Field Notes: Breaking up (with your study species) is hard to do!

They say you never forget your first love, and I know that to be true…for birds. If you’re a regular reader of the Ethogram, you know that we put our hearts and souls into our study species. I’m often asked “Why that bird?” and while it’s easy to respond “Because they’re awesome!” there are actually a lot of factors that go into choosing a study species. There are logistic reasons like funding, location, required permits. There are scientific reasons like feasibility of catching or collecting the samples you need to answer your research questions. This means that before you’ve even started research you’ve already spent a great deal of time thinking about this animal. That’s only the beginning. Once you have a study species, it’s time to learn everything you can about it. As a graduate student, you will eat/sleep/breathe your study species. Every time you come across a new paper in your field you stop and ask yourself “Does this apply to my species? How? Why?” While some people may turn their chosen species into an entire career, this is often not the case. This was something I had to come to terms with when I transitioned from my Master’s program to my PhD, and honestly, it was the most difficult “break-up” I’ve ever gone through.

Bright male red-backed fairywren. Look how tiny! They only weigh up to 7g!

I completed my M.S. at The College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, VA, but my study species was certainly not a Virginian. I spent two field seasons in Brisbane, Australia researching some of the cutest birds on the planet: red-backed fairywrens (Malurus melanocephalus). Red-backed fairywrens are highly social birds that can serve as an indicator of ecosystem health [1,2]. They form cooperatively breeding groups with one dominant male, one dominant female and often the offspring from the previous breeding season that stick around to help out with the next batch of nestlings. The dominant male molts into their name-sake red-and-black plumage whereas the subordinate males are indistinguishable from females in a dull, light-brown plumage. For my research, I investigated how experimentally-introduced traffic noise could affect social ties in these birds. To accomplish this, we had to catch birds in nets so that we could put color bands on their legs. These color bands allow us to identify individual birds from a distance, which is essential when you’re interested in studying who is hanging out with whom! 

A freshly color-banded female fairywren. We use color bands to identify individuals from a distance.

My favorite fun-fact about them, that made them ideal for my M.S. project, is that they are absolutely terrible at flying. They can fly, but their short triangular-shaped wings can only keep them aloft for comically short distances. Their poor flight ability meant that I could go to the same location, every day, for months on end and find the same exact birds. They were perfect! However, this is not the story of how perfect fairywrens are…it’s the story of how I had to move on. 

I couldn’t continue studying fairywrens when I moved here to Davis for my PhD. My research questions shifted and the expense of Australian field seasons was no longer justified. It wasn’t just about moving on from fairywrens themselves, but the times we shared together and the nostalgia for the field site itself. No more wallabies interrupting behavioral observations, or Tim-Tam slams after a long day in the field (i.e. drinking milk through an Australian cookie). I didn’t just break up with fairywrens, I broke up with Australia! But as they say, there are many fish in the sea (or maybe birds in the sky?). Just when I was wallowing in my lost love, a new bird entered my life: White-crowned sparrows (Zonotrichia leucophrys). With this new love came new experiences, new haunts, and an appreciation for beauty just a 4-hour drive from campus: The Eastern Sierras and Yosemite National Park.

An adult white-crowned sparrow about to get banded.
Field crew spelling out WCSP for white-crowned sparrows at Ellery Lake.  
Mountain on the field site affectionately referred to as “Lying Head” because it’s shaped like a person taking a nap!

For my PhD, I’m studying the effects of traffic noise on signal detection, mate-choice decisions and subsequent sperm production. Birds use vocal signaling (like songs) to attract mates, but when these signals are masked by traffic noise it could affect their likelihood of finding different mates, especially when some male songs are better at standing out over a noisy background.  After a short pilot-season in Yosemite, I’m still in the “getting-to-know-you” stage of my relationship with white-crowns, and so far, we seem compatible. Sure, there have been some challenges, like any new relationship. For example, white-crowned sparrows nest on the ground and are VERY good at hiding them. One of the best ways to find a nest is to follow a mama bird with a mouth full of bugs back to her nest, which can involve quietly observing a bird for >20mins as she hops around collecting insects. Sometimes after all that work, they’ll take off and fly a mile up the road. Drats! Birds that can fly are tough! It sure is rewarding when we do find the nests though, just look at these cuties!

These white-crowned sparrow babies are ~3 days old! There are four of them all snuggled up…can you find them all?

One of the coolest things I’ve learned so far about white-crowns is that they have distinct dialects or “accents”; you can tell where they were born based on the song they sing [3], just like how you can tell I’m from Philadelphia by the way I pronounce “water” (i.e. “wooder”). I’ve come to love my field site too, from afternoon hikes in the Park, kayaking pristine mountain lakes, and jamming out to the weekly music session at the famous Whoa Nellie Deli. Sure, I’ve traded a fancy field house for my tent, but I sure do feel lucky to get to come back to this magnificent place year after year.

Tioga Pass, the mountain road that cuts through Yosemite and brings traffic noise to my birds!

Who knows if I’ve found “the one” in White-crowned sparrows. It’s very likely I’ll have to break up with them too and move on to a new love for a future post-doc. That’s the beauty of the life we’ve chosen pursuing a scientific career, the unpredictability of “what’s next?” Birds live on every continent and are SO diverse, who knows what new birdy love I will find in my future and where it will end up taking me!

Carly Hawkins is a second-year PhD student in the Animal Behavior Graduate Group at UC Davis. She is interested in how the social and acoustic signaling environment influences mate-choice decisions and subsequent sperm production in songbirds.


[1] Rowley, I., and E. Russell (1997). Fairy-Wrens and Grasswrens: Maluridae. Oxford University Press Inc.

[2] Skroblin, A., and S. A. Murphy (2013). The conservation status of Australian malurids and their value as models in understanding land-management issues. Emu 113:309–318.

[3] MacDougall-Shackleton, E. A., and S. A. MacDougall-Shackleton (2001). Cultural and Genetic Evolution in Mountain White-Crowned Sparrows: Song Dialects Are Associated with Population Structure. Evolution 55:2568–2575.

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