Letter from (almost) Cuba

Dear friends and family,

In 2009, when I first pitched my Big Dissertation Idea to my lab, my advisor Steve concluded the discussion by saying, “I think Cuba is in your future.” He was far more prescient than I was. After three years of receiving lip service, the notion of traveling there gradually became a reality over this past year. On Wednesday I board a flight to Havana and will spend the next two months in southwest Cuba chasing blackbirds.

Because I don’t expect to have internet (more on that later), I’m writing this post as a stand-in message before going offline. It covers why I’m going; how my contacts and I got this thing in motion; and what I know about my living conditions so far. I’ll say upfront that I’ve never kicked off a field season knowing so little about what’s on the other side, so there’s a fair amount of speculation about that last part.

Anyway, enjoy!

What I’m doing in Cuba

I’m going so I can sample two of the five blackbird species I study. Basically, I need to know how much they cheat (ahem, “engage in extra-pair mating”) relative to the other three species. I collect blood samples from Mom, Dad and the kids, then run DNA paternity analyses to see which of the kids weren’t fathered by Dad.

For multiple reasons, I predicted that the three species in the Caribbean—the one I sampled last year in Puerto Rico, and these two Cuban species—would cheat less often than the two continental North American species. Initially, I was going to sample just the Puerto Rico birds, then extrapolate their behavior to the Cuban birds.

To my surprise, I found that the Puerto Rico blackbirds basically cheated as much as one of the continental species. Out went my ability to infer the Cuban birds’ behavior. And in came the excited responses after I presented my findings at a conference last summer. In describing my project to a roomful of witnesses, I inadvertently made it official that I was going to discover what those Cuban birds were up to.

Still, it wasn’t clear that Cuba would even allow samples to be exported for genetic analyses. I learned the country is a signatory of a biodiversity convention adhering to rules stricter than anything the U.S. belongs to. And, like Brazil, there is a measure of commercial protection of its natural resources. I was initially told that taking out blood samples would be out of the question.

But to my great good luck, I recognized a contact early one morning, at the conference 5K, who has since become one of my life-lines. (Kids, this is why Google-stalking is an important life skill.) I’ll call him F here. F traveled to Cuba last fall to talk with officials about his own projects and to ask the current policy on exporting blood samples. Back in 2001, he had received a yes. With the Bush years, that answer turned to no. I got the phone call in late October where he told me they were saying yes again. Full speed ahead!

Where I’ll be

Here’s Cuba.

Cuba_01

I land in Havana, spend a few days sorting out paperwork, and then…somehow…will travel 80 miles southeast to that lovely green peninsula inside the blue box. Also: I cannot believe how close Cuba is to Florida.

The green spot is Zapata Peninsula, home to Zapata Swamp National Park, a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and the largest tract of preserved wetland in the Antilles. It’s home to almost 200 species of birds, as well as a staggering amount of peat moss and all three genera of a rodent called a hutia. (Wikipedia: “They are hunted for food in Cuba, where they are often cooked in a large pot with wild nuts and honey.”)

Cuba_02

Alas, I may not get to see the hutias. Because of unknown political stuff going on at the Ministry of Science, I was ultimately not given access to the park. I was told I’d have to get so-and-so permits from so-and-so agencies, and that previous U.S. ornithologists were similarly denied entrance to the park’s protected areas.

Before the bad news broke, F had connected me with a colleague (I’ll call him R) in the Ministry of Agriculture who manages a reserve just to the east of the national park. After the bad news, it suddenly became my only option, as well as the first of many times F would save my ass.

If you click on the map, you’ll have a better view of the little lake east of the green area. That’s where I’ll be, near a town called Guamá. Apparently it is home to a recreated Taíno village and a crocodile farm. (Rough Guide: “On a tour round the swamp you can witness a mock capture of an exhausted-looking baby crocodile and are then invited to eat one at the Croco Bar.”)

I’m there until late June, and then I spend my last week in Havana getting my affairs in order until returning to the States. I come home on the Fourth of July.

Also, check out the inlet between the park and the lake. That’s the Bay of Pigs.

Yeah.

Getting there

This has been a long and painful process. On the U.S. side, I have travel and import permits from three federal agencies plus Duke. On the Cuban side, I have…no visa, no site permits, and no export permits.

At minimum, I needed a visa even to board the charter plane in Miami. Ideally it would have been a work visa, issued from the agency overseeing the field site, that would allow me to work for 70-odd days. Things were looking good, until my Agriculture contact R disappeared from email. As my flight date approached and no visa appeared, my travel agent and I switched to Plan B: Fly in with a 30-day tourist visa, buy myself a month to meet with Agriculture people, and lobby for the work visa once I’m on the ground.

