We’re about a week shy of the halfway point of our trip and our experiment is well underway. For those of you that are unfamiliar with the project Amanda and I are working on, I’ll give you a brief background. We’re conducting a cross-fostering experiment where we swap chicks between nests; this creates a situation where an individual is being raised in a nest with related and unrelated nest mates, and has siblings being raised in a different nest. This allows us to look at how various traits are affected by genes and environment - moving the chicks around allows to really isolate those influences. I know what you’re thinking: evil scientists! But don’t worry, the foster chicks are readily accepted into their new home and mom and dad are happy to feed them. As far as we can tell, they don’t even notice the switcheroo. We performed the same experiment last summer back in Colorado and I’m happy to report that the nestlings that got a scenic drive across the front range put on weight just as much as those that stayed put in their nests.
My research is focused on color, so you may have already guessed that my goal for this study is to tease apart the effects of shared genes versus shared environment on plumage color. And parts of Amanda’s work are quite complementary to my own work as she is exploring one environmental variable that might be playing a major role in color development. She is interested in how parasites might be mediated various traits and whether an individuals’ response to parasites is developed in response to its environment or as a result of its genotype. Since color varies between populations of barn swallows in Colorado and in the Czech Republic, we’re super excited to compare results from the two studies. Also, we’ve already noticed some differences in parasite patterns!
In Colorado, our field sites are often 15 to 20 miles apart, consequently all the swapping of nestlings was done by car - Amanda would go to one site, I would go to the other, we’d figure out which nestlings to swap, then we’d drive to the other site, passing each other and waving on the way. Here, however, our sites are much closer, and it was far too expensive to rent two cars. So we’ve been doing almost everything by bike. The roads here are a little less than smooth and some of the sites are closest via a muddy bike path, so to protect the nestlings from the jarring of all the bumps, we keep them in a small container with some cushioning, tucked into our sports bras...I think it also helps keep them warm. Other than that, everything is about the same and we still pass each other and wave in the middle. We also feel that the bikes help us fit in a bit more as the area we’re working in is a hot spot for vacationers that come to bike and canoe in the area. However, upon closer examination you’ll find that something about us is a little off - our hiking boots are not as sleek as bike shoes. However, when we end up at the same site as our Czech collaborators (also on bikes) we have the makings of a mean looking bike gang!
I’m also happy to report that the fancy horse breeding barn we found nearby is starting to warm up to us. Today, as I was checking on a nest, one of the staff was giving a tour of the facilities to some vacationers and when he saw me, he was quick to point to me and the nest and I assume tell them that we were studying the swallows. Although, I just heard the word ‘vlaštovky’, so he could have just as easily been saying how annoying the birds are. But they all smiled, so I think it was the former. Our other site owners have also demonstrated a liking for some of the techniques we’ve introduced here. Amanda and I have been observing the birds a lot in order to identify which birds are paired up an using which nests. The other day, Amanda was sitting in a wing of one of our sites and the 5 year old girl that lives there had followed her in. Despite the language barrier, Amanda was able to communicate that she needed to be quiet so that she could watch the birds through her binoculars. The little girl left, came back with her own binoculars, and sat quietly with Amanda watching the birds.
Some other interesting tidbits: 1) The other day I learned something about myself that reaffirmed my choice to not go to med school - I saw a parts of a butchered calf (he’d gotten an infection and wasn’t getting better) laid out at one site and later at another site, I saw a sheep give birth to a lamb (the first of twins). Which do you supposed I found harder to look at? If you guessed the birth of a lamb, you are correct! But after a good cleaning from mom (the part I found the grossest), it was quite cute. 2) Just when you think you’re safe in Southern Bohemia, someone up and steals your turkeys from the yard. Yup, the menagerie at our apartment is now a little quieter and two turkeys smaller.
Biking around Southern Bohemia definitely has it’s perks...check out these photos from our trips to and from our field sites.