What do the Ostrich, Kiwi, penguin, and Giant Coot have in common? Yes, they’re all birds—but none of them can fly. In fact, there are over 60 species of flightless birds, including all the Ratities (the family that includes the Ostrich, Rhea, Emu, and similar species) and all the penguins (in spite of the evidence in this video):
Here’s a little quiz with two questions.
- What do ARLO, LEVI, ROSA, WILL, GREG, and CORA have in common?
- What do the following words have in common? MALL, HOME, LIMP, KILL, SURF, SAND, LIST, UNDO, WILL, DOVE, LITE, COTE, SATE, MASH, GLIB, HASH, SNOW, BARS, VEER, CORE, HASP and LISP
It sounds so romantic, the idea that swans mate for life. If one dies, its mate also dies—of a broken heart. How faithful. How tragic. How so not true.
Birds are pretty amazing creatures. A recent question from a friend helped me realize just how amazing.
Our friends recently returned from a Caribbean cruise. At one point, when they were somewhere off the coast of Yucatan, their ship was out of sight of land. Yet, to their surprise, there were birds flying overhead. When they got back, they asked me, “How could the birds be out in the middle of the ocean like that? Don’t they need land nearby so they can rest?”
Many serious birders keep a life list of the bird species they’ve seen. We can tell you exactly how many birds are on that list, and there’s great excitement when we can add a new “lifer.” We may also have a list of “target birds,” those not yet seen, and we often spend considerable effort tracking them down. But once a year, we have an opportunity to add a new bird or two without lifting a finger.
All year, ornithologists are busy debating bird taxonomy. They present evidence—behavioral, morphological, a new DNA analysis, etc.—to support their opinions as to which species need to be split into two, which need to be lumped together as one (perhaps as subspecies), which need to be moved to a different genus, and other taxonomic changes. Every July, the AOS (American Ornithological Society) publishes the agreed-upon changes, and we all scramble to update our life lists.
As my grandmother always said, “Horses sweat. Men perspire. Women glow.” How do we avoid this sticky situation? Kids run through sprinklers and adults head for the air conditioning, but what do the birds do when the thermometer climbs? They don’t sweat they can’t take advantage of the A/C. However, that doesn’t mean they just sit there and bake, either.
Because birds have relatively high body temperatures—a Golden Kinglet’s temperature was measured at 111° F!—it’s critical that they avoid getting too warm. Many essential proteins begin to break down at temperatures just a few degrees higher, so overheating could easily be fatal. Thankfully, birds have all sorts of ways of beating the heat.
Last year, our son-in-law, Ian, fell when the ladder he was using collapsed out from under him. Given that his head had been more or less at the same level as the eaves of their single story house, it had accelerated to approximately 13 feet per second when it hit the cement patio. Unsurprisingly, the impact knocked him out. Thankfully, all he suffered was a severe concussion. It could have been much worse.
From our backyard, I have been watching a Northern Flicker make a hole in the mostly-dead oak tree next door. According to one website, the woodpecker’s beak is hitting that trunk at a significantly higher speed than Ian’s head was going when it hit the pavement—closer to 19 feet per second.
Heinlein said that there’s no such thing as a free lunch.* He must not have been a birder. When the American Ornithological Union met this year, many birders added a new species