The misadventures of a completely sane biologist

A scientist sometimes acquires a reputation as eccentric and quirky. Think Einstein or a mad chemist with wild hair and a large grin. Animal biologists, however, are usually fairly normal. I wake up each morning, put my clothes on, eat breakfast, make up bird puns, and talk with stuffed owls named Maximus and Gandalf the Gray just like everyone else. After checking my plans with my eagle calendar, I spend some time reading scripture and writing down thoughts in a rainforest animals journal. I then walk outside to sing a duet with a mockingbird before heading off to the army depot for my master’s research on American Kestrels.



A few days ago, when I was chasing down kestrels, I came across a turtle in the middle of the road. I immediately sped up and ran over the creature so that I could make some turtle soup for dinner. Before animal lovers start raging against me, I want to note that I did not let anything go to waste. The shell was used as a bowl and the feet were diced up, stuffed with caramel, covered with chocolate, and thrown into ice cream. Okay, okay, you got me. I stopped to give the turtle a lift to the other side of the road. I tried taking a picture with my phone, but the little twerp stuck his head inside the shell. After leaving the area, I muttered out loud to myself “That would have been a better picture if its head had been cut off”. Before you question my sanity, I actually meant to say, “if its head had been out”. See? I’m completely sane. Nothing strange about talking to yourself out loud about a turtle on an army depot.


Mmm . . . turtle tracks!

During my observations of American Kestrels, many creatures have conspired against me to ruin my experiments. The behavioral experiments I’m performing take about 10 minutes if you count set-up time. You have to take into account the need to drive to the different sites as well. So if I’m in the field for 4 hours, I should be able to finish at least 8 experiments, right? HAHAHAHA! You have a better chance of getting struck by lightning and gaining superpowers while riding on the back of a flying shark in the Sahara Desert. One day I drove almost 40 miles and spent over 4 hours at the depot searching for kestrels. Because they were acting skittish and flying around, I completed a grand total of 2 experiments and was literally running across the chigger-infested fields with joy. Some of the kestrels flew to areas that I couldn’t access because of barbed wire fences. Other kestrels would taunt me by flying back and forth across a large field while I tried chasing them while carrying a video camera with a tripod, a metal pole, and a stuffed bird.

American kestrel male with wings outstreched

The bane of my existence

The kestrel weren’t the only ones messing up my experiments. Often times I’ll be halfway through an experiment watching a kestrel perched on a powerline, and a car will drive by and scare the kestrel off. Sometimes large trucks drive down the road and scare multiple kestrels away. Does the army really think whatever they’re doing is more important than my experiments? Ridiculous. Besides automobiles, other birds sometimes distract the kestrels. Occasionally a kestrel will notice a Red-tailed Hawk perched nearby and start an aerial pursuit. Kestrels are much smaller than Red-tails, but they still dive-bomb them and give out alarm calls, which means they are not available for my experiments. Other times I’ve watched as blackbirds harass a kestrel until it flies away. I’ve also seen mockingbirds and swallows dive-bomb kestrels. Today a kestrel that often eludes me was peacefully perched on a telephone pole, when a Black Vulture swooped down and bullied the kestrel off the perch. I’m trying to learn about nature, but nature keeps getting in the way. Stupid nature.

American black vulture sunbathing with spread wings

The army finds other ways to frustrate my efforts as well. A few days ago, I needed to get a full day of work in, but several areas were closed off due to a training exercise. I could technically access the areas, but there was too much traffic being routed near the kestrels and so I didn’t do any experiments. Today I was watching a group of fledglings hunt from a powerline, when a helicopter flew overhead and scared the kestrels into the blowing wind. Cars, trucks, helicopters, people, hawks, blackbirds, mockingbirds, and swallows have all caused me frustration. Oh, and I haven’t even talked about the weather yet. Gusts of wind also messed me up today and other times the rain keeps me away.

At least I haven’t come close to being shot down by an army plane yet. When I was working in Indiana a few years ago, the army had decided to do training missions with planes one day without informing the head biologist. I was walking through the woods when I received a call from my teammate telling me to get to the car quickly. At least someone had realized we were in the woods and warned us before the strafing run. I suppose the story would be more exciting if I had played dodgebullet with the planes and narrowly escaped with my life.

Well, it’s time for me to start dinner and try to fix the stuffed birds used in my experiments. The Cooper’s Hawk keeps losing its head, the Sharp-shinned Hawk has a tear in its left wing, and the female kestrels is about to lose her legs. By the grace of God, I’ll continue to sing with the birds and focus on the good, like the fact that I wasn’t attacked by the coyote that approached me today. God’s creation is awesome and I’m glad to have a part in taking care of it! Tomorrow I’ll be off to conquer more challenges and watch my cool kestrels!

American kestrel with kill


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