Scientific objectivity goes out the window when an ecologist is caught out in the rain with a small songbird.
Field Trials is a regular column in which early-career researchers recount the unexpected highs and lows of collecting data.
I knew him by four letters: NSMN. Each letter in his name represented one of the coloured bands we put on his legs: N for noir or black, S for silver, M for mauve and N for black again. He was an adult male superb fairy-wren (Malurus cyaneus).
These small, delightful songbirds, found across south-eastern Australia, are among our most recognisable species, often seen hopping around urban parks and backyards in pursuit of insects. Males, during their breeding season, have especially vibrant blue and black plumage that they use to impress neighbouring females and attain extra-pair matings. Back in 2012, our research group launched a long-term monitoring project, keeping tabs on hundreds of wild fairy-wrens — including their reproduction, behaviour and survival — on a reserve in Victoria, Australia.
I first met NSMN on April 23, 2012. He was tangled in our mist-net: an 18-metre wall of thin mesh that we erected in the hope that fairy-wrens would fly into it. I quickly set to work getting him free, usually a simple task that takes less than minute. Holding his body delicately, I tried to coax the thin mesh over each of his wings, but this bird had done an especially fine job of writhing himself into knots.
While I struggled with the extraction, our woes compounded thanks to a heavy rainstorm that reached our field site sooner than expected. I tried to lean over NSMN to keep him dry, but he got as soaked as I did. The wetter things got, the more difficult it became to manoeuvre the mesh around his legs and wings. Eventually, we cut our losses and snipped him out of the net with a pair of scissors, a last-ditch option. NSMN looked gone: eyes closed, motionless and barely breathing at this stage.
But we weren’t going to give up so easily. While my colleague held NSMN to his mouth and blew hot air over him, I hopped onto my field bicycle and peddled faster, I think, than I ever have in my life. I returned to the site with my car, and we thrust the wet bird in front of the car heater. He looked dead in my hands, but I kept him there. Finally, NSMN started to move — slowly at first, and then he began struggling in my hands. He looked ridiculous, with his grey feathers all fluffed up with warm air. When I took him outside and set him on the ground, he disappeared before I could even follow him with my eyes.
Whether NSMN would survive his ordeal, I couldn’t tell for sure. Months went by, and he didn’t show up in our regular sighting records. Male fairy-wrens spent most of their lives in a single area, so, if we couldn’t find him, the likeliest explanation was that he was dead. I felt awful. Field researchers interfere — it’s what we have to do, really, to collect data — but I didn’t want to be responsible for this little bird’s fate. Eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that maybe we’d never know if he was still out there.
In hindsight, I should never have doubted the bird’s resilience. Nearly a year later, NSMN made a remarkable comeback at our field site, reappearing in our sighting records happy, healthy and with plenty to say.
And so my favourite fairy-wren lived on to fight another day: to breed, to raise a family and to commit adultery as many times as he wants. It doesn’t matter how many birds I have handled in the years since, this plucky male is often in my thoughts.
Edited by Deborah Kane