if you like that sort of thing.  Fun fact: did you know Bald Eagles also scavenge and steal food from other eagles/birds/mammals?  They’re basically the pirates of the sky with how much they’re willing to go after another bird to steal a fish.  They’re also known to be quite adept dumpster divers as well, google images was not lacking in the “dumpster chicken” section.

3) There’s like a bajillion (give or take) other birds that have a more interesting appearance 

Bald Eagles are brown birds with a white head+tail and yellow beak+talons.  There’s no majestic iridescent sheen to their feathers or subtle barring.  Just brown and white.  Meh.

I’m sure there are people out there that love the simplicity of the coloration, the striking contrast of the white head atop a brown body but not me 🙂  Maybe if there weren’t so many other brown and white birds in the United States to compare them to…

Image result for osprey

The Osprey (Photosauce)

Image result for red-tailed hawk

The Red-tailed Hawk (Photosauce)

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The Woodthrush (Photosauce)

And that’s just listing a few pictures of birds that fall in the brown and white category.  I didn’t even bring out the colorful birds like Green Jays, Painted Buntings, and Vermilion Flycatchers. Let’s not forget the birds that have cool feathers (Scissor-tailed Flycatcher I’m looking at you).

4) They were in competition with the Wild Turkey to be America’s symbol 

To be fair, Bald Eagles were also in competition with Golden Eagles to be America’s symbol, and Golden Eagles are pretty wicked.  But Turkeys?  There’s not really anything wrong with turkeys, they’re America’s low budget peacock, but c’mon…it’s a turkey.  Benjamin Franklin was pushing for the turkey to represent America because he too was an eagle hater (#solidarity). Franklin thought that turkeys were the better choice because besides being a bird native to the United States (but really also all of North America), they were more respectable(?) and courageous than the Bald Eagle.   To quote Ben Franklin on the topic of Bald Eagles:

“I wish the eagle had not been chosen as the representative of this country. He is a bird of bad moral character; he does not get his living honestly. You may have seen him perched in some dead tree where, too lazy to fish for himself, he watches the labor of the fishing hawk and, when that diligent bird has at length taken a fish and is bearing it to his nest for his young ones, the bald eagle pursues him and takes the fish. With all this injustice, he is never in good case.”

5) The scientific name is pretty lame 

The scientific name of the Bald Eagle is Haliaeetus leucocephalus which literally means “Sea-eagle white head”.  While I understand that not all scientific names aren’t going to be winners, this does nothing to help the Bald Eagle’s image.  They’re already bald, they eat out of trash cans or steal from other birds, they have a call that sounds like they’re gasping for air, and on top of it, they have a scientific name that is so uncreative, so obvious, so pedestrian! The scientific name of Gray catbirds is Dumetella caronlinensis which means “Small thornbush-dweller of the Carolinas” is so much better, much more literary, refined, mysterious even.  The scientific name of the Blue Jay (a bird that can actually sound like a Red-tailed Hawk) is Cyanocitta cristata, which means “blue-chatterer crested/tufted” is an obvious scientific name like the Bald Eagle.  However, Blue Jays have so much going for them like call mimicry, aggression (they’re known for attacking larger, predatory birds), and intelligence (but to be fair, their family Corvidae is full of brainy birds) that they can overcome an obvious meaning scientific name.

Bonus reasons: 

Bald Eagles can’t play bagpipes and they can’t knit! Even I can do one of those two things.  Get your hobbies together eagles.  (Also thank you to my girl Connie at Whimsical Science for the suggestions).

 

Bald Eagles y’all, they’re not so cool.  Is this writing biased because I’ve been trying to see them over a two year period without any success?  Psh…maybe.  Will my opinion of them change when I finally see one?  Probably not. I’m at the point where under the layer of saltiness I have for not seeing a Bald Eagle is only more salt, and a single eagle sighting will not dissolve me that quickly.  Are they still birds and therefore fall under the topic of interesting to me?  Yeah…I guess, but it doesn’t mean I have to like them! Do y’all have any birds that really bring out your saltiness or make you roll your eyes at the mention of their name?  What about nemesis birds?  Let me know in the comments below, #BitterBirders unite!

Stay frosty!

