Friday, August 6, 2010

Sparrows and Blackbirds

It’s weird to be so good with a needle and a vein. This must be how phlebotomists feel, and heroin addicts. But the vein I’m working on is smaller than anything they have to deal with, it’s the vein of a newborn bird. Just days old, not even a fledgling. Naked, pink, really cute in the way babies always are, but you can’t think about it when you’re searching for their veins.

When I took the job I thought I’d be watching birds. Even though I knew research was more than that, I was not entirely aware of how much of a distance you need from them to work with them. Here’s what I’ve learned: In the name of science you have to be tough with the thing you’re studying. I can’t tell if this is how it always is, or if this is just because my boss is so old-school. Almost defiant about his dominance over nature.

So we have two jobs, taking blood samples from seaside sparrows, and taking food samples from red-wing blackbirds. Seaside sparrows are socially monogamous, and we’re taking blood samples of the couples and their young to see if they are genetically monogamous. Maybe she’s using him. Maybe she’s just playing along with her bird-equivalent-of-a-soul-mate and actually hitting it with some other sparrow on the side. Forcing this dolt to raise handsome’s babies. I don’t even have time to go into the irony of this. I’m dating my co-worker, and he’s already cheated on me. But no blood test is going to tell us once and for all if that is going to work.

We wait for the parentals to fly off, then take the baby birds and pull back a wing. I have a special, one-use-only needle that I use to prick the vein. Then I put several huge drops of blood in the vial before putting the bird back. My boss assures me that the bleeding will stop, but I don’t believe him. I can tell he thinks this is what I want to hear. We all tried to take the blood samples the first day, and I happened to be the best at it. Just one of those things. A skill I never knew existed, and one I’m not sure is transferable to many other things, except of course phlebotomy and heroin addiction. So… probably not listing this on my resume.

Then we have the red-winged blackbirds. This is my project—collecting what the adults feed their nestlings, then identifying the tiny crabs, spiders, and bugs. Sounds simple. But nothing is out here. When I signed up I never thought about how we’d get the samples.

We wait for the parents to leave the nestlings. This should be a sign, right? We’re always waiting until they are in their most helpless state. Then we take a small pipe cleaner and put it around the baby bird’s neck. Not so much to kill it, but enough to stop food from going down. Then we go back to a blind and watch. The parents come for several minutes, bringing food to their young.

In and out.

In and out.

After about 10 minutes we go back to the nest. The bird stares at us with big dark eyes. Above the pipe cleaner on its neck is a bulging mass. That’s what we’re after. We pick it up and force the bulge out, causing the bird to gag and spit up the most amazing things: fat fly larvae, tiny translucent crabs, bugs of all stripes, hairy wolf spiders. We put our booty into a labeled vial, remove the pipe cleaner and put the bird back. Now the parents can resume feeding it, and I hope against hope that this protein rich meal we stole won’t mean the death of the nestling.

That’s how it’s supposed to go. But it doesn’t always happen like that. The pipe cleaner can be too loose, or too tight. That’s what happened today, I had one that was too loose and too tight.

I am the first at the site. I go through the marsh, from one marked plot to the next: making rounds to set up the needed experiments, searching for new nests, setting up the blind, all to the intermittent sound of a clapper rail in the distance. I see my boss appear on the edge of the marsh, and then begin his walk across. It’s only a few hundred meters, but it can take thirty minutes. Everything around the marsh is supposed to be half-time. Slow as you can make it. No big movements, no loud voices. All of that will spook the birds, and you can’t do that.

You must never do that.

I go through my tasks, knowing he will be checking behind me. I focus on the samples I am taking. I set up one more blackbird. I hate not knowing if the noose—let’s just call it what it is—is too loose or too tight. I head back to the blind. He walks to my site, greets me noncommittally, and we go together to the nest. I can see the pipe cleaner was too loose immediately. No bulging pocket of critters in the bird’s neck. This little guy has been able to enjoy his breakfast. God forbid. My boss looks at me with contempt and disappointment. I blush mightily, and feel dread like a hot ball in my stomach. One failed attempt out of how many? Dozens this summer? Hundreds? Not to mention the bajillions of tiny veins I’ve opened for this guy. He acts as if I’ve ruined his life’s work. Like I may permanently threaten his career. I guess the truth is I don’t care. Well, I care, but I don’t care. I don’t care as much as he does. He picks up the nestling, tightens the pipe cleaner and turns his back to me as he approaches the blind. I follow behind, feeling like an inadequate child.

We wait without speaking. After twelve minutes we go back to the nest. I can see the bird’s unnatural posture from yards away. Conked out, like it’s taking a nap, but I know it’s not. The too-tight pipe cleaner kept the food out, yes, but also the air. I should feel triumphant, right? I proved once and for all how hard this precise balance is to achieve. hooray. for. me. There is no pleasure in being justified. Just sadness for the bird. My boss shrugs his shoulders as if this is just a typical day for him. He picks up the dead nestling, then puts it back without a word. He turns and walks on across the marsh. I turn slowly, and walk in the opposite direction, slowly picking my way through the spartina and the pickleweed. I realize this is not for me. I can’t live in a world where scaring birds is criminal but killing them is permissible.


  1. Beautiful post. My favorite part was "My boss says the bleeding will stop. I don't believe him."

    Very emotional and well written.

  2. The health care sector, particularly phlebotomy, is a very desirable industry for employment as it is not susceptible to fluctuations in the economy. Economic crises and recessions have very little or no impact on phlebotomy jobs.


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