Written by: Emily Weigel
Primary Source: Choice Words with @Choosy_Female
This summer’s research adventures took us from Atlanta north. Most recently, we completed an 18-hour road trip (one-way!) to collect various bluebird and tree swallow nests. We survey and collect from hundreds of nests to find just a few parasites on which to do our work. It’s lots of effort, sure, but we’ve had great help from collaborators, and it does pay off!
This latest trip, we were able to collect nests from several places, including Ganondagan State Historic Site, Mt. Hope Cemetery, and a few of Cornell’s bird research sites. On our collection adventure, in addition to some very helpful scientists, engineers, and hobbyists, those we ran into at gas stations, fast food joints, and about town were super curious as to what we were actually doing.
So, here’s what it looks like:
Boxes (like the one I’m opening in the photo below) are where our birds nest. These boxes near open fields make great nesting spaces for birds like bluebirds and tree swallows.
Depending on the age of the nestlings in the nest, we have two options: if they’ve fledged, great. We just pack up the contents of a box into a gallon ziplock. If the birds are old enough to have parasites, but not at risk of fledging too early, it’s a different story; typically our bird collaborator will hold and monitor the birds while we scrape out what bugs have fallen through the bottom of the nest.
Once we get back to a space to process the nest, the fun begins! And by fun, I mean a bit of icky tedium, but… such is life. This is where we sort through all of the contents of the nest/scrapings to look for our bugs….Our bugs hidden amongst a lot of other squirmy bugs, dead things, and bird poop. Oh, the poop!
The nest I have photographed below came from one of the Cornell boxes of some birds that recently fledged. This is the nicest you’ll see one of these, not just because of the relatively low amount of extra debris and poop, but also because we could take a whole cardboard insert from the nest box and recover everything.
Most of the time, it looks more like what’s scattered on the sheet of paper below: Lots of debris and poop to filter through once the straw-like parts of the nest are removed. This is actually generally a good thing, as more poop (and debris caught in poop) typically means the nestlings were more numerous and/or lived longer, so there tend to be more parasites.
EDIT: People wanted to know what it smells like. It’s actually not that bad. The poop doesn’t smell like dog/human poop (or really at all), so the nests smell more like bales of hay.
So, we sort and collect our parasites, and rebag the rest (sometimes for collaborators, but mostly just to keep the bugs from spreading). We process just one nest at a time, so we can track where the bugs came from, how many we found, how old they are, etc. So, we just repeat this nest sorting…MANY times (hence my face after a long day stretching into the night). Don’t let my face fool you, though: it’s worth it in the end for all of the cool stuff you see, and it’s how I can honestly call this field work an adventure (instead of a nightmare)!
We’ll run genetic tests back in the lab, so we have to travel with the samples kept cool or in preservative chemicals. So, once we’re done sorting and packing it all away, we make the trek home with our little squirmy friends to learn a bit more about them!