[Travel agent: So, I will book you a round-trip ticket with the 30-day tourist visa. Once you’re approved for an extended stay, then you can buy a one-way ticket for July.
Me: Wait, why can’t I book two one-way tickets, one for April and one for July?
Travel agent: As a U.S. citizen, it’s illegal for you to book a one-way ticket to Cuba.
Me: Right. Yes. Got it. Very good.]

Tomorrow I receive the round-trip ticket in the mail. Major thanks to my advisor for footing the bill for this unwieldy itinerary.

There’s a happy epilogue (so far): R’s brother, with whom he shares an email address, wrote and gave me R’s cell phone. He added, “The sound is really low, so you’ll have to speak loudly.” So there I was, in my lab with the door closed last week, shouting to R how much I looked forward to coordinating the work visa.

Bottom line, I’m boarding that damn plane on Wednesday.

Okay, now for some stuff about living conditions.

Connectivity

Internet in Havana is of the 56-Kbps, five-minutes-to-load-a-webpage, $8-an-hour kind. Internet at my field site is probably non-existent. So, while I may be able to send little email telegrams at the beginning and end of my trip, I’m going dark in May and June. It’s the longest time I’ll be without internet since acquiring the internet.

As for phone, the 2009 lifting of the telecommunications ban means my phone could work in Cuba. But after getting slammed with roaming costs in the Bahamas for checking one voicemail, I’ll save way more by renting/buying one in Cuba. I’m not sure whether that, or payphones with phone cards, is the better bet. Either way, phone calls to the U.S. are more than $2 a minute, so goodbye to heart-to-hearts for now.

I’m also not sure how the communications cut-off will turn out. I think it will be good for me to run around experiencing a life untethered by email. But, you’ll have to indulge my two-month-old version of the world when I return. (“Guys, did you hear the Supreme Court’s decisions on gay marriage/gene patenting/baby Veronica?!” “Yes.” “Oh.”)

Plus, high probability of seeing unusual things + inability to share = Irene writing pages and pages of observations to herself. Every time I see something breathtaking in the field, I’m reminded of this line from Randall Jarrell’s The Animal Family, a story that begins with a solitary hunter:

“One winter night, as he looked at the stars that, blazing coldly, made the belt and the sword of the hunter Orion, a great green meteor went slowly across the sky. The hunter’s heart leaped, he cried: ‘Look, look!’ But there was no one to look.”

Expect a huge blog blast when I’m back, so we can look together 🙂

Money

You can’t get Cuban money outside of Cuba, so everyone must bring in currency to convert to pesos. There’s a 10% fee for the conversion. If the currency you bring in is USD, you get charged an additional 10% fee. So last week, my friend Matt accompanied me to Wells Fargo, where I picked up a giant f-ing order of Canadian money. ATMs are rare, and no U.S.-issued credit cards are accepted. I am traveling with all the money I have.

Cuba has a double economy to accommodate the vastly different financial situations of tourists vs. Cuban nationals. Tourists pay with convertible pesos (CUCs; I’ll call them “tourist pesos” here). Until 2004, the tourist peso was pegged to the dollar, but the consecutive conversion fees obviously elevate its value.

In contrast, Cuban nationals, whose salaries rose to $19 last summer, use a subsidized currency of national pesos. The conversion fee is 1 tourist peso to 25 national pesos. Each of their pesos is literally pennies for me.

Depending on whether their clientele is predominantly tourists or Cuban citizens, different places use different currencies. In theory, I’m supposed to stick to tourist pesos, but I know I’ll inevitably receive national pesos in change. Those I can use to buy food and drink from places accepting national pesos. This will be the fastest way to cut costs.

Tourism is Cuba’s cash cow, with salaries in that sector way higher than in others like medicine. As a result, it’s not a very cheap place to travel, with daily costs around $75-100 per day in Havana. Since I’m neither in Havana nor doing “normal” tourist things, I anticipate spending far less. Mostly my expenses will be in lodging, food and transportation (including taking the driver to lunch).

Health and safety

Fortunately Cuba has a reputation for being a safe place, especially compared to other Latin-American countries. But I’m aware that I stand out in this part of the world, so I’m taking the necessary precautions. Crime in Havana is higher because of all the tourism. I don’t know about the situation at my field site, which is part small-town and part tourist attraction.

The mosquitoes are supposedly horrendous. Hello bug shirt (haven’t seen you since Maine 2006!), 98% DEET that will melt paint, and permethrin on my sleeping bag liner. Anything to avoid dengue fever, an underreported tropical disease for which there is no vaccine. Everything else (Hep A/B, typhoid), I’ve gotten shots for.

