Tag Archives: birds

This Monday in the Life of a First-year Biology Phd Student

Before I started this round of grad school, I had no real concept of what it meant, on a lived daily basis, to be a PhD student in the sciences. Of course, schedules vary dramatically from lab to lab and discipline to discipline, and I know things will also change profoundly from quarter to quarter and year to year over the course of my own graduate career. Still, I thought I’d document, for myself and anyone else who is curious, what life currently looks like happened on this particular Monday.

  • 5:57 am: I got out of bed, got my shit together, and biked to the gym.

This quarter I’m taking a spin class, which for trademark reasons the university rec center refers to as “cardio cycling.” It meets at 7am three mornings a week, and it is the worst thing in the world.

(Actually, considering that it consists of an enthusiastic young woman yelling at you to leave everything on the bike while loud music plays and a giant fan works in concert with the ceiling lights to create a strobe effect, it’s surprising I don’t hate it more. It does hurt like hell if you’re doing it right.)

  • 8:45 am: I arrived at my office.

Ian, a 4th-year in my lab who is both one of the smartest and one of the most patient people I have ever met (not always a pair of traits that occur together), sits across a divider from me in the same office; he is typically there when I arrive, and still there when I leave. Part of this is down to personal preference/style/work-life balance, but part of it is also that life really does look very different when you’re further along in this process. On Mondays, Ian and I usually swap weekend adventures. This Saturday he led a snowshoe with a bunch of potential grad students who were here for their interview weekend, and they learned a valuable lesson about how high up in the mountains you can go out here and still get rained on.

I spent the following few hours at my desk. During this time I reviewed a bunch of lecture notes for a class on chemical communication I’m taking that meets on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. I also read three papers for an advanced ecology seminar that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays. While I read the latter, I annotated each source in Zotero, the reference manager I’m using to create a personal library of relevant scientific literature. Organizing and annotating papers is a pain, but I hear it’s something my future self will be glad I did. I hear a lot of things about how my future self will feel regarding all my current actions. I have to say—I’m not her biggest fan. She’s a little demanding.

Another thing I did this morning was send an email to a professor whose class I was interested in TA-ing for in the spring. Like most of the students in the bio program at UW, being a teaching assistant is probably how I will fund my salary most of the time. I’m guaranteed a teaching job whenever I need one for the first five years, but I won’t always get the positions I most prefer. The system of matching grad students with faculty or courses in need of TAs is so complicated and takes so long that it’s starting now for the spring, just a few weeks into winter quarter. (I heard back by the afternoon; the position was already filled with one of the professor’s own grad students. This was not surprising.)

  • 11ish am: I moved to a cafe in the Genome Sciences building, which I like because it has many large windows and feels light and open.

While I ate, I started reading this week’s discussion paper for my chemical communication class. As a result of this habit my laptop could really use a cleaning, but having lunch without doing anything else at the same time is generally a luxury saved for the weekend. (Whee!)

  • Noon: I went to the departmental seminar.

Every week, the whole biology department gets together to hear a speaker—often one of our own, but sometimes an invited guest. Today’s event was particularly neat because it was a mini-seminar in which five postdocs spoke about their work in the Pecha Kucha format. After the seminar I chatted with a few friends from my cohort; as a group, we don’t see each other as often as we used to last quarter, so Monday’s seminars are one of the few times I get to catch up with folks who aren’t in any of my classes. When we said goodbye, I went back to my office, read and responded to emails, and made some notes for my biweekly meeting with my advisor.

  • 2 pm: I met with my advisor.

Even though she’s wonderful (and wonderfully direct, which is one of the reasons I think we have had such an excellent working relationship so far), I still get a tiny bit nervous before every single one of my meetings with my advisor. Today we talked among other things about how my quarter is going and discussed a potential tweak to the project I’m planning on working on in my multivariate statistics class. The analysis will make use of a dataset from the lab’s citizen science project, and I’m excited about it, but hadn’t had a chance to talk to her about it yet because she was away when I came up with the broad strokes. She sketched on the whiteboard in her office during the discussion—something that no good meeting is complete without. (I am here to tell you from this side of the door that scientists really do love their whiteboards.)

