Food: Conservation We Don't Think About

Almost exactly a year ago, President Obama called for Americans to reduce their food waste. Yes, this IS a problem for the higher reaches of government: experts estimate that, in one way or another, about a third of the food we produce every year ends up wasted. Sadly, in a country where 14 percent of households are food insecure, we are throwing out perfectly good food. In addition to contributing to the hunger of our neighbors, wasting food also puts a burden on the environment: methane gas from food decomposing in landfills contributes to climate change. So what's a responsible country to do?

Enter the innovators and entrepreneurs. In recent years, there have been some thrilling, creative solutions. For example, supermarkets all over the country are starting to follow the French trend of buying produce that doesn't look picture-perfect. Read about Europe here and about America here. Then there's "trash cooking," which means learning to prepare delectable meals from ingredients that would otherwise be thrown out. There are even organizations that harvest food from people's yards that would otherwise not be eaten at all. 

Hungry for more ideas? Read this great Sierra Club article

And what can we do as individuals? Here are some ideas:

-Eat locally grown food, so none is wasted during transport. 

-Compost leftovers to keep them out of landfills.

-Support growers, markets, and restaurants that give their excess food to those who need it. 

Bon appétit!


Miss Your Sweet Corn? Here's Why: Birds and Drought

We're all aware that this summer's drought conditions in several areas of North America are affecting agriculture. It is difficult for farmers to grow water-intensive crops such as walnuts and avocados without extensive irrigation, often by importing water from less drought-stricken areas. Some crops, however, are affected less directly: thirsty birds that can't find water to drink are eating up moist crops. 

Here's an example: Fenton Farms, a small farm in Batavia, New York, has lost almost all its eight acres of sweet corn to birds, specifically grackles, starlings, and Red-winged Blackbirds. Owners Paul and Gail Fenton are accustomed to giving up "a couple hundred dozen" stalks to bird damage, but this year, all of their fields are devastated. Usually, the birds eat the field corn before turning to the sweet corn that's so highly prized by farm stand shoppers. However, this year the field corn suffered so badly from the lack of water that the birds had to turn to the sweet corn instead.

These troubles aren't occurring only on Fenton's farm. There's been significant bird damage to crops all over North America.

A shortage of sweet corn for human consumption is a small effect of drought. But the drought has a much larger effect on birds. For example, birds that are forced to find water on farms can face dangers there—such as mowing—that they wouldn't face in their normal habitat. Birds crowd one another at watering holes that are smaller or fewer than usual, increasing the spread of illness. Birds that eat insects will find less food when water levels are low because fewer insects will hatch.

What can we do to help? Well, aside from getting involved in local water policy and taking measures to conserve water, we can make more water sources available to birds. Bird baths and water features in our yards help, as does putting out moist food such as fruits and vegetables. Cleaning up local waterways, no matter how small, can make the difference between a good habitat where birds will congregate and a bad one that they'll pass on the way to the cornfield. 

So next time you wish you saw sweet corn at a farm stand, maybe you won't mind as much if you think about the thirsty bird it nourished. Then support the farmer: buy the tomatoes and peppers instead.


Oxpeckers Might Really Be a Pain, Not a Boon

We've all seen those photos of large animals on the African savannah with birds on their backs, right? And we've heard that those birds, aptly called Oxpeckers (family Buphagidae), have a symbiotic relationship with those animals, eating the ticks that would otherwise bedevil them?

Well, the truth is not so simple. Oxpeckers do eat ticks, but they eat only one species (the Blue Tick) and they prefer to eat them only after they've already laid their eggs. Oxpeckers eat earwax, which might help the host animals hear better, but decreased earwax could lead to increased ear infections. Worst, Oxpeckers pick at the open wounds in the hides of the host animals and have even been known to make the wounds themselves. (Ick!)

Dr. Paul Weeks has researched the Red-billed Oxpecker (Buphagidae erythrorhynchus) in Zimbabwe, publishing two studies in 1999 and 2000. Neither one indicates that animals benefit much from Oxpeckers.

Weeks separated cattle into two matched groups, then prevented Oxpeckers from coming into contact with one of the groups. At the end of two weeks, he compared the health of the animals. 

