A colorful summer experience at Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge

By Sam Gonzalez ’24

After 30 minutes of being rocked gently by the sloping contours of Highway 75, I was more than half-asleep when our van stopped by a road within Hagerman National Wildlife Refuge. My research professor, Dr. Wayne Meyer, had taken another student and I earlier to this part of Hagerman to locate the male territories of a neotropical migratory songbird species called Painted Buntings. These birds are almost a gorgeous caricature of bright passerines. Their name derives from the variety of colors older males sport, which includes blue on their heads, red on their chests and bellies, bright green on their backs and dull green on their wings. Younger males and females are bright green on their backs and greenish yellow on their chests and bellies. During our first visits to Hagerman we recorded the songs of several individual males. Today, we were focused on collecting data for a study my professor had been conducting for the last 10 years or so. The study involved an experiment designed to compare how aggressively males responded to males in a subadult age class and an adult age class. It was remarkable how cool the weather was that June.

We got out of our van and set up our equipment to test a bird we called PBh 7. We put a wooden decoy of a Painted Bunting on a pole and placed a speaker underneath him. That speaker then played recordings of other Painted Buntings singing. Rushing to the taunting threats of a rival’s song, PBh 7 soon appeared perched on his favorite tree. His little chest rose mightily and his wings began to quiver as he sang. (I only hope the absurd joy of this moment is properly conveyed here.) In this moment, we had impersonated a Painted Bunting in order to aggressively challenge PBh 7 into a singing and wing quivering contest. Around me I could see my professor and the student beside me delighted at the sight of this bird’s adorable temper tantrum. Dr. Meyer especially seemed to appreciate such a macho display. This was the closest he had been to a displaying Painted Bunting in a few years.

Among ornithologists, Dr. Meyer is one of the few who does research on Painted Buntings. If you look for any literature on Painted Buntings, you may likely find very little. That’s part of the reason he has spent so long researching these birds. When he first set out to research Painted Buntings, nobody knew how they expressed aggression through song. Eventually, he figured out that Painted Buntings communicate how aggressive they are by attempting to outperform rivals’ songs with singing that is described as virtuosic. That is to say, the longer and more complex the singing, the angrier the Painted Bunting. This research led him to the question we asked last summer: Why are young males green? Could having entirely green and yellow feathers signal to males that they should be treated with less aggression? Are young males trying to trick older males into treating them like females who are also green? That is what we were trying to figure out. Getting an answer meant we needed to spend a lot of time out at Hagerman NWR recording birds as we attempted to make them as angry as possible.

During these trials, I pointed a mic at the bird we were testing while Olivia, Dr. Meyer’s other student, counted how many times a bird quivered its wings, which is another indicator for aggression. It was during our time analyzing all these recordings on computers that I got to know Olivia and become her friend. Together, we bonded over the long and sometimes arduous walks through the tallgrasses, and discovered how fulfilling and complicated research can be. We learned how desperate for an answer people can get when no one else can answer it.

When PBh 7’s tirade came to a stop, I knew what the answer probably was to our summer’s question. What immediately tipped me off to it was that by the end of our observation period, PBh 7 came closer to our decoy than any other bird. Further, Olivia observed him display 11 wing quivers, which was a fair number. The decoy was painted to look like a subadult. That is to say, PBh 7 did not care how old our decoy looked. He did not go easy on green subadults. This sort of behavior continued with other subjects, which means by the end of our research, we found no evidence to suggest being treated with less aggression is the reason younger males are green. After all the walking through wet grass and all the tick bites, we still were without an explanation as to why younger males look like females. This is what makes the slogging process of research so wonderful. It takes an incredible amount of time to collect and analyze data on wild animal behavior. And yet this logistical nightmare comes with zero guarantees as to what you might learn from the data. But learning anything, even simply that you have the wrong hypothesis, feels like a step in the right direction.

When relatives or friends ask how I spent my summer, I typically say, “I made some birds really angry,” but I hope to be less reductive as I sum up my experience. I got the chance to see complex organisms display complex and mysterious behavior. I spent hours discussing evolutionary theories that attempt to explain the timing of developmental changes in Painted Buntings. I met and worked with fascinating and kind people. Finally, I learned I love research. I hope as time goes on, my career leads me on to new research opportunities.