Neuroscience, physics, biology and birds are recurring topics of my conversations with Dennis Taylor, the community conversations editor at The Salinas Californian, where I interned during fall quarter.
Every time I speak with Dennis about anything remotely scientific, a look of genuine excitement and interest comes over him. During one of our chats, he told me about the work he does with the National Audubon Society as a citizen scientist in Gilroy, California.
Here is a brief Q&A about his work. It has been edited for clarity:
What inspired you to volunteer at the Audubon Society?
I have always stayed abreast of developments in threatened species – what are the pressures reducing their numbers? And overwhelmingly the greatest pressure is habitat loss. I stumbled into the Audubon Society because I wrote a story about an older gent who I would walk with as he would check “bird houses” constructed by the Audubon Society that were hung in trees or perched atop poles in open grasslands. Norm was his name, and what we were doing was providing habitat that was lost to sprawling home construction. He had several miles of trails with over 100 houses he would need to check weekly. He died about a year after we began working together and Audubon came to me because no one knew the species and the trails like I did.
What kind of work have you done for them?
I begin in early spring by checking all the houses to get rid of roosting waste from the winter and make sure there are no wasp or yellow jacket nests built inside the houses. Then I walk and watch. Within a couple of weeks I begin to see mating flights, flirtatious mid-air dances. Within another week or two, I begin to see the birds carrying debris for their nests. (Different species use different materials for their nests; some use straw, others use twigs.)
When I don’t see the mother out flying, I carefully lift open a special door to the box and feel for eggs gently with one finger. I record the number of eggs in each of the 100 houses. After another week or two, there’s usually a furry head: the chicks. I compare the number of chicks hatched to the number of eggs and note the mortality rate. Then I walk and watch some more, and when I see little heads sticking out I know they are about to fledge, so I count the fledglings and compare that number with the number of chicks to see if there were additional deaths.
I collect that data onto a spreadsheet and transfer it to a database at Cornell University, which tracks bird populations all over the country. So when you read a story about “Western Bluebirds in Decline,” that’s how they know. The program used to be called the Bluebird Recovery Project, but about three years ago it was changed to the Cavity Nesting Project, to more accurately reflect what we do.
We track all species of birds that must nest in hollows of trees. In my region this includes western bluebirds, tree swallows, chestnut-backed chickadees and white-breasted nuthatches. When you cut a tree to build a house in an oak forest, you eliminate habitat for these particular birds.
You mentioned you worked with kids. What do you teach them during the field trips?
My teaching is geared to the age of the children that come with me on a particular field trip. “Certain birds will only have babies in holes of trees,” for the youngest. Or, “The way certain species protect themselves is by entering a cavity in a tree that is only millimeters wider than they are, protecting them from larger predators like other birds, raccoons and even snakes,” for the older kids.
I take the kids on one of my shorter walks during which I usually pull down a house [so they can see the birds]. I usually wait until the chicks are about to fledge but can’t quite fly yet. This reduces the chance of injury to the fledglings [and the kids!]. I point out characteristics such as yellow bands that often appear on the inside of the beaks of the fledglings that help the moma bird zero in on the little mouths when they are dropping food such as insects.
Sometimes I will gently reach in the nest and pull out a fledgling and let the kids gently stroke its head. One time I was doing that, and as I was feeling down in the nest I found a dead chick. I need to remove dead chicks straight away because as they decompose it creates opportunistic bacterial infections for the other chicks whose immune system isn’t fully developed. So I hid dead chick back in my palm, covering it with a couple of fingers, while pulling the live one out with my thumb and index finger. [The kids] were never the wiser.
And then there was The Day of the Blue Jay. One nest had fledglings that could actually fly a little ways, to my surprise. Three bolted out of the nest and a cacophony of screams followed three skirting chestnut-backed chickadee fledglings down the path we were on. I caught one, and my assistant caught another. As I turned to go after the third, a blue blur whizzed by a few feet to my right, down the slope on the side of the trail. Of course I had 20 pairs of little eyes following the jay as he swooped down on the fledgling and … poof! …. Little brown feathers exploded into the air. Little heads slowly turned to me, mouths agape. “Well,” I said, “Blue jay chicks need to eat too.”
As the kids were walking back down the trail, my partner turns to me and says, “Blue jay chicks need to eat too? That’s the best line you could come up with?” And we begin laughing. So I’m sure in the kids’ minds Mr. Birdman was not only a chickadee chick killer, he’s a sinister one that laughs about it.
Then of course I tell the kids that if we keep cutting down trees the babies you are looking at will have no place to live.
Why do you volunteer?
It’s cathartic for me. We tend to view biology in compartmentalized frames – birds in this sector, canines over there, and humans in this square. We don’t live in a vacuum, and the sooner we realize that the better off we and other living things will be. Author John Muir (and my grandmother, less eloquently) said “that when we try to pick anything out by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.”
[The work is] also immensely interesting. The longer I do it, the more science I learn – migratory patterns, food variables, acute avian viruses (because of West Nile I’ve taken to wearing masks and latex gloves when opening the houses, but I draw a smiley face on the mask – hey, it works for human babies), seasonal nesting variations, anomalies in any of these, and on and on.
Is there anything else you want to tell me?
Programs like this are critical to supplementing children’s science educations. With standardized testing, the lion’s share of effort is being spent on math and language arts. Sacrificed are the sciences and humanities. The broader science community needs to step up and help get children excited about science – no better place than in the field.
Follow Dennis Taylor (@scribedenny) on Twitter.
You can read more about his work in an article by the Gilroy Dispatch.