Citizen Science at Its Best

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By all accounts Stony Brook’s Purple Martin Project has been a tremendous success. We’ve seen the martin population increase two-fold this year to approximately twenty-eight birds, counting fledglings. Anyone who has walked out to the nest site has no doubt seen the playful swirling of the birds around the nesting boxes or heard their distinctive song which is easily identifiable and always memorable. With a little luck and a lot of persistence, these birds will make the trek back from South America next spring to nest here again and increase the population even more. We are already thinking of adding more gourds in anticipation of their arrival.

The success of this project is no doubt due in part to the new gourd houses we installed (thanks to the generosity of our many donors) and the inspired efforts of our Volunteer Director, Jess Watson, who solicited donations for the gourds and who put together a volunteer team to manage the nest sites. The impetus for the idea, however, came from Madeleine Linck, a retired wildlife technician who came to Stony Brook several years ago when her grand-daughter had a birthday party here.

At the time she had not moved to this area and was managing several martin colonies for Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota. When Madeleine happened to notice our martin house in the field, she saw the potential for a colony at Stony Brook and was excited that Doug, our director, was open to her helping out at a future date. This year that initial dream came to fruition, but it never would have happened without the leadership of someone like Madeleine who had the knowledge and vision and sheer tenacity to see the project through.

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Madeleine is a larger-than-life figure who commands respect immediately without ever saying a word. She rushes into a room with the look of an adventurer who has just came back from an African safari and is late for her next expedition. Her demeanor is reminiscent of accomplished women from the past who pioneered wilderness exploration or natural history studies. She has the decorum and soft-spoken wisdom of a Jane Goodall mixed with the gritty pluck of an Amelia Earhart. This is a woman who will always make her mark.

Madeleine oversaw and mentored an enthusiastic group of volunteers who, to a person, can’t say enough about their experience and, in particular, the leadership and guidance that Madeleine provided. To me, she is the story here. The volunteers cited her enthusiasm, her tremendous knowledge and patience. They touted her willingness to share, her dedication to environmentalism and land protection, her gracious manner and ability to draw upon a wealth of life experiences to illustrate a concept or drive a point home.

Last week I went out with Madeleine and two other volunteers to view the nest site and to understand their process. In simple terms Madeleine explained that “successful nesting gourds and boxes must be managed,” or else they will be subject to disease and predation. House sparrows in this area are particularly problematic and aggressive. They can overtake a nest and drive out the martins, destroying their eggs and attacking their defenseless fledglings.

The group kept very specific records of how many eggs had been laid in each box or gourd, how many had hatched and for how long, disposing of eggs that had not gestated and looking for signs of mite infestation. They also noted which sites had been taken over by house sparrows and, when appropriate, addled any unhatched eggs. When I looked into one of the gourds, I could see as many as six babies huddled around each other to preserve body heat, layered together in what looked like a dark puff pastry or souffle. In another there were five newly hatched babies, featherless and exposed, more gelatinous than distinct. Like everyone, I was amazed to see life so raw and unvarnished.

All the while Madeleine recorded the volunteers’ findings, answered any questions they might have had, and shared relevant anecdotes that were as much informative as charming. Madeleine told me, for example, that the toiletry habits of the birds can be particularly interesting. The parents actually remove the fledglings’ fecal sacs early on, but near the end of the 28 day cycle, she “had seen them actually back up in the nest and poop out the door.” She added, “You don’t want to check the houses at that time because they will sometimes get so excited they come out of the nest too early, not fully prepared to fly.”

When I sat down with Madeleine later, I learned that she had earned her Masters in Biology at Worcester State here in Massachusetts, and had worked for the Three Rivers Park District in Minnesota for nearly 25 years while her husband was teaching at the University of Minnesota. At Worcester State she concentrated her studies on the Blanding’s turtle, an endangered species, and later published the results of her work. She retired to this area because her daughter’s family lives in Foxboro and she can be close to her grand-children there. One grand-daughter in particular seems to share Madeleine’s fascination for birds, keeping a notebook of drawings and having committed to memory many of the birds’ songs.

Madeleine talked freely about the current socio-political climate in which “people may have jobs but may not be able to breathe the air.” She fears that the average person will stand by silently as the EPA is stripped of its authority and those in power demonstrate an increasingly scary disregard for the Earth. She worries that children are raised in front of monitors and tv screens and not in the outdoors, unable to understand their connection to the natural world, its diverse life-forms and shapes. “We’re all connected,” she says, “and our survival may depend on the fact that we don’t throw any of the pieces away.”

