A bird’s life, and the life of a birder

Far too long has it been since I last updated my online journal – the only journal of any kind that I keep these days. My job with the DNR started on June 4, and I have been driving across western Minnesota (3200 miles total) from the 11th until today, with really only one free day (my birthday) during that time. Surveys started at 5:10 am every morning and ran until about 9-9:30, which meant that I had to be awake by 3:45 and on the road by 4:00 some mornings. My body never really adapted well to that schedule – despite my 8 pm bedtime I still found myself falling asleep around noon. That schedule, combined with the traveling and sleeping in a different bed every night, made the last three weeks feel more like three months.

But…it was the first time in my life I have been paid to watch birds, so that has to count for something! When I was planning to go into ecology, I always hoped this day would come, and now that it has I am not exactly sure how I feel about it. This job ranks fairly high compared to my previous endeavors, higher than endless days of futile lynx habitat surveys and much higher than 90-degree buckthorn chainsawing and weed spraying. Better too than marmot research, though the social life and mountains in Colorado more than made up for the tedium of behavioral research. Higher too than packing homeopathic mints, though that job did provide the satisfaction of concrete accomplishment at the end of the day. Lower perhaps than the time I spent researching and producing the Arb guide, because that endeavor provided both the satisfaction of working with nature and providing a needed and appreciated product to interested people.

My job was specifically to conduct 10-minute point-counts on high-quality native prairies throughout western Minnesota. At first I felt some anxiety due to my relative inexperience and the need to identify all species correctly by sight and sound. As the season progressed, I learned some new birds and grew more confident, so this anxiety decreased. Some of the smaller sites could get boring, with only a few species of birds present and most of the ten minutes spent waiting and swatting mosquitoes. The larger prairies provided much more diversity, and I often spent the entire ten minutes recording upland sandpipers, prairie chickens, sandhill cranes, marbled godwits, snipes, chestnut-collared longspurs, grasshopper sparrows, Le Conte’s sparrows, clay-colored sparrows, savannah sparrows, song sparrows, swamp sparrows, yellowthroats, yellow warblers, bobolinks, red-winged blackbirds, cowbirds, catbirds, brown thrashers, sedge wrens, marsh wrens, and the occasional hawk, oriole, or cuckoo. So on those days the time passed quickly, and I was grateful for the opportunity to spend time at these places – and to get paid for it!

But now my days in the field are done, and I can’t say that I feel uplifted, energized, or otherwise high on life. Partly that may be due to a lack of sleep and the loneliness of three weeks spent mostly by myself on the road. But even the surveys, though they do bring some joy and a fast way to pass the time, do not really feel fulfilling. I have noticed this before in scientific work, though I always went back for more, thinking that since I loved nature and I loved science, I ought to love doing science in nature. But the problem here seems to be that I love nature and science in different and highly incompatible ways. I love nature in a very spiritual and aesthetic way, so that when I walk in a prairie and encounter a bobolink, I don’t check off the proper field marks and put a tick mark next to “bobolink” on my list. Rather, I experience the moment, marvel at the beauty of this creature, while simultaneously smelling the air, feeling the breeze, and otherwise taking in the whole of my present experience. I identify the creature as a bobolink, but only as a means to put a label on my experience, as I might label mountains in a picture. Science, on the other hand, necessarily deconstructs the whole in order to view the parts, and hence the bobolink in context becomes an isolated male bobolink at a distance of 25-50 meters, actively engaged in territorial behavior. It is as if the picture is removed and only the labels remain.

At first, I thought it would be possible for me to experience the whole while recording the labels, thus earning a living and contributing to science while spending a large proportion of my life having the experience of nature that I have come to value. I no longer believe this is possible. There is something about the scientific approach, and the alert mental state required to detect and record accurate data, that is antithetical to the relaxed, open, experiencing mental state required for me to feel the sense of joy and connection that I so value. Bird banding would seem to provide a counterexample, since it effectively brought me “closer to the birds” in a meaningful way. However, it is only the volunteer net-tenders like me who have this experience. Our only task was to extract the birds safely and transport them to the banding station. This left us free to have our own experience of nature, both as we worked with the birds and as we waited between net runs. The bander, by contrast, is a scientist, taking wing measurements, estimating age, weighing each bird, etc., and thus the bander cannot have the same experience in the same frame of mind.