My thesis but also MS paint drawings

After a cursory glance over my old posts, I don’t think I’ve done a great job outlining my thesis research (Perceived predation risk and the responses of adult and nestling Tree Swallows).  I also don’t think I ever expressed my love of crudely done MS Paint drawings here either.  And with those powers combined, I give you this blog post!

A major part of my thesis pertains to bird calls, so to begin, let’s get some background on the noises birds make.

There are songs:

card1

And then there are calls:

calls

 

Birds song varies from species to species, some species don’t even use songs at all. Fun fact; while song is typically associated with male birds, females of some species are able to sing as well.   Songs tend to sound more musical compared to a call, and generally are only used in the spring time for two purposes.

songmeaning

 

Calls, on the other hand, are used year round by males and females alike.  Even baby birds use calls to communicate to parents and siblings.  Calls sound less musical than songs do, but have several jobs to do.

birdcalls

The type of calls I focus on in my thesis are alarm calls.  These are the calls that birds use to tell other birds about danger.  There are two types of alarm calls:

1) Non-specific alarm calls

snakealarm

2) Specific (also called referential alarm calls)

referential

Referential alarm calls are unique in the sense that birds that use them are capable of encoding important information about the predator in them.  They might call faster or slower, higher or lower, potentially add more syllables onto the call- it all depends on the type of predator and how much danger it poses to them.

Now enter the Tree Swallow!

tres.png

Uh…I mean the Tree Swallow; Tachycineta bicolor! 

tres_real

Eventually, Tree Swallows will get their own post without my…artistic renditions.  Tree Swallows are a small  bird that naturally nests in tree cavities, but will gladly kill a man to live in a nest box. Since they nest in cavities, the nestlings may respond differently to predatory threats compared to birds that nest in an open cup or other cavity nesting birds. My thesis looks at how adult and nestling Tree Swallows respond to different nest predators.  I broke down predatory threats into three groups: Box Penetraters (black rat snake and chipmunk), Grabbers (raccoon and kestrel), and Wait-That’s-Not-A-Predator (an American Robin).

comparison

My thesis has two main objectives: to determine if parent tree swallows use different alarm calls for different predators and to see how nestlings respond to their parents’ alarm calls depending on what the predatory threat is. To collect the data I needed, I placed a camcorder in the back of a plastic container attached to the nest box so I could record the nestlings.  After the nestlings acclimated to the camcorder, I placed a predator or the robin in front of or on top of the nest box.  I used a microphone and a recorder to record whatever noises the adults were making during the trial.  Or visually…

experiset

I’ve already watched all of my videos and I’m processing the audio still.  Please note, I haven’t done any statistical analyses and this is all speculative.  My ideal expectations were that they would crouch in response to the grabbing predators (to avoid being grabbed out of the nest box), crouch in response to the robin and then resume normal behavior (because robins don’t eat baby birds or would have an interest in taking over a nest box), and they would crouch in response to the box penetrating predators unless they were close to leaving the nest anyway, in which case they would attempt to fledge (as a way of upping the odds of survival, twelve day old tree swallow+snake=bye bye baby, but eighteen day old tree swallow+snake=bye bye baby to the outside of the nest box, potentially).

My personal observations from watching 68 videos is that the trend in behavior is for the nestlings to crouch down in the nest and stop calling when they here a noise outside the nest box or the parents start calling.  However, this isn’t entirely consistent with all nest boxes. I had one box with the snake on top and the parent came to feed so the offspring all freaked out and started to beg.  I’ve had other boxes were the nestlings stop crouching and go back to hanging out in the line of sight, calling occasionally.  There were a couple of boxes where the nestlings did jump around, but I think it was because they heard the parents calling and thought they were about to be fed, not that they were trying to fledge.

badbirdos

The lack of the behaviors I expected for each predator type doesn’t mean the parents’ aren’t using changing their alarm call for the different predators.  Based on one study that documented Tree Swallow alarm calls, it appears that adults call more or less when different predators are present.  They’re also able to change the frequency of the shriek call , which can make it sound higher or lower.  Going through the spectrograms (visual representation of sound), I am seeing variation in the number of calls given at a time, how long a bird waits between calling, and some possible changes in frequency. But like I said, it’s still a work in progress and I haven’t run any formal analyses on anything, so everything is speculative so far.

