Bird sex and bar stools

USFWS bobolink
Bobolink. US Fish & Wildlife Service photo

Long ago and far away I was a field assistant studying bobolinks for one of my Cornell professors, Tom Gavin, as an undergraduate intern. I went out each morning into dew-drenched meadows at Cornell’s Biological Field Station at Shackelton Point on Oneida Lake, and watched tiny birds that had migrated thousands of miles from their winter home in South America to nest in upstate New York. By the time I left at the end of the summer my skin was brown and my hair was blond from weeks in the sun. And although I was grateful for the experience, I knew that I would never be a field biologist – I was lousy at it. My career soon took a different path.

I was reminded of that summer earlier this year when I saw bobolinks for the first time since then. My husband and I are seasonal birders – we spend our weekend mornings each May searching out warblers, orioles, wood thrushes and more. But we never saw bobolinks, which typically nest farther north. In fact, my husband had never seen one before.

We rectified that with a trip to Canaan Valley National Wildlife Refuge in June. Canaan Valley is a high elevation valley in east-central West Virginia with a climate more like New England than central Appalachia.  There, we watched bobolinks posture noisily on fence posts to defend their territories, just as I remembered. With 30 years of hindsight, I wrote two articles exploring the implications of the research I was involved in back then: Namely, the discovery that female birds cheated on their pair-bonded mates, and what that says about human infidelity.

Want to understand the connection between bird sex and bar stools?  Check out my article for Earth Touch News here, and my piece in Pacific Standard here. You can also catch my radio interview with New Hampshire Public Radio’s Word of Mouth airing on December 1.

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