Vampire Finches and the Quirky World of #AwesomeBirds
Meet Dr. Dan Baldassarre, Birder and Evolutionary Biologist
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Here’s your weekly missive. We have a fun one today. A few weeks ago, I was sitting on the fourth-floor deck of my Philadelphia rowhome. It’s in the heart of the city, and it’s probably the last place you’d think about watching birds. But, thanks to a few trees and shrubs I planted there in my desperate attempt at foliage, it’s attracted a few winged visitors. Sipping my coffee, I watched them hop about the branches and listened to their chirp-chirp-chirps. And frankly, I was mesmerized.
Now, I’ve always been a skeptic of the whole world of birders. From movies like The Big Year to the ruminations of Jonathan Franzen, I knew people loved the pursuit and were downright fanatical about it, but I still didn’t get it. I love the outdoors. Hiking in the woods is a weekly outing for me, and I’ve had some of my best father/daughter conversations on the trail. My eldest even made me a coffee mug that says, “To more hikes.” Yet traveling about the countryside with binoculars and a field guide in the hopes of identifying some rarely sighted woodpecker struck me as simply odd behavior.
Then I started watching those birds every morning, their elaborate swoops down from the sky, the trills of their voices. It got me thinking about birders and then the professional study of birds, and soon enough I was trolling around to find an ornithologist to interview. This is what I love about this newsletter. It gives me this opportunity to follow my curiosity. Thanks for reading and humoring me in my endeavors.
Soon after these daily observations, I found Dan Baldassarre on Twitter. He goes by the handle @evornithology. He looked thirty-five-something, and his icon is a portrait shot with a thick beehive of black hair and big orange sunglasses. His biography says he is an assistant professor at SUNY Oswego, and his opinions were not representative of the NY state government. I liked him already.
His posts, like the Top Ten Sexiest Birds, were tremendous. He also ran a video series called #AwesomeBirds. They typically show him tramping through the brush, toothpick in mouth, and sporting a Boston Red Sox cap. He has a permanent five o’clock shadow. After a few seconds, he stops, angles his head, and gets this wide-eyed look as a bird sings. Without even turning to spy on the feathered culprit, he tells you what kind of bird it is and a few fascinating details. His excitement borders on the giddy. I reached out to him that same day.
Meet Dan Baldassarre, Birder and Evolutionary Biologist (he’s an alliterative triple-threat!)
In 2015, a freshly minted Ph.D., Dan traveled down to the Galapagos Islands, the Valhalla of evolutionary biology. On this archipelago of volcanic islands six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador, a young naturalist named Charles Darwin studied various finches and tortoises in 1835. His observations would inspire his theory of natural selection and shake the foundations of science.
Dan was there to study the bizarre behavior of a particular species of bird that exists only on a pair of remote islands in the already remote Galapagos. Called the vampire finch, these tiny birds drink the blood of other larger birds, especially boobies.
“It’s a very, very weird thing for birds to do,” Dan says. “They essentially act like giant mosquitoes. They jump on these boobies, usually in an inaccessible place like around the base of the tail, peck these fairly significant holes in their skin, and drink their blood. They go to town on them. That’s fascinating. They’re probably the only species that sort of intentionally creates wounds in other animals to drink their blood.
This suggests some unique set of circumstances had to arise for this to be a good strategy for this bird. And so you can look at that in an evolutionary context and ask why would natural selection create that behavior? How does it work? What sort of things do these finches need to be able to do that? What characteristics do they have that other birds don’t have? So I spent a couple of years trying to answer those questions in the field.”
As a postdoctoral researcher, Dan was gung-ho to be dropped anywhere on the planet to do his work. The two islands, Darwin and Wolf, where he landed were inhospitable at best. They were basically just the tippy-tops of volcanoes, no more than a square mile of land mass together. Government regulations forbid staying overnight on the islands, forcing Dan and his fellow researchers to live on “glorified fishing boats” anchored off their coastline. The seas were rarely calm, and since they were constantly moving from boat-to-zodiac-to-land-to-zodiac-to-boat, it was almost impossible for Dan to get his sea legs. He puked his guts out almost every day. Worse, when traveling at night between the islands in stormy waters, he feared falling overboard, knowing the captain would not realize he was gone until it was too late.