spec

 I’m planning to have everything analyzed, written, and defended so I can finally be a Master of Science by August.  Once everything is over and done, I’ll write a detailed blog post about the results I found (and my experience defending my thesis) and what they mean in a biological perspective.  Tree Swallow vocal repertoires haven’t been well categorized beyond two papers from the 90s and a study like mine hasn’t been done with Tree Swallows yet.  I think there’s potential for finding out some cool information about how the shriek alarm call is used in different situations and learning if other calls are incorporated (such as the anxiety call).  If you’d like a detailed post about Tree Swallows or bird noises sooner rather than later, let me know in the comments below and I’ll get to work on it. And as always, we can also chat in the comments about any questions/ideas you have. Catch y’all on the flippity flop!

Stay Frosty!

memor

Fun filler post

I haven’t had the time to write a proper scientific post (i.e. I need to read papers to learn and confirm things) but I don’t want to lose the update at least once a week groove. So, I thought I would take the opportunity to flex the creative writing muscles and do a fun filler deal.  One of my favorite nursery rhymes is “Sing a Sing of Sixpence”, for mostly unknown reasons, probably about birds being baked into a pie.  It dates back to the 1700s and the origins are somewhat unknown.  I’ve decided to re-purpose it to be a somewhat parody about graduate school.  Here’s a link to the original verses for those unfamiliar. 
Sing a song of grad school,
A pocket full of why.
Four and twenty swallows,
Baked in a pie.
When the pie was opened
The birds began to sing;
How is your thesis going,
When are you defending?!
The professors were in their offices
Deleting student emails;
The students were in their prison cells,
Wondering what their degree actually entailed.
Natalia was in the depot,
Scaring all the birds,
When down flew a mother swallow
To get on her last nerve 
A group text was sent out 
For whomever was near;
Let’s meet up at the local bar 
To chat and drink a round of beer 

Choices

As I’m getting read to defend my Master’s Thesis for August (come hell or high water), I’ve been doing a lot of reflecting about my journey as a graduate student.  The road was paved with more bumps than I would have liked, and some of them could have been prevented entirely.   For me, it’s too late to go back and undo the choices I made, but maybe others can benefit from my hindsight.  I also made choices that were incredibly helpful to my graduate career, so I’m including them in the post as well.

Keep in mind that I’m in a smaller Master’s program at a university where research isn’t the end-all/be-all and the part of the biology program I’m in is more ecological/organismal than medical/cellular/microbiological.  I came from a similar minded undergraduate program but reversed in that it was more focused on getting people into the medical field.  TL;DR: Your results may vary depending on what you’re interested in and where you go to school 

  1. “Cold-calling” professors isn’t the only way to find space in a program 
    When I was looking for Master’s programs, my undergraduate advisor gave me the advice to look at the authors of papers I’ve read or to look up on ideas I’d like to work and see if a) the authors were professors and b) if they were at schools that had a Master’s program I would be interested in.  The next step was to then send them an email asking if they were currently accepting graduate students (if their website didn’t provide any information about it) and provide a background about my research interests/abilities and why I would like to be apart of their lab.  More often than not, I did not hear back from these emails.  Most of the people I did hear back from was a “you seem like a great student but I’m not taking on more graduate students at this time”.  What I didn’t realize is there are alternative ways to find potential programs.

    The Texas A&M Job Board has a section on it just for Graduate Assistanceships .  Another way I’ve found to learn about potential GAs is from my favorite list serve, Ecolog, you don’t even need to be apart of it find openings, the website archives all emails that are sent out every week.  I’m sure there are more places to look, but these are the two that I became familiar with this year from using them to look for jobs.  By finding an already active listing, you know that there is space available in a lab/program and can go into the application process with an idea of what kind of project you would be working on for your thesis.  There is likely to be more competition for these postings since any person can find them (versus emailing someone that isn’t actively advertising an open space in their lab) but at least this way you don’t need to worry about the professor not having space in their lab.