The cattle in the control group (the ones with the Oxpeckers) did not have significantly fewer ticks than the experimental group (the protected ones). What the control group DID have was less earwax and more wounds. Net benefit to the animals? Zilch, or at least close to it. 

So the next time you see one of those Oxpecker-and-rhino photos touted as showing "the beauty of symbiosis," go ahead and snort like a rhino. 

A Lesson in Careful Tree-Cutting

When Canadian biologist Chris Fisher drove through Banff, Jasper, Mount Revelstoke and Glacier national parks in May, he noticed that many trees were being cut down along the highways for various park projects. May is prime nesting season, so he wondered how the park service was managing not to disturb birds. After all, the Migratory Birds Convention Act prohibits killing, capturing, taking and disturbing of migratory birds or their nests from late April until mid-August. Wouldn't you be curious too?

Michael den Otter, an environmental assessment specialist with Banff, Yoho and Kootenay, confirms that safety upgrades, fence maintenance, and other infrastructure improvements are indeed requiring the cutting of trees along the highways, but he says that all the national parks are following the standards. “Most of the trees you see beside the highway were actually cut before the end of April. We try whenever possible to schedule our work so we’re not going into that bird breeding season.”

Sometimes it isn’t possible to schedule work so it doesn't interfere with nesting season, for instance in places where snow doesn't melt until quite late. In those places, there's a set of rules to follow that includes extensive nest sweeps. Biologists search for nests for three days during the week before cutting is scheduled. den Otter says, “If we find any sign of nesting birds, then that project will have to either mitigate that or it will have to be put on hold until whatever happens to be nesting there moves on.”

For example, a recent sweep found a dark-eyed junco along the Trans-Canada Highway during some tree removal in Yoho National Park. den Otter says, “We put a 100-meter buffer around that nest area and we’ll have to wait to complete that work in the fall when the bird fledges." A 100-meter buffer is higher than the standard, so it sounds like these folks are serious.

den Otter says the crews haven’t encountered many nesting birds in the areas along the highways where the work is being done. After all, it's a pretty noisy and disturbed area, not the deep, dense, old-growth forest that many birds really like. Still, dark-eyed juncos and white-crowned sparrows do prefer these edge habitats, and they are plentiful—and being allowed to do their thing while the projects wait. 

Fisher, the biologist, states that Environment Canada suggests not performing any nest sweeps in forested environments. “It’s their position that the likelihood of finding every single nest or the complexity of the habitat really makes it difficult to find all of the nests." He'd prefer that the national parks not even try to remove trees until after nesting season. 

Birds Plan Their Flight Path on the Wing

You round a corner onto a city street, and you realize you need to drive between a bunch of trucks parked on the right and the busy traffic lane on the left. So what do you do? You slow down and drive carefully, adjusting your speed as you go. 

Research at the Queensland Brain Institute (QBI) has shown that birds will interrupt their wing beats to raise their wings or tuck them against their bodies when flying through a narrow gap, reducing their width very precisely. (Don't you wish you car could do that?) But it also shows that they don't slow down while making these adjustments. So how do they manage to make them at the right time? 

Researchers QBI's Visual and Sensory Neuroscience Laboratory analyzed the flight of budgerigars—parakeets (Melopsittacus undulatus)—as they flew through narrow gaps of varying width. Dr. Ingo Schiffner and Hong Vo filmed the birds, then did 3D reconstruction of their flight, which revealed that the birds seemed to plan ahead—1.4 meters ahead, in fact. (That's about 4.6 feet). And they even knew to fly a little higher because they'd drop later when interrupting their wingbeats. In other words, the parakeets made flight decisions well in advance of the obstacles. 

Even though the birds did some fancy flying, they didn't slow down. In another study, when parakeets flew through gradually tapering tunnels, they switched between what looked like two pre-set speeds, which Dr. Schiffner refers to as "low maneuvering" and "high cruising," bearing out the finding that they seemed to plan ahead, seeing and estimating the width of the tunnel.

This research might be especially helpful as we (humans, that is) design and build aircraft capable of unmanned flight. Current guidance systems are based on research in insects, but birds seem to have a different set of capabilities. 

The research is published in Biology Letters and  Scientific Reports.