“Oh my God, it was miserable,” he recalls. “But also an incredible privilege to make landfall on these islands. There are probably a few dozen people who have spent time there, ever. More fun still, there are no natural mammalian predators out there, and you can just walk up to these finches and pick them up. One day, on February 15, we realized it was the naturalist’s birthday and had this quiet realization that we were on Darwin Island, catching Darwin’s finches, on Darwin’s birthday, carrying on his legacy. That was a really, really cool feeling.”
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For weeks, Dan would live on a boat and zodiac onto the islands during the day to gather every bit of data that he could about the vampire finches. He and the team spent a lot of time catching the birds, measuring and examining them, and taking blood samples for genetic testing. They also performed a lot of behavioral observation, which essentially meant sitting on a rock, watching the finches, and taking notes on their activities. In particular, they wanted to know how much time they spent drinking blood as opposed to eating other things. As part of this research, they also surveyed the islands to quantify what, if any, amounts of standing fresh water were available to the finches (very little) and the kinds of vegetation that grew on the land (it was mostly barren ground, especially during the dry season).
The harsh environment, they concluded, definitely played a role in their adaptation to drink blood. There was hardly anything else for them to eat or drink on these tiny, specks of volcanic land amidst the ocean. “It turns out they have a very specific size and shape to their beaks that their close relatives don’t have. Natural selection has acted on these finches so that they are better able to poke open these holes and get these blood meals. We also found that if you look at a microscopic level at what’s going on inside their bodies, they have very unique bacterias in their guts that help them break down and consume blood.” Dan pauses and then excitedly says, “There’s still a ton that we have to learn them.”
Dan is a testament to the old saying, “The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” His parents Eileen and Guy met while working on a wildlife project together in graduate school. Both were “naturalist, outdoorsy types.” For 25 years, the first Dr. Baldassarre was a professor of waterfowl ecology and field ornithology at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY ESF) in Syracuse. His interests, as he once detailed, were “family, friends, and birds—that’s about it.” Shortly before dying of complications from leukemia in 2012, Guy completed a revision of a two-volume study called Ducks, Geese, and Swans of North America. In his field, it is the authority on the subject.
On a 30-acre stretch of land south of Syracuse, Dan and his brother Adam basically grew up outside. “My Dad just wanted to be in the woods all the time.” Most summers, they would live in a lakeside cabin at a SUNY field station in the Adirondacks where Guy taught classes. The two young Baldassarres would canoe about the lake and tramp through the forests, often on their own. The connection with nature was ever present. “I remember paddling up to beaver dams and the beavers would slap the water and splash us. I remember walking down this hiking path and a hawk of some sort (thinking back, it was probably a Cooper’s Hawk) swooping down and snagging some little bird off the path in front of us. I remember coming across a fawn in a field and getting so close that I could almost touch it.”
Guy was not your stodgy academic in tweed. As his son recalls, he was “more of a blue-collar sort…He just had this natural gift of being so excited and passionate about the outdoors and birds in particular, that it rubbed off on anybody that was within range of him.” From an early age, Dan absorbed everything he could about nature from his Dad and in his own reading. He devoured magazines like Ranger Rick until graduating to books like ecologist Aldo Leopold’s classic A Sand County Almanac. Dan was thirteen when he read that cornerstone text on conservation.
By college, Dan was committed to studying science. “My father was an applied ornithologist. His research and work were always about conserving bird populations, and figuring out what kind of things land managers and policymakers can do to preserve imperiled species. At Syracuse University, I quickly became fascinated by evolutionary biology. That is where the fork in the road came with my father. I was just enthralled by the basic science.”
This set Dan on a different scientific path than his father, but it was still all about birds. “What I’m interested in is how and why birds evolve. The great geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky famously said, ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.’ So anybody who works with living creatures is pretty much doing evolutionary biology. I study how birds change over time and specifically how evolution shapes their behavior. How and why have they evolved to do the things they do. What benefits do these behaviors give them, why have they adapted, and why do these adaptations persist. I especially love to study seemingly weird behaviors by birds.”
Without prompt, Dan launches into two other field research projects he’s performed. The first was a project in Australia studying fairywrens. “These really cool little insectivorous birds that have promiscuous mating systems. The male and female are what we call socially monogamous. So in a social sense, they look like they are paired with each other; they hang out with each other; they raise babies together. But if you look throughout the population genetically, 60 to 70% of the babies are fathered by somebody other than the male who's there taking care of them. That’s fascinating.
