Learning to speak bird

Posted by Max Czapansky:
Ex-Microsoft employee wants to be a field biologist. Will he after his first season on Cooper Island?

COOPER ISLAND, ALASKA — The birds arrived on Tuesday, I’m writing this on Friday, and during the interval George and I have been walking the colony, taking a census of the guillemots. Which birds have returned? Where are they nesting? With whom are they pairing? We record these data points in our field notebooks, and then later compile them in the breeding bird books for 2012. Even having done this for three days, I still worry that everything in my notes is incorrect. We identify birds by reading the color bands on their legs, but what if I’ve mistaken light blue for grey? Determining nest site and partner is trickier because it requires reading the bird’s behavior. Has yellow-green-green staked his claim at site T-04 or did he just need a breather and happened to be nearby? Did green-white-orange chase light green-orange-blue to rid himself of a rival or was it a lovers’ quarrel?


Even an amateur can see these two birds aren’t getting along.

Wondering whether I’ve correctly answered these questions is a great source of anxiety. Each time I read an observation aloud I expect George to furrow his brow and tell me, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Fortunately, more often than not he instead says, “I saw the same thing earlier,” or, even better, “That was the pair that bred there last year.” This isn’t a credit to my keen observational skills; rather it’s due to simply how relatable these birds are.

It’s impossible not to fall for the guillemots. Pairs of them sit together in front of their nest sites chattering back and forth, or they take an evening stroll together. They seem so attached to each other it’s unsurprising to discover each year around 85 percent of them find their way back to their partner and home. They have other anthropomorphic qualities as well. Guillemots tend to prefer walking to flying over short distances, so one often sees dozens of what appear to be tuxedo-clad inebriates toddling around the island. And they have their pride. I saw a bird, while walking about, trip in view of potential rivals. He immediately got to his feet and charged them, as if embarrassed to be a klutz.

There are many skills beyond identifying birds for me to learn while I’m here. Soon enough George and I will be capturing birds for banding and later we will be recording egg-laying data. Hopefully the guillemots will continue taking it easy on me.

Before You Go!

Sign up to receive the latest updates from the Friends of Cooper Island.

We send occasional emails about our work during the field season. We respect your privacy.