Deep archives: How to wrangle a peacock

1. Lure them with food, fish nets at hand. Realize that peacocks, although desperately hungry and willing to come perilously close to human feeders, are not willing to present their backsides to you. Also realize that peacocks know what nets are, and are capable of learning which people are associated with food, and which are associated with nets. Begin to despair that peacocks are much better adapted than previously thought.

2. Decide that fish nets are far too inefficient. Dream up a design for a netted trap that lies flat on the ground (food placed in the middle) with handles at either end for peacock wranglers to hold. Trap has netted sides and a netted top that can be drawn closed by lines also held by the two wranglers. Once a bird is lured into the middle of the trap, wranglers can raise the net and pull it closed over the bird. Spend several days seeking out parts and building this trap using PVC piping and garden trellis netting in the junkyard behind the Arboretum green houses, only to find that peafowl are suspicious of the PVC piping and unwilling to step over it to get at the food in the centre. With a great deal of patience, manage to coax one male into the centre of the trap, but just barely miss catching him when the net is drawn closed too slowly.

3. Design two other traps: one snare for snagging the bastards’ feet with a line (complete with a pulley system to ensure extreme speed of snaring) and one remote-controlled caribiner (similarly intended to hook and grab the legs). Decide that the caribiner might present a high risk of leg injury. Discover that although the birds are wary of the snare, it can be more easily camouflaged and thus has potential.

4. After two near-captures with the snare one morning, spot a male displaying to the females who were drawn to the area by our snare bait (peanuts). Have one wrangler sneak up behind this extremely focused male in the throes of his display and grab his legs firmly from behind (note that person must overcome fear of projectile excrement first). Have the second wrangler swoop in to secure the wings.

So far we’ve managed to catch 14 adult males here using technique no. 4… and much to my relief, we are starting to see the banded males regularly in certain areas around the park. If anyone has any more suggestions for how we might go about catching these birds I’d love to hear them!

Deep archives: Let’s enjoy a wonder time

It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Los Angeles for two weeks now. Time flies when you’re trying to outsmart wily peafowl.

The best way to describe my experiences here so far would be (consistent with my history): extremely lucky. Last fall I had managed to find a furnished room for rent at a ridiculously low rate just a couple of miles from the Arboretum, but had no idea what to expect since my contact with the landlord was limited to email. When Rob and I arrived in town two weeks ago, directions in hand, we drove past a number of elaborate looking houses on the way to our rental accommodations. As we passed gated lawns adorned with fountains and statues with our destination just blocks away we were getting quite excited.

Our house, it turns out, is rather modest for the neighbourhood. Our landlord, Shih, teaches math at a local high school. She is, as Rob describes, an alarm-system enthusiast and also a collector of old newspapers and other bizarre items that fill every available cupboard and surface in our bedroom. Luckily for us she is also quite a wonderful lady; she’s fed us several times, given us gifts of crackers and towels and even granted Rob responsibility for household affairs when she went away for a few days last week.

Huge cycad in the prehistoric forests of the Los Angeles Arboretum

Our luck continued as we started our first day of work at the Los Angeles Arboretum – it may be the most idyllic place to work on peafowl conceivable. The park is full of interesting gardens and trees of exotic proportions, including some positively prehistoric looking cycads, a bamboo forest full of hidden treasures, and an orange grove (and I can assure you that the fruit is delicious). Visitors are encouraged to venture away from the paths, and when you do you often come across park benches nestled in shady out-of-the-way places that you wouldn’t have noticed otherwise. It is exactly the kind of place where I would love to bring a book and spend the entire day reading outside.

We also saw a great deal of peafowl the first day at the Arboretum- and learned from the park director that these birds are descended from two pairs imported into the area by Arcadia’s founder (J. ‘Lucky’ Baldwin) a century ago. The population has grown to over 200 and is now spread throughout the residential neighbourhoods surrounding the Arboretum. While the birds apparently range quite widely for most of the year, they descend upon the Arboretum at the start of every breeding season (which, as it turns out, is exactly now) as it provides a safe-haven for lekking.

Driving around Arcadia, you can’t help but notice evidence of peafowl as the official city mascot everywhere – from the stylized peacock that adorns all of the Arcadia street signs and the small park next door to our house, to the logos for the Arcadia chamber of commerce and golf course, to the giant peacock fountain in the large central city park, to (most hilariously) a massive peacock stained glass window over the door of one Arcadia mansion.