  2. Include a copy of the CV if you’re going to email the professor route
    When I was emailing professors, I would first check their website to see if they were currently accepting graduate students and if they had a specific way they wanted future students to contact them.  Unless otherwise specified, I did not include a copy of my CV.  Why?  I really don’t know, I included a blurb about my research experiences in the email so maybe that was my logic behind not sending a copy.  However, now I think that was pretty dumb of me.  Maybe I would have gotten more email responses if I had or more yes’s to lab space available if I included my CV, but I’ll never know.  I’ve changed though, now when I’m applying for jobs, I always attach a copy of my CV whether they ask for it or not.  Better safe than sorry.
  3. Don’t  use the same generic message for every person you email
    This was something I was told to avoid when emailing potential advisors and I’m glad I did. I observed firsthand that professors do not take kindly to generic copy/paste emails.  The emails I sent tended to follow the same format, but I made sure I personalized each one for its intended recipient with specific reasons why I wanted to work for their lab, what I liked about their research, and how I could fit into their lab.  I also had my undergraduate advisor read over some of them before I sent them to make sure that they read well and weren’t missing any information.
  4. Ask for the contact information of current graduate students if they are not listed on the professor’s website
    Current students’ opinions of their graduate advisor are important.  They will tell you things that the professor or the program website will not.  They will let you know about the professor’s advising style, level of involvement, and other their opinions of the program.  This is something I 1000% wish I had done before I made my decision but at the time was too naive to ask for because of reasons.
  5. Be clear in communication to your potential advisor about what your thesis project will be before you start your program (if at all possible)
    My thesis is not at all what I thought I would be doing, given my background information I provided my advisor and some of the past work that they have done.  While I am interested in behavior, I am really not interested in the vocal aspects of behavior (at least in the context of my thesis). When I was working with chickadees, I was able to hitch my interest horse to the referential alarm call wagon, but having to switch to Tree Swallows killed it. Don’t get stuck working on a project you have no passion for or true interest in.  It is the worst feeling in the world and getting the work done for it feels like a chore.  Working on a thesis isn’t always going to be daisies and sunshine (unless you’re studying plants and working with asters) but it shouldn’t be something you actively dread.
  6. Ask where the money is going to come from if you have to work over the summer
    Not all advisors have grants for their students to work off from to supplement their income over the summer.  Not all GAs pay enough to sustain you during the non-academic year. My GA waived 2/3s of my tuition and gave me a stipend that was enough to get by, but I only got paid during the academic year, not the summer.  I had to apply for grants so I could work over the summer when I was collecting data.  Luckily, I did receive a grant (and I also saved money during the semester) to help support me.  I also ended up working for another professor over the summer when I finished at my field site.  If I hadn’t received that grant, I’m not sure what I would have done for paying for all my gas (I was driving around 30 miles almost every day for about two months, plus making similar trips weekly before that) and paying rent and buying groceries.  I guess find a part time job or something but even that wouldn’t be guaranteed for me.
  7. Talk to other professors in the biology department
    I became close with two professors in my program and I am forever grateful for them. They were great role models and mentors to me.  They provided with with great advice and always had time for me.  They were even kind enough to be references for me for the jobs I apply to.  The other professors in my program were/are helpful too.  Since the biology department here is relatively small, I was able to get to know many of the professors whether I had them for a class or not.  I was comfortable approaching them and asking them for advice or their opinions.
  8. Consider tuition costs and benefits that come with your GA
    I should have listed this earlier but I thought of it after, and wordpress isn’t loving me trying to edit this numbered list.  Different schools offer different benefits for Master’s Students.  For my program, the GAs consist of 2/3s of the tuition waived and a stipend.  However, my program has different costs for in-state/out-of-state students, whether they’re graduates or undergraduates. I fell under the out-of-state category, so my tuition, even with 2/3s waived was higher.  Thankfully, there are payment plans, but even them I had an entire paycheck that was dedicated just to my monthly tuition payment (we get paid twice a month), and about half of the other went to rent/utilities.  There was a little bit left over for groceries, gas, textbooks, some car related costs, and a bit of cheap fun, but I am so so lucky I never ran into a big expenditure during the semesters (I waited until my last spring semester to buy my new laptop since I didn’t have to pay for classes, but even then I put it on my credit card to not have to pay it all off right away).  I also had help from my parents for a some things (like health insurance for example) but this isn’t always an option for everyone.  Money matters and keep that in mind.
  9. Make sure you have a good support system somewhere
    It isn’t the easiest being a graduate student- it can be really disheartening at times.  From experiments not panning out, to weather messing up your study, struggles with your thesis, issues with faculty members, *insert specific problem here*, it’s easy to fall into a black hole of despair with no end in sight.  I’m thankful for all my friends and professors that have helped me out during those times.  Having trusted friends, family, faculty, or even a mental health professional to help deal with frustrations/stress/anxiety/general bullshit is clutch.  I don’t know what I would have done without my friends here (and from at home + my undergrad) letting me vent to them about my problems.  My labmates especially were great because we were all going through similar problems so we were less alone in our issues.  And everyone is my program is super great for the most part- the ecology side is pretty close knit and generally all friends, so you always had the support of your fellow student.  My roommate/BFF was also a great resource because we could go on loud angry tangents about life to one another day or night.  You don’t need to carry your burden alone, if you need help, find help somewhere.  We all get stressed, we all have bad days, and having someone else to talk to or relate to is 10/10 would continue to have.
  10. You don’t need to go to graduate school right away
    This is really something I wish I considered when I was a senior in my undergrad.  But for a number of reasons, I saw graduate school as the only possible way for me. Now, I really wish I had  worked for a year or two after my undergrad to get more experience instead of jumping right into higher-er education.  Many people in my program worked for several years after their undergraduate before starting their Master’s and looking at their accomplishments and experiences makes me feel even worse about myself.  Truth time everyone*.  When I was a senior in my undergraduate I was afraid.  I was afraid I wasn’t good enough to work a job for anyone because I had limited field research experiences and most jobs out there for people with a BS are field tech positions. I have always been comfortable in a scholastic environment but I was afraid that I would never be good enough for any program.  I was afraid that even though I was sending out a lot of emails to a lot of different professors, I wouldn’t get into a Master’s program because I wasn’t smart enough (GRE, GPA), I didn’t have enough research experience, somehow the professors could see all my flaws over the email and instinctively avoid me.  My program was the only program that accepted me and that was one of the happiest day in my undergraduate career because it was validating to me that I could be enough.  Now though, knowing what I know and doing what I’ve done, I really should have taken the time off to work.  I’m leaving my program with a lot of great relationships with peers and faculty, some interesting courses, and research experience, but also with the worst burn-out I have ever felt in my life and serious reservations about what I thought my future would be.  Think long and hard before you make any major life choices and don’t be afraid to ask for advice about it.