Citizen Science with House Sparrow Eggs

House Sparrows (passer domesticus). Some of us enjoy their resilience, cheerful presence, and ubiquitous "Cheep!" Some of us can't stand seeing them everywhere, including in the nesting boxes we've set out for bluebirds. Love them or hate them, the fact is that they are an invasive species, brought here from England in the mid-19th century and thriving ever since in populated areas—often at the expense of other songbirds. 

A new citizen science project is now making use of House Sparrow eggs in ways that should satisfy both friend and foe.  The Sparrow Swap, out of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences, asks volunteers for House Sparrow eggs to test for pollutants. The aim is to discover whether these birds, often regarded as pests, can help us monitor our environment. Meanwhile, taking eggs from nests provides another research opportunity, namely population control. Participants are given fake eggs to swap for real ones in hopes that the nesting sparrows will try to hatch them rather than build a new nest when they discover their original clutch has vanished. If this protocol works, it will provide the basis for an environmentally safe way to reduce the number of House Sparrows. 

Want to know more or participate? Look for "The Sparrow Swap" on Facebook or check out this website. 


Mother Fairywrens Teach Chicks in Their Shells

We posted last week about adult male Zebra Finches teaching their young with "baby talk." Now here's another post about bird learning, this one about how the mothers of two species of fairywren call to their chicks even before they hatch—and yes, the unborn chicks seem to learn the call. 

Before you get too skeptical, remember that recent research has demonstrated that human babies can learn speech sounds at 30 weeks of gestation—that is, before they're even born. 

Now, to birds. Nine species of fairywrens live on the Australian continent, where they frequently show up in suburbia. They're small songbirds, and the males are often deep blue or red. Diane Colombelli-Négrel and Sonia Kleindorfer, of Australia’s Flinders University, performed a series of experiments on the Superb Fairywren (Malurus cyaneus). 

First, they discovered that Superb Fairywren embryos seem to pay attention when their mothers call to them: their heart rate lowers, just like it does in humans and other animals when they're paying attention. The researchers then investigated the heart rate in a different fairywren species, the Red-backed Fairywren (Malurus melanocephalus). They were joined by Jenélle Dowling and Mike Webster from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Female fairywrens start calling to their unhatched chicks soon after they finish laying, and they stop calling several days after the eggs hatch. Later, when the hatched chicks beg for food, they make some of the same sounds they heard in the egg. The obvious question is, do the chicks really learn their mother’s calls, or do they make these sounds by instinct? 

To answer this question, the researchers switched Red-Backed Fairywren eggs among a group of nests to see whether the chicks would call like their genetic mothers (by instinct) or like their foster mothers (by learning). It turned out that the chicks' calls were more similar to those of their foster mother. 

Why have a similar call? Well, the next study determined that Red-backed Fairywren parents give more food to chicks whose calls are similar to their own. Since cuckoos often lay eggs in fairywren nests, having a "password" can help parent fairywrens know which chicks are theirs. 

Next, the researchers investigated whether adult fairywrens retain any of the call information they learned in the egg. It is commonly believed that chicks don't start learning their adult songs until they're at least 10 days old. With the aid of computer acoustic analysis, the researchers found that the songs of young adult fairywrens more closely resembled the songs of their mothers than they did any other females in the same population. This "family resemblance" might help fairywrens recognize one another so they can share information about resources and dangers. It could even help prevent inbreeding. 

These startling discoveries about in-egg learning are just the beginning of what could be further study in embryonic learning in other birds and mammals. 

Check out this article from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology for more details on the fairywren research and some awesome sound. 

Adult Birds Use "Baby Talk"--and Babies Pay Attention

New research shows not only that baby birds learn songs best if they're tutored, but that adult birds seem to modify their songs the way we humans use baby talk. Further, activity in the babies' brains may have implications for research in attention issues in people. 

Birds do not hatch knowing how to sing. Like humans, they need to learn how to vocalize in socially meaningful ways. While it is known that baby birds learn from adults, Jon Sakata and his team of biologists at McGill University wanted to find out whether an adult needs to be present for the best learning or whether simply hearing the song is enough for baby birds. In other words, they wanted to find out whether the social connection matter when it comes to teaching.

