Improvising

Remember those nice models I so lovingly and carefully crafted in the museum workshop? They totally don’t work. At all. When we tried placing them on nearby branches and playing recorded calls, (a technique that often works well with monogamous territorial birds), not only do the male Red-capped Manakins seldom respond to the sound, but when they do, they come over to search for the source and completely ignore the model. I can see them thinking to themselves, “Is he here? Maybe over here? I know, I’ll check behind this utterly unconvincing model of a bird…”

As I wrote before, I had a hunch that this was going to happen, so I sent an admittedly panicky message to our inimitable collections manager at Yale, Kristof Zyskowski, looking for options. Perhaps if models didn’t work, the birds would respond to taxidermy specimens that are sure to at least have all the right feathers and colors. Amazingly, he dug around in the collection and managed to find an old specimen of a male Red-capped Manakin that had no data associated with it. No-data specimens are nice to look at, but of very limited use for museum science, so with my advisor’s blessing (he’s the curator of ornithology) we arranged to have it transported down to Costa Rica with Frank. As one can imagine, this requires quite a bit of paperwork, and I am eternally grateful to Kristof for taking care of it, among all the other things I am eternally grateful to Kristof for. Based on the specimen’s condition and the style of its preparation, I think it may have started its life as part of a display of curiosities in some late 19th or early 20th century wealthy person’s parlor. That’s pretty neat, and would explain the lack of any data.

In another amazing stroke of luck, I also managed to get my hands on a specimen of a female red-cap! A few years ago, a researcher that has been coming to La Selva station for a long time named Kim Smiley decided to start what she dubbed an “accidental museum.” She began telling everyone to bring to her any dead animals they found so she could prepare them for the nascent collection. The lab manager at La Selva seems to have been traumatized by the stinky sloth carcasses being prepared in the lab area, but the specimens look really great, and now they are used in local education and outreach programs.

As a result of this effort to collect dead stuff, I was able to do some digging in the freezer and found a female Red-capped Manakin in excellent condition that had been unfortunately killed upon hitting a window the year before. With Kim’s permission, I was allowed to take it out to use for my project. I’ve never been so excited to find a dead bird!

Of course a stiff century-old museum study-skin and a frozen dead bird do not convincing models make. They needed to be turned into “taxidermy mounts”- made to look like living birds. While I have experience preparing bird skins for museum collections, this was my first foray into the art of creating lifelike specimens as if for display. The main differences between a study-skin that just lies on its back and a taxidermy mount are glass eyes and some sort of internal wire structure that lets you pose the bird in an appropriate way. Michael Anderson, Yale Peabody Museum Preparator, gave me some helpful tips over email, but for the most part I had to wing it (pun intended).

Here’s a little bit of the process: (warning, a couple of the pictures are a little yucky)

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I think they turned out pretty well! Not too shabby for my first try.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have any extra glass eyes, so it was with a heavy heart that I was forced to dig the eyes out of the original models.

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In parallel, Frank and I began inventing new ways to get the models onto high tree branches without the aid of a ladder or some sort of stick that might disturb the birds’ behavior. This was a ton of fun, and we developed a simple contraption that I think is a pretty slick solution. It lets us get a specimen up to an arbitrarily high branch, and even gives us the ability to wiggle it around a little bit for lifelike movement effects! Here’s a demo of Prototype Mark II:


Armed with our new fancy taxidermy models and patent-pending elevation system, we were really excited to give these a whirl in the field. However, I am very sad to report that our streak of bad luck continued and the birds once again spurned our efforts. They either just don’t recognize the models as birds, or they DO recognize them as the kind of creepy zombie birds that I suppose they are, in which case I don’t blame them for not interacting with them socially. It may be that it’s like bringing a storefront mannequin to a nightclub- it shares lots of attributes with a real human, but you wouldn’t expect any guys to try to take her home. Incredibly, these sorts of models do in fact work on many species of birds, and it’s a shame they are insufficient for C. mentalis.