Drinking water straight from the tap isn’t recommended, nor is the usual eating raw or peeled food. Please don’t let me get firehose diarrhea.

Lodging and transportation

In Havana, the alternative to a more expensive hotel is to stay in a casa particular, a kind of bed-and-bath where Cuban citizens are licensed to accept either other citizens or tourists as guests, but not both. (Keeps the currencies separate.) I have a place in Havana, recommended to me by a fellow Duke grad.

Beyond that…eugh? Most likely I will rent a bedroom from someone at my field site.

Since it’s way too expensive to rent a car for two months, I will be working with local drivers to pick me up and drop me off at the reserve each day. I probably won’t get to drive…but just in case, over the weekend I re-learned stick shift with Steve.

Food

Also a wild card. Rations are in place for Cuban citizens (for example, only children under 7 can receive milk), so it sounds as though supplies are hurting from the embargo. I anticipate eating a lot of rice and beans. Also, because I really can’t give up PBJs as energy food for 12-hour days…

P1000004

Behold, 11-and-a-quarter pounds of lunch.

Bucket list

A neighbor’s friend reports that the Bay of Pigs has great snorkeling. This statement is bizarre and wonderful in so many ways. I’ll report back.

The bee hummingbird, endemic to Cuba, is the smallest bird in the world. It weighs TWO GRAMS (just over a paper clip) and its eggs are AS TINY AS PEAS. Its Spanish name is “zunzuncito.” This is the best word.

Summary

The worst-case scenarios are still out there. I could be kicked out of the country in 30 days (I really think this is unlikely). All my money could get stolen. The Ministry of Science could change its mind about genetic samples and completely deny my export permit. But at this point, I think I’ve done everything to at least ensure a smooth arrival.

This entry is way too long and I totally have to get back to packing, but before I leave, some thanks are in order.

To those of you who listened to six months of developments; to those who called me “brave” and “strong” these last few days (know that I feel the same way back!); to those seasoned travelers who assured me that things are infinitely easier face-to-face; to my committee members who agree that even if everything goes down the toilet this summer, I still have enough for a dissertation…

Thank you. I hope you know how much those comments have meant to me. It hasn’t been easy dealing with the uncertainty, especially considering the value of this trip to my research. But your confidence in me has been contagious. So here we go: I’m going to Cuba, I’m going to do science, and I can’t wait to tell you all about it when I’m back.

Tell the cicadas I said hello.

Love,
Irene

==

Some recent articles on Cuba:

Raúl Castro to step down as Cuba’s president in 2018 (NYT, 24 Feb. 2013)
How capitalist are the Cubans? (NYT, 1 Dec. 2012)
Where is Cuba going? (NYT Magazine, 20 Sept. 2012)

Las mariquitas y yo, part 2


It was the best field season ever. I smashed my personal record for sample size and came home with new friends and connections. And, my samples made it safely back!

Right now I’m hustling with the analyses so I’ll have a cohesive presentation ready for a major bird conference in three weeks. I can’t wait to find out their mating patterns—we know so little about the genetics of these guys that any new info will be interesting.


You’re looking at a complete data point: Mom, Dad, and the kids in the nest. I scored thirty data points and was able to take off a few days toward the end.

Two major reasons the season was so much more stress-free: no nest-searching (all I had to do was peek into the PVC pipes), and both parents fed the chicks. That means both the male and female reliably visited the nest, unlike in the redwings, where only the females fed and I scrambled around trying to catch the males.


I started off with my trusty mist nets. They worked great, but whenever the wind picked up, they ballooned outward and let the birds escape. My coworker suggested something more targeted (and stationary) that could catch the parents as they entered the nest to feed.


Meet La Trampita. She’s made from a foot of PVC pipe ($1.25), a bendy straw ($1 for 100), and some cardboard from a box that once contained delicious pizza ($5 for two slices). And she caught fifty birds for me.


Secured with duct and electrical tape, Ms. Trampita was definitely not foolproof. So after I saw a bird go in, I ran into the water like a maniac to make sure it didn’t escape.


Then I stuck my entire arm in and fished around until I caught the parent. The trick was to lift my forearm and create a little light at the entrance, so that the bird would rush toward the opening. Once it was trapped at the mouth, I shimmied my hand back and wrapped it around the bird’s body. Into the bag it went.


Begin the usual processing: banding and bleeding.

My coworker Edwin took this photo. He was working on a separate study using radio telemetry to track the movements of fledglings wearing little backpack transmitters. We were two lost souls, wandering the mangroves and occasionally bumping into each other.


Also unlike the redwings, males and female yellow-shoulders look alike. Once they’re in hand, you can feel the difference in their size, but just to make sure, I measured the lengths of their tarsus and wing. The females were consistently a centimeter smaller for both.


