Deep archives: Better than Gary Busey

They’re filming a movie on our field site right now. Apparently this isn’t out of the ordinary; one of the Jurassic Park movies and the climax from Anaconda were both shot at the Arboretum, for instance.

We’ve known this for some time, since a work crew has been gradually building a stadium on the main lawn of the Arboretum, on top of what is usually a large fountain (seems like a strange choice to me… fortunately, this area is not part of the lek so their activities won’t interfere with the peacocks). Rob found out a while ago that the stadium will be used for “a teen movie about cheerleaders”.

I learned some more details the other day. I was standing near the front gate, observing two peacocks that display on the roof of the Arboretum office building. Binoculars and notebook in hand, dressed ridiculously for the mild weather in a toque and heavy fleece, to most I would look like a crazy person taking notes about a roof. A woman approached me and struck up a conversation: apparently she was some sort of Hollywood production person on a scouting mission, and something about my appearance made her think that I was in production too. She was looking for a waterfall for a scene in an upcoming episode of Criminal Minds. She wanted to know if I was working on Fired Up, since she knew some people who were involved with it. I explained that I was actually watching the peacocks, secretly happy that I had found out the name of our cheerleading movie.

As soon as we got home, I searched for Fired Up on IMDB and learned that was a movie about “two guys who sign up for a cheerleaders’ camp in a desperate attempt to pick up girls”. And, as if this wasn’t ridiculous enough, it was billed as starring Patrick Swayze.

Our hopes of running in to the man who inspired the Patrick Swayze Express were dashed, though, a few days later. Rob had asked one of the set security guards about Swayze (and received a somewhat confused response); when we checked the IMDB site for Fired Up again, it had changed. The new site suggested that it’s most awesome (and sole recognizable) star had backed out – I think Rob’s questions might have even brought about the web update. But, as proof of how close we nearly came to Swayze, here is the old version of the site:

IMDB entry on "Fired Up"

Deep archives: An instance of spite?

I have seen my first peafowl egg. Laid in the sink of the men’s bathroom, some of the Arboretum staff found it and brought it to me, unsure of what to do with it. The peafowl are overpopulated here and the staff are encouraged to find (and destroy) eggs. I ended up giving this one to Rob’s relatives from Palmdale in the hopes that they could hatch it (they keep chickens and have an incubator).

Perhaps in line with the fact that laying season is upon us, we’ve seen a few quite heated episodes involving the peahens in the last few days. Specifically, I’ve seen a couple instances of females being aggressive towards other females right in front of displaying (and preferred) males. Although this behaviour has been described before, it’s quite a paradoxical thing from the evolutionary point of view since female-female aggression over a presumably unlimited resource (mates) would be entirely spiteful.

I had seen the females in Winnipeg aggressively displaying their tails to each other in front of certain males a few times, but a recent episode here in Los Angeles has clarified the situation. This was, unmistakably, a female trying to prevent other females from mating with one of our top males. Here’s how it unfolded…

Male no. 30 was displaying his tail, with three females in the area: two sitting nearby in a little garden, preening away, and the third seeming to mirror the male while she aggressively displayed towards the preening females.

Peahen-peahen aggression

This went on for several minutes. Eventually, one of the preeners got up and left, and a few seconds later the aggressor lowered her tail and started walking away. Almost immediately, the second preener hopped down from her perch and accepted male 30’s advances right away. This brought the aggressive female literally running back to the scene, but it was too late for her to prevent the copulation. Luckily we managed to photograph the whole thing.

Peafowl copulation

Not sure what to make of it yet, but interestingly yesterday I saw more female-female aggression in front of another one of our favoured males. Our good intentions to work this morning were foiled by some light rain (peacocks don’t do anything when their trains are wet), but hopefully I’ll see some more of this action soon.