BUT we’re not done yet- without models to help us we’ve just got to do things the old-fashioned way, waiting for natural behavior to present itself. One thing we want to know is how much time out of the day the males spend socializing with one another as opposed to sitting alone, foraging, or displaying for females. How important is social interaction in the life of a Red-capped Manakin? This will be key for comparing with the behavior of the Golden-headed Manakins in Ecuador. We have been studying the birds’ patterns of movement and behavior, and finally we started collecting the time-budget data. We went through many iterations while working out the methods- here’s a test of the voice-recorder method on a particularly slow afternoon:

La Selva Radio 4

We eventually settled on a method were we sample a focal male bird’s behavior at two-minute intervals for one hour. Frank keeps time and I write down the data so someone always has eyes on our guy. We decided this is better than recording by voice mostly since it removes the necessity of post-processing the data and combing through all our nonsense.

In the meantime, we were invited by Paul Foster, director of the nearby Reserva Ecológica Bijagual, to come check out that site. We continue to be concerned about the seeming lack of abundance of the Red-capped Manakins at La Selva, so we were interested to see if we could increase our sample by adding another site. Additionally, Bijagual is up at slightly higher elevation (~400m as opposed to <100m at La Seva) and we were curious if that would lend itself to higher abundance of our birds and therefore more opportunities. The reserve is absolutely beautiful, and had a wonderful time trekking around nearly the entire trail network with Paul hunting for manakins. We managed to find six more potential lek sites, certainly more concentrated within the suitable old-growth habitat than at La Selva, but that habitat was pretty restricted, with much of the reserve being managed secondary growth or formerly selectively logged. All things considered, it seems like it would indeed be a reasonable option for augmenting our sample from La Selva.

I have since managed to find two additional busy leks at La Selva, but I still do not have very many, even with the birds from Bijagual. At this juncture it’s unclear how to proceed; whether to keep plugging away at what I have on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica, or attempt explore some other localities further afield if I decide I really need to sample more birds. I keep hearing rumors of a magical land brimming with manakins down in Panama, but it’s hard to know what intel is solid. I may have to check that out eventually, but if anyone reading this has any more info, I’d be happy to hear it!

This kind of natural history research is difficult because the sample sizes are necessarily small, but that doesn’t mean the questions aren’t worth asking, or that the work isn’t worth doing. With the exception of the non-functioning models, my time in Costa Rica has largely been a success- I found the birds, demonstrated that they are possible (in fact, pretty easy) to catch, established that with practice they can be followed and observed, and ironed out some methods for observation. We also managed to get a pretty decent amount of video data that will allow us to make detailed descriptions of the male-male display interactions. If I can figure out how to convert the files appropriately, I’ll post some little examples.

Things have been pretty busy, and actually, as I write this post now, I am sitting in a hostel looking out over beautiful Quito, Ecuador. We said our goodbyes to La Selva on Monday the 23rd, having had a wonderful time and having so far managed to avoid the bullet ant’s vengeful jungle sting (but not without some close calls!). I want to thank everyone I crossed paths with there for their friendship, kindness and generosity. Hopefully I’ll be headed back there to do some more work soon!

The boat for Tiputini Biodiversity Station (my next site in the Amazon region of Ecuador) only runs on Mondays and Fridays, so I have been forced to take a break here in Quito for a couple days. The rest is welcome- I’m super exhausted from the work so far, and I have to get energized to chase the Golden-headed Manakins when the time comes!

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View from the terrace at The Secret Garden Hostel in Quito

Got One!

IMG_3793Actually, four (so far)! When I left you guys last time, I had finally found some decent male group display (“lek”) sites. I decided that, since confirming the birds are actually here, to switch gears and focus on figuring out how to capture them. Since I am interested in discovering how the males’ social behavior relates to their tendency to interfere with female mating decisions, I need to know who’s who on the lek. Not being a Manakin myself, I can’t reliably tell the difference between individuals, so I have to mark them in some way. For me, this meant coaxing them into finely-woven “mistnets,” carefully disentangling them, and placing little colored bands on their ankles. Red-capped Manakins display at about 5 meters or more above the ground, and the standard mistnet is about 3 meters high, so this task was another potentially significant hurdle in terms of the success of the project.

It turns out the way around this difficulty involved lots of patience and careful attention, which I am quickly learning is apparently the way with most things in this kind of work. When I first found the leks, the behavior of the birds was completely overwhelming. Based on what I had read and heard about, I was expecting males to have well-defined territories that would be easy to spot and map out. What I got was lots of confusing flitting around, with multiple males all up in each other’s business, displaying on numerous perches, then disappearing for long stretches of time. Sometimes a male would favor one area for a bit, then fly off and hang around a tree 50 meters away instead.