Finally, I weighed them and let them go. That’s a bird inverted into the toe part of a pair of tights.


Hi, babies! Thanks for letting me catch your parents (“parents”? We’ll find out) so quickly.


I know, I know. Don’t worry, you’ll get your arthropods soon.

We’re going to analyze 169 of you!


A sad-clown-faced bananaquit that flew into a mist net. Bananaquits are the Caribbean equivalents of chickadees, hopping everywhere and buzzing nonstop. This one ejected berry poop all over my sleeve.


Acanthocereus tetragonus. Common name: Spanish dildo cactus, looking very majestic indeed.

I kind of feel like the “Spanish” is superfluous.


Good heavens, they’re everywhere.


These two photos were from my mile-long walk into the mangrove. My dinky rental car couldn’t handle the unpaved road, so I parked on a beach and marched in with my gear. Here you can see an enormous gumbo-limbo tree, nicknamed the tourist tree for its red and peeling bark.


The melon cactus. Who named all these plants, 15-year-old taxonomy interns?

The nipple part is called a cephalium, and the bristles are flowers, which give way to hot pink fruit that dangles seductively off the top.


Now it is time to leave the field and stop by the piraguas truck for some fruit syrup and shaved ice.


The ice is literally scraped off a huge frozen block with an old-timey tool.


Edwin, of PR and New Jersey, makes these syrups from home every day. There were all the usual flavors, plus soursop, tamarind, passionfruit, sesame, and some others I’d never heard of.


Speaking of which, here is biograd Alex with corn-flavored ice cream. There were actual kernels embedded like cookie dough. It was surprisingly good. And it was a lot of fun to spend a day with him and Dave; I’ve never gotten to hang out with other biograds  during the field season.


Did I mention near the end I had time for partial weekends? My friend from the Department of Natural Resources took me snorkeling, and we stuffed ourselves with deep-fried food afterward. Clockwise from left: chapín (trunkfish) empanada; corn fritters; yucca sticks; fried plantains; squid and conch salad; cheese balls; and fried yam slices. And a piña colada! So worth it.


The restaurant posted this sign in its outdoor seating area. Those Greater Antillean grackles were definitely not afraid of humans.


Thanks, PBJs. You’re a food group unto yourselves.

I showed this photo to my mom and she couldn’t speak, she was so proud.


Goodbye, mangroves and blackbirds! Thank you for a wonderful summer, and I’ll see you soon.

On sacrificing animals

I feel like a fraud writing that last entry without mentioning that I have done my share of killing animals in the field. Twenty-two red-winged blackbirds have lost their lives because of me. Four turned into indispensable stuffed mounts; others gave me essential practice for the dissection skills I prize; one provided the samples that form the backbone of my dissertation. I am ashamed to admit that the rest died in vain because their tissues were later ruined in transport.

Every time was awful. Every moment where I felt the life leave their bodies was a violation of the unspoken trust that they would return to the marsh unharmed. All my thoughts on balance and perspective rang hollow—how could I believe in them when I was performing the very opposite of balance? The situation resembled a human interaction hijacked by the presence of a gun. There was only one outcome, and it was under my absolute control. It was the feeling of playing God with a randomly picked creature, and I hated it, and all I could ever say was thank you and I’m sorry, miserable words that tumbled out over and over as bodies and parts were carefully bagged.

There was always the desperate logic that it was in the service of my research; that the benefits of discovery would far outweigh the loss of life; that redwings are so plentiful they fall out of the Arkansas sky. There were the colleagues who sacrificed with businesslike efficiency and kept an amazing focus on their science. And this summer, there was the simple reality that the yellow-shoulders’ future was jeopardized by a species that was never supposed to be there. I caught a shiny cowbird fledgling that jumped out of a blackbird nest one day and knew it had to go.

There were quicker ways to dispatch of it in the field, but the anesthesia was at home. In the car, the windows were down, and every time birds sang outside, the cowbird struck up its begging call: loud, irresistible, honed to elicit parental responses from birds that should have had no interest in its survival. When we got to my room, it stared up at me and begged from the bird bag. It had no idea that three federal agencies were after it. It had spent eleven days on the planet.

I stuck to the rationalizing. The job was done. But when there is only you holding a blinking bird in one hand and euthanizing tools in the other, enlightened thought is the last thing on your mind. Instead, burned into my fingers is the feeling of its silky brown feathers.

I went back to the mangrove, took it out of the bird bag, laid it in the grass, and finished my fieldwork as the sun set. By mid-morning it was gone.

There. It took me three years to say any of this. And even though the invasive sampling is behind me now, I am so sorry.

