Archive for the ‘Birding’ Category

A touching and often amusing memoir

April 21, 2008

Grrlscientist recommends Keen Kaufman’s Flights against the sunset, a memoir of a bird-watcher:

When Kenn Kaufman was sixteen, he left home in pursuit of a dream; to see more species of birds in the United States in one calendar year than had ever been seen before. Instead of preventing him from trying to achieve this dream as most people would have done, his parents allowed him to go with their blessing. Now, as an adult, a famous birder and field guide who travels the world, we find Kaufman in a nursing facility in Wichita, Kansas, visiting his seriously ill mother after having just returned from leading a nature tour in Venezuela. Yet despite her declining health, pain and impending death, she wants to hear all about his journey. So in this touching and often amusing memoir, Flights Against the Sunset (NYC: Houghton Mifflin; 2008), we all get to peek in to this day-long visit, a visit that might be the author’s last chance to speak with his mother.

But what can a son tell his mother so she understands his passion for the natural world, particularly for birds? Realizing that superficial stories about accomodations and detailed recitations of bird lists or ornithological facts could not possibly convey his all-consuming fascination, the author decides that his tales would have to originate “from that frontier where the world of birds intersects with the world of the humans who pursue them.”

This hardcovered book is roughly the size of a diary or field guide, so it is easy to carry on a subway or elsewhere. Its 225 pages contain 19 essays, most of which were rewritten and adapted from Kaufman’s long-running column in Bird Watcher’s Digest. These essays are connected by smaller vignettes describing his day-long visit with his mother, and the book ends in a most satisfying way — in fact, I’ll bet the author will never look at a black-capped chickadee in the same way again! I have only one complaint about this book; at $24, it’s expensive for the size. But other than that, this sweet little book will make a pleasant read for a long afternoon spent at the beach or on a flight to somewhere, and it would make a really wonderful mother’s day gift.

Take a look!

Being hard and bulbous!

February 18, 2008

Birdchick has a must-see photo essay explaining the advantages of being hard and bulbous under certain circumstances!

Some must-read stuff!

September 27, 2007

Avian Grandmas

A few months back, I wrote a post titled In praise of grandparents; the post lead to some interesting discussions, where, I also wrote about how birds cope with child rearing:

As far child rearing, it is interesting to see how other species cope with the burden–in some bird species, for example, when the mother gets children, it is the elder sons who are forced to help the mother; in fact, the father will actively stop the sons from setting up their own nests! All this is explained in this rather nice article (pdf) (and in this book too, called Survival Strategies by Raghavendra Gadagkar).

However, I am afraid I was too quick to conclude that there are no avian grandparents. In a very readable post, Grrlscientist explains some recent research along these lines:

When talking about evolution, some people have wondered aloud about why grandmothers exist in human society since they clearly are no longer able to reproduce. However, these people are conveniently overlooking the fact that grandmothers perform a valuable service; they help their relatives, often their own children, raise their offspring — offspring that are genetically related to them. But curiously, grandmother helpers have not been documented to occur in birds, where most of our research into cooperative breeding systems occurs, so this makes the question even more intriguing: Why are there no avian grandmothers? Further, since cooperatively breeding birds are relatively long-lived, grandparental care should indeed be identifiable, especially if cooperatively-breeding bird societies are observed long enough.


This is the first time that grandparent helping has been documented in birds, although there are several other species where kin-directed helping behavior has been observed.

However, it is important to note that in other avian helping species, “all individuals attempt to breed independently each year and only move to helping if their nest fails. Consequently, this behavior would be very different to that of individuals that forgo independent breeding and become subordinate grandparent helpers.

A very interesting piece!

Oxytocin and childbirth

A couple of years ago, if I had seen a blog post on oxytocin and childbirth, I would have moved on without paying close attention; however, all the child care classes that we attended as well as my staying with my wife during our daughter’s birth has made me more aware; so, it is with great interest that I read Coturnix’s post on the issue — true, there seems to be more questions than explanations — but that is what makes is all the more interesting. Take a look!

A researcher’s nightmare(s)

It had happened to almost all the researchers I know; it happened to me recently when, one of my collaborators, who was trying to use my code reported that he is not able to reproduce some of the results that I report in my thesis; the nightmare lasted a couple of days before we could sort everything out, and thankfully, my results were indeed reproducible.

Highly Allochthonous writes about a similar horrifying experience that he went through recently; and, again, thankfully, it turns out that what he thought to be the mistake, actually wasn’t:

It was at about this point that an entire PhD’s worth of stress hormones decided to dump themselves into my bloodstream. It looked like all the cool and exciting conclusions from my PhD research were built on an exceedingly unsafe foundation. Also, if I was honest with myself, such a glaring mistake galloped far beyond the unfortunate, deep into the realm of the toweringly incompetent. Writing and publishing the necessary corrections and retractions would be equivalent to standing up in a room packed with everyone who might ever hire me and yelling “Hey! I’m a dumbass!”

It was a good job, then, that I turned out to be mistaken – although it took me until Monday to realise it. My salvation lay in the fact that samples were not placed in my old magnetometer in the ‘right’ orientation: what the machine measured as the x-axis was in fact the z-axis of the sample. This substitution meant that when the correction software rotated what it thought was the x-axis, it was actually rotating the z-axis of the sample, which meant that I was supplying the right direction and everything had ended up in the appropriate reference frame. ‘Phew’ is an understatement.

It is important to note though, that it is not always that such stories have such a happy ending. On another occasion, a week before my submitting an important document, I found a bug in my code. As Chris Rowan mentions, that is the time I realised how much of research reporting is based on trust. I am happy to say that I had enough courage to tell my adviser (who was more cool in that, instead of getting upset about my carelessness, he said “Guru, it is better that we noticed it before the referees did; throw away all the tainted results, run the code once more and let us see”). Fortunately, the changes in the results were more quantitative than qualitative. Again, for me too, “Phew” was an understatement.

Apart from these, there is another nightmare that some of us face–especially in the early stages of research–when you open a journal and see a paper which ostensibly solves the exact problem that you are trying to solve. But, as one of my experiences colleagues pointed out to me when I faced one such situation long ago, it is never that two groups would independently solve the same problem, using same techniques and arrive at identical results. So, most of the times, something of your efforts can be salvaged. But, it still is a nightmare when it happens.

A strongly recommended book

Recently, Jonah Lehrer recommended Body has a mind of its own (as we noted here); it is Grrlscientist’s turn now:

As a biologist who reads both widely and deeply about a number of scientific topics, it is very rare when I read a popular book that adds depth and nuance to my understanding of a biological phenomenon, but The Body Has a Mind of Its Own By Sandra Blakeslee and Matthew Blakeslee (NYC: Random House; 2007) is that book. This quiet but well-written book explores the interconnection between the environment, the body and the brain; discusses that the body is more just than a container for the brain and a vehicle that moves it around; and reveals how the brain depends upon sensory feedback from the environment in order to develop properly.

Looks like a must-read book. Take a look!

Happy reading!

Few more links!

September 26, 2007
  1. With grad student advice, can applying for faculty jobs be far behind? Julianne at Cosmic Variance offers some (unsolicited, but timely for some of us) advice;
  2. Do birds “see” magnetic fields? Clifford at Asymptotia points to some online resources (and, is on the lookout for more info);
  3. Tyler Cowen recommends a couple of very good books; and,
  4. Henry at Crooked Timber on some free software for academics (as well as on their guilty pleasures).

Take a look!

Dharma clicks!

June 24, 2007

You thought you can only earn good karma using digital prayer wheels? Now, you can do even better. Help save birds with your clicks; Birdchick has more details.

Update: Birdchick tells the good news–Ventana Wildlife Society did manage to get the $10000 for their Condor reintroduction program. Thanks to all those who Dharma-clicked.