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Blackhearts: Ecology in Outback Australia

Richard Symanski
Copyright Date: 2000
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 228
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    This fascinating book is a firsthand account of the adventures of an ornithological field team studying long-tailed finches in outback Australia. In 1991, Nancy Burley, a noted behavioral ecologist, and her husband, Richard Symanski, went to Australia with their one-year-old son and four American students hired as field assistants and babysitter. The social relationships and problems that developed among these individuals in confined and exotic settings and the scientific discoveries that did-and did not-take place form the heart of the book.Symanski begins by telling how he and his wife set up this elaborate field expedition-including the hiring of what seemed to be qualified, compatible, and knowledgeable field assistants. He then describes the harsh realities of their circumstances in Australia: primitive living conditions on an outback cattle station; field sites and subjects for study that were not as expected; and students who were not prepared for the rigors of field life and who became unenthusiastic about the work for which they had been hired. And he tells how he and his wife strove to overcome all the different challenges with which they were confronted. The book provides insight into the demands of professor-student-based fieldwork, particularly when generational conflicts, differing expectations, and culture shock complicate the "business" of doing science.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-12813-0
    Subjects: Zoology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vii-ix)
  4. Map
    (pp. x-xii)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-8)

    In the spring of 1989 Nancy Burley, an evolutionary biologist and professor at the University of Illinois and my wife of many years, received a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to continue her long-term research on the social behavior of zebra finches. For more than a decade she had conducted laboratory experiments on the finches, with some quite spectacular results. To the surprise of scores of professional biologists, she had demonstrated that these tiny creatures, the third most popular cage birds in the world, are amazingly well tuned to evolutionary imperatives. When their appearance is manipulated by...

  6. 1 Choosing Family
    (pp. 9-29)

    Eddie had been in Nancy’s graduate class on behavioral ecology the semester he arrived on campus. She had been impressed with his performance, and near the end of the term remarked to me that she would have liked to have him as a graduate student. But he chose to work with another member of the ecology and evolution department who worked in Alaska. After Eddie’s first year of graduate courses, he spent a summer there collecting data on the diet and distribution of the vole.

    Midway through his second year at the university, Eddie took the first of the department’s...

  7. 2 The Search for Breeding Redbeaks
    (pp. 30-63)

    I had two months in which to find at least one sizable breeding colony of zebra finches. By my departure date, Nancy had managed to get leads to six promising sites in the Northern Territory. But how reliable were her sources? In late February she had called one of Australia’s top ecologists in Alice Springs, who worked for the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization, the country’s premier government research institute. He was familiar with the ecology and mating behavior of zebra finches. He had said, “It looks real good here. It’s warm and the grasses are seeding. The finches...

  8. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  9. 3 Mysterious Behavior
    (pp. 64-82)

    Nancy is happy to be in Australia and eager to get to work. But her elation at having arrived can’t hide obvious signs of stress from the previous months: too many demanding university committees, selling our home and storing personal effects, getting the lab prepared for her departure, quieting the students’ panicky lastminute needs, the logistics of all that had to be rethought because of the change in research plans, and not least Cole’s increasing demands, which have been compounded by the string of ear infections that began before I left. Cole initially wants nothing to do with me, and...

  10. 4 The Gulf Widens
    (pp. 83-128)

    Tim’s different, I swear he is. Or am I merely seeing what I have wanted to see since he and Jean arrived? He’s alive, vibrant, and seemingly out from under Jean’s moody umbrella. He’s more like the Tim for whom I had such hopes when we drank together at the Nineteenth Hole that Friday afternoon. Hurrah!

    It’s becoming a habit. I walk up the dusty road to the ringer bunkhouse to shave and use the shower, and face the mess there that grows like a virus. Half of a broken mirror, dirty soap and empty deodorant cans, crumpled rags in...

  11. Photographs
    (pp. None)
  12. 5 Business as Usual
    (pp. 129-192)

    Lately I’ve been fascinated by an aggressive aquatic weed, cumbungi (Typha domingensis), that covers much of Lake Kununurra. It forms dense, extensive mats, and its growth is not restricted to still water. It spreads rapidly by means of branching, robust rhizomes, increasing as much as 50 percent a year, I’m told.

    If not controlled, cumbungi forms floating mats over large areas of water. It impedes the flow of water downriver and reduces fish yields. Cumbungi blocks the inlet valves to irrigation pumps. Because sunlight is obstructed, the pH level and the oxygen content of the water drop, and an ideal...

  13. 6 Illinois Aftermath
    (pp. 193-201)

    The flights from Kununurra to Darwin to Sydney to San Francisco to Chicago to Champaign were full of apprehension. The questions kept repeating: What exactly are Nat’s charges against us? How serious are they? Did she give the letter to Jean after we asked her to leave early, or before?

    Nancy read and watched Cole and I slept. And then I read and played with Cole while she slept. I walked the aisles, I engaged stewardesses in small talk, I watched mothers tend babies and old men snore and young girls play with their hair. Anything to keep my mind...

  14. Postscript
    (pp. 202-208)

    Soon after our arrival in California in early Decembe 1991, Nancy began applying for the variety of permits needed legally to export one hundred forty longtailed finches from the Northern Territory and to import them into the United States. In June 1992 I flew to Darwin and took a bus to Newry Station, where I picked up the van and supplies we had used during the previous season.

    When Nancy and Cole arrived, we immediately began driving on accessible tracks at Newry to identify a number of trap sites from which we would take a combined total of seventy yellow-beaked...

  15. References
    (pp. 209-212)
  16. Index
    (pp. 213-216)