On death in the field (killdeer)

This is what I saw in the refuge parking lot one evening in late May. I’ll never forget the moment I realized what was happening. Alternately snapping photos and retreating to the car, I spun entries of wonder and excitement and “yaaayyy!” The last sentence was going to be, “Life is so cool.”

(Go ahead, watch and squeal with me.)

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That night I woke up to their unmistakable shrieks. The feral cats—kittens really, with small sinewy bodies and hard eyes—got them all in a few days. By the end of the next week, the mother was once more on eggs in the parking lot, the traffic cones shielding her from inadvertent motorists as she tried again.

==

Maybe this is what draws me to the field. It doesn’t sugarcoat death. It reminds me that to focus only on life, however joyously, is to neglect half the picture. It is a place where beginnings and endings are arbitrary, with value attached to neither. There is only survival: uncertain, unadorned, cells dividing relentlessly until they stop.

I envy that lack of judgment, and I need the reminder every year that death is to be acknowledged as much as life. I know one day this idea will be unspeakably painful to hear and I’ll wish I could be impervious to grief.

But if there’s one thing the field restores in me, it’s a sense of balance. The flip side of life’s coolness is its cruelty, yes, but they’re two halves of a picture that shape each other. Magnitudes of love and loss, equally matched. I think I can work with the whole human mess of emotions if I see them as the price for loving the people I do, as scary as it will be, come the day.

(This is about dying from natural causes, not from mass murders or terrorism. There aren’t really non-primate field equivalents for those. But the same bargain we’ve struck, to feel goodwill and mourning instead of briskly moving on with neither, seems even more important when those things happen to strangers. Thinking weary thoughts toward Colorado.)

I left the field before the killdeer’s second clutch had hatched. May the chicks long be scurrying among the watered lawns; may their ends be quick and painless. And may the invasive cats long be feasting upon the invasive iguanas.

==

Some links I thought of while writing this entry:

This is the end (Guardian, 31 Mar. 2008): an extraordinary series of portraits before and after death
‘You Will Die Someday and It Will Be Sad,’ All Area Man Thinking During Dinner with Parents (Onion, 19 July 2012)

Fun field things


Maybe everything in Puerto Rico is black and yellow.


The iguanas on Isla Magueyes splayed themselves out on the toasty sidewalks all day long. Frequently you’d walk past half a dozen and wonder what disaster was just narrowly averted.

They also remind me of that one episode where MacGyver staples the villain to the ground.


A favorite from the Bahamas, the scrape of the Antillean nighthawk.


(Scrape, because you really can’t call it a nest.)

The nighthawk’s name in Spanish is “que-re-que-que,” emphasis on the first syllable, for its rapid-fire call. Its voice is the only thing that distinguishes it from the identical-looking common nighthawk. Males of both species fly super-high in the air, then do a nose-dive that produces a booming sound as air rushes through their wings.


Here’s a stealth shot of Mama Nighthawk herself. She no longer flushes every time I walk past—maybe she sees me and goes “meh.”

Nighthawks are part of the goatsucker (chupacabra) family. When closed, their bills look tiny, but they have massive gaping mouths used to catch insects in flight. The catchy name comes from the myth that they suck milk from goats. Who comes up with these ideas?


My housing site at Columbia National Wildlife Refuge in Washington state had a killdeer nest out in front. Guess who’s sitting on eggs in the Cabo Rojo parking lot? Soon there will be fuzzy babies running around!

After others and I alerted a FWS official about the nest, some traffic cones went up around it. Maybe she won’t have to do her “I am injured, follow me as I lead you away!” broken-wing display so often.


Clapper rail eggs! After days of hearing their cackling, grunt-y calls, I finally saw one wading furtively through the mangrove yesterday. This is because I’d been waiting so long to trap a male that everyone returned to business as usual. (The male didn’t go in. First stop tomorrow.)


Another favorite from the Bahamas, the black-necked stilt nest. Inadvertently I was standing too close while trying to catch a different male. Like the killdeer, the female did a broken-wing display, but it wasn’t nearly as convincing. I imagine a predator would raise an eyebrow at a performance that involves undulating your wings in a one-bird wave; shimmying your belly to the ground; looking up to make sure you’re being watched; and then…pause…shooting out a wing.


This is a Puerto Rican flycatcher. Like all flycatchers, it has those bristles next to its face, called rictal bristles. Science says, “Proposed explanations … are that they perform tactile functions, serve as an insect scoop, or protect other facial feathers.” That is how you know science has no idea what they do.

The Puerto Rican flycatcher’s high-pitched song sounds exactly like—and I am not making this up— “BIEB!”