Then there’s the Phainopepla, which does something that few other birds do: itinerant breeding—or double breeding. Most migratory birds go down to, for example, South America for the winter, then come back north to breed in the summer. These songbirds breed twice in two different places with different habitats before cycling back down for the winter. Why did they do that? How were they able to have that flexibility? What I came to realize is they are an informative case study on how birds might be able to deal with uncertain futures. If we care about birds and trying to keep as many of them on the planet as we can, we want to know how they can deal with climate change. That’s the window that Phainopeplas opened up.”
Dan pauses as if something is coming to him. “This research bridged the gap between the behavioral sort of basic science that interests me with what my Dad would have asked about these same birds.”
For a spell, Dan turns serious. His once omnipresent grin disappears, his tone turns dour, and the words come out with the cadence of an indictment.
“Climate change is what we would call a selective pressure, right? It's something acting on these birds. Selective pressures happen all the time: a new predator moves into the area, birds have to adapt to deal with that; or, if the ice sheet recedes, as it did at the end of the Pleistocene age, birds responded to this in an evolutionary way.
The problem is the pace at which we are changing the environment is so much greater than what most birds can respond to on an evolutionary timescale, one that’s measured in millions of years. In most cases, birds can’t evolve rapidly enough to cope with climate change. Look at mountainous ecosystems. A lot of the research on birds and the effects of a warming planet has focused on the Andes Mountains in South America. If you’re a bird who has adapted to a high-altitude system over thousands of generations, you like it relatively cool. Climate change is making that nice cool zone where you want to live higher and higher in elevation. So, birds have literally been pushed off the top of these mountains to find this zone. It’s been termed the “escalator to extinction” because there is nowhere left for them to go. Several birds have gone extinct for this very reason.
A naive person might argue, ‘Why can’t they just evolve to deal with warmer temperatures?’ Well, we’re talking about an ecological shift that has happened over dozens of years, not millions, and birds just can’t keep up. It is a profoundly sad thing, but these trends are not unique to birds. This is happening to all sorts of creatures.
My role, as a scientist, is to study these birds and bring evidence to people and say, ‘This is actually happening. This bird used to be here. Now it’s gone.’ We’re not some crazed activists, shouting and screaming with no evidence. We are researchers providing real data to people. This is not a matter of belief or political opinion.”
More and more, Dan is taking over the mantle of his father, especially as a teacher. Time and again during our interview, he makes two things clear. First, he feels like he’s won the lottery by being able to do a job that he loves. Second, guiding his students at SUNY Oswego is now his predominant focus rather than field research. Being an evangelist for birders works seamlessly with the latter.
“Not all ornithologists are birders,” Dan says. “And not all birders are ornithologists. That’s fine. They’re both incredibly valuable and worthy pursuits. I came to the science of birds before birding as a hobby, but if you’re going to get your students enthusiastic about birds and their behavior, then it can’t be all data points and learning anatomy. I devote much of my time getting students outside on field trips, and watching birds. It has to be fun and something that ignites their curiosity.”
As part of making this connection, Dan promises his students that by the end of the semester, they’ll be able to identify 75 species of birds by ear. Most think he’s spent a little too much time alone in the woods. He tells them to trust him, then he begins in on his lesson.
“The first thing you want to do is to get a sense of what to expect. There are 11,000 bird species on the planet, but in a specific area, whether it’s around our university campus or in your backyard, there’s only a small percentage that are likely to be found there. That’s where field guides or a birding app like Merlin comes in handy. You can punch in your location, and it’ll reduce the set of birds down to the common ones. Then, it comes down to how to identify a particular bird visually. What are its main colors? It is the size of a sparrow or a crow? That will further reduce the subset. What habitat is it in?
As for identifying a bird by the sounds that it makes, one of the most helpful things is to learn a mnemonic device for different vocalizations. Most birds sound like they’re trying to say something. When a Yellow Warbler sings, it kind of sounds like ‘sweet, sweet, sweet, sugary treat.” Once you make that connection in your brain, it’s amazing how easy it is to pick out a Yellow Warbler sight unseen. Open up your ears, listen, and you’ll start to hear patterns.”
By semester’s end, most of his students are struck by their ability to identify birds around campus. “I’ve seen it a million times.” Dan smiles. “It’s not heart surgery or astrophysics or some magical power. It’s really something anybody can do, and you can start in your backyard. The barrier to entry is very low.”
