Father & Son Assess Strange Nesting Habits

The Wilson Journal of Ornithology recently published an article documenting the unusual nesting habits of the White-winged Diuca Finch. This was the first research ever published which detailed the diminutive bird’s breeding habits.

Up until now everyone thought that only Emperor Penguins nest directly on ice. Now it seems that they’re not the only ones. A surprising father and son team have unraveled the mystery after deciding to study the habits of the small bird more intently. Why is the team so surprising? The son in the team is only now just fourteen years of age!

Spencer P. Hardy teamed up with his father Douglas R. Hardy to make the discovery before he had even made it to sixth grade. The unusual father-son project came about as a result of Douglas Hardy’s regular scientific expeditions to the wind-blasted Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru. Quite often while doing his research at the torturously high elevation of 18,600 feet, Douglas found that he kept stumbling across strange grass and twig structures – nests. But what were nests doing on the ice? According to Spencer Hardy, “there shouldn’t have been bird nests there. The elevation was too high, the environment too harsh, the habitat too extreme.” Yet directly on the ice is exactly where these nests were found.

Hardy is a glacier specialist working with the UMass Climatic System Research Center. His work in Peru has him studying the dramatic shrinkage of the Quelccaya ice. Despite having worked on glaciers around the globe, he’d never seen birds’ nests on any of them. Since frozen water is more in his line of work, he turned to his then 11-year-old son for help in solving the mystery. According to Douglas, “from the time Spencer was old enough to sit in a high chair, he’s been captivated by birds.” Douglas’ discovery really got his son’s interest and before long, Spencer’s passion for solving this birding mystery got Douglas motivated too. Before long the two forged an informal father-son team and started studying the birds to unlock the mystery.

Douglas’ job was to take digital photographs of whatever birds he encountered as he worked on the Quelccaya between June and August. He also took close-up photos of the nests. His son, who was staying in Vermont, received the images from his father and started researching them intently; using every library book about Andean birds he could get his hands on. From his studies, he narrowed the possible candidates down to the White-fronted Ground-tyrant and the White-winged Diuca Finch. Both birds were of an appropriate size, had the right habits and were seen quite often on the edges of the glaciers. Meanwhile Douglas was keeping a steady eye out for nests, feathers, egg shells and other clues. In 2008 he finally discovered an abandoned, intact nest that still had eggs in it. The question was put to Carla Dove, a scientist who specializes in identifying birds from their removed plumage. She tagged the Diuca Finch as the culprit, and the bird’s proximity to the nests also pointed to this conclusion. The research was printed, with Spencer’s academic affiliation listed as the Marion W. Cross Elementary School.