I also confessed the relative lack of progress I’m making on figuring out a clear plan for what I’m going to do in my first field season this summer—which is not a problem yet but will be relatively soon if I don’t get over my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas and just get cracking. (I didn’t confess my fear of being the purveyor of bad scientific ideas, but if I had, I’m pretty sure she would have very kindly told me I was being an idiot.)

The last thing we did before I left her office was agree on two tasks for me to complete before our next meeting. Then she decided that wasn’t enough, so we added a third task. Good things come in threes?

  • 3:45 pm: I finished up the paper I was in the middle of reading and then headed to the bird lab at the Burke Museum.

I don’t always skin on Mondays, but one piece of advice almost everyone I’ve met in grad school has offered—even if they don’t adhere to it themselves—is to make time for doing what you love. And besides getting out to the mountains and the desert and the ocean, skinning is one of the great loves of my life. Plus, even though prepping birds has no real relation with the research I’m going to be doing, learning to skin is what started me off on the journey that brought me here in the first place. It’s a little bit sacred, and so I try to go when I feel I can spare the time. Skinning also tends to help me kick things out of my mind that have been going around and around in it, and these past few days I’ve been having a hard time letting go of a situation I screwed up recently and am ashamed of. So: space for the sacred and for sanity.

Today I skinned a female Rock Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta), one of 40 specimens from the North Slope of the Brooks Range in Alaska that the museum acquired from the Fish and Wildlife Service. She was fat and broken-winged and bloody and so molty she lost about a third of her feathers while I worked, but she was still a wonder and brought back many happy memories of her Willow Ptarmigan cousins (Lagopus lagopus) who were my camp neighbors in Alaska in 2012.

It was especially fun to prep her because she turned out to have eight developing ova inside her, including one that had started to form a shell and was likely days from being laid. I have a photo of her eggs and collapsed follicles all laid out like a red and yellow palette, but it seems kinder to show you her wing instead, in case you are also multitasking while having lunch. (Let me know if you want to see her eggs and I’ll post the photo in the comments.)

IMG_20160125_192751

 

  • 7:30 pm: I walked back from the Burke to my office to get my bike, and rode home for dinner with Ross.

After dinner I spent a few minutes cleaning half the kitchen (Ross cleaned the other half), because some rotten and frankly wholly unnecessary part of my brain seems really invested in keeping the house in good order.

  • 9:12 pm: I decided, for reasons that are now utterly obscure to me, to write this post instead of going to bed.

And here we are.

How to Cheer Your Future Self Up: A Simple 4-Step Plan

I was feeling a little rough this Tuesday afternoon. There was no real excuse for this, or at least none that I’m quite willing to accept. Classes have been going well.* I’ve never felt more secure in my goals. And Tuesday was a gorgeous December day in Seattle, crisp as a ripe Braeburn. I was staring straight at the snowy sides of Rainier above the skyline, in fact, when my feelings were at their roughest. Frankly, it takes a special kind of absorption to be unhappy while one is looking at a peak that magnificent. I won’t bore you with the specifics; I admit this embarrassing evidence of my own humanity only to tell you that a few hours later a delightful thing happened that cheered me right up. And in case any of you have reason to anticipate that at some point in the future you too will be feeling a little rough in spite of mountains, I present the following simple instructions for a remedy.

• Step 1: Skin approximately 400 bird specimens for The Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
• Step 2: Wait a few years before feeling a little rough.
• Step 3: Discover that FMNH 472922—a flycatcher specimen you were responsible for prepping—helped confirm the usefulness of a novel field mark, added one new species to the list of birds whose presence has been recorded in Illinois, and enjoyed a star turn in a recent taxonomic paper by a team of ornithologists from the University of New Mexico.
• Step 4: Delight!

If you’re interested in the details of this story (you should be!) I’ll point you toward two posts by Field Museum researcher Josh Engel. Here’s Josh’s introduction to the specific flycatchers the field mark distinguishes between, and here’s his follow-up, which includes a great set of photos and points out a marvelous recent coincidence that will explain the origin of the specimen you see below.

Not FMNH 472922.

Not FMNH 472922.

I should note that Josh is terrific, and well worth following in general. He writes about odd museum-y discoveries and active scientific efforts with equal pleasure and knowledgeability. I can’t seem to find a unique address for his writing that’s more specific than the one for the Field Museum’s general blog, but this link will tell you more about Josh and point you to what he’s published most recently.