Here’s another endemic, the Puerto Rican tody. My PR bird guide had such a wacky illustration of it that I didn’t believe it actually looked so…squat.


Todies have a crazy high feeding rate, supposedly eating nearly two insects a minute, every minute, from dawn to dusk (which amounts to 40% of their body weight). The Puerto Rican tody sits and scans the underside of leaves for insects, flies up to snatch it, and lands on a new perch. Repeat every waking moment.

Hope there are no typos, because I’m going to bed. Thanks again for the wishes, everyone. I caught four birds, took some pictures, had a long walk out of the mangroves, and gorged on the internet at Burger King. It was a very satisfying day.

Las mariquitas y yo, part 1


Hello, new housing site. You wake me up with raucous birdsong every morning and welcome me home with your familiar sign every night. And I have traced a dozen new constellations in your inky sky.


This is the renovated building of the USFWS field office. The entire place used to be a CIA listening unit, built by the U.S. military in the 1970s to monitor the goings-on of Puerto Rican independistas.

I took a completely random Spanish elective on Puerto Rican literature during my junior year of college, never dreaming that it would be of any use. Funny how these things work out.


This is a nest of a yellow-shouldered blackbird (called “la mariquita,” or ladybug, here). Yellow-shoulders are both endemic to Puerto Rico and endangered, hence the many permit hoops I had to jump through. The main forces contributing to their decline are loss of habitat and severe brood parasitism by the shiny cowbird, a bird that arrived on the island in the 1940s. Cowbirds lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, preferring one or two species as their primary hosts. Almost all of the yellow-shoulder’s nests are parasitized to some degree. I found this nest with only two blackbird eggs (top two on left) and four cowbird eggs.

The yellow-shoulder was listed as endangered in 1976. Since then, the FWS and PR Department of Natural Resources have implemented aggressive monitoring programs to control parasitism and promote chick and fledgling survival. Over the past 30 years, the population has increased from only ~200 breeding individuals to more than 800. It’s been inspiring to meet the people who have been so invested in the protection of these guys.


Beginning in the 1980s, people involved in the recovery project began controlling the cowbird population and building artificial nests for the yellow-shoulders to use. In the foreground is an early prototype, while in the background you can see the newer nests made of PVC.


Welcome to the world! You bring us hope! (Actually, this one died. Outcompeted by its three siblings. Sorry for the spoiler.)


Initially they look the same as redwing chicks, although they take a few more days to develop…


(here are the same babies, three days later) …and still look the same as the feather tracts emerge…


…but holy crap! What’s coming out of those feather tracts?

Up until now, their tarsal vein is still visible, enabling me to take blood from their leg. But you can see the tarsus darkening as the skin hardens, making it progressively trickier to stick them in the right spot.


Whoa, you’re growing tiny black and yellow feathers. You look like a mini-adult!


I should explain that my reaction comes after three years of looking at redwing chicks, which develop brown female-like plumage first (see above). But yellow-shoulder males, females and nestlings all look the same, which really did take some getting used to.


When you bleed chicks this late, it’s easier to puncture the brachial vein (which I do for adults) than the tarsal vein. Check out those brand-new feathers erupting from the tracts.

The breeding season this year is wildly asynchronous. The PR folks told me they’d never seen nests with fledglings alongside nests still on eggs. If I do find evidence of cheating, theory suggests this weird temporal fluke might help explain its occurrence. (Based on behavioral and morphological evidence, I’m expecting to find less cheating in the yellow-shoulders than in the redwings.)


One drawback of the artificial nests is that mite infestations can get pretty bad. I’ve had chicks flap their wings in my hand and cover my hands with marching brown and red dots. (They don’t go for humans, but it’s still a stomach-churning sight.) So now there’s a lot of glove-wearing and glove-changing between nests.


This 14-day-old fledgling rocketed out of its nest when I went to check on it. It got kind of wet in the mangroves, so I put it back after bleeding it. Clearly it was happy about the entire thing.


As was this female. Oh FR-OG, we have so many memories together. Thank you for being the second adult I caught, and for completing my first data point of you, your mate and your kids.

And with that, back to work. To the mangroves!

“Some things you must never stop refusing to bear”

The morning after Amendment 1: Your world. And mine.

A beautiful, carefully structured essay on the passage of Amendment One by Durham journalist Barry Yeoman.

Some food for thought here, in the form of status updates of Amendment One supporters. The ignorant ones are cheap. The civil ones are enlightening, if in a “is that really how you explain the world to yourselves?” kind of way. I find it akin to imagining how someone with color-blindness or synesthesia sees the world. I can’t do it.

And any mention of distinguishing the sinner from the sin reminds me of this reply by Washington Post columnist Gene Weingarten.