For this study, male Zebra Finch chicks were observed learning songs from adult males either in person or by recording. (Why Zebra Finches? Because they breed well in the lab. And why just males? Because the males are the primary singers of the species.) The chicks, who had been cared for only by females prior to the study, were exposed for varying amounts of time to males singing in two different conditions. One group of chicks were tutored by a male in person; the other heard him singing to chicks in another room. The results? The chicks tutored in person learned their song more accurately no matter how long they were exposed to it. Further, the chicks who paid the most attention learned the best.

But the chicks weren't the only ones paying more attention. The males doing the tutoring took extra care when singing to their pupils. They repeated the beginning of the song, slowed down their phrases, and cleaned up some stray sounds. If you've ever spoken to a young child, you know exactly what these adults did. Further research is needed before anyone knows whether the adult males made these changes deliberately.

One last item of interest: the brains of the chicks who learned in person showed activity in two regions that showed no activity in the chicks who learned by recording. That is, the social activity of being taught in person seemed to activate mechanisms for attention. The research continues in order to identify just what those mechanisms might be.

What to know more? Read the abstract of the original study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The Washington Post has a nice article, too, complete with sound samples.

Urban Birds Aren't Scaredy-Cats

If a city crow and a country crow were presented with almost any object they'd never seen before, both of them would be scared of it. The exception? Trash. The city crow would have learned what trash is, perhaps even that it can sometimes harbor tasty snacks. A recent study in Animal Behavior gives the details. 

Researchers at Exeter University offered food to a variety of urban and rural birds, sometimes placing it near unfamiliar objects to see how they would respond. All the birds were more afraid to approach the food when an unfamiliar object was nearby than when the food was alone. However, all the birds were less afraid if the object was familiar to them. That's the first finding of this study: birds seem to remember things they've seen.

The second finding of this study: Of all the birds tested, corvids (crows, ravens, and magpies) were the most cautious—that is, unless they came from an urban environment. In other words, corvids who had lived with trash weren't too scared of it. Apparently, they had learned about it.

Why does this study matter? Because we humans are increasingly altering the earth. It is likely that the birds and animals that can adapt will stand the best chance of surviving as their environment continues to change. Study co-author Dr Alex Thornton puts it this way: “Animals’ responses to novelty can dictate whether they perish or thrive."

We here at Talkin' Birds frankly would prefer not to lose any species. So, while we truly appreciate animal learning, we sincerely hope that humans learn better means of coexisting with wildlife. 

Birds of a (Red) Feather

Red birds stand out more than birds of other hues, so they get eaten more often than their drab relatives. So is having red feathers a good idea? And what makes birds red in the first place?

Recent research indicates that there are, in fact, advantages to being red, and they go far beyond being pretty to look at. It has been known for some time that birds with red feathers often have extra-sensitive cones (color-sensing vision cells) in their retinas, which may make it possible for them to see food sources that other birds can't. Some red birds have also been found to have cells in their livers that help with detoxification of harmful substances, potentially allowing their owners to eat a wider variety of foods than non-red birds. Perhaps because of these two advantages, birds with red coloring are more desirable mates than their non-red buddies in multiple species. 

So how does red happen? 

Recent research from the University of Cambridge, published in the journal Current Biology, indicates that some Zebra Finches possess a gene that allows them to convert yellow pigments in their food, called carotenoids, into a red coloring in their beaks. Interestingly, the red pigment exists at lower—almost undetectable—levels in regular, yellow-beaked Zebra Finches. 

A separate research team out of the Universidade do Porto of Portugal is working on the genetics of the red canary, a hybrid developed by canary fanciers about 100 years ago by interbreeding with the Red Siskin. One particularly intriguing finding is that the gene for carotenoid-to-red conversion exists in many, if not most, bird species, even if those birds don't appear red. The birds that aren't red still have the super-sensitive color vision and heavy-duty liver function conferred by the gene, but for some reason as yet unknown, they just don't have red skin or feathers. 

Why research red coloration in birds? Two reasons. First, it's a trait that easy to track and manipulate. Second, it's beautiful. 

City Lights Throw Migrating Birds Off Course

New research out of the University of Windsor indicates that bright city lights may cause migrating birds to zigzag rather than follow the (darker) course they might otherwise take. 