Deep archives: Further notes from the field: deliberation, surprise and a misguided attempt

A few more things worth mentioning:

The other day we saw a female following a very interesting (and rather human-like) pattern while shopping around for a mate. She was visiting a particular male, and she’d watch him for a few moments (not always directly; it’s a good idea for females to seem as though they aren’t interested even when the are). She would start walking away and he would continue displaying; she’d make it about ten metres, stop, and then decide to go back. I watched this repeat about 4 or 5 times before she finally decided to accept that particular male. There weren’t any other males in the area that she would have been comparing on these forays, but it seemed pretty clear that something was going on in that pea-brain of hers. This is the first time I’ve noticed a female doing anything like this (at least in such an obvious way), but it’s possible that they could often make one or two of these little trips before making a decision.

Yesterday I saw one of the stickered males mate for the first time! It was one of the males with the decidedly less-conspicuous black stickers. I think this might actually be a good thing, since it means the females are at least considering the stickered males as potential mates.

And finally, I watched a peacock attempt (and manage) to mount one of the helmeted guineafowl that race around the park grounds. Hope for Penelope grows.

Deep archives: Numbers, gathered

With our first two weeks of observations behind us, I thought I’d write about what we’ve gathered so far.

Fifteen copulations, all involving unstickered males: 6 for male 30, 5 for male 42, 3 for male 31, and 1 for male 38 (this last one is most triumphant since 38 is a male with stickers on the backs of his eyespots!). The remaining 16 males haven’t achieved anything yet, but that sort of skew (with the majority of males missing out on mating entirely) is normal for peafowl.

Two males display to a feeding peahen

Two males display to an uninterested female, while she feeds on some seeds provided by park visitors. Feeding the peafowl is not allowed.

Twelve attempts to touch the birds: okay, we haven’t really been counting (and if we had, this would probably outnumber the copulations). On a daily basis we scold people who try to touch and stroke the feathers of displaying peacocks. The offending demographic is about half children, half grown women; I feel a little bad about scolding the children, but grownups should know better.

Three soundbites: the most ridiculous one from a lady looking at a peacock with his train unfurled, overheard by Rob: “Now look at that and tell me there isn’t a creator!” Irreducibly beautiful indeed. The most astute comments have come from children: a couple of them exclaimed in surprise that the peacock feathers looked just like eyes, and today one boy asked, referring to the peacock’s crest feathers, “Why does he have a mohawk?”

One attempt by a juvenile male to mate with another juvenile male, and one attempt by an adult male to mate with a human female (not me). I think the former was a case of the juvenile males being eager to practice on anything, but I’m not sure about the latter.

And sadly, no Easter treats: yesterday was the “Great Easter Egg Hunt” at the Arboretum, and even though we thought we’d have an advantage over all the children since we’d be arriving when the treats were still being hidden, we failed to turn up anything. We also had to cut the morning short since all the commotion was impinging on lek activities.

As for Penelope, she’s staying in for now. Since there are real females about, I think a better use of our time is to get a handle on their preferences; I’ll bring Penelope out for round two in about a week or so.

Deep archives: The joys (and pains) of number-gathering

One of the best things about biology is that it means you might get to work outdoors. This is especially wonderful when it involves heading somewhere warm, or at least somewhere warmer than home.

But field work in evolutionary biology is fraught with difficulties; it’s not all “binoculars and gorillas” as David Quammen has said (he’s one of my favourite nonfiction writers, and well worth looking into if you haven’t heard of him already). Field work can be lonely and uncomfortable, often horribly so, and is almost always tedious.

Field work has taught me what it feels like to sleep in a house where the scorpions outnumber the people. It has taught me the psychological terror of infestation with tiny biting mites that give you new welts daily, when other people working in the same environment receive not a single bite. It has taught me that I’m willing to wear my pants tucked into my socks, and keep them that way even if it includes a stop at the grocery store on the way home from work. But it has also taught me that most bugs really aren’t anything to be afraid of, and that not having to worry about what other people think can be a luxury.

As for the tedium, coming to terms with that is another thing entirely. As Quammen puts it, raw number-gathering can be dull even for the biologist with the “soul of a mathematician”, and the risk of boredom is one that will certainly increase with time. Absence of scorpions, centipedes, and tropical diseases in California aside, I still have to contend with the painful task of sitting still for hours and watching, even when the birds aren’t doing anything. I realize now that this kind of prolonged tedium is not unique to field work (perhaps it’s a defining characteristic of graduate research in general).

