Back when I worked for an ornithologist in the swamps of northern Ohio, one of my primary jobs was nest-searching. Bird nests are intentionally cryptic and that makes them exceptionally difficult to find. Add to that the fact that our study organism was the American Goldfinch, which nests preferentially in brambles, and that our study site was in a swamp lush with poison ivy (up to my hips in places), and it made for a challenging task.
Wading through blackberry thorns, green briar, and multiflora rose from 8 am to 6 pm every day left my legs looking like someone had taken a lash to them. They still have an intricate mesh work of fine white scars that stand out across my shins.
And, though I had been resistant to poison ivy at the beginning of the summer, it wasn’t long before I became sensitized to it. At the end of the season, I was “one gigantic poison ivy blister”, according to my “hilarious” PI.
But those Goldfinch nests. Boy were they things of beauty…composed of thistle fluff and cattail down, they shone like golden pillows in the sunlight. And to find one was so rare…we searched every branch of every bush and tree across that nature reserve for weeks, a sweeping arc of field biologists on the hunt.
There were rewards for all of this effort and pain. Namely*, if you were the one to find a nest, you got to name it. It was a unique privilege, and I will tell you that when I found a nest, I glowed more than any time I received an academic award, no matter how prestigious.
Naming the nests was a game in itself. You were under a lot of pressure to come up with something clever or cute, funny and witty. Because every nest was such a precious resource, it just had to have the perfect name.
And the names told the story of how the nest was found, where it was located, or the personality of the parents. There was Hole in the Wall and Diamond in the Rough. There was Phoenix (for a nest we thought was dead that was resurrected) and A Pirate Walks into a Bar (a bad joke, because the nest was completely inaccessible). There was Powerline and Northern Shamrock and Copper.
Isn’t it funny how the simplest things can sometimes mean the most? A good name earned a guffaw from our team leader and the respect of the other field assistants (not an easy thing to win). A poor name fizzled like a bad firework. Those names were immortalized on the maps we drew out of our sites. We followed each nest, and each family of birds for months, watching as the parents mated, laid eggs, hatched and reared their young. We spent hours in bird blinds recording every move of the mother. (“3:12 pm mother gets up and looks at eggs. 3:13 pm mother sits back on eggs. 3:15 pm bird flies overhead. mother looks up.”)
We weighed the birds and recorded the colour of their plumage. Holding those little embryonic nestlings in our hands to keep them warm inevitably caused us to bond with them. In the case of a happy ending, we watched the little nestlings fledge and fly for the first time, all stubby tails and clumsy wings.
We mourned every nestling mortality as if it was our own.
*That’s a pun. Duh.