INSIDE THE GREENHOUSE | Re-telling climate change stories

Outside Lanzhou - Our First Birds!


Rebecca Safran

We headed out of the big city of Lanzhou to a very small rural village, about an hour’s drive away. The hotel we are staying at seems quite improbable: excellent food at any time of day for less than $20 for our group of four for more than you could hope to eat. Tall glass mugs are filled with all kinds of tea leaves and fruits and lychee nuts with hot water steeped over top to make the most incredible tea you can imagine! Then, large thermoses filled with hot water follow you everywhere to keep your mug hot and the tea flowing. After scouting out the village for several hours mid-day we saw dozens of barn swallows. Several people remembered seeing Sheela and greeted her with a giggle: indeed, it is a crazy thing that we’ve come back all this way! So: what are we doing here anyway? I thought you’d never ask!

We’re doing fieldwork in the Hexi Corridor of China in hopes of recovering geolocator tags that were attached to barn swallows across a transect of the Gansu Province in July 2016.  Liz Scordato identified a hybrid zone in this location during her second visit to China in 2014; Sheela Turbek came back to this region last summer to place geolocator tags on birds in hopes of sorting out which migratory routes individuals are taking to their non-breeding locations and if birds on either end of the hybrid zone take different routes, as the stable isotope data would suggest.  Sheela and I are here to retrace her steps from last summer and to hopefully recapture the birds she placed geolocator tags on. This might seem crazy (and well, it is) but anywhere we study barn swallows we have learned that they typically go back to the same breeding location year and after year for their entire short lives as breeding adults. We were banking on the same to be true of the birds in China as well.  Our first day out in the small village was both frustrating and thrilling. Frustrating: we need to find a needle in a haystack and this means talking to local villagers and asking permission to go back into their homes to recapture their barn swallows. Thankfully, this is old hat for Liu Yu so walking from nearly door to door and talking to the locals is part of the work we’ve been doing in China for the past four years. And most people were extremely welcoming -  offering water and food and inviting us inside their courtyards.

The homes of the villages we are working in are built in the traditional Chinese style: a beautiful door and decorated entrance opens into a small sitting room which then opens into a beautiful courtyard where vegetable gardens are growing. There are small rooms that open to the courtyard inside: bedrooms, simple kitchens, and a living room. There is no apparent plumbing but people have televisions and cell phones!

Our first day out was a day of knocking on doors and trying to explain our situation. Foreigners stand out quite a lot here so several people recognized Sheela right away and greeted us warmly. That was mostly what we experienced but not always. Barn swallows are a sign of good luck and good fortune so people want their birds to not only breed in their homes but to keep them happy. They are extremely proud of their barn swallows. To convince them that our work will not only be quick but harmless takes some doing. Again, we are grateful for Liu Yu’s ability here. As he explains what we are doing in Mandarin, Sheela and I stand by smiling and yes, feeling a bit strange that we have absolutely no idea what is being said.

By the end of our first day out we had talked to dozens of landowners with invitations to return at dusk to catch birds. We even caught a few birds here and there. We came back to our lodge where dinner was prepared for us: steaming bowls of fresh noodle soup, a dish with mushrooms and long beans, eggs with onions, eggplant and peppers, tea. We ate our fill, gathered our gear and walked again ten minutes up the road to try our luck. The mood was a bit low – we had seen dozens of barn swallows during the day but none had the metal bands on their legs that Sheela placed last year. We were warmly greeted at the first house we went to, set up our net and within about ten minutes of our arrival had the breeding male and female in our net. Unbelievably, the female had one of the tags Sheela had placed 11 months earlier…! We tried to contain our excitement as we were invited inside the living quarters to process the birds in hand (e.g., collect simple measurements of size, take photographs, feather and blood samples). The owners hung over us, smoking cigarettes and smiling the entire time.