And so it is that I have spent so much time doing fieldwork, always adding to my life’s repertoire of travels and experiences yet never coming away with the same kind of treasured memories that I acquired on backpacking trips or other unconstrained voyages into nonhuman nature. The work has generally been tolerable-to-enjoyable and certainly preferable to most alternative summer jobs (e.g. foodservice, yuck!), but I no longer feel that my life’s path lies in that direction.

Of course, fieldwork is only a quarter of an ecologist’s year. The rest is spent analyzing data, writing reports, and interacting with the scientific establishment through the onerous necessities of grant proposals and peer review. Every job has its less-exciting parts, but in this phase it is most important to value the goals and objectives of the research, and unfortunately I find that I often have little enthusiasm for the goals and objectives of field research. For this critique to be adequate, I must first divide ecology into two categories: applied conservation research and pure/theoretical research. The latter I can quickly write off as uninteresting to me, simply because while I enjoy reading about mating behaviors and evolutionary histories, I have no desire to devote any large fraction of my time to understanding when exactly the warbler and tanager lineages diverged in the past or why young male bluebirds sometimes spend the winter with their parents. Conservation research, on the other hand, can be both essential and engaging. For example, now that we have discovered that large numbers of birds die in collisions with communications towers, we have reason to find ways to mitigate the damage, such as changing tower light colors and patterns to keep birds away. Here, however, I find that I quickly run up against the corporate machine and am forced to be satisfied with suboptimal and in some cases ineffective mitigation. What if, as appears likely, towers kill birds no matter how we light them? Or what if, as appears to be the case in Wyoming, limiting gas drilling to the winter months fails to stem precipitous declines of sage grouse and other species? Conservation researchers and land managers, it seems, often fight a losing battle, and the need right now is not for more conservation science (we know enough in many cases) but for less habitat destruction, less human consumption, and alternative energy sources that are neither polluting nor land-intensive.

My second problem with conservation-oriented research goes back to the disconnect between science and experience or science and spirituality that I mentioned above. We can spend five years and several hundred thousand dollars to determine that, on average, upland sandpipers only breed successfully on quality short-grass prairie parcels larger than 813 acres in size, or we can tune into the consciousness of the sandpipers and ask them what they need, or at the very least attune our senses when we are out there and come to the anecdotal but extremely obvious conclusions that a) upland sandpipers only inhabit large prairies, and b) upland sandpipers in larger prairies raise more babies. I cannot personally communicate with nature in such a spiritual sense, but I am familiar with some who can, and I would rather leave such learning to them than extract dry, meaningless data from the natural world, run statistics on the data, and then claim to have a better understanding of how the natural world works.

As I write this, I wonder whether I am simply trying to justify to myself my change of path, but my words do ring true. My next endeavor is to apply the methods and technologies of science toward working with life to create an alternative and abundant source of energy. This can seem a bit draconian as well, since I didn’t really ask the algae if they wanted to be engineered and raised in test tubes. But I also hope to work with the consciousness of the algae and the earth in some way, and to ultimately allow these algae to reproduce themselves millions of times, which has to be a good thing from an algal perspective 🙂

I also, at times, wonder if science is really for me when I see people more fully engaged in a nonscientific relationship with the natural world, such as Lily at her permaculture community or those working in organic farming. I too want to soak naked in hot springs and hot tubs, to drum around Solstice fires, to eat vegetables from my own garden, and to feel in tune with nature’s cycles. But I also feel that to give up science would be to deny myself the intellectual challenge I desire and to make poor use of my abilities to comprehend and create in the scientific fields. Perhaps I can be a hippie genetic engineer. I don’t know any of those, but I don’t really see the need to fit into a mold either. We shall see what the future brings, but at this point I can say with some confidence that I am ready to leave the science of ecology behind, at least as a career path.

The immediate future is somewhat more certain: I will be entering bird data in the computer for most of the next week and a half, during which time I will be based in St. Paul. This Sunday I am heading down to Carleton to hang out with my friend Aaron and possibly go canoeing if CANOE house was so generous as to leave their canoes unlocked like they did a few years ago.

Happy 4th of July to all who read this far. Go buy some fireworks and marshmallows!

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