Culvert-1, Joey-0

Joey marks and takes measurements of a male barn swallow in Boulder Co., Colorado

It was the fourth field season of my PhD and I was in the middle of the biggest experiment of my dissertation. The purpose of my research was to figure out what determines how dark melanin-based bird feathers are. Using barn swallows as a study system, I had already found that nestling color predicts adult coloration (see the paper). But we still didn’t know what caused color differences among individuals: is it genetics, environment, or some combination? To tease this apart, I was conducting a cross-fostering experiment, where we switched pairs of nestlings born in different nests to separate color differences based on genetics from differences based on parental behavior. A typical barn swallow field season is long and grueling, with lots of early mornings spent mist-netting birds at barns in the area; but because it’s essential to know the identity of the parents at a particular nest to build a pedigree for this experiment, we were also doing a lot of targeted captures after the birds had roosted for the night. And by we, I mean: me, another PhD student (Amanda Hund), and a number of undergraduate research assistants.

On this particular day in mid-June, Amanda and I had been out at a barn before first light to passively capture birds with some students. We then took a brief nap mid-morning, spent the afternoon doing behavioral observations and measuring nestlings, and went back out to capture more adults after the sun went down with a different group of students. As we arrived at our final site for the night, it was close to 2 am and Amanda and I were approaching a 23 hour field day - a rare, but not unheard of occurrence. While most barn swallows in North America are found nesting in barns or similar structures, some build their nests in culverts - a cement tunnel where a creek or bike path runs under the road. In such cases, it’s impossible to identify which birds live there without catching them.

Looks like a beautiful place to build a nest, right?!

The pair we were trying to ID had evaded us twice already and I was determined to figure out who they were. To catch birds that nest in culverts, we hold a mist-net over one of the openings while standing above the culvert, and someone walks through the culvert from the other side. Ideally, we’re able to sneak up on the birds and grab them off their nest, but if they hear us coming, they’ll fly away from us and into the mist net at the other end. So Amanda and the students get the net set up at one end and give me the signal; excited to finish up for the night and finally identify this pair, I start making my way down to the creek. I must have been moving a bit too fast, or the tread on my Chacos a bit too worn. When I stepped on the buttress of the culvert, I found loose dirt on concrete, and much like when you step on a banana peel, my feet shot out from under me and I fell into the ditch. I heard the crack and instantly knew I’d broken my arm. Nonetheless, there I was at the open end of the culvert. So I decided the only thing to do was walk through the tunnel - about 3.5’ tall and 20’ long - and I might as well try to flush the birds into the net.

 Success! Both birds hit the net and when I got to the end, I yelled up to Amanda, “We got ‘em!” After a second, I added: “And after this we need to go to the ER because I just broke my arm.” The next few minutes are a little fuzzy. Amanda wanted to get the birds out of the net, release them, and get straight to the hospital. But I insisted we write down their IDs before leaving the site. Otherwise, I just broke my arm for nothing!?! One of the students came down to get the other bird out of the net and help me up the steps and out of the creek. Amanda wrote down the USGS band numbers - luckily they were already banded and we already had blood samples (for parentage analysis) from a previous year. The students packed up the net and gear, and we booked it to the ER. Once in the car, I started to feel the pain and realized the severity of what had just happened.

I got checked in at the ER - the same ER I once took Numbat Media founder Matt Wilkins after a biking accident - and the nurse took me back. I explained what happened. “I fell into a ditch while trying to ID some birds.” (Like ya do.) He was… less than convinced. “And this happened around 2 am?” “On a Friday?” “In a college town?” “And no alcohol was involved?” “Riiiiiight.”  

While I was getting x-rays, Amanda took the students home (some were a little green after seeing the unnatural angle of my forearm). After the x-rays, the nurse gave me an IV for pain meds. He said, “I’ll be your bartender tonight and I’ll having you feeling good in no time. Just please don’t puke on my shoes.” He put the IV in my injured hand, knowing the doctor might need a port there later. But because he didn’t want to put too much pressure on my arm, blood spurted out of the needle before the line was placed. Amanda was a bit concerned about the blood when she got back!


Amanda (left) and I in the ~4:30am


The x-rays confirmed the obvious break in my radius, and indicated that my ulnar styloid had broken off - the ulnar styloid is that bump on the outside of your wrist. But before the doctor could start preparing me for the next steps, she needed to clear something up. What kind of bird was it nesting in a pot on her porch? Was it safe to water the plant, or would she disturb the bird? After deciding the bird was probably a house sparrow and she should go ahead and water the plant, she told me an orthopedic surgeon would come look at my arm and decide if I needed surgery.

The surgeon decided to set my arm and check on it in a week. To do this, they put a tourniquet around my upper arm and injected my forearm full of lidocaine. Then they fit one of those lead vests over me and put my arm in the X-Ray device to guide the bone rearrangement process. Apparently, many people vomit when they see bones being shuffled around like a handful of rocks. Not Amanda. She refused to leave and stood nearby, watching the proceedings and popping a bunch of cherries in her mouth. After getting everything set, the doctor splinted and wrapped my arm and sent me on my way. Amanda helped me gather my things and we left the hospital around 5 am.

When we got to my apartment, we realized we’d accidentally stolen the lead vest and decided it was a fitting way to end this epic day! However, Amanda’s day wasn’t quite over. She headed into the lab to spin down the blood samples we had collected earlier in the night. While in the lab, she taped one of the x-ray images of my arm to our advisor’s door with a note reading: “Culvert - 1; Joey - 0”. Of course I got a frantic call in the morning when she saw it! But I’m lab was really like a second family and for the next six weeks while I was in a cast my advisor and my lab mates brought over meals and helped me do dishes! I think Amanda even changed the sheets on my bed!

With the help of our amazing undergraduate assistants, the cross-fostering experiment was a success and I’m excited to submit the resulting manuscript soon! I’m also happy to say that three long-arm casts and two surgeries later, my arm is just about back to normal - minus an ulnar styloid.

Moral of the story: don’t do field work alone; invest in shoes with good traction; and if you study birds, no matter what the situation, someone will always ask you about the little brown bird they saw!

Back to work, netting barn swallows!