Basic Science

December 11

Sitting in the forest, along side a stream, waiting for a bowerbird to steal a radio transmitter. Not a bad office I’d say. Only problem is that I left the bulk of my lunch in the car! Fortunately, I had three huge pancakes today, generosity of the caravan park that we have been camped in for the last three months. And yes, today is our three-month anniversary of arriving in Australia and buying our A’Van camper trailer. It may be hard for you to imagine living a quarter of a year in a 6’x12′ trailer, but if you consider that you have a gigantic bathroom (part of the campground setup), a nice place to wash up the dishes (part of the campground kitchen), and a living room as big as the wide open outdoors, then it’s really not so hard.

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The science of bowerbirding is what one would call basic science (verses applied science). The difference is that when doing basic science one is trying to answer fundamental questions about how the world works regardless of whether or not they will become useful knowledge for humanity. Non-scientists might tend to question the value of one’s scientific work if it falls under the category of basic science “for how is the work going to improve the human condition on the planet”? I could argue that you just never know how a bit of basic knowledge will be used later in an applied fashion. I could also argue that basic science is in the same league as sports and art and we know that society supports these fields even if they don’t solve any of the world’s problems. What we are doing in the Australian forest with the bowerbirds is a bit like an ongoing art project! It’s beautiful to see and film the birds, it’s exciting to go into the bush and see what happened overnight, and there is even a bit of mystery. Let me explain that last point.

The other day we deployed the Flower Power experiment to see if bowerbirds prefer fresh flowers as decorations over blue artifacts and cicada cases. We have seen all three objects as part of many bowerbird displays, but most people seem to know that bowerbirds only collect blue stuff. After watching a dozen bowers over the course of the morning we determined that when offered the three choices, at this time of year they prefer the fresh yellow flowers! Ok, so that was the experiment. Now for the mystery part.

Sara was not going to use Green and Black’s bower during the experiment for it had been flattened the day before by some other bowerbird. But I encouraged her to go in and take a look and low and behold, he had rebuilt his bower! So Sara left off 4 cicada cases, 4 pieces of blue tape, and 4 yellow fortnight lilies, just like we did for everyone else. When she came back to check two hours later, all the flowers and blue tape were missing, having already been stolen by another rival bowerbird. We were puzzled for they didn’t show up at any of the other bowers nearby. So where did they go?

There is one bower way up a gully and half way up a steep climb, called Radio Bower, that we hadn’t checked for it was not part of the current experiment and so I volunteered to go up there and check. Guess what? There were no decorations up there so that meant they had to have gone to some bower in the forest that we had yet to find. Obviously, we need to track that one down!

So that night I put together another radio transmitter and wrapped it in blue tape, which I know bowerbirds really like. We went back to the study site in the morning, I hiked the 15 minutes out to Green and Black, and dropped the radio on the mat of his bower. I checked an hour later and it was still there so I went out to the picnic area and had lunch with a Sara. Then I hiked back in and to my delight, the radio was gone! There was nothing at his bower; a thief had struck :-). I turned on the radio receiver and deployed the antenna and immediately picked up a strong signal. Now it was getting excited. To find a new bower so close by after all these months would really fill in a gap in our knowledge base.

I crept through the forest following the beep, beep, beep of the signal and to my surprise (and dismay) I found the transmitter not 50 meters away lying on the forest floor. Just there, no bower? Had the thief dropped it by mistake? Had one of Green and Black’s little immature minions gone around goofing with his stuff? Was a new bower somewhere close by? Well, I searched the area for about 10 minutes at most and doubled back to Green and Black. And guess what? The four pieces of blue tape from the experiment the day before were sitting on his mat; things that have been missing for 24 hours. Unbelievable. In the ten minutes in which I’d been away, the bowerbird had come home with the decorations that someone had stolen from him yesterday.

So I took the 4 pieces of blue tape (never found the four flowers) and left the radio transmitter again, determined to come back the next morning and track the thief down (assuming he’d steal the radio again, but this time take it all the way to his bower). I could hardly sleep a wink for I felt I was finally going to crack this little mystery. Really, it had been plaguing us for weeks and weeks.

Well, when I got there this morning, guess what? No radio transmitter in the bower! Yippee! So I tuned up the receiver and antenna and started the hunt. I could almost hear the bloodhounds converging on the fox. But I couldn’t pick up a signal in the near vicinity. I walked further into the forest, past the spot where the bird had dropped the radio yesterday, but still no signal. At that point I figured it was necessary to head up towards Radio Bower, high up on the rainforest slope, and check. Disappointedly I report, the signal was coming from there and so I had no choice but to make the trip, spiders, snakes, and all. Why oh why did he steal the radio from Green and Black this time, but nothing else that we know of in the past weeks? So I grabbed it and made the long journey down and re-stuffed it into Green and Blacks bower. And that is how I got to be sitting along side a stream wishing I’d remembered to bring my lunch! It made a nice day, even if I never solved the mystery of the bowerbird. To be continued I am sure :-)

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