The cool, bright morning was thick with the aroma of citrus and palo verde blooms, enhanced by what had been yet another meteorological tease the night before. The better half was busy, because springtime in Tucson means one thing for sure, with or without rain: The finches are fucking.
Her job is to spy on this behavior and its eventual results. It's not too kinky when you consider she is a biologist working on big-bucks research at a well-known local university, but still loads of fun. She said I could tag along and write about her day, as long as I didn't reveal any laboratory secrets. She collects lots of data, some of which is quietly murmured into a digital recorder with time signatures and everything. After prepping our equipment and setting off to slink around campus, I was inspired by the covert feel of it all.
7:40 a.m. Goldfinch fledglings beg for food on a tree branch overhead. Their high-pitched, relentless pleas remind me of my little sister when I refused to play wiffle ball with her for a third consecutive hour. But we are after house finches, so I quickly look back down at the sidewalk before my looming vertigo sends me face first into the concrete.
8:03 a.m.: I hear a bizarre, metallic rat-a-tat-tat and duck for cover in the bushes. I hear it again, and stick my head out to discover the source. A Gila woodpecker is perched on a light fixture over the street. Presently, he pounds out another burst, stops, looks around for an audience, shifts his position and pounds again. The tone of the hollow fixture changes with each sideways shift, but remains loud enough to be heard 100 yards away. Obviously not seeking metal-eating worms, he is no doubt advertising his pecking prowess to his nearest pecker peer. I jot this astounding scientific conclusion in my notebook as The Boss waves vigorously at me to hurry along to the next site.
8:45 p.m.: Warming up fast. After various stops to fill shadowed feeders, drag out camouflaged ladders, peek into nests and photograph eggs, Ms. Biologist decides she needs coffee and a bathroom and heads over to the student union. Meanwhile, I once again find myself staring unsteadily up into the trees, which are backlit by the intensifying sun. (Field note: Inasmuch as bird work requires much craning of the neck and unsettling visual points of reference, residual alcohol saturation is contraindicated.) Above me, a male finch is busting a move. He approaches a female with his head down and tail feathers in a distinctly erect posture. He inches closer, smooth-chirping her, but as soon as he reaches striking distance, the female flits away, just far enough to leave the door open for another try. This pathetic behavior seems familiar, but I can't place it. Perhaps I saw it while stalking the rare Transylvanian triceratops on safari in Bulgaria. I make a note to check my notes as a vague sense of anxiety settles over me.
8:50 p.m.: The Boss returns with her coffee, and we set off to the next nest. Along the way, we discuss the myriad hazards the little finches face as they try to reproduce every year. Along with 50 mph wind gusts and the gas-powered assassins of landscaping crews, I am particularly horrified by her explanation of the behavior of English sparrows, who (in addition to gang-raping their own females) stoop so low as to attack the nestlings of other species as a competitive strategy. Jeez-us. How far the empire has fallen.
11:47 a.m.: We inspect a nest full of babies. They are nothing but a long skinny neck packed with seed puke, a big belly stocked with seed goop and a bulging butt full of seed poop, with a few veins and some flimsy, partially downy skin holding it all together. This description fits some old hippies I know, but I quickly dismiss the thought.
1:30 p.m.: Return to lab, tired and sun-stressed. Alcohol long since evaporated through pores. A last, desperate conclusion is scrawled in my notebook: Air conditioning essential for successful copulative behavior. Return to nest immediately.