We’re familiar with these facts:
- Brown Pelicans are saltwater birds, sticking to the coasts.
- It’s only the male bird that sings.
- Birds that migrate fly north in the spring and south in the fall.
- Great Blue Herons eat aquatic insects, crustaceans, amphibians (such as frogs) and fish.
- Males have the ornate feathers, while females tend to be drab and camouflaged.
We think we know. We think we understand. We’ve observed, conducted studies, collected facts. We think we have it right. And then Mother Nature confounds us.
- Front Range birders were recently thrilled by the arrival of a Brown Pelican—here in landlocked Colorado, over a thousand miles from the nearest ocean.
- A 2014 study found that “of 71% of all songbird species with available data, the female sings too.” Surprise!
- Some bird species migrate northward in the fall. One example is the Blackcap (Sylvia atricapilla), which moves from continental to northern Europe for the winter. In the southern hemisphere, with its seasons reversed from ours, some birds migrate south for the summer, and northward to more temperate climes for the winter. Finally, some bird species (such as our Dark-eyed Junco) migrate between higher and lower altitudes. (Juncos also move latitudinally.)
- A Colorado birder recently posted a video on Facebook of a Great Blue Heron catching and eating a pocket gopher. When I searched online, I turned up numerous similar videos. Here’s one.
- Males aren’t always the fancier sex. Male electus parrots (Eclectus roratus) are plain green, matching their tropical backgrounds) while the females are a brilliant red. (Photo from Wikipedia.) Female phalaropes are larger and more brightly colored than the males. These are Wilson’s Phalaropes; the female is on the left.
I could go on. Birds have no sense of smell—except Turkey Vultures (and some others) do. The female incubates the eggs—except that actually, both sexes share that duty in the majority of bird species. Swans are monogamous—except an Australian study found that “extra-pair copulation” is the rule, and one in six cygnets is the result of such an affair. And this is true of other so-called monogamous species as well.
There aren’t many “rules” that nature hasn’t broken. I used to assert these and other “everybody knows” facts with confidence. Now I use words such as “usually” and “often” with a large dollop of humility on top.
It reminds me of scuba diving on the reef off Belize. As we traveled southward, the barracuda we encountered (and there were plenty) seemed to grow in size. It’s probably an illusion—I’m sure there are big and small fish all over—but those we saw ranged from fingerlings in the north to “Barrie”—the 6-foot, stiletto-toothed monster I ran into down south. I had read up on these predators before our trip, and all the articles assured me that they wouldn’t eat people, as long as nothing shiny caught their attention (think fishing lure). But when you’re 35 feet down and there’s a huge shadow overhead (hanging out between you and the boat on the surface), you wonder—did this barracuda read those articles?
Apparently, birds don’t read either—which is yet one more reason birding is so much fun. You never know what you’ll find.