INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE | Re-telling climate change stories

Inside and Outside of Zhangye: Kids, Candy, Chaos!


Rebecca Safran

We are getting ready to head out for another long day! Yesterday ended well, with another tag in our hand. There is a story there that includes many heavy breathing onlookers, cigarette smoke, motorcycle alarms and other chaos, but let’s just keep it simple: we got the bird!

But there were a few bumps in the road yesterday as well. Turns out there were tags placed on eleven birds in village 3, not four… so we had to backtrack a bit over there and sort out the situation. Luckily, most people are very tolerant of us and have welcomed us to their homes to set up our nets. We did locate two additional tags but one of them is on a pair that is nesting in a house that is locked for most of the day except for a few minutes in the morning, the evening and a break for lunch. This means our time will be tight and less than ideal for catching this bird. Another tag was found on a bird that is nesting in a house where the owner really doesn’t want us around. One of her neighbors helped negotiate our entry yesterday but despite a fairly detailed set of attempts on our part, no luck! That pair is not really settled in a nest yet – so they are just hard to catch! We will head back there this morning – we have a time set up to meet with the owners who are only home for a few bits of time during the day and we’ll see if we can find that other tagged bird – hopefully he has moved to another location that is happy to have us!

Fieldwork is just like this and requires a lot of patience! For those of you who know me well, patience is just not my strongest attribute. But: today I will be prepared with things to keep me feeling productive while we wait, search, wait, and wait some more (I printed out some academic articles to read during these moments and they will come in handy!).

And of course, there is the thrill of the chase and discovery which always keeps us moving forward! To me, the best part of being a scientist is learning something new every day – in our own work and also in the world at large. I am fascinated by the parallel lives of humans and barn swallows - in these small rural villages like so many around the world, both build their homes out of mud, are highly social and reliant to some degree upon their networks of neighbors for safety. And of course, the swallows follow human settlements where they build settlements of their own.

Keeping your eye on the big picture always has to be in the back of our minds as a typical day of data collection in the field is long, hot, dusty and invariably frustrating! Same goes for the lab work (minus the hot and dusty part). This morning, I’ve packed my bag with some extra candy for the kids we will encounter today and some extra spicy peanuts to keep our field crew on our feet!

Late breaking mid-day update!

We arrived to the small village around 11 am and had the tagged male in our net about 10 minutes later… we also caught his mate! We surveyed several more houses in this village and identified many more pairs and importantly, got permission to go back to catch that last tagged bird in this village, which we will do a few days from now! YES!

After a quick and simple lunch of noodles (less than $2 to feed all three of us) we are taking a mid-day break before heading out to do some catching in village 2 where nine birds were tagged last summer.

We now have nine tags with 11 months of tracking data and have spotted two more!