I’m no expert in advice or making choices so I tried to keep this post general enough so that it could be broadly applicable. I hope this is useful to people, it wasn’t the easiest thing for me to write.  But, mistakes and hindsight provide good educational opportunities for everyone. If anyone else wants to contribute to this advice chain, leave it in the comments below because helping others is A-okay in my book.

Stay frosty!

Xoxo,
Gossip Squirrel  Natalia

Continue reading

Literally the worst

Hello, it’s me again, Natalia the negligent science blogger.   The last time I posted here was April 7th, 2016 and now it’s June 7th, 2017.  If it wasn’t for my cousin creeping on my twitter page and coming across my blog, and then telling me she enjoyed reading it, I probably would have forgot writing on this was something I did.  So, for you Dana (and for the benefit of practicing my written communication skills and because sharing science on the world wide web is also a good thing) I’m going to make a solid effort to bring back the Natalia Does Science blog.

Much has changed since the last time I wrote here.  My thesis bird changed from Carolina Chickadees to Tree Swallows.  I’m no longer a real student- my coursework is done so I just need to work on getting my thesis defended.  And now I’m in the extra fun position of looking for a real job.  I could probably also write a blog dedicated to those three topics, and probably will do so in the future.  I also have a son now, he is the most handsome and hard to photograph boy in the world- I wouldn’t trade him for anything.

So my son is fish.  He’s the best son I could ever ask for and one day when I have a real job I will buy him a bigger tank (he’s in a 5 gallon) so he can explore until his heart’s content.  And I’ll probably give him a dedicated post with information about betta fish care (they don’t belong in unheated vases!!!).  With that, I’m going to end this update of my life and get to working on “real” blog posts about the birds and whatnot that I hope this blog will continue to focus around.  I’ll try to keep with a minimum of a once a week update, if I’m more ambitious (read that as have more free time) I’ll write more posts and see if I can’t get them to self publish at different times during the week.

Stay frosty!