We spent some time exploring the residential neighbourhoods around the park, and saw plenty of peafowl lazing on the well-groomed lawns and idly crossing the streets (Arcadia has even published a pamphlet explaining how to live in harmony with these beasts, here). Unfortunately, we can’t access the suburban birds for sampling because feeding and catching peafowl is prohibited under Arcadia bylaws. However, we’ve been granted free reign of the birds on the private park property, and I’ll write more about our efforts with them soon!

Deep archives: Iridescence: From insect crystals to nature’s transformers

Iridescent cuttlefishNow that I’ve given my talk at the iridescence conference, I feel like I can relax and reflect on the last few days.

The biggest success of this trip so far was undoubtedly making it across the border. When I arrived at the airport, I was informed by a rather sour US customs lady that because I didn’t already have a return ticket, she didn’t have to let me into the country. This was news to me, but in retrospect my story that I was a grad student attending a conference and then traveling indefinitely in California probably wasn’t the best choice. Customs lady expressed her disbelief, handed my passport back to me in a bright yellow folder and directed me to take my warning-beacon folder into a special room for suspicious types. I was terrified that she would would somehow find and confiscate the stuffed peahen or any of the other bizarre (but critical) items in my suitcase full of field equipment. Somehow, however, I was able to get by without having to provide any more details about my plans. As for the peahen, I waited until I was settled into my Arizona hotel room before anxiously opening the suitcase to survey the damage. I’m relieved to report that she survived the trip without confiscation or serious injury. Although she does look a little worse for wear I’m confident that the males will still find her an acceptable target.

The conference has been amazing – I’ve heard talks from the world’s experts on the physics, development, evolution, and behavioural display of nanostructural colours in animals. The very first talk was on ways to manufacture macro-scale versions of the colour-producing nanostructues found in butterflies, and then use microwaves to measure optical properties of these models in a scaled-up way. The advantage of this technique is that it lets you get around the problems of performing accurate optical experiments with very small things (such as single butterfly scales).

I’ve also heard about how to model the optical properties of animal nanostructures, how to improve my goniometer for feather colour measurements, how insects build crystal-like cuticular nanostructures with exquisite control at the cellular level, and how some butterflies are similar to peacocks in terms of orienting themselves for optimal reflectance of their iridescent wing colours during display flights. We’ve had serious discussions about the developmental differences between “squishies” (vertebrates) and “crunchies” (arthropods), the meaning of the word “crystal”, and the use of dark framing around bright colours in both art and animals.

By far the most interesting talks, however, were about work from the Hanlon lab on the cuttlefish colours. Cephalopods have evolved an incredible ability to control the hue, patterning and texture of their skin – including what one speaker referred to as “changeable iridescence” – for use in predation and camouflage as well as in conspicuous signaling. Cuttlefish skin contains a base layer of bright blue-green iridophores covered by a layer of pigment sacs called chromatophores. All of these structures are laced together in a network of muscle cells allowing the cephalopods to actively control their appearance by essentially expanding or contracting the sacs of colour. Amazingly, the iridophores can reflect polarized signals that cuttlefish can perceive but that predators cannot. By producing this polarized iridescence from beneath the layer of pigmented chromatophores these animals can accomplish camouflage and signalling simultaneously. For those interested in camouflage, I’ve also learned that a number of sea creatures produce a countershading effect by producing iridescence or even bioluminescence on the undersides of their bodies.

Apart from the mystery font-size changes and video problems on the conference laptop, my talk went tremendously well. I managed to draw a crowd of questioners afterwards and received a great deal of feedback (and encouragement) – sweet. Time to start worrying about how to draw a crowd of peacocks instead.

Deep archives: A trip to the Bronx

Paul J. Rainey Memorial Gates

From February 2, 2008

On Wednesday morning I rolled out of bed at 5:45 am (not as difficult for me as you might think) to drive to the Bronx Zoo for a brief visit. I’ve been corresponding with the curator of birds there for some time. She had approved my research proposal this fall and wanted me to see the peafowl and the layout of the zoo, to decide whether sampling the birds there would be feasible. Unfortunately for me I had no idea when we arranged this visit that Wednesday would bring a terrible snow/freezing rain/wind storm to upstate New York. I also had no idea that Americans are so terrible at keeping their roads salted; as soon as I crossed the border the roads went from pleasantly wet to treacherous and covered in solid sheets of ice. Happily for me there weren’t many cars on the road or I surely would have gotten in at least one accident; less happily, the drive from the border to Syracuse (normally 1.5 hours) took about 3.