I realize, of course, that if I hadn’t prepped FMNH 472922, someone else would have—and quite possibly they’d have done a better job of it. But it’s still pretty exciting to have a first-hand proof of the mantra everyone who’s involved in a natural history collection knows: You can never predict how, or when, something will come in useful. Every specimen has the potential to one day contribute to our understanding of the world. As does every human being, no matter how sorry for herself she might occasionally feel.

* It’s taken a while, but I’m finally competent at predicting the courses of substitution and elimination reactions of alkanes! Miracle of miracles, as the tailor sang.

Five Minutes and a Hair Dryer

In the five years I’ve been skinning I’ve acquired a good many life lessons from it, which is on the one hand a surprising thing to say about the process of removing all of the soft tissue and some of the bone from a bird’s body and replacing it with cotton wool, thread, and a wooden dowel, and on the other hand entirely unsurprising, since we all learn from the things we spend our time working hard to get better at.

I thought about one of these lessons the other day, when I took these pictures:

Wet Bewick's wren

dry Bewick's wren

The photograph on the top shows a study skin of a female Bewick’s wren (Thyromanes bewickii). Underneath it is the same specimen, five minutes later. The only difference between them is the time I spent drying.

I know this doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson yet, but here it is: Embrace drying.

When a bird is wet—in life as in death—it looks like crap. The barbs and barbules that give feathers a smooth, tight weave when they’re properly preened crumple and stick together. Down turns into a kind of sludge. So for a long time I tried to avoid getting my bird’s feathers wet as I was working, even though I had to use water to keep its skin moist. I have no idea why, but I had somehow collected the ridiculous and unquestioned notion that if a study skin was going to turn out well, it had to look good all the way along.

But washing a bird really helps to remove blood, fat, and dirt from its feathers. And if you commit to the process—a wren might take five minutes to properly dry, a snowy owl upwards of an hour and a half, depending on the temperature and strength of the air stream you use—a good drying can make up for a lot of the things that might have gone wrong in skinning. Maybe you lost a bunch of feathers, or ripped the skin around the skull. A well-dried bird will look like the best version of itself it can possibly be.

If this still doesn’t sound like much of a life lesson, here is a translation: To make something beautiful, be unafraid of making something ugly first.

A corollary: Something you think is ugly might just not be finished yet. It is easy to overlook what it takes to finish.

Either way—you can’t dry what you don’t get wet.

Prep Lab Shenanigans

As most of you probably know, volunteering as a study skin preparator has been a big part of my life since 2008. I used to write a lot more about prep lab life and the birds I skinned at the Field Museum over at my old site, The Science Essayist (all those archives, by the way, are mirrored here). I realize that I haven’t said much at all about volunteering at Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, my new skinning home. Partly that’s because it took me a long time to start feeling comfortable there—something that was not at all the MVZ’s fault, and had much more to do with how close to my heart The Field was and how much I missed it.

Anyway, to make up for this lapse I thought I’d share some photos from the last year in the MVZ lab. Warning: Almost everything you see will be dead. But I did leave out the skinned mouse floating in a bucket of water.

Like hospitals, funeral homes, and graveyards, the prep labs of natural history museums tend to be workplaces where gallows humor thrives. This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

This is just sitting on the shelf above the catalog binders, data sheets, and field guides.

I think these are voles, but don't quote me on it.

I think these are voles, but don’t quote me on it.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by two of their calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

I *just today* learned how to ID white-breasted nuthatches (Sitta carolinensis) by ear, or at least by two of their many calls; they were hopping in Briones Regional Park this morning. This was the first bird I prepped for the MVZ, a beauty of a thing.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don't you love it when wrens are named for where you'll find them? So helpful. Also, don't you love wrens? They're a little bit perfect.