The team, headed by professor Dan Mennill, began their research by accident. Sound recording boxes had been placed around the area during a migration study, and the team noticed that the ones situated near well-lit—urban—areas picked up more bird vocalizations than the ones in dark—rural—ones. Further analysis revealed that more than three times the number of vocalizations occurred in the lit areas than in the unlit areas, indicating that three times more birds passed through the former than through the latter. Why? Perhaps because the lights made it difficult for them to see the stars by which they'd ordinarily navigate. 

Being drawn off course causes two problems for migrating birds. First, flying a less-than-direct route uses more of a bird's energy stores than flying a direct route; therefore, birds arriving at their destination are more depleted than they ought to be. Second, flying in a zigzag takes longer than flying directly, which means birds arrive later than they otherwise would—and perhaps miss a key food source or mating period. 

What can we do to help restore natural migration routes? For starters, we can turn off any unnecessary outdoor lighting at night. Mennill's team is researching other options, such as changing the intensity of street lights. Whatever they come up with, we're all for it. 

Sacrifice Mosquitoes to Rescue Hawaii's Birds?

Paradise would not be paradise without birds. Unfortunately, Hawaii's native bird population has been dwindling since the accidental introduction of mosquitoes in 1826 by a whaling vessel that dumped maggots into a stream on Maui. With mosquitoes came avian malaria, and with avian malaria came bad news for Hawaii's native birds, which had never encountered any disease like it. The U.S. Geological Survey is now saying that extinction seems to be imminent for some native species, especially on the island of Kawaii, which does not have mountains into which birds can retreat from mosquitoes. 

The Hawaiian archipelago is separated by 2,500 miles from the nearest land. It possesses a diversity of species even greater than the Galapagos Islands; and, like on the Galapagos, these organisms developed in such isolation that they weren’t adapted to the threats brought by Western explorers and immigrants. These days, 434 species of plants and animals are listed as endangered by the United States. More than half the native forest birds are already extinct.

A proposed solution is to create mosquitoes genetically engineered to die off before they reach reproductive age. A group of government officials, conservationists, and scientists in Hawaii are discussing the viability of such an idea. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which is responsible for endangered species, recently said it was looking at different recovery plans for forest birds. Among these is the mosquito method. 

A decade ago, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service estimated the cost would be $2.5 billion over 30 years to preserve Hawaii's native forest birds. These plans included buying land and restoring habitats. But genetically modified mosquitoes could be much less expensive.

This is not to say that Hawaiians—or we here at Talkin' Birds, for that matter—are easy with the thought of genetically tinkering with nature. But the fact remains that mosquito technology is a potential fix for human diseases such as Zika. Currently, fighting human disease gets the attention and the funding, but conservation could become just as important a use of this biotechnology.


The Dodo May Not Have Been a Dodo

The word "dodo" has long been a synonym for "stupid." In fact, "dodo" comes from "doudo," the Portuguese word for "stupid." The large, flightless Dodo bird (Raphus cucullatus), once native to the Indian Ocean island of Mauritius, went extinct about 400 years ago, less than 100 years after it was discovered by humans. Popular culture blames the bird. However, new research suggests that the Dodo might have been at least as smart as the pigeons to which it was related.

In a recent article in the Zooligical Journal of the Linnean Society Dr. Eugenia Gold and her team at the National Museum of Scotland and the Natural History Museum of Denmark describe how they went about reimagining the Dodo's cognitive capacity.

Dr. Gold and her team started with a well-preserved skull from the National History Museum in London, which they imaged with high-resolution computer tomography (CT) scanning. They then used CT scanning to capture images of the skulls of seven species of pigeons plus the Dodo's closest relative, the Rodrigues Solitaire (Pezophaps solitaria), another extinct island-dwelling bird. From these scans, the team built virtual endocasts (casts of the braincase) to determine the overall brain size and the size of different brain structures in the different species.

Among their findings: the Dodo's brain was in about the same proportion to its body as a pigeon's. This means that the Dodo may have been about as bright as a pigeon. Since pigeons are smart enough to be trained, the implication is that Dodos may have possessed a moderate level of intelligence. Of course there's more to intelligence than brain size, but it's a good start.

