Thursday, November 20, 2014

The First Bird


They arrived on a Wednesday, in a box labeled honey baked ham. I rushed around teaching, meeting, and answering emails. The box sat. I knew what was inside, but I needed time to open it. Time to carefully inspect the cold little bodies inside. Time to respect their terminated lives. And I wanted to be alone with them.

The box felt heavy and damp as I carried it. It was 12:14pm when I arrived in the lab to unpack my precious frozen gift. My hands trembled. I have been dreaming of their nuanced intraspecific diversity for many months. Subtle differences between individuals of the same species will tell us something new. It’s different than the great variation we see between wildly divergent species. It’s quieter. Newer.

I pulled through two tightly knotted plastic bags. There they were. In a heap, not a flock. In a pile, not a murmuration. One man’s trash. I lifted the first bird. It’s neck was crooked, it’s eyes gently closed. Dignified, even in death. Tawny brown head, it was a juvenile in its last autumn plumage. I set it down in the afternoon sun. 



Sunday, November 2, 2014

the bird that isn’t a bird

“They are not considered birds, they are not considered birds”, the ornithologist repeated. They are exempt from the Migratory Bird Treaty Act. You don’t need a permit to kill them. According to the IUCN Invasive Species Specialist Group, they are one of the 100 worst invasive species in the world. European starlings in North America are reviled for their ecological, agricultural, and aeronautic troublemaking.

In 1960, a flock of ~20,000 starlings caused one of the worst airplane bird strikes in history. During take-off the birds were ingested into the engine, causing power loss, and eventually a sideways crash. Sixty-two people were killed. Starlings wreak havoc on farms. They eat the most proteinaceous plant parts, meant for cows, which effects the quality of milk production. Their guano can transmit diseases such as histoplasmosis and E.coli. They also compete with native birds for nesting sites. 

Wildlife control agencies end the lives of millions of starlings every year. These birds are killed creatively. They are trapped, gassed, poisoned, their cervical vertebrae dislocated. In 1890, when starlings first arrived in North America, their were no commercial airplanes, and many fewer cows. I wonder when they were first recognized as problematic? Perhaps not at the outset, allowing them time and space to properly invade. 

All of this is to say, we shouldn’t hate these birds. But we should be cautious not to love them either. No point in getting carried away about their beauty, gregarious nature, or skills of mimicry. That is the type of sentimental thinking that launched this invasion. But, from an evolutionary perspective, I think we have something serious to learn from our unwelcome guests. Their morphological, behavioral, and dietary adaptations are noteworthy. Their population expansion nothing short of astonishing. So, to understand some central concepts in evolutionary biology—variation within species, adaptation to novel environments, and reproductive success—it’s fitting that we turn to the starlings. Even stripped of the honor of being called a bird, and despised for legitimate reasons, the starling still has scientific stories to tell. 

Sunday, October 26, 2014

something about starlings


It wasn’t until I reached my office, safe from the crowds, that I knew. I sat in my chair, and stared at my lifeless companions with a new respect. I felt pleasantly betrayed. I had no idea they would elicit that reaction. When museum visitors saw them, they whispered, and pointed, and grabbed. It was as if I was wheeling around miniature feathered rock stars. People wanted a piece of them. And badly.

Starlings arrived in New York City in 1890. Sixty individuals were released in Central Park as part of an effort to populate the park with each bird mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays. It was a wonderful, awful idea. Sentimentally driven, ecologically ignorant. Today there are ~200 million starlings in North America. This is not considered good. They are an invasive species; raiding crops, outcompeting native birds, and interfering with aircraft. Part of their success lies in their dietary flexibility. I once saw two starlings fighting over a piece of prosciutto on Columbus Ave. They were both holding it in their beaks. It was strung between them like a salty ribbon in an only-in-New-York Disney scene. They flapped, and pulled, and snapped. 

Sturnus vulgaris are, what I would consider, beautiful birds. In spring and summer, they sport a striking iridescent radiance, paired with a shock of yellow beak. In fall and winter, they take on modest brown plumage, flecked with little light colored “stars”. The origin of their name. They are ubiquitous, and decidedly unspecial by ornithological standards. From an ecological perspective, they are downright hated. Starlings are remarkable for their boldness, not for their rarity. They flourish in urban environments throughout the world; Europe, South Africa, New Zealand. Starlings still live in Central Park today, and all around the museum, aggressively pecking at the grass and forming peaceful groups with their inelegant associates, the pigeons.

