The events and seminars we've been attending have been fun, informative and inspiring, but I'm sure you're wondering "Well, what about the research?"
I'm still in the exploratory phase of my research here. This may sound ambiguous, so let me take you through it. Setting up new field sites can be complicated for different reasons.
First, safety. Yes, safety first! Uruguay is not an inherently dangerous place, but its citizens have noticed a rise in petty crime in Montevideo, which is the most densely populated part of the country. Even driving a car or carrying a laptop inside a backpack doesn't guarantee you against theft.
There are far less people in the interior of the country, which gives rise to a whole other set of safety problems. It's much easier to get stranded when something unexpected happens (this is a constant expectation when doing fieldwork) and no one is around to help. Also, according to one of my contacts, changes in the agricultural industry changed the social structure of the interior. Farms are no longer owned and worked by families, but by large corporations that hire seasonal workers. The flux of strangers throughout the interior has made folks there less trusting of new people.
As a new person and foreigner entering the scene, with high regards for my own well-being and the integrity of my research equipment, as well as the desire to build a long-term collaborative network, it goes without saying that it's worth taking the time to be careful.
Second are the animals I want to study. Parrots are hard to catch, and monk parakeets are no exception, despite returning to their nests every night. In general, you can only trick an intelligent animal, also one acutely aware of other members of its social group, into a trap so many times. And boy have the scientists who study monk parakeets tried different kinds of traps....One contact in Spain recently described a colleague's assertion that these birds are nothing short of alien brilliance masked by feathers.
The two challenges I've described, first safety and then catching parakeets, have their own sets of more specific challenges. I'm addressing these challenges by building a network of contacts before jumping into the fieldwork.
My primary contacts are my Fulbright mentor Dr. Enrique Lessa and his group at la Facultad de Ciencias at la Universidad de la República (UdelaR) and another scientist I consider another Fulbright mentor, Dr. Ethel Rodríguez, affiliated with la UdelaR, el Minsterio de Ganadería, Agricultura y Pesca (MGAP) and la Institución para Investigación Agropecuaria (INIA), as well as her group.
Enrique and Ethel have their own broad networks of contacts and have been very generous in opening their networks to me. Enrique introduced me to Ethel and has the connections I need to conduct fieldwork at different Facultades of la UdelaR in Montevideo (these are ideal because not only are there parakeets, but also walled and guarded areas). Ethel has directly worked with monk parakeets, and has marked colonies at INIA station La Estanzuela in Colonia, a city just west of Montevideo.
Ethel also introduced me to other folks in Argentina, Brazil and Spain working with the parakeets. Ethel has also helped me contact pest control companies and veterinarians working with parakeet exportation companies. Finally, I've been in touch with Dr. Santiago Baeza, who very generously shared high resolution mapping data with me, which I can use to better examine land-use categories in sites across the country.
The combined feedback I've received from all these different sources is a gold mine. First, my plan for establishing field sites has changed. We now think it makes the most sense to use INIA stations across the country as base camps for the fieldwork, and search for other safe sites in cities or other areas nearby. Through examining the land-use maps from Santiago, I've realized I may need to change my plans for how I define sites across a gradient of human land-use.
Finally, the information I've received about marking parakeets for long-term research confirms what I had already planned (using lightweight PVC/cable tie collars holding anodized aluminum tags, a method designed by Dr. Juan Carlos Senar in Spain). But the feedback about catching parakeets suggests that not only will the method I planned (using large, baited cages with a decoy bird to attract parakeets and a remotely activated door, also a design by Juan Carlos Senar), may not work as well as expected. In fact, this method may not work at all in agricultural areas where food is abundant and parakeets are already wary of humans. It may turn out that hiring workers from pest control companies who know how to climb trees/catch parakeets in their nests, may be the most viable route to getting the quantity of samples we need.