During the more inactive lek watches, I get myself through by thinking about what I’m going to eat for lunch, write in my next letter home, or do when I get back to Kingston. My friend Mike has described his endless hours of microscopy (for his Master’s research) as intellectually unstimulating yet strangely rewarding. I find the same is true of number-gathering in the field. As boring as it can be, I enjoy the fact that it gives me a chance think about the things I’m looking forward to in the future as well as reflect on those that I’m lucky to have now.

There’s one final difficulty – this is one that I fear more than centipedes, and still haven’t figured out how to reconcile. I’ll let Quammen describe it since he does it so well:

Besides tedium and reductionism, snakebite and dysentary, one other danger faces the biological fieldworker. This one is so large and scary, so terrifyingly amorphous, that it’s best described in the negative: lack of validity. Are you really measuring what you think you’re measuring? Are you really counting what you think you’re counting? Are you really therefore proving what you claim to be proving? Or possibly not? Maybe you’re rowing like hell but your oars aren’t in the water.

Quantification must be meaningful as well as precise, and the assumptions by which number are linked to biological realities must be correct. If so, you have not only precision but validity. If not, you’re wasting your time. Does the number of rings in a tree trunk really represent years of age? In most cases, yes. Does the number of wolf sightings in Glacier National Park really represent the current wolf population in that area? Possibly. Does the number of UFO stories in The National Enquirer, this year compared with last year, really represent the trend in visits by alien spacecraft? Uh, maybe not. Mathematized meaning, like any other kind, can be illusory.

I think I’ll make it mandatory reading for future field assistants.

David Quammen. 2000. “Certainty and Doubt in Baja” in The boilerplate rhino: Nature in the eye of the beholder. Simon & Schuster.

Deep archives: A discovery

I learned something exciting the other day: apparently the satellite view in Google Maps has enough resolution for me to map out the precise display territories of individual peacocks. What’s more, this is as true for Winnipeg as it is for Los Angeles.

Upon realizing this, I spent the afternoon obsessively gathering co-ordinates for the 39 peacocks I’ve come to know intimately over the past year, and then using them to work out the relative distances between the different male territories on each lek.

I thought I’d mention it here in case this turned out to be useful for anyone currently planning their field work – I guess the nice thing about my study species is that the habitat is open and surrounded by easily distinguished man-made things!

Anyways, I told Charlie how excited I was about this internet discovery, and happily, he understood.

ps. We went for a walk in the mountains north of Los Angeles (near Palmdale) the other day while visiting some more of Rob’s relatives, and it snowed! And then, a couple of hours later, it hailed! California is fantastic.

Deep archives: Penelope rolls out

Our first week of observations done, and we’ve already seen one copulation! Watching birds for hours on end at the Arboretum has actually proved to be quite enjoyable, due to the pleasant setting and perfect weather (apart from the fact that I’ve come down with a cold).

This post, however, will be about Penelope. Smuggled into Canada by Charlie, resurrected by Vanya, and given wheels with Charlie’s help again (see picture of driving practice here), Penelope is a stuffed peahen that I’m hoping to use for some behavioural experiments.

Eager to see what she could do, I whipped her out a couple of weeks ago when we were in the midst of catching and banding males (hoping that maybe she would entice some of our more difficult captures). Here’s a picture of her debut; it’s worth clicking on it and zooming in to see the peacock poking his head out from behind the pink chimney:

Penelope experiences some initial skepticism

(Photo credit: Rob Ewart)

Although the experience was hilarious, I found Penelope’s overall performance to be lacking. She inspired far more curiosity than lust on the part of the two males tested so far. Both stared intently and moved a little closer, but didn’t make a move. This could be due at least three things: (i) the unusual appearance of her wheels, (ii) her abnormal plumage colour (she was an injured bird from a farm that breeds birds with colour mutations, so she doesn’t quite look like a normal peahen), or (iii) her lack of grace/movement. We gave her another chance without the motorized base and got the same result, but there’s still no way to distinguish between (ii) and (iii) at this point.

