The Russian Dairy Incident (aka The hazards of spying on birds)

Liz and I, geared up for some song recording in a village 2 hours north of Moscow

Back in 2013, I did a ~5,600 mile transect of Russia with Liz Scordato for some very good science reasons which you can read about here. Besides this being a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, I wanted to record songs of three different subspecies of a particular bird for one of my dissertation projects. As many of the people we met along the way suspected (sometimes pulling our collaborators aside to warn them to "keep an eye on us")--we did go to Russia to spy. Just not on people. 

If you're not a behavioral ecologist, you probably aren't aware that there are hundreds of papers published since the 80s, from researchers around the world, which detail the mating habits of a common 20g bird: the barn swallow. This species has become a major study species for understanding the evolution of signals used for mate choice and competition, what the information content of these signals is, and how populations diverge to form new species if they start paying attention to different signals. But, despite all this work, we basically know nothing about how songs vary among populations (i.e. do all barn swallows speak the same language?) or how different song components function in mate attraction vs competition (i.e. what parts of songs do males and females pay attention to?). There are less than ten papers on barn swallow song, and only a few of them use modern analytical methods. After several years of studying barn swallow song, I can think of a few reasons this might be:

1. Barn swallow song is pretty complex, as you can see in the recording & spectrogram below. Compare to the house sparrow at right. This makes them kinda hard to analyze.

Spectrogram (time on the X (horizontal), frequency i.e. pitch on the Y (vertical) axis). Bluer traces are quiet; yellow traces are the loudest.

Spectrogram (time on the X (horizontal), frequency i.e. pitch on the Y (vertical) axis). Bluer traces are quiet; yellow traces are the loudest.

2. Barn swallows live in close-association with humans (in barns, in culverts or under awnings), and these places are NOISY! I've had my recordings interrupted by: people talking to me, a tractor driving past, horses farting, a whole herd of cattle ambling by, a rooster cawing, and even a military helicopter (but that's a different story). Once a woman in Turkey saw that I was trying to record a bird on a wire in the early morning hours and she walked underneath it. While scrunching her face up in a disdainful grimace, she flicked her hand up, shooing the bird off; then she chortled and walked away. So it's hard to get a clear recording of a male song even at the best of times. But they also live in colonies of up to 100 pairs and they're super active birds with relatively small territories. So imagine: a bunch of really similar looking birds are zooming around you in a dimly lit barn, and you have to not only try to get a clean recording, but identify which individual you're pointing the mic at based on the combination of: a tiny color leg band and what color inks have been applied to white spots on the tail feathers. Is that green yellow white or green white yellow?!. And you've gotta do this at 6am, when you're still having a hard time remembering where you put your coffee mug. Yeah, it sucks. But not as much as #3.

3. Barn swallows sometimes live in really (I mean really) disgusting places. Pig farms are probably the worst (birds don't have a very good sense of smell). But pretty close behind are dairies. Now, perhaps you've never considered before how we get milk from cows nowadays. It's not with a person sitting on a stool, milking into a bucket. Instead, you've got this big warehouse that you bring the cows into from the field. You chain each female up to a post, you attach a device to the cow's udders, and it pumps the milk from each station into a central collecting tank. While the cows are chained up at their stations, they may, on occasion, need to urinate. So, being cows, they just let loose. And if you haven't seen a cow taking a piss...well, it's really something. And of course, there's the crumbled up brownies just trickling outta that end, too. And what happens to this stuff? Doesn't it create a mess?

Funny you should ask. Yes it does. But dairy architects have figured this out a while ago. You see, everything is concrete, which makes it easy to spray everything down. And what you do is, you build a 6 inch wide trough that runs parallel to the milking stations, butt-side of the cows. This way, you can spray the pee, the urine, mucus, & whatnot into this trough. And it basically sits there until it gets flushed out at the end of the day, or the week, or month or whenever it gets flushed out. Did I mention that this stagnant gutter of excrement is probably a foot deep? Well, I guess you've probably figured out where this is going.



A banded barn swallow: Pink left, yellow right; is there a color band? Can't see it from here...


Enter: Me. The determined songbird recordist.

Matt, ya gotta get good recordings here! You need these song samples and we've gotta take the train to Novosibirsk soon.

Get the IDs, too! If you can match the IDs of a bunch of birds to morphology & DNA & all the data we're collecting, that'd be unprecedented! 

What color is that color band?!


And then this happened.




Well, obviously it wasn't the end of the world. Nick, our guide in Kamishlov, did NOT want to let me in his car! And I could never get the smell out of my shoes. That cow sludge seeped over my low tops, right into my sock and up to the toe of my shoe. That new cow odor soaked in real nice and was not leaving. But I ended up wearing them all the way to Vladivostok, where I threw them and several other articles of clothing away. It wasn't the worst thing that happened to me #inthelineofscience. But it certainly was the smelliest!