Down to Work
We spent most of our first day in the field getting ready for the second day in the field. A trapping expedition differs significantly from most ecological investigations in that failure is a real possibility. Usually when a biologist goes into the field, he or she looks for or counts something. If there is nothing to be seen or counted, it might be disappointing, but it’s still data. In other words, zeroes count. When trapping birds, however, there is no such thing as a zero. If we are unable to catch birds, it’s simply failure.
Cannon netting in a remote place increases the odds of failure, and cannon netting in Brazil may be the most difficult of all. For one thing, cannon netting requires an enormous amount of equipment not easily available in places like northern Brazil. Take covering material, the opaque cloth that is widely available in the US to shade hothouses. We use it to shade the birds caught under a net to protect them from the sun and to calm them. After visiting many stores, we found something similar in São Luís, not equal to the need, but sufficiently suitable to make it useful.
But for the igniters we use to fire the cannons, it’s a much different story. Even in the United States, the authorities tightly control their use for obvious reasons. Igniters are what miners use to blow up rock, and thus potentially dangerous in the wrong hands. As far as we know, they cannot be found in Brazil, especially in a small city like São Luís. And even if they were, we would not be allowed to buy them. In fact, we can’t even receive them if we sent them from the US. Only a government official can do that, and our colleagues in Brazil were unable to get permission to do it.
We overcame this nearly insurmountable difficulty by going to the Internet and finding advice from websites of dubious origin and with whom you might not want to associate digitally. One of our team pointed them out and we soon learned how to create an igniter with small Christmas tree lights. Cut the glass top off of the light and charge with a minor electric current, and they pop like the real thing.
Worse yet is gunpowder. We use it to fire the projectiles that carry the net over the birds. Without it, we have no expedition. One can imagine in this day of worldwide terrorism that transporting gunpowder, even for an ecological study, might result in a black bag over the head and a long stay in an unknown place. I’m wary of even writing the word gunpowder in emails (or blogs), preferring euphemisms that redirect attention (for example, referring to cannons as “bird catching equipment”). But gunpowder is essential. In the US, black powder is ubiquitous, to the extent that in places like Texas you can actually walk into a sport shop and choose your brand.
But in the South American countries in which we have worked, the authorities tightly control gunpowder. Here in Brazil you need a license, and forget about getting one if you are from the United States. We thought we had a source before we came to Brazil last year, but as is often the case when language is an issue, we were wrong. When we got here and found that out, our expectations for success fell like a rock in a well.
But we persisted, and after a bit of investigation, we learned that Brazilians use black powder in religious ceremonies. We would eventually find powder in, of all places, a strange religious goods store with an odd mix of religious iconography impossible to find in the US. Think Blessed Virgin Mary meets voodoo goat head devil god. As if blessed by the Holy Mother, we found all the powder we needed just beneath her benevolent and loving image.
In other words, to be successful in a cannon netting expedition, one must be resourceful. Ultimately it depends on two things: the team and the people in country that help you. This year in Brazil we are fortunate on both counts. Our team this year includes Mark Peck of the Royal Ontario Museum, Humphrey Sitters of the International Wader Study Group, Steve Gates of Princeton, Joseph Morgan Slusher of the University of Georgia, and Carolina Linder and Joseph Smith, both independent biologists—all from US and Canada. Our Brazilian colleague, Ana Paula Sousa, is from the Universidad Federal de Maranhão and lives in São José de Ribamar, only five miles from our field station. We work under her banding permit and with her professor, Dr. Augusto Rodrigues. It was her that provided us with the field station we call home.
Ana’s generous nature comes naturally. Her father and mother Omar and Diva Sousa have been vital to overcoming the minor obstacles that seem to arise everyday when running an expedition in a rural area. They helped us with a range of needs, from fixing the cranky generator and well pump to finding hard to find supplies like net-mending line and block ice. All this, and yet Mr. and Mrs. Sousa refuse our offers of compensation for their time. They do it because of their pride for their daughter’s chosen vocation, the native spirit of generosity, and their own big hearts.