I’m not giving up on Penelope yet. There were a lot of real, moving females around on that day, and the peacocks weren’t making any efforts towards them either . As the season progresses, the males should grow more restless (read: desperate), no doubt increasing her chance of success.

Deep archives: Eyeful or eyesore?

Experimental peacock

One of the main reasons for coming to California this year is that I’m doing an experiment to understand how peahens choose their mates. Specifically, I’m testing whether the colour of the males’ eyespot feathers is important.

My methods? Hundreds of coloured stickers, cut from sheets of sail tape.

The good news is the sail tape seems to work – most of the stickers stay on the feathers, and, since they’re so light, they don’t seem to have any effect on how easy it is for the males to display their tails.

I have a couple of treatment groups: control males with no stickers, males with black stickers (like the rather unlucky one pictured above; compare him to the male pictured here), and males with white stickers…

Experimental peacock

Everyone at the Arboretum wants to know what we’ve been finding. I have to shrug when they ask me – it will take many hours of observation over the next few weeks before I can say whether the black/white treatments have any effect on the females (we haven’t seen a single copulation yet). One thing I didn’t anticipate is the extent to which the white dots manage to captivate human observers. The black dots, on the other hand, don’t even get noticed by people. My guess is that the peahens won’t be so oblivious.

ps. The new header photograph of mechanical birds was taken by Charlie at the MIT museum. And, for those concerned about the possible effect of the weight of the stickers [Martin], we’ve applied stickers to the backs of the feathers of a bunch of birds as well…

Experimental control

Deep archives: The opportunists

Soon, the city will be mine and Vigo’s… mainly Vigo’s.

Elephant seals trace letters on the beach

My friend Adriana recently confessed to me that, while she was enjoying this site, she’d been “skimming over the science stuff no offense”. I would like to assure her that yes, we have taken advantage of our days off here as well.

Early on, we had the good fortune of having a few visitors descend on Los Angeles from across North America: Charlie from Kingston, and Shiva and Paula driving all the way from Texas for President’s Day weekend. We saw the Getty museum and then went out for a ridiculously tasty dinner in Beverly Hills that, for the 5 of us, cost nearly what I make in a month as a grad student. At the table next to us, we noticed the Ghostbusters II actor quoted above – Jess I expect you to get this one without internet cheating!

Last week Rob and I traveled to San Francisco for a couple of days. We had been working at catching birds for 11 days straight, since I thought it would make the most sense to exhaust ourselves with catching and then take an extended break, allowing the birds time to settle down before starting observations. Rob has family in Palo Alto just a short drive away from San Francisco, so we were very lucky to have warm beds and delicious meals provided. We spent one day visiting the Monterey Aquarium (an amazing place) and one day getting a taste of San Francisco (quite literally – we visited Golden Gate Park and went for clam chowder at the waterfront before heading home). San Francisco is a beautiful city. We drove around some of the residential areas, and the houses have a lot of ingenious ways of dealing with the steep hills. I’m going to go there for another short visit on my way home to Canada in April – hopefully I’ll have more time to explore!

My favourite travel adventures seem to happen when you don’t have any expectations, and Rob and I found some of this kind of adventure on our way to San Francisco. We followed the winding route along the coastline on the way there, and happened upon a bunch of basking elephant seals on one of the beaches we passed (we only stopped because Rob was wondering what everyone else had pulled over for). Male elephant seals are 2-3 times the size of females. During the winter, they gather on the beach and fight violently over their harems. Unfortunately we were a few weeks too late to see the breeding activity: the harems were mostly rolling around, scratching themselves, yawning and tossing sand on their backs (as well as moulting and nursing a few pups, I guess). But they were still quite amazing creatures, and I was shocked at how close we were able to get (don’t worry – we kept to the path that had been marked out by an outfit called “Friends of the Elephant Seals”). The picture above is of some elephant seal wanderings, and here is one of a harem:

Elephant seal harems on the beach

Deep archives: I get my hands dirty

One thing I’ve felt a little bad about here is the amount of shit, literally, that my field assistant Rob has had to deal with. He’s the one who has to hold each peacock still in his lap for about an hour while I carefully measure and apply stickers to all of their tail feathers, and he takes a hit whenever the peacocks do what any reasonable animal would do when restrained by a giant predator. And these hits happen frequently.