This is a marsh wren (Cistothorus palustris). Don’t you love it when wrens are named for where you’ll find them? So helpful. Also, don’t you love wrens? They’re a little bit perfect.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you've ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

This is a juvenile red-breasted sapsucker (Sphyrapicus ruber); if you’ve ever seen a pine tree ringed with rows and rows of neat holes, those are likely where sapsuckers have been earning their name.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

Jun Senseri is a professor of anthropology at Cal, and among other things, he studies foodways—the social, cultural, and economic context surrounding how a particular group of people make and eat food. The prep lab has been processing sheep and goat remains that Sunseri collected from indigenous communities after the animals themselves were consumed.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I'm guessing it was from the zoo. I'm also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

I do not know why we had a warthog (Phacochoerus africanus) but I’m guessing it was from the zoo. I’m also guessing it had a bit of a violent life (look at that broken tusk!). I have no guesses as to why it chose to wear that embarrassing hat.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that's the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

This is a beautiful green-tailed towhee (Pipilo chlorurus); I think this particular bird has unusually dark olive/gray plumage on its back. You can just see a hint of a brighter green—almost yellow—at the edge of the left wing, and that’s the same color in the tail that (mostly hidden on this bird) gives it its name.

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

SEA TURTLE UNDERCARRIAGE!

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

I am not sure what was going on here, but I think it had something to do with things decomposing at a particular temperature.

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can't say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I'm not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

If this looks like a hummingbird chick that was mummified in its nest, that is because that is exactly what it is. Sad, but incredibly cool. I can’t say for sure, because it came out of a freezer and I’m not sure how the museum acquired it, but if it was from around here it was probably a ruby-throated hummingbird. (Archilochus colubris).

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn't take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

These are chipmunk skulls in tiny vials. It doesn’t take much room to store a chipmunk skull, which is lucky if that is what you are studying.

That’s enough of that for now; I’ll try to tell you more about the MVZ when I can. It’s really a very special place, even if it’ll never come close to replacing the Field Museum prep lab in my heart.

*******

One of the other things keeping me busy just lately has been a 10-day virtual book tour I did to promote the new edition of my book Mountainfit. You can find links to all ten stops here; my favorites include:
— This heart-to-heart with the brilliant eclectic Sienna Latham;
— This video chat with the endlessly charming Chris Clarke;
— This Spotify playlist, hosted by book-blogger Introverted Jen, which you can enjoy whether or not you read a single page of the book; and
— This guest post on DeLene’s wonderful blog Wild Muse , about peat moss, sucking bogs, and whiskey.

Many thanks to Jason Pettus, owner of the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing, for requiring this demanding but rewarding task of all his writers, and to Lori Hettler, CCLaP’s marketing director, for scheduling all these stops.

Backyard Drama

Ross’s family is in town and we’ve been doing a bit of gallivanting, so right now I’m supposed to be stealing an hour or two to catch up on some work. But since my sister-in-law and her husband are napping in the living room, I’m working on the bed. Facing the window. Which looks out into the garden.

There is a butterfly bush right opposite the bedroom window; it’s a tall one, and the lawn chairs and round wooden table that live in the garden sit underneath its patchy shade. I have never seen a butterfly so much as look through a brochure for this plant, let alone come for a visit, but almost all of the backyard’s birdy denizens are big fans.

About 45 minutes ago, when I opened up my laptop to get started on this work of which I speak, an extremely chatty male Anna’s hummingbird and his lady companion were really having a go at it, helicoptering from cluster to cluster like purple butterfly bushes were going out of style.

He of the pair was pitty-pit-pitting away, presumably in an attempt to keep the goods for the two of them—but maybe 20 minutes after that, two Bewick’s wrens horned in on the action. You’d think they’d be able to keep things civil, share the shrub, you take the nectar, we’ll take the bugs—but no. There were some seemingly grievous hostilities going on out there for a while.

Eventually the Troglodytidae displaced the Calyptes, and all the scolding switched to a hyperactive flurry of happier whee-it, whee-it! nonsense until the wrens decided they wanted to forage on the cane chairs for some reason.

Right now the Anna’s couple is back. This time they are wisely keeping mum. The wrens have moved on, moved up: no need to turn up one’s bill at the purple trumpet vine on the garden wall, after all. A temporary harmony’s settled, and all is quiet.

But the juncoes and the towhees in the grass are still going to stay well out of it, man.

*******

Well, that attempt at labor was a flop. Looks like it’s going to be a late night.