One unexpected finding was that the olfactory bulb–the part of the Dodo's brain responsible for smell—seemed to be enlarged. This is unusual in birds, which typically have brains developed for keen eyesight. The Rodrigues Solitaire had a similarly enlarged olfactory bulb. Gold and her team suggest that, being flightless land-dwellers, Dodos and Solitaires may have depended on their sense of smell rather than their eyesight to hunt for food. 

One rather mysterious result: the research team discovered a strange curvature in the Dodo's semicircular canal—the balance organ in the ear. The team has yet to find a good hypothesis for this feature.

Want the whole story? Check out the team's findings in the Zoological Journal of the Linnean Society.



A Few Penguin Facts in Honor of World Penguin Day

April 25th was World Penguin Day. Why this date? We're not sure, but we think it's to commemorate the annual migration of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae). Every April 25th, they dive into the Antarctic and swim a few hundred miles north (about 600 km) to where the ice is broken up so they can feed easily. They hang out there until spring (which is fall here in the Northern hemisphere).

There are 17 known penguin species, all of which live in the Southern hemisphere. The largest is the Emperor penguin (Aptenodytes forsteri) and the smallest is the Little Blue penguin (Eudyptula minor). Emperors can get to be about 4 feet tall (120 cm), while Little Blues stand only about 16 Inches tall (40 cm).

Most of us aren't aware that there are African penguins. The Blackfooted, or African, penguin (Spheniscus demersus) is native to South Africa, Namibia, and some offshore islands. 

Then there are the Yellow-Eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes), which live in New Zealand. Their chicks take 100 days to reach maturity. 

The Galapagos penguin (Spheniscus mendiculus) breeds right on the equator. 

The Chinstrap penguin (Pygoscelis antarctica) nests in enormous colonies. One colony in the South Sandwich (Antarctic) Islands consists of 10,000,000 penguins. 

The first egg in the best of a pair of Macaroni penguins (Eudyptes chrysolophus) is up to 64% smaller than the second egg. This first egg rarely hatches. 

Can't wait for next year's World Penguin Day? Well, January 20th is Penguin Awareness Day. We here at Talkin' Birds think we'll wear our tuxes.






Preventing Concussions: Learning from Woodpeckers

Why Don't Woodpeckers Get Headaches? is not only the title of Mike O'Connor's first book. It's also the driving question behind a new device that could help prevent concussions. Here's the problem: While helmets can prevent skull fractures, they can’t prevent concussions. The brain floats in fluid inside the skull and can therefore slosh around during impact. The solution? Consider the woodpecker. 

Dr. David Smith, CEO of Xennovate Medical, received a bit of advice from an attendee at one of his lectures in 2007. The advice was to investigate how woodpeckers manage to knock their heads against trees all day without suffering any ill effects. Smith appreciated the advice and began studying woodpeckers. 

A woodpecker has a very long tongue. In some species, the tongue is supported by bones that wrap all the way around the head. It appears that the tongue compresses the bones, and therefore the neck veins, as the woodpecker thrusts its head forward. The resulting slight increase in skull fluid volume helps keep the brain from knocking against the skull.

Smith wondered whether the same effect could be reproduced in humans, perhaps with some kind of collar. He contacted Dr. Julian Bailes—yes, the doctor played by Alec Baldwin in the 2015 movie Concussion. Bailes had testified before Congress in 2009 about head injuries in the NFL, having been team doctor for the Pittsburgh Steelers from 1988-98.

Smith and Bailes designed a collar that gently presses on the back and sides of the neck, leaving the throat unobstructed. The pressure slightly compresses the jugular vein, slowing the blood flow out of the brain. The result: the skull temporarily contains an extra teaspoon of blood. This extra teaspoon of volume, which causes no harm, reduces the amount of sloshing that the brain can do when the head is walloped.

Smith and Bailes tested their first model on rats. It worked well enough that they decided to move on to human subjects. Three years ago, Smith and Bailes invited Dr. Gregory Myer at the Human Performance Laboratory at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to join their effort. They tested the collar with high school football players. The results will appear in a paper that Myer intends to submit for publication early next year.

Performance Sports Group, which makes Bauer ice hockey equipment and Cascade lacrosse helmets, has committed $7 million toward production of the band. More importantly, CEO Kevin Davis has such confidence in the band’s effectiveness that he’s asked his son to wear it when he plays hockey.

We hope he says "Thank you" to any woodpeckers he sees or hears on the way to practice. 