I realize that this kind of mess is all just part of field biology (and I tried to give Rob some advance warning to this effect). However, it’s one thing to talk about it and another thing entirely to be on the receiving end. I hope Rob was happy today when we came across a little mystery in the park that had me get my hands a little dirty as well – the mangled remains of a peacock tail, the first direct evidence of peacock predation that I’ve ever seen

The specimen had a few eyespot feathers and the longest train feathers intact, along with some of the golden-coloured lower back feathers and (brace yourself) the last few fleshy vertebrae. I dutifully checked through the train to make sure that it was not one of our banded males (we sample the longest 5 train feathers from all of them, so if this was a banded male I would have found evidence of this), and then I took all of the eyespot feathers I could find. This afternoon, I returned to the scene after realizing that I could measure the length of the tail as well. A quick check of the tape measure (101 cm) confirmed that this was definitely not one of our banded birds (all had tails well over 115 cm).

Some peacock forensics

Biology nerds might also be interested to know that the most of the eyespot feathers were missing from the tail (only the very longest and very shortest feathers were there). My guess is that the others were lost in the struggle, evidence that this bird may have indeed been caught by the tail.

Deep archives: Lek in flux

The peacocks here are fickle.

Just when we think the good stuff is about to begin, we’ll have a day where all they want to do is sleep and eat. And it doesn’t seem to be based on the weather (at least not in any simple way), since the activity level has waxed and waned over the past week despite consistently warm clear days.

The one thing we’re sure of is this: we arrived here just on the cusp of the breeding season (more or less perfect timing, although possibly a little too early). We didn’t see any males display their trains our first day, but as time wore on we saw a few opportunistic male dances (despite a lack of female interest). About a week in, we started to hear a lot more calling by males in the morning, and we saw a few more displays and a little male-male aggression. It seemed as though males were starting to establish their territories. Each morning, we’d notice them spreading a little further away from the ideal habitat around the park entrance and cafe.

One morning this week we saw five males positioned strategically around the outskirts of a the big lawn to the north of the cafe, stationary but neither feeding nor resting (which certainly suggests territorial behaviour to me). The next day, a handful of new males had spread into the staff parking lot where we process captured birds. When we brought our first catch of the day back into the shady corner of the lot for processing, one of these new males started following us. A beggar, we initially thought, until he actually started trying to attack the bird Rob had in hand. Apparently the sight of male plumage is enough to provoke an attack even if it’s suspended above the ground under the arm of a giant! We’ve solved this problem by moving our sampling station and by having me chase away the odd interrupting bird (which sometimes ends in both of us running in circles).

Most recently, we are starting to see a few males in regular territories but we still can’t tell what is going on with the bulk of them. Our strategy is to put all of our efforts into catching until the middle of next week. Then, we’ll head to San Francisco for a couple of days off and hope that things will settle down by the time we get back!

Deep archives: Advanced moves

A follow-up to my previous post:

The other day, we were back at the Arboretum in the afternoon to catch birds during the second active time for peafowl (the birds like to get things done in the early morning and late afternoon, with an extended siesta between noon and 4pm). Within minutes of arriving, we’d caught our first male, but didn’t finish processing him until about 5 pm. Sunset was approaching and I didn’t think we’d have enough daylight to nab another. I headed to the bathroom to wash the peablood off of my hands and Rob went to check on our most recent capture, with the understanding that we’d meet back at the car in a few minutes and head home.

On my way back from the bathroom, Rob emerged from behind some shrubbery clutching yet another peacock, this one caught singlehandedly!

As we raced to process this bird before sunset, Rob rather excitedly explained how he’d accomplished his feat. First, he grabbed the bird’s legs from behind as we normally do. Then, he spent a few moments calling out for me, and when he realized I wasn’t coming he sat and puzzled over what he had to do next: singlehandedly get the bird into the reverse position where he would be able to use his body to secure its wings without letting it go.

While I’m still not too clear on the details, I can tell you this much: it involved kicking off his sandals and using his feet.