Love,

Natalia

I’m relevant, I swear!

I’m a bad science blogger.  I said I was going to post once a week and was sticking to it pretty well.  Then I had a busy week, and then another.  And now almost one month later, here I am.  But I’m ready to get back on the blogging wagon.  Biotweeps asked “What questions are you commonly asked about your work and/or interests?” on twitter (definitely read the replies to the tweet).  This is a  topic near and dear to my heart, I come from non-scientific stock and consequently get a lot of questions about my work.

The three questions I get asked the most are:

  1. So do you catch the birds with a butterfly net?
  2. How will your research benefit me?
  3. Why don’t you call home more often?

The answer to number three is the easiest to give: Sorry mom, I get busy and focus on the task at hand, plus the phone works both ways.  The answer to number one is also fairly easy: Hahaha, that’s only the tenth time you’ve asked me that *eye twitch*.  We actually catch birds using mist nets- they’re mesh net that the birds fly into and get tangled up, and I remove them to take measurements.  No running around here! The answer the question number two, it’s something that doesn’t come as easy as sassy reply to my mom or a rehearsed speech about my field work.  It’s an answer that has changed over time.

When I was younger, relatively speaking-I’m talking my first two years of college, my answer to “How will your research benefit me” reflected my immaturity.  It used to be a rather flippant “Oh it isn’t” accompanied with a snarky smile.  And really, that wasn’t a good way to answer the question.  I feel like scientists don’t always have the greatest rep with the public- some people think we’re weirdos stuck in the lab all down babbling jargon like no one’s business and looking down on all the other non-scientists.  So a smarmy non-answer to an important question isn’t really doing much to improve how the public views scientists.  Posing the answer in a stand-offish joking sort of way was also a defense- even I wasn’t sure how my research would benefit anyone, and I would rather make a joke and come off looking ass-ish than get caught with my pants down trying to piece together an answer I didn’t have.

But, like a fine wine (or a cheap wine if you’re a broke grad student like myself) I matured in the last two years of my undergrad. My interests were behavioral and I did feather work, so I tried to make my answer about how knowing more about life history is important!  Scientists want to know more about the world around us, which is a good benefit, and yeah, that’s what I’m doing with birds!  For my feather work, I was trying to convey the message that feathers could be used to indicate the health of the bird, which is good for the birds! (Although of you read about my feather work, you know that isn’t the case exactly)  Still, I wasn’t really answering the question, I was still giving non-answers. This time at least I was trying to convey to people why my research was important to the bird community.  I still couldn’t think of benefits to a non-scientific community, but at least I was trying to teach people instead of acting like a prick.

My newest iteration of the answer to “How will your research benefit me?”  is based on something a new graduate student uses to answer that question himself.  We were talking about getting questions from non-scientific/non-ecologist family members about why what we do is important and why we do what we do. Part of his answer was something along the lines of “My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know”.  I liked that because that’s a line that’ll turn heads and encourage people to ask questions to learn more.  Based on his answer, as well as what I’ve learned since entering the scientific field has lead to this answer:

My research supports the underpinnings of the world you know. Birds play an important role in the environment: they spread seeds, maintain insect/rodent populations, we eat them, they can indicate changes in habitat, and they have cultural/spiritual/emotional value.  While you may not be getting any direct benefits from my work on birds, what I do now may help other scientists in the future.  Knowing how a bird lives and what it does now is valuable for comparisons to be made to future populations.  If their behavior or habits change in the future, what I did may aid in determining the factors that caused the change (climate, human activities, etc.).  

I finally have an answer to “How will your research benefit me?”.  In  my head, I want to include  more details about the ecological impacts that birds have and more ways that changes will impact people if bird change, but brevity is the soul of having people not lose focus halfway through a explanation.  The answer is also open enough and hits number of points, so people have opportunities to ask more questions depending on what they’re interested in.  Obviously, my answer may change again as I go further along in my career.  My research interests may change or I may switch to studying another organism.  At least now I have a good framework to answer an important question and that engages with the non-scientist public.

How do you answer  “How will your research benefit me?” when people ask?