My four starlings were dead. Taxidermied specimens for education and research. Clustered together in silence on my rolling cart. Not singing, or flying, or behaving. I was walking through the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs. One of the most spectacular and impressive dinosaur exhibit halls in the world. But T. rex had nothing on my starlings. Nevermind that, evolutionarily, birds are avian dinosaurs, or that many starlings were alive and flourishing all over the museum lawn at that very moment. There is something about a specimen. The stillness. The oldness. The perceived specialness. But I think it was also a little about the birds too. One specimen was from winter, the other three summer. Spectacular in a kind of ordinary glory.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

strong nothing

This is the second post as part of new installment on my Blog called “Better Left Unsaid”, which consists of blog posts I wrote a long time ago but never published: 

Today was one of those days that didn’t evoke a particularly strong anything. So, I decided to force-feed myself all the ways that the day I was experiencing was actually great. But, alongside all the goody-goodness I could conjure, lurked equally valid reasons why the day stunk. Here they both are:

the GOOD-
sunny morning after days of rain.i dont have to wake up if i dont want to.no one is expecting me anywhere.the jasmine plant seems to be doing well.lingering over coffee.spent all morning puttering around the apartment.almost has the makings of a lazy sunday.Joe caught a fly with his bare hands last night, that fly had been bothering me for days.walked to the museum to complete a minor task.got my free pinkberry: original with chocolate chips.an excellent jazz duo, sax and bass, played at the corner.no one bothered me on my walk. the apartment looks great when it’s clean.i have nowhere to be.


the BAD-
i told myself i would go running, but i never made it.the bath mat smells moldy.i do all the cleaning.the rubber gloves i bought for cleaning don’t fit.i almost stepped in finely smeared shit on the sidewalk.too many lazy sunday-ish days in a row lose their luster.the odor of the garbage truck almost made me heave.The fly that Joe caught with his bare hands last night was still alive in the garbage.i killed the fly by stepping on it, and it left its blood on the bottom of my slipper.i am still waiting for an email response about something i care about.getting a free pinkberry probably means i eat too much of it. i have nowhere to be.

Perfect Day by Lou Reed

Monday, February 24, 2014

Ode to Graduate School

This is part of a new installment on my Blog called “Better Left Unsaid”, which consists of blog posts I wrote a long time ago but never published, here goes: 

Ode to Graduate School

to the days of deep eternal questioning
to the sloth of waking up when the morning glories have swirled shut
to the luxury of sitting around thinking all day
when other people are actively doing and making and helping and struggling and tired.

to that microsecond when I tell a stranger what I do and I feel proud and interesting
only to snap back into my pathetic state of uncertainty, and then shame.
i dont have a real job
i am a disgusting lazy drifter with the illusion of ambition
hiding the filthy secret of waking up at noon
pretending to care, deciding whether to wear the same shirt as yesterday.

i sold my heart for a mind
one that does not suit me
can i go back to the way it was?
millions of years ago
before this pre-frontal cortex started
making things up that aren’t real.
is evolutionary thinking just a deep and
enduring form of intellectual nostalgia?

i have had so many theoretical adventures
all without leaving my apartment
but i want to go home again
to the way it was before i knew
to the way it was when i could still feel
without worrying
that what i am saying is
biased and absurd and overwrought
and filled with breezy, unexplainable goodness.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

The Way Forward

There is something to be said for slow, steady, plodding, gradual, progress. This is the way most science is done. Very few people can reinvent the wheel and reap the rewards that it enables. There is a lot of emphasis in our society on “thinking outside the box”. “Think different” you say? Well, what about thinking only very slightly differently, making it fit in with what we already know, and then releasing it to the world? Most progress is incremental. In many ways this gradual approach is more difficult than punctuated bursts of perceived brilliance because it requires background knowledge and working within constraints, but still emerging with something novel.

Among my mother’s cadre of wise sayings is: “You don’t have to reinvent the wheel”. It was applied to everything from my wedding invitations to my dissertation topic.

Maybe in response to this, and in accord with the silly inspirational sayings like “think different” (of which I fell for like a fool), I have staged my share of petty rebellions. So much of my life has been in response to some kind of perceived oppressive force. It has gotten me nowhere really.

As I race to finish my dissertation—which was meant to forge new ground, but essentially dug its own grave—I am reminded that reinventing the wheel is not always best the way forward. My Mom was right, again.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Art of Interruption

People are uncomfortable with silence. It’s too bad. So much thinking can be done in quietude. Not so, during active, empty, uncomfortable, rambling.

I think it is impolite to interrupt people when they are talking. I feel a deep churn in my gut when I realize, that I simply have to.

I love to listen. You can learn from listening, more than from talking. Layers of information, cloaked in social cues, sparkling with innuendos and thousands of years of biology and culture all terminating in the one wonderful and worthy star of a speaker.

I should not lionize the speaker by listening so intently though. Most people are just talking shit. Saying nothing. Wanting to talk. Wanting to fill something that isn’t empty.

I am realizing that in professional meetings, no one invites silence. The only way to speak is to interrupt. It’s disgusting, but necessary. Can I gracefully interrupt? My first word has to overlap with your last or I will sit there like a modern unpainted mime, making you uncomfortable with my silence while you make me uncomfortable with your unbroken string of breathless thoughtless sounds.