With the rain and floods finally drying up it was time for the second round of adult catching. With the troops rallied - from Prague and Bruno and Studenec - the six long days of catching began. Our field house, which consists of a kitchen and two bedrooms (one of which is really the living room), was soon home to ten people and things got a little cozy.
I am used to getting up to band birds at 3:30 in the morning and sneaking around a quiet, dark house. Well, when ten people are up that early with only 15 min to go before heading to the field site, breakfast and bathroom use and just moving through the hallway becomes pretty chaotic, and no one is really awake enough to manage it gracefully. One morning in particular, I was the first one up and went to the kitchen to start the hot water kettle, because we all need our caffeine, and I nearly stepped on two guys in boxers sleeping on the kitchen floor. I had no idea who they were or when they arrived and I think we were all a little startled. The brain has trouble understanding things like this at 3:30 in the morning. I don’t think I actually said anything to them, I just turned around and wandered to the bathroom to brush my teeth instead and processed the event after ingesting my caffeine. Turns out they were potential grad students who had come to check out the field and had arrived after I had gone to bed. Finding no other floor space, they took up residence in the kitchen. I am not sure if they knew we were getting up at 3:30, but they were certainly woken up at that time.
We banded for six days at four field sites and captured 245 adults, a little over 100 of which were new birds that we had not caught the first time around. There was also one female who we caught five times in a row because she seemed to get a thrill out of throwing herself into the net. During this time we also had to keep up with our other fieldwork for the cross-fostering study, so we spent our days actually living and breathing barn swallows, and not sleeping very much. To make things a little more challenging, Tomas brought a cold with him from Prague, and like our own mild version of Typhoid Mary (Typhoid Tomas has a nice ring…) he proceeded to give it to everyone. Within two days 6 of us had it, which given our cramped living conditions it is no mystery how it spread. So with runny noses we banded and counted and measured and collected samples and filled out data sheets…
There were several highlights worth mentioning in that six-day blur of swallows. First Tomas decided that someone needed to learn to count parasites, to continue my legacy after we leave. He volunteered Adella and Romana, who made an effort to try and look excited for my benefit. I guess even the glasses fashion statement is not enough to make someone want to count tiny parasites for hours. Feeling a little bad about making anyone else do this task that I seem to have dedicated my life to, I attempted to teach them the subtle art of parasite counts. It was no easy task. Joey put on the glasses and tried to count feather mites for about two minutes, and then decide that she had absolutely no interest in learning to count parasites. Adella and Romana, not having the luxury of a choice, were forced to soldier on.
Joey and I also got to take part in an exciting sexual trait manipulation experiment. It was a first for me, though Joey took part in a similar experiment that happened in Colorado in 2009. The basic idea is that barn swallows, though they may appear to be monogamous, faithful little birds, actually do a lot of sleeping around - the scientific term being extra-pair copulations (which sounds so much less risque). The number of extra-pair copulations a female participates in depends on how good her mate is. So, the evil scientists come around and determine how much paternity a female allocates to her mate in their first clutch of eggs, and then we manipulate his attractive trait (this is the evil part), and look at how the female adjusts paternity allocation in the second round of chicks. Here in Europe the game is all about how long your tail streamers are, or at least that is what we think is going on. To figure this out, we catch all the males at a site, cut their tail streamers off, and then shuffle them so we reattach them to different birds using tiny pins and super glue. The birds then end up shorter, longer, or the same (control) and we see whether their females step out on them more or less compared to the first brood. You have to admit that is pretty clever. Joey and I were a little heartbroken about our record male. He had the longest tail streamers we had ever measured, 141mm (the longest in CO is 121). He was one studly dude, but unfortunately ended up with the short end of the experimental stick and had his manly streamers swapped with one of the shortest males in the population losing a full 3 cm! Both of those male were in for a bit of a change when we released them.
The other exciting event was that Joey and I learned, and then attempted for ourselves, how to collect avian sperm samples...the delicate art of the cloacal massage. Happy to report that we were both successful at getting the birds to ejaculate and donate some of their swimmers to science. Our mothers would be proud, and Joey can tell her sister that she actually does molest birds for a living. It takes just the right positioning and pressure and it's impossible not to make crude jokes in the process. There is also the reward or watching those little guys zoom around under the microscope.
You will be happy to know that it is now over 90 degrees and humid here.
Over and Out,