My profession is usually pretty easy to summarize. When introducing myself, I simply state, “I’m a wildlife biologist.” Most people either smile politely or proceed to tell me about the goldfinches on their feeder (“So beautiful!”), or the albino this-or-that they saw a picture of (“Never seen a squirrel like it!”).
Unfortunately, some folk are more inquisitive than others. Extended family and neoconservatives (the Venn diagram of those two groups do not overlap) inevitably ask follow-up questions regarding what being a wildlife biologist actually entails. This doesn’t have to be so bad, except I rather enjoy rambling on ad nauseam about the ecological theory and goals of conservation biology. A brusque “I count animals and s**t” would suffice to shut down the conversation.
Instead, I natter away about dispersal distances, signal attenuation, detection probabilities, and migratory pathways. When my audience’s eyes glaze over, I panic and try to rope them back in with a topic I assume everyone will like: bird banding!
Isn’t it neat? Isn’t it grand? Are you not fascinated by the possibility of touching a creature as perfect, as marvelous as a bird? If I am fortunate, my audience will agree, and politely change the topic. All too often, they are mystified and demand justification.*
“What the hell is the point? Someone pays you to do that?” a crisp-collared young professional will declare over a glass of wine. The latter question is easy to answer (“Um…sometimes…not often enough…damn you and your 401k!”). I have tried to do justice to the former, but the role of mark-and-recapture studies for long-term population trends usually falls on deaf ears. Likewise with examples of how life-history data can combine with estimates of raw abundance to inform conservation strategies, or how banded birds can link scientists across species’ migratory pathways, fostering global research and environmentalism.
At a party last Halloween, I was in the middle of one such pedantic diatribes when a sloshed hipster put down her Solo cup, glared over her fashionably thick-rimmed glasses and slurred that “Well, nature is always f***ing changing, why should anyone care?” and then proceeded to read us the Gospel of Libertarianism according to Rand Paul.
Rather than dealing with such differences in perspective with maturity and grace, I have resolved to cease providing real explanations. Instead, I’m going to offer an anecdote from the field back in May. This story will elucidate why we should band birds.
We had just captured a male Golden-winged Warbler. Once we had its basic measurements, we lined it up on grid paper to take a series of standardized photographs of its head patterns. One of my pet projects is checking out plumage symmetry, variation, and extent of acquired vs. intrinsic pigments. But right when I got the camera focused, I noticed something. Do you see it? No? Look closer. No. I mean, closer. Now do you see? Once I noticed, I couldn’t look away. It was like some paranormal force was drawing me in… …and I was falling… …deeper… …and deeper… That’s right. That bird–and every other bird I’ve handled since–is secretly plotting the demise of all humanity. They’re Lucifer’s agents on Earth, here to drag us kicking and screaming into Hell. Don’t believe me? Then check out this Grey Catbird.
*Some people are genuinely concerned for the well-being of the birds, a sentiment I appreciate and am happy to address.