Flying Ghost Cat?

Next time you use Google, try searching on the phrase "the internet names animals." You'll get a photo of a zebra labelled "PRISON PONY," a rhinoceros labelled "LEATHER TANK," and a crocodile labelled "AMERICAN MURDER LOG," among other gags. These silly animal names are an internet meme--that is, they're popular and spreading rapidly. We here at Talkin' Birds like to stay ahead of the trends (you know how fashionable we are!), so we thought we'd start a meme titled "the internet names birds." We don't want you left behind, so contribute your own! In fact, if you've got an idea and you don't have a chance to make it yourself, tell us about it and we'll try to post it for you on our Facebook page.

Here are some starters....

 Snowy Owl

Snowy Owl

 Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

 Broad-Billed Hummingbird

Broad-Billed Hummingbird

Now it's your turn!


Sharp-witted Birds of the Antarctic

Crows, magpies, and mockingbirds have been known to recognize individual people. These birds live among people, though, so it makes sense that they would develop this ability. Scientists in South Korea have recently reported that the Brown Skuas of Antarctica can recognize people, too, but they hardly ever see us. The journal Animal Cognition details the findings. 

Researchers who accessed skua nests to measure eggs and nestlings noticed that parent birds seemed to target them for attack when they visited repeatedly. "I had to defend myself against the skuas' attack," says Yeong-Deok Han, a PhD student at Inha University. "When I was with other researchers, the birds flew over me and tried to hit me. Even when I changed my field clothes, they followed me."

The research team performed a series of experiments to make sure the birds were indeed recognizing people. First, the researchers checked the nests once a week to monitor breeding and to accustom the skuas to being visited. The skuas responded by attacking at greater distances with repeated visits, indicating that they recognized intrusions more quickly. Next, to test whether the birds could distinguish researchers who'd visited the nests from those who had not, a pair of people consisting of one intruder (who had accessed the nests) and one neutral visitor (who had never accessed the nests) approached the nests and walked away in opposite directions. All seven skua pairs followed and tried to attack the intruder but never the neutral visitor.

Study leader Dr. Won Young Lee, a Senior Researcher from Korea Polar Research, is impressed by their cognitive ability. Dr. Lee states, "Since this area has been inhabited by humans only after the Antarctic research stations were installed, we think that the skuas could acquire the discriminatory abilities during a short-term period of living near humans."

The cognitive abilities of Antarctic animals have not been well studied. Brown Skuas have been known to steal food from other birds and even the breast milk of nursing elephant seals. According to the researchers, these opportunistic feeding habits might help keep their wits sharp.

Want to see how Brown Skuas react to nest intruders? Check out this video:

Nest-Building Lessons

Most birds build nests, but how do they know how to build them? It's not like there are published blueprints. Very little research has been done on how nest-building birds know what they know, but here's an intriguing study. 

Male Zebra Finches build circular, domed nests for their mates and chicks. New research at the University of St Andrews, Scotland, shows that Zebra Finch males learn to build these nests at least partly by watching other Zebra Finch males. However, they'll imitate only the males they know. 

Scientists in the School of Biology paired up female Zebra Finches with males who had never built a nest. Each pair watched the male of another pair build a nest; this male was either known to them or a stranger. While building, this male used pink or orange string, colors that Zebra Finches don't normally use. (How they got him to use those colors isn't explained. Our guess is they had him read a 1970's issue of Architectural Digest.)

When the time came for the newbie nest-builder to build his first nest, he used the same color string as the male who demonstrated--but only if the demonstrator was a familiar bird. If the demonstrator wasn't, then the newbie did not make the same color choice. 

The experiment showed that birds will turn to public information when they need to decide which materials to use to build their first nest, but only if they know the individual who provided the information. We think birds could teach human students a thing or two about doing research for school papers with Google. 

Dr Lauren Guillette of the School of Biology, lead of this study, suggests that birds might learn from one another in a way that resembles human beings' learning culture.  "This is called ‘social learning’, and can save time and effort for first-time nest-builders....Perhaps surprisingly, the birds did not always use this ‘advice’, especially if it came from a stranger. In humans, learning from those we know is one way that cultural traditions are formed, from the tools we use to the clothes we wear or the music we listen to.”

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