Atheist in the Deep South: Hi, Gene. I have a question, from one atheist to another: how do you deal with people who think homosexuality is a sin? I’m a gay rights activist and a queer, and I have seen the words “homosexuality is a sin” do immense damage to peoples’ lives, alienating them from their families, their communities, and their own senses of self-worth. Internalized homophobia is a terrible, destructive thing. Yet these “homosexuality is a sin” people insist that there’s nothing at all wrong with thinking that, especially because, as they say, “We’re all sinners.” When I point out that they think their sins are what they DO, but our sins are who we ARE, they just look at me blankly, most of the time. I’m asking because I have a couple of liberal Mormon friends who, in a conversation about the Mormon church’s atrocities against the LGBTQ crowd (they actually agree with me about this), just told me they think homosexuality is a sin, and we got in a big fight. In venting to other friends who don’t know the Mormons in question, several other people told me they feel the same way – love the sinner, hate the sin. This is making me feel sick to my stomach, and I don’t know what to do. This is the deep south, I don’t expect tons of enlightenment, but it’s a university town that overwhelmingly went for Obama, so I guess I thought it was a safer environment than I’m learning it is. So: What would Gene do?

Gene Weingarten: Gene would dislike these people intensely.

You happen to be treading on an area where I am uncommonly sure of myself and obnoxiously opinionated. (With food, I’m sort of kidding. Here, I’m not.)

Yeah, I’m an atheist, but I don’t disrespect religion; we’re all seekers of truth and understanding, and science and religion go about it in parallel ways. I’m most comfortable thinking about religion as a form of philosophy.

So far, so good. My problems with religion are when it is so reactionary that it institutionalizes bigotry. At that point, reason and faith no longer coexist, they are at war. At that point I feel it is the duty of the moral person to jettison the bigoted faith for another. Or for none.

“Love the sinner, hate the sin” is astonishingly patronizing, and duplicitous. It’s a cop-out. Love the slave as though he weren’t your property. Separate but equal.

I had a very close friend, a devout Christian, who told me that she worried about me because, as a nonbeliever in Jesus, I would be going to hell. What do you SAY to someone like that? I said nothing, but I never felt the same about her. She’s chosen an interpretation of her religion that consigns Mahatma Gandhi to hell. I’m supposed to RESPECT this?

Here’s the thing you need to remember: All those people who tell you that homosexuality is a sin, but they love you? They don’t. They think you are a lesser form of life.

Act accordingly.

Sorry. I got really angry about this yesterday.

Liz, can you link to the NYT story from yesterday about the anti-gay activists who had a hand in the Ugandan movement to EXECUTE gays? They’re trying to back away from it, but they can’t. They’re poison.

washingtonpost.com: Americans’ role seen in Uganda anti-gay push (NYT, 4 Jan. 2012)

Let the Fieldwork Games begin

Welcome to the new blog! (I’ll miss you, Diaryland, but maybe you should have updated since 2003.) I’m in southwest Puerto Rico this summer to study a population of yellow-shouldered blackbirds. I’ll tell the field season story later (as usual, it’s long and permit-filled), but here’s what I’ve seen so far.


I’m living at a University of PR-owned field station, built on an island fifty yards off the coast. You have to park your car on the mainland and wait at the dock to be ferried over on a little motorboat.

This place was impossible to find at night. Many, many thanks to fellow biograd Alex, who guided me over the phone before I personally checked every privately owned dock in town.


The island’s name is Isla Magueyes (Agave Island). It’s also home to a 50-year-old colony of feral Cuban iguanas. Guess who was hanging out by the  doorstep on my very first morning?


The iguanas are endangered in Cuba but doing quite well here. Most of them retreat when you approach, but some of the males give the territorial headbob display (look, someone published a paper showing their headbobs have already diverged from the Cuban population’s).


Looking north, you can see the coastal town of La Parguera, which caters to divers/tourists and has a pastel seaside-resort feel. In the foreground is my dorm building, filled with lots of horrible mosquitoes. Today I called home to request the electric swatter that was last summoned in Maine 2006.


Much like the Bahamas, the island is ringed by mangroves that transition to dry forest toward the interior. I saw some familiar plants (agave, mahogany and gumbo-limbo) and new ones (cactus, mesquite).


And toward the south, more tiny islands. I watched great frigatebirds soar overhead while listening to yellow warblers, bananaquits, black-faced grassquits, Caribbean elaenias (a very insistent flycatcher), and some thuggish-looking orioles called troupials.

Tomorrow I meet with my collaborators to see the field sites and blackbirds for the first time. It’ll be so weird to hold a not-quite redwing in my hand.

It’s the field season again!