Write, Release, Reprise

Longtime readers know that about a year ago I self-published Mountainfit, a little book of natural history essays that bloomed out of a summer’s worth of volunteer fieldwork at the beautiful Lake Ånnsjön Bird Observatory in Handöl, Sweden. It’s my very great pleasure to report that a second edition of Mountainfit is being released, this time by a small press named the Chicago Center for Literature and Publishing. Here’s the blurb from the CCLaP site:

In 2011, a tiny bird observatory in far western Sweden found itself hosting its first American volunteer, and Meera Lee Sethi found herself exactly where she wanted to be: watching great snipe court each other under the midnight sun and disturbing lemmings on her way to find a gyrfalcon nest. Mountainfit is an ecological field notebook, a keenly observed natural history of the life that sings from the birches, wheels under the clouds, and scuttles over the peat bogs of the Swedish highlands. And it is a letter, in 21 jewel-like parts, from a well-read and funny friend. Meera’s vigorous, graceful prose communicates a wry understanding of how utterly ordinary it is to long for more out of life — and how extraordinary it can feel to trust that longing. Meera’s intent was to create a book small enough to fit in your pocket and read on the train to work in the morning. It is that. But it’s also large enough to contain a mountain or two.

Publishing with CCLaP is really neat for a bunch of reasons.

1) They traffic in ebooks, but they also release incredibly beautiful, hand-bound editions of all of their titles. We used three photographs I’d taken in Sweden for the new Mountainfit.

2) You can download an ebook version of any CCLaP title for free, or you can choose to donate as much or as little as you like. This model makes me happy because it means no one is deterred from reading by a sticker price, but people who want to support the book can do so to exactly the extent that they wish. I wish I’d thought of it when I put my book up for sale on my own website last year.

3) CCLaP books are released under a Creative Commons license that allows people to translate them, convert them into new formats, or produce derivative works (like films, comic books, or art projects) as long as they don’t alter the original text or remove attributions from it. I love this part of the model, too.

The first edition of Mountainfit was never intended to reach very far. I was doing something very important to me personally: testing the idea that I could be good at working in the field, and that it would bring me a kind of joy I’d been missing. Promising to write about it was my way of committing to the experience, a means of making sure I’d reflect on what I saw without letting it slip through my fingers. My goal was to print copies for the 100 or so people who backed me on Kickstarter. (Some were friends and family, but more than half, to my surprise, turned out to be strangers who offered such affectionate, generous support that we have since become friends.)

When I finished the book, I thought it was good enough to warrant making a page on my website to sell digital copies to anyone who wanted one, but I never did much to spread the word about it. This was partly because at the time I was caught up in a tangle in my life that’s only recently come loose, and partly I was preparing to leave for another 10 weeks of fieldwork in the Alaskan wilderness (a wonderful summer that will become a second book, I hope).

Among the few things I did was try to get the book reviewed. Jason Pettus, CCLaP’s founder, was one of about three strangers I invited to read it (and the only one who followed through). I had bought and enjoyed a CCLaP book, I thought Jason’s book reviews were smart and thoughtful, and I was living in Chicago and liked the idea of being reviewed by someone in my own city.

Months after I sent him Mountainfit, Jason wrote back to tell me he loved the book, and would rather publish it than review it. And so here we are.

Please help us spread the word about this—one of my jobs as a CCLaP author is to promote my work as much as is humanly possible, something this human often finds impossible to do. But the more you’re willing to say something nice, the easier it is for me to as well. Thank you. Now go download a free copy of the book! I hope you enjoy it.

Spotted towhee by Larry McCombs

Give Thanks to Towhees

I don’t feel this way anymore, but for months after we moved from Chicago to Berkeley I had the strongest, strangest sensation of ignobility. I’d walk down a pavement lined with lavender and juniper and rosemary and sage (eight different kinds of each, plus a hundred other unrecognizable plants that looked like they’d exploded onto the street from Fantastic Planet), and instead of glorying in the amazing smells and textures all about I’d feel myself a fallen soul who’d slipped back into Eden without permit and would soon, very soon, be found out and expelled again.

I’d hike up and down sandy trails, a peerlessly beautiful landscape of water and mountain and meadow and sky rolling out before me like some kind of vision that first appeared in the teardrop of a god, and I’d think: My presence here can’t possibly be sanctioned. This place is so bright it hurts the eye, and nothing dark can be allowed to hide amidst it.

