Once upon a humid summer, I worked with an ornithologist from Arkansas. He was quite the character…he had a strong southern accent, but he could put it on and take it off like his old rumpled cowboy hat. He could play the banjo and the ukelele. We drove to the field sites every day in his tiny Toyota Corolla, and let me tell you, packing five sweaty field biologists and a whole slew of mist netting and banding gear into a Toyota Corolla is no small feat, especially without air conditioning.
He would play true blue Arkansas music in that thing. The only song I remember, though, is Cool, Clear Water. This’ll give you an idea of his personality.
On top of being a very clever field biologist, he loved telling stories. Often, the stories would begin in a completely logical and credible fashion, but slowly little red flags would go up as he spoke, and they would gradually accumulate until my rapt listening gaze was transformed into a skeptical frown. So believe what you will, and I won’t be responsible.
For example, he spent some time working in Australia, looking at extra pair paternity in fairy wrens. (That’s promiscuity in the females, when there is more than one male parent of the offspring.)
Wait, do you know about fairy wrens? If you live in the UK, most of your bird names are boring, but in Oz, they have a lot of fun naming birds. There is a Lovely fairy wren, a Splendid fairy wren, a Magnificent fairy wren, a Superb fairy wren…I could go on.
It really is a splendid fairy wren. Stolen from the internet because I never could catch a photo of one: animalworld.tumblr.com
Well, this Arkansasian told us that it is difficult to mist net fairy wrens. They travel about in big groups, close to the ground. They like thick brambly bush, with lots of thorns. They are both shy and smart. All of these factors make them very difficult to catch and band.
Well, since there are a lot of invasive rabbits in Australia, they’ve been leaving these gaping rabbit holes everywhere. The kangaroos and wallabies aren’t used to them, so while hopping about, they accidentally step in them and break off their legs. Then they die, because they can’t hop away (I’m making sad cooing noises by now).
But in their skeletons, they leave these foot and ankle bones broken off perfectly, just like a boomerang, right? So we would collect these bones, and hurl them like boomerangs, and use them to shoo the flocks into the nets.
A roorang? (NB: no kangaroos were harmed in the making of this image)
At this point, my mouth hanging slightly ajar, I would stare at him for a moment. He was completely deadpan the whole time, never batted an eyelash. He would meet my gaze, nod, and say, “Whelp, better get back to work! Them goldfinches won’t catch themselves and I have a mean hankering for a Mint Julep.”