Taiwan photos

Before the onslaught of field photos, the pictures from Taiwan I never got around to posting.


This is our patron saint of scholarship. My Rough Guide says:

Like many Chinese deities, he’s supposed to have been a real person, and is said to have failed the examination three times simply because the emperor was repulsed by his hideous looks. The poor scholar committed suicide and has been venerated ever since.

I have a scene in my head where the patron saint assigners are wrapping up a late-night conference call in ancient China. Upon seeing this nomination, they die laughing, approve it, and open another bottle of rice wine.

Southern Taiwan’s 350-year-old City God temple, devoted to the local gatekeeper of the underworld.


Side note: For some reason, a lot of temples feature “barbarians” (non-Han Chinese) holding up the corners. Some had aborigines. Here’s one with black people. Discrimination sucks.


The first thing you see when you step to the City God Temple is an enormous sign, reminding us of our mortality, that reads “Here You Come.” At least, that’s the translation in my Rough Guide. The one that came to my mind was “You’re here!!”


Turn around and there’s an enormous abacus staring you in the face, more galvanizing perhaps than an Excel spreadsheet.


Various sooty officials, imbued with supernatural powers and fire-and-brimstone notions of justice.


If you feared the temple designers were putting too fine a touch on things, hanging from the pillar are assorted torture instruments, gentle reminders that every lie is another brick in the pathway to hell.


Back in northern Taiwan, it’s time to get our fortunes told at my favorite temple. Materials needed: Prayer blocks, prayer sticks and prayer cabinet (in subsequent photo).


Methods: Draw a random prayer stick. Take two prayer blocks from the basket. Holding them together, say your prayer and drop them on the ground. If they land round side up, the gods say you need to draw a different stick. If they land flat side up, the gods are laughing and want you to roll again. If one lands round and one lands flat side up, the gods approve. Roll until you get three approvals.


Three nods for this stick. Each one has a special code corresponding to a specific drawer in the prayer cabinet. We will go there now, and smile at the curious groundskeepers looking up from their card game.


Find the correct drawer on the revolving cabinet (mine is on the top right).


Voilà, the fortune! My hard work has earned me a kick-ass harvest, and when I come home to tell my family about it, we’re all going to celebrate with joyful music and dance. (This was really nice to receive in Taiwan.) Also, it’s a great time to buy a manservant, and the rains will come at the end of the month. I can breathe again.


Moving on from the temple, I went to a bookstore looking for a translation of “Origin of Species” and spotted these instead. The translation of “Catching Fire” comes from an expression that means “a single spark can ignite a huge blaze,” and “Mockingjay” is translated as “Visions of Freedom.”


Look who’s featured in the business section. The man himself would love that he’s beneath a banner promoting “Disobedient Leadership” and diagonal from “Butt Management: Where You Stand Depends on Where You Sit.”


At the market with my aunt, we saw a tub of chicken feet, euphemistically called “phoenix claws,” for seven cents each. And look, they’re anisodactyl! They have three toes forward and one toe back, which is the most common arrangement of digits in birds.


Family photo shot after an amazing lunch. My cousin (in plaid) and his wife (seated) had a beautiful baby boy around Valentine’s Day.


I scored two free massages in Taipei when I accompanied my grandmother to her weekly appointment. It is hard to relax when you’re alternately suppressing shrieks (when they hit a knot) and giggles (when it tickles). But oh my god, what I wouldn’t give to have another session.


This photo of my mother’s parents has been in the same room for decades. My grandmother still lives independently an hour out from Taipei, in a community surrounded by mountains and rice fields.


My grandfather died in 1993. Parts of his life (tofu peddler to succesful entrepreneur) have acquired legendary status. I wish I had known the real person.


Mushed-together photos of my paternal grandparents, who for many reasons never had a happy marriage. I spent a lot of time this trip learning about my loud, brash, clever grandfather, who died when I was two. My grandmother, who matched him in stubbornness and outlived him by two decades, figures prominently in my memories up to high school. Everyone says Stan looks like our mom’s side of the family, while I take after my dad’s.


A small plot of land in northern Taiwan has been owned by the Liu family ever since the Liu family emigrated to Taiwan 100+ years ago. As Stan writes in a beautiful entry, the banyan tree was planted in 1919 to separate the factory from the house. It is the birthplace of my father, as well as the home of so many relatives I have never known.


My paternal uncle (right) brought me here to see the house and meet two of my father’s cousins. The city where they live is known for its ceramics, and the uncle in the middle is developing a light recycled ceramic as a brick alternative. I mostly listened and watched, memorizing noses and eyes and smiles. They liked that I was there to 尋根 (search for my roots) and told me I was welcome any time.

Then home, and back to life in the States.