I had arranged to meet Chris Sheppard (the curator) at 2 or 3 pm so that she could show me around the zoo before taking me to the ‘Tree Tops’ apartment, the accommodations for researchers on the zoo grounds where I would spend the night. Already running behind due to ice, I hit heavy traffic coming into the Bronx on the George Washington Bridge (making a 6 hour drive take 9, but feel like 12). And so, when I arrived at the zoo at 5 pm it was of course closed: the sun was setting, staff were leaving, and the rather high-strung security guard at the gate had no idea what to do with me. Already tired, nervous and frustrated about being so late, it didn’t help my state of mind that he sent me into the park shouting bizarre instructions to “only talk to Mary Evans”, implying to me that I’d be in serious danger if I spoke to anyone lurking about who wasn’t Mary Evans.

Unable to find Mary Evans, I was quite close to giving up and going to find a hotel in Connecticut when I ran into a lady who turned out to be the head of education at the zoo. She gave me some directions and the entry code to the Zoo administrative buildings (!) where eventually I managed to get in touch with Chris Sheppard, and find out how to get to Tree Tops. This is honestly the first time I’ve ever really thought I needed a cell phone (but in retrospect, if I had only taken someone along with me on the trip I probably would have had access to one).

Thursday morning I was scheduled for a guided tour of the top peafowl haunts in the park with a zookeeper at 7 am, who of course didn’t show up. Again, a cell phone may have helped here. However, I did manage to find a tour guide within the hour: Mark was a keeper with the bird department who habitually drives around the zoo in a green truck, throwing food at the birds from the windows and occasionally getting out to spread it around on the ground (standard zoo practice, I swear). Seeing the birds in the winter was quite a new experience for me: unlike the breeding season, they hand out in large mixed-sex groups and are so desperate for food that females are just as bold as males about approaching food sources (i.e. people). I learned a number of other useful and interesting things on this venture that made the stress of the previous day worthwhile:

  • The birds had learned that the green truck = food, as they started approaching it even before we began to feed them. Hopefully we can exploit this in California.
  • There are two kinds of nets we could use to catch them: a fine-meshed net would likely be most humane, but for difficult birds we might want to use what Mark called a “tangler”.
  • The Bronx males frequently attack shiny vehicles and mirrored objects quite viciously. I had heard of similar things before in news stories like this one from last year, but didn’t know how common they were (note that peacocks can also be on the receiving end of attacks).
  • Another amusing tidbit is that the zoo has place 3 reflective spheres in Astor court in an attempt to attract peacocks, with the idea of making the lawn more beautiful for visitors. Instead, they ended up with one male who hangs out there and habitually injures his feet while attacking the spheres, leaving blood on them, and a bunch of children with burned fingers in the summer.
  • Peafowl LOVE peanuts, even in the shell. They literally come running for them.

After this excitement, I returned to the zoo administrative buildings to meet with Chris and a few of the other curators to discuss how feasible it would be for me to catch/observe the Bronx birds given the accessibility of their favourite places. I was left with the feeling that unbeknownst to me this meeting was actually an interview; the use of words like “corpuscular” being one clue. In any case, I think I passed, since the curators seemed quite positive and excited about the prospects for future peafowl research.

Deep Archives: Reason for being

From February 1, 2008

Hello! And welcome to my internet peacock log (= klog?). In a couple of days I am heading out to California, where I will study the mating behaviour of large population of peafowl at the Los Angeles Arboretum. On the way there I will stop in sunny Arizona for a conference on iridescent animal colours called (entertainingly enough), “Iridescence: More than meets the eye”. Much to my surprise, I will not be the one traveling furthest to attend this conference. Apparently biologists and physicists from as far away as Japan and Australia will be there to discuss all sorts of iridescent bugs, birds and even cuttlefish.

In the kind of biology I’m interested in, understanding the raison d’etre or adaptive function of a trait is often the end goal. The raison d’etre for this site is that it will let me keep friends, lab-mates and fellow students up-to-date on my travels and [mis]adventures, scientific and otherwise. I also hope that posting regularly will help me defeat any lingering tendency for procrastination when it comes to writing, especially since the dreaded thesis-writing looms.

More to come!