 

An unusual fear of cows

I grew up in the  suburbs of Long Island, where the largest animals we had wandering around were dogs on leashes and it got as wild as a rare sighting raccoon in the backyard (which thankfully, I never encountered).  My upbringing was not really outdoorsy or rural or nature based.  Which means, I was not really exposed to farm animals or wild animals, outside of petting zoo/real zoo situations.

My biggest issue was an irrational fear of raccoons, which (in theory) I am over now.  I heard coyotes for the first time last fall, and while they sound scary, I was assured that they do not mess with people.  There are venomous snakes in Kentucky, but I’m not going to be poking around in snake habitat, nor do I plan on going herping alone or any time soon for that matter.  I have a general distrust of the great apes and most species of monkey, but that’s because I’ve seen what they can do to people when they’re kept in a captive situation, when people get too close, or they figured out how to exploit humans.  Unless I run into Sasquatch at my field site, primates will not be an issue.  Really, there are not that many animals I’m afraid of or that make me nervous.  That was why I did not think cows would be an issue for me.  As it turns out, I really really really do not like cows.

Whenever I see cows on TV, it’s usually the bulls used in Professional Bull Riding circuit that are trying to go after their rider or it’s a mother cow going after ranchers or vets because they touched her baby or it’s a dairy cow kicking out while it’s getting milked. Cows have and will continue to be on the list of animals I do not want to get up close and personal with.  I did not ever think I’d have to be around cows without a fence between us. Nor did I think I would ever be afraid of them. How wrong I was.

The first time I had a run-in with cows was at one of my bird watching spots, Taylor Fork.  Taylor Fork is  60 acres of old pastureland with fencerow strips of trees and small patches of woods and canebrakes, fenced off.  On the outside of the fence is pasture to graze cattle on, and you have to drive down the road in the pasture to get to Taylor Fork.  I’ve driven by the cows (I think they’re technically steers/heifers based on their size) before with no issue.  That all changed when the fire nation attacked  I finished bird watching one day.  There they were, surrounding my car and starting a ruckus with the cows in the field next to them.  Remember, that I am a child of the suburbs, and cows were foreign territory to me, other than what I had seen on TV (which painted cows in a rather unflattering light).  I could not sneak around to the driver’s side, there was a cow there.  There was also a cow near the trunk of my car as well.  How I wish I knew how to read cattle behavior as a left the safety of Taylor Fork and slunk towards my passenger side door.  How I wish I could run faster if a cow attacked.  How I wish there were no cows here.  I did safely make it into my car, and after some horn honking accompanied by slowly driving at them, the cows parted so I could make a hasty retreat out. But on that day, the seed of my cow fear was sown.

Soon after my first run-in, it was winter break and I went back to the cow-free suburbs of Long Island.  I thought I was done with having to deal with cows, when I arrived back at school the cows outside of Taylor Fork were gone (spoiler alert, they’re back now and even more into cars).  Then, I went out to my field site of the first time. As it turns out, it also grazes cattle, even more than at Taylor Fork.  It also has calves of various ages (which means protective mother cows), and as I recently discovered after driving by one of the cows last week, it also runs bulls. Luckily most of the cattle are polled, whether naturally or artificially.  That cuts down on my chances of being gored, I guess.

Unfortunately for me, the cows are free to graze around three of my feeders (I haven’t even thought of the nest boxes yet).  They also do not give a flying fart about moving when confronted by cars.  I know this because I had to drive in reverse down one of the roads until I got to a spot where I could turn around because a herd of cows refused to move.  The cows are also unafraid of honking cars or people yelling “Get away from me you stupid cow, my feeder is back there” while waving their arms and will approach anyway.  I know this because that was my Saturday.  Thankfully, the cows are generally not near my feeders, although I had a tense (in my mind) encounter filling up a feeder with an older calf nearby mooing for its mama in the field next to us.

I’m not sure how grounded in reality my fear of cows is.  It could just be like the raccoon situation, a completely irrational fear, based on perception bias.  Or it could be 100% super realistic and cows are blood thirsty creatures, ready to charge at any given moment plausible, and I should careful working around them.  This fear will have to be conquered.  I’ll be working at my field site for all of the spring and most of the summer,  and the cows are inevitable.  Still, I cannot wait for the day when the closest I’ll have to be to a cow is when they’re served medium-rare on plate or there’s a sturdy fence between us.  Anyone have any tips on how to get cows to moove it?