She says, in fact, that “if human beings disappeared from the Earth, it might not matter. But if insects disappeared, the whole eco-system would collapse. It would make a huge difference.” That’s how insignificant we are in the scheme of things. Her hope is “to educate, to make a difference, to open little windows.” According to the volunteers who assisted Madeleine, that’s exactly what she did for them. Listening to her, I thought, if citizen science projects are ultimately to succeed and effect worthwhile change, we might look to emulate this one.

 

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What the Catbird Heard – Part III

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“Sterling, what are you holding in your hand?!”

“It’s a squirrel, Grampy! I have it by its tail. I found it by Dinosaur Rock.” The young boy stood proudly on the path, having found his very own treasure.

“Sterling, put that down! It’s dead. It’s covered with disease and filth!”

“No, it’s not, Grampy. It looks clean and its fur feels soft. Look, you can hold it by its tail! It must be sleeping.”

“Sterling, it’s not sleeping. It’s dead. Put it down before Grammy sees you and has a fit. I want you to go inside the Nature Center and wash your hands. Right now.”

Sterling was surprised by his grandfather’s quick words, even as a dragonfly distracted him momentarily. “What if it isn’t dead, though, Grampy? I could take it to school or keep it in a box as a pet.”

“Sterling, when animals die, they get stiff like that. It’s called rigor mortis. We have to bury him.”

Rigor mortis? Grampy. What is that? I’ve never heard those words.” Sterling laughed at the silly sound the words made.

“It means ‘stiffness of death,’ I think,” his grandfather replied. “It’s Latin. When someone dies, medical examiners try to determine when rigor mortis sets in so that they know approximately when the person died.”

“People get stiff, too, Grampy? Not just animals? Why would we have to know the time? Isn’t it enough to know that someone died?” Suddenly there were so many questions.

“People are animals, too, Sterling,” his grandfather said simply, wending his way through a flock of geese.

“Gross, Grampy! We can’t be. We don’t live outside and eat berries and worms. We have houses with beds and tvs and microwaves and showers.” The birds chattered noisily now, the summer sun now peeking through the trees.

“Well, animals have houses, too, Sterling, and they may not have the same conveniences as we do, but they bathe and sleep and eat pretty much like people.”

“Grampy, if animals are like people, why don’t they talk like us?”

“I think they do talk to us, Sterling, but their language is different and we don’t always know what they’re saying. Sometimes I think they just talk among themselves. Birds are like that. And chipmunks and squirrels. They almost seem to be laughing at us.”

“Why, Grampy? What’s so funny about us?”

“I’m not saying they really are laughing, Sterling, but if they were it might be because we don’t have our priorities straight, at least in their minds.”

“I don’t know what you mean, Grampy. What are ‘priorities’?” His grandfather used such big words.

“The things we care about the most, Sterling. Animals must think all we care about is running off to work or school, driving to malls and supermarkets, talking into funny looking cell phones or plugging strange boxes into our eyes and ears. They must wonder at the endless line of people who stop off at our homes to cut our lawns or fix our pools or install appliances or even cook for us. They might wonder whose home it is!”

“Well, I think animals are the ones who are silly, Grampy. They don’t do anything but eat or sing or jump from tree to tree. All they seem to do is play.”

“I think that’s why they laugh at us, Sterling. We don’t play, at least enough. We work, just like they do, to eat or to find shelter, but for them it’s play. For us, it’s a job. We complain about having to do it.”

“Do you think animals don’t complain, Grampy?”

“I don’t know, Sterling, but it looks as though they don’t. They seem to have a gift for enjoying the present moment. It’s the one thing that most people seek, but can’t seem to find in their lives.”

Sterling thought about that for a moment and then said, “Do you think I work too much, Grampy.  Mommy tells me I have to stop playing sometimes and to come in to do my work. Can I tell her you said I don’t have to?”

“No, Sterling, sometimes you do have to come in to do your work, but what the animals seem to know is that there’s really no difference. Both are required to live. Both bring us joy and satisfaction. That’s their secret. That’s what they sing to themselves each day.”

“But I complain sometimes, Grampy. I don’t always want to go to school or help with the chores or clean my room.”

“Especially clean your room, from what I can see, Sterling!” His grandfather laughed.

“Does that mean I don’t have the gift of the moment, Grampy? I love presents.”

“I know you do. No, you have the gift. You’re curious. You ask questions. You’ll talk to anyone who wants to listen. You’re never bored. You’ll call me at night to go outside to see the moon. I think the animals could take a lesson from you!” His grandfather’s eyes glistened slightly now. The ducks frolicked wildly, perhaps in response to their early morning spectators.

“I wish I could teach this squirrel how to come back to life, Grampy. His stiffness scares me. It makes me think there’s never enough time for play, or the work we have to do.”

“You haven’t put that animal down yet? Sterling, we need to get a shovel. There should be a proper burial. I think your squirrel friend has taught you an important lesson today. We ought to be thankful for that.”