When I was younger, my parents got me one of those awesome photomosaic jigsaw puzzles. The final composite image was of a space-shuttle launch, made up of tiny space-related thumbnails. I was so excited to put it together, and then I opened the box and dumped out the pieces. Uh-oh. My first day on the lek felt a lot like that.

After a little freak-out and some encouragement from my extremely wise and level-headed girlfriend (check out her amazing fieldwork blog here where she most recently had audience with Prince William!), I went back to the same site every day for four days straight, and simply watched. I spent most daylight hours (minus those spent sitting and being forcefully reminded why it’s called a “rain”-forest) just following the guys around, watching where they go, where they like to sit. While they jump around a lot, Red-capped Manakins are actually a fairly conservative bunch, and definitely have favorite spots and ways of getting to them. These spots include display branches, but also little melastome berry bushes, their favorite food. Additionally, the system seems to be more fluid among the males, but becomes a bit more rigid when a female arrives on the scene. Suddenly all the males being displaying in earnest, revealing which branch is particularly theirs, and calling, attempting to convince her to come check out what he’s got going on in terms of dance moves. Lastly (and really luckily), it seems that while the males like to perch rather high up, they often swoop down low when they travel between areas.

All this intelligence-gathering led me to make relatively educated decisions about where to place my nets, and it has really paid off so far! While it sometimes takes a long time to get a net set up in the right place (I’m not allowed to cut or damage any plants inside the reserve, so I’ve been tediously peppering the forest with little bits of string, tying leaves and branches out of the way), up to now I haven’t had to wait more than about 15 minutes for my target bird to fly in.

The process of banding the birds has been a little bit stressful; while I have lots of previous experience, I’ve never felt like I knew the individuals so well before. Of course the bird is always a little unhappy about being caught and handled, even though I’m quite gentle and get it over with quickly. It’s silly, but I guess it’s a bummer that my little friends so clearly don’t like me as much as I like them!

As of now I have four birds banded and released, three adult males and one immature comprising all the residents of my current focal lek, which I have affectionately named Pink-Blue, Orange-Green, Blue-Orange, and Green-Green.IMG_3789 I can’t quite rest easy yet though, since I have yet to have a confirmed re-sighting of BO or GG. It would mean a big change in tack for the project if it turns out that capturing birds at the lek potentially causes them to abandon their territories at high rates. I can’t worry too much yet though, since the weather has been pretty bad for the last couple days and they could easily just be hunkered down. All I can do is keep going out and looking for them!

Model Organism

Now that I have a whole lek banded, our next goal is to test out some cool methods that I hope will really improve my ability to draw comparisons and get a sizable amount of data. The thing is, I want to gather reliable data on rates of disrupted courtships as well as the aggression of males towards other males and compare across species. Female visits in Manakins generally are pretty sporadic and copulations are pretty rare (as I said in an earlier installment, most males NEVER mate!). It is also difficult to account for the differences in temperament between individuals. For males, depending on the species, they rarely disturb the social order (whatever that may be or however it actually works), so it is difficult to understand what the “punishment” might be for a male who doesn’t follow the rules and respect other males’ space. Therefore, we are attempting to use model birds to try to elicit displays to fake females and aggressive reactions to fake males. This would give us the chance to control for timing and numbers of interactions and the opportunity to gather an unprecedented kind of data for this group of birds.

I use the words “our” and “we” in this case because I have just been joined yesterday by my friend and labmate Frank Stabile! He’s going to be here in Costa Rica with me helping out on the project for the next two weeks, about which I am super excited and for which I am extremely grateful.

I learned to hand-make the models we will be testing out the old-school way with significant pedagogy and guidance from Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History Preparator, artist, and amazingly cool guy Michael Anderson. I had a really fantastic time hanging out in the Peabody workshop learning these techniques, and while this would be dipping a bit into the past (as opposed to “real-time”), I thought it would be fun to use this platform to share the process and final product:

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Sadly so far the models haven’t been working super well, but we’re still figuring stuff out and trying some new things. These include super-gluing on a few actual feathers and climbing up to place the model directly on the display branch (easier said than done):

Ok, this is probably quite enough for one post. Oh, right:

Bullet Ant Update