The skill of identifying birds by sound is much more than a parlor trick for Dan, and in his explanation, he makes clear the attraction to birding for many people—and why he loves making his #AwesomeBirds videos to spread the gospel.
“It’s about being in tune with nature. It’s about providing an intimate connection to whatever place you’re in. So you can get dropped anywhere in the world, and if you want to get your bearings, you can listen to the birds. I can walk into a particular habitat and say I’ll bet I’ll hear that bird. It ties me to this place. It’s kind of like being able to speak a language in a foreign country. If you go to France, and you can’t speak French, you’ll be disoriented and nervous. But if you can, you’ll be comfortable and able to implant yourself more easily. Speaking bird, well, not literally, provides the same thing, whether in a forest, jungle, or cityscape.”
Etceteras for Dr. Dan Baldassarre
What was your first job? A janitor at the local church, scrubbing toilets and mopping floors
What’s your favorite curse word? ‘Shit,’ in the context of something didn’t work. Like, ‘Shit the bird bounced off the net again.’
What turns you on creatively, spiritually, or emotionally? Music. My Dad passed away in 2012. I realized a lot that a lot of the bands I like he exposed them to me when we were in the car together.
What turns you off? Anything administrative.
If you were reincarnated as a bird, which one would it be? The Harpy Eagle has always been my favorite bird. It’s this massive, massive predatory eagle in South America. They have talons the size of a grizzly bear’s, and they pull monkeys and sloths off the treetops. Definitely top of the food chain. Nobody messes with them.
Favorite joke? Two fish are in a tank. One looks to the other and asks, “Hey, do you know how to drive this thing?”
What other work would you like to do? A carpenter. I’d like to build things with my hands or something.
What’s your best quality as an ornithologist? Connecting with my students. It’s what I value most now. And that came from my Dad. He was just a consummate teacher and educator, and I just try to fill those shoes.
What’s your dream of happiness? Having a house out in the country with some land and a pond. Being on the back porch with my wife and my kid and listening to birds.
If heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you're at the pearly gates? You thought I wasn’t real. Well, ha-ha.
Outtakes from our Conversation
“A little silver lining from people being stuck at home during COVID has been them getting an appreciation for local birds. We’re happy to have you in the flock.”
“When I'm out in the field, I just am very appreciative of getting paid to do what I love, watching birds, getting windows into their lives, and learning these things that nobody else knows. You definitely have those blissful moments. But this is also the way I make my living, it's a job as well. There are stresses and deadlines, papers that have to be published, and data that have to be collected. Sometimes everything's going great, and the birds are cooperating, and they're where they're supposed to be, and you're catching them. And then other days, it's a nightmare, the weather's terrible, and you can't find the birds, or you're trying to catch them and you can't.”
“On the most basic level, the definition of success for me is the pursuit of knowledge and all the potential doors that can open, all these unintended things that can come from learning more about our world, understanding why birds do what they do, and how they fit into the tree of life. More and more though, it’s how I can instill a passion for birds in my students and why they’re important and why we should study them.”
“Climate change feels like a no-brainer. It seems like something that people should care about, but there are a lot of people who don’t have strong connections to nature and it’s so far removed from things that they consider important. I’m not saying they’re evil people who are like ‘screw the birds’ but they have other priorities.”
“One of the reasons I like doing these #AwesomeBirds videos is it forces me to stop thinking about data points and research. For a moment, I can take a deep breath and just appreciate the birds for what they are—they’re beautiful—and that’s just a lot of fun.” Here’s one of his videos!
Here’s a very good curation of the latest and greatest online. Every Friday, the Weekly Filet delivers a selection of great things to read, watch and listen to. If you like to see the world and yourself from new perspectives, this newsletter is for you. Sign up here.
Finally, I’ll leave you with some #LifeCraft from a favorite author of mine, Dennis Lehane: “Happiness doesn't lie in conspicuous consumption and the relentless amassing of useless crap. Happiness lies in the person sitting beside you and your ability to talk to them. Happiness is clear-headed human interaction and empathy. Happiness is home. And home is not a house-home is a mythological concept. It is a state of mind. A place of communion and unconditional love. It is where, when you cross its threshold, you finally feel at peace.”
Have a nice day,
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