I don’t feel this way anymore partly because since then I’ve come to know the Bay Area as a real and very earthly place, and not a paradise at all—though sometimes it can feel pretty damn close. Partly, as well, my mind is very different now than it was then. It doesn’t hold as much disdain for itself, as much intolerance. I hope this means I’ll be more comfortable here as well, in this new online home I moved into and then proceeded to shut the door on. I named it Dispersal Range for a reason, after all. I am a migratory species.

But there’s a third part—even if it is a rather small one—of the how and why I’ve come to feel that northern California could really be a friend. That is, I met a native son of hers who seemed (at least at first) to also be a little bit ignoble. I met the spotted towhee.

The spotted towhee (Pipilo maculatus) is technically a New World sparrow, but it is to most other sparrows as a middle-schooler is to a second-grader—much taller, stockier, and more awkward. A large spotted towhee could weigh three times as much as a small Savannah sparrow.

Their coloring isn’t very delicate, either—they’ve got jet-black or dark brown upper halves, white bellies, swathes of rusty red on either side, and untidy splotches of white on their wings and back that give them their name. Not for this towhee the Savannah’s sweet yellow brow or crisply streaked bib. They’re handsome, I suppose, but in a coarse sort of way. They’re like the Fonz, not Remington Steele (am I giving away my age with these very early television memories? Here, I’m 34. We recall what we recall).

That was the first comfort about the spotted towhee, during those sad and rumpled days. On some I failed to lift a brush to my hair, or change out of the clothes I slept in, and so I thank the towhee for this: No noble looks.

Spotted Towhee

Picture by Larry McCombs

The second comfort was its voice. I took a birding class a couple of months after we moved, and when the woman who taught it imitated the call of the ubiquitous California towhee, a cousin of old Pipilo, everyone in the room said “Oh, THAT’S the bird that drives me crazy.” Male California towhees sound like someone repeatedly hitting a triangle and then strangling it after a fraction of a second (only the birdcall is sharper, even more metallic, somehow), and they have a great deal to say.

But spotted towhees talk a lot, too, and they don’t call to mind a musical instrument. They sound like irritated cats, or a cross between a dinosaur and an insect. Or—in the words of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology—”a taut rubber band being plucked,” “a piece of paper stuck into a fan.”

In those days I could barely make a sound myself; I either stuttered and repeated myself or let achingly long pauses fall between a question and an answer. I had forgotten how to speak, it seemed like. I felt foolish. The towhee’s crazy chat was a consoling thing: No noble song.

The final comfort I have taken in these dear west coast compatriots of mine is that thing they do. Towhees will eat anything, or just about: seeds, insects, acorns, fruit. They don’t, though, like to go very high in order to get it. Instead they forage at foot level, scrabbling about like manic (well, like even more manic) squirrels.

Both California and spotted towhees do this thing where they uncover hidden food by displacing the top layer of litter on the ground in two quick hops: Once forward, to build up some momentum, and once backward, both feet rising and then raking through the dirt, pebbles, and leaves to scratch away whatever’s in the way of lunch and leave it open to their search and capture. They can (says Cornell, again) make a shallow pit a meter square like this.

Often, walking through a garden or along the Ohlone Greenway, or just sitting quietly minding my own business on a bench or lawn, I’d hear a frantic scrabbling beside me and think, based on the sound alone: Lizard? Snake? Some small, excited dog? And then a spotted towhee would buzz grumpily amid the grass, and I would see its freckly body lurching backwards like a lunatic, and know it for itself.

One of the things I said to a friend a while ago is that when things were bad, I felt globally incompetent. My body wouldn’t obey any commands, and all my parts were clumsy. I dropped things, knocked into things. Almost every movement that I made seared itself onto the mind’s film-reel, and embarrassed me. But I could look at the towhee and understand that there were creatures careless of their bodies, comfortable in the things they chose to do no matter how ridiculous it all looked from the outside. Thank you a third time for this: No noble manner, though perhaps a noble spirit.

Things are good these days, I think. I enjoy Berkeley. I’m not afraid to grab lavender leaves and crush them as I walk, like I belong here and deserve to smell this place. The views I see from trails don’t look like postcards anymore. They are beginning to seem familiar.

I still love the spotted towhee, though. I always will. You never can tell exactly what will give you what you need, can you?

*****
There are other, more pertinent things I might have told you about Pipilo maculatus, including why so many people call it the rufous towhee, and why the name towhee at all?—but I’m afraid I’m not always very pertinent.