People Were Not Made to Fly

(From the notebook of Americorps Intern Kayla Bonnette)

I’ve always laughed at the immense effort and technology that is required for us to temporarily leave the ground, while birds simply lift themselves out of the trees. Of course, their entire morphologies have been honed for this life: ultralight, modified bones; lightweight feathers instead of hair; beaks instead of teeth… all of these things to fill an empty niche in the sky. While incredibly fascinating and satiating to my never-ending curiosity, these adaptations have also given rise to some unique problems in studying avifauna.

Simply put, studying a flying species while not being a flying species yourself is really hard.

My first day on the job here in Kaua`i I was thrown into (thankfully not OUT of) a helicopter for the first time. I pretended to give the impression that I thought flying in a helicopter was very cool and exciting, though internally I was quite panicked. I love birds, and I love that they can fly, but I do not enjoy flying myself. The flight was not simply a ferry into our isolated campsite; we also had the mission of finding some uniquely marked birds. In previous weeks before my arrival, mist netting efforts had procured a couple of our endangered birds: a young `Akikiki and a young Puaiohi. These birds received small radio-transmitters, glued to their backs, which send out signals on frequencies unique to each bird. With a receiver, we are able to pick up these signals and – after mapping all the points where we find the signals coming in loud and clear – we can build a rough picture of the movements of these birds and where they spend their time.

So we’ll be doing telemetry from the air, I thought, that’s neat, but that means the flight will be long…

In addition to being plain ol’ scared of flying, I’ve got the added fun of a sensitive stomach. Fueled with a very small breakfast and lots of water, I headed out with the rest of the crew for the airport. At some point I think the pale, queasy look on my face gave away the fact that I wasn’t exactly stoked to fly in a helicopter. The rest of the staff was exceedingly entertained to find out my thoughts on flying; it was insisted that they had asked during my interview if there was any reason I couldn’t go in a helicopter… I don’t remember this question. I was probably blinded by the sheer, unexpected joy of having an interview so soon after graduating.

Anyway, we took off. I felt sick. And I also felt every bird on the planet laughing at me. Trying move my focus away from the stomach-churning lurches of the flight (all of those crashes in the helicopter training videos are just freak accidents, right?!), I turned my attention to the telemetry. Y’know, the whole reason we were up there. I listened so very carefully. Desperately searching for the tiniest of blips among the static of the radio and the pounding air from the helicopter.

I honestly don’t remember if we picked up any of the birds. I was just very happy to have gone through the entire flight without losing my breakfast. With more flights, and more experience with radio-telemetry, I eventually came to recognize the quiet blip we were searching for. I also discovered the magic of anti-motion sickness remedies.

Those little birds sure do have it easy when it comes to moving around.