We had a name for him, but now I don’t remember what his name was. I have no clue why that smelly, beat-up, mangy, dead creature comes to my mind now or why it’s blank empty eyes still haunt me.
Although coming to think of it, he was our unsung hero, a warrior, a martyr for science. When trying to think of his name, I want to call him “Rocky” because he knew how to take a hit, and I’m sure when he was alive he was fierce.
He was a decoy.
Manhattan, Kansas, Spring 2010. It’s one of those sticky days again, but I don’t seem to mind. I’m a field technician for a Research Experience for Undergraduates program. My first Ecology experience. I’m giddy like a kid the day after Halloween. I’m starting to realize that Ecology is my field.
We are out on Konza Prairie, a biological station, with miles and miles of wavelike weeds.
We (my research mates, a tight-knit team of 3 and my thesis adviser) are mist-netting, drawing a transparent net against the horizon and waiting like spiders to pounce, except not on insects but on birds (though, I acknowledge that some of my favorite spiders can catch birds…future post?…).
We are waiting for a bird, a dickcissel (Spiza americana), tiny, yellow eye-shadowed, yellow-bellied (literally) tart that sings simple insistent songs all day.
(Yes, now you can laugh at the word dickcissel. Get it out of your system. Because I’m going to be talking about dickcissels all blog post long, and I’ve heard it all. Make all the penis jokes you’d like. In fact I might later write about all the unintentional conversation I had about penises throughout this research experience. Preview: Isn’t this dick weird? Its science I swear. We’ll talk about it later. Also, I have noticed the species name sounds like an STD, but I didn’t name it.)
Dickcissels were named for their songs which in brief sound like dick and cissel (creative right?) occasionally with a trill.
Here is where Stinker, the dead bird, comes in. Yes, one of my field partners, just confirmed that was his name. Stinker was a dickcissel before his unfortunate death and partial resurrection as a surrogate. And well now, being the handy dandy dead bird he is, we use him to help lure in alive dickcissels.
When we identify birds without a band on their ankle showing the numbers of their “ID card” so to speak, we prepare to band them with a unique number-coded (possibly quite fashionable) anklet so that we can later distinguish individuals, as well as other select factors about the individuals, such as, in our case: wing span, estimated age, and weight. We also take pictures to remember the little dicks by.
Out on the tallest shrub he can find we see a prideful male dickcissel singing his heart out to all the available hunnies and at the same time trying to broadcast the ultimate machismo attitude. He alternates between “how you doin’?” and “you don’t wanna mess with me!” We know he’s a male because with this species only males sing so loud and cocky. He’s a perfect catch, not only probably for all of the females, but also for us. We are set to capture.
So first we set up the mist nets. We draw out the net taut between two poles. We make sure that the poles are partially hidden in bushes if possible and the net is partially disguised by some tall grass. To learn more about mist netting click here. (This is by Point Blue Conservation Science. Watch after the 1 minute mark to see mist netting).
Then we bring Stinker out of his Triscuit box in which he is kept. He is in dire need of upkeep already, feathers falling off, patches missing, gaunt, and then we tie the wiring sticking out of him to a stake. He doesn’t even complain. Stinker is such a good sport! It may help that he can’t feel it, but still not even many dead creatures can brag about being stuck to a stake every day. The stake with Stinker “perched” on top stands in front of the net.
Then we press play on our boombox, which blasts out a song of a foreign dickcissel in the territory of our target. That gets our target pretty pissed, and being the manly man he is he comes over to show this fictional dickcissel who the boss is, and who does he see? He sees Stinker perched, with what he probably imagines as a smirk or in bird terms a “fuck you” kind of look.
Now our target dickcissel is not going to take that. No way. He goes after Stinker who he mistakes as an arrogant alive sod (these birds are often irrational in their anger). Our target dickcissel takes a few swings, swooping in a downward flight and clipping at Stinker with his beak probably taking some chunks out of our stiff, but Stinker stands his ground. We slowly creep closer and closer to the target with the time Stinker buys us. The target dickcissel takes another few swings, and Stinker is in really sick shape, feathers and chunks flying everywhere, struggling to stay on the pole, but then the target dickcissel makes a false move and veers too close to the net in what may have been the final attempt to finish his pretend offender.
That’s when we give each other knowing looks and run out from our spots that we were watching the fight from rushing our target. Flustered, the unsuspecting bird flies straight into the net. We untangle him, record data on him, band him to ID him later, and then release him.
We appear unblemished from this engagement but Stinker is in a pathetic state. His insides gush out.
Stinker amazingly lasts the month long season. Fight after fight he got the rest of the living fluff beat out of him, but he continued playing his defiant role better than any I’ve known. We had to stitch him up multiple times and give him a few make overs but nothing drastic.
Yet, despite the service Stinker played for us, at the end of the bird banding month, instead of giving him a trophy or finding him a fetching mate, we threw him in the freezer, and forgot about him. We busied ourselves in our research, finished writing abstracts and giving presentations. We almost left him in their forever but we suddenly remembered Stinker the day before leaving. We brought him out of the freezer and decided to give our freezer-burned old buddy a more proper ending.
We drove to the prairie at night in our jeep, some of us had a few drinks, and we had a right proper funeral for the war veteran. We said many fine things. “Stinker you were always there for us.” “You were our hero.” “You are a champ.” Then, we left him to rest in peace for what we hoped to be the final time.
Dedicated to Stinker.
This is my favorite dead bird experience. Have you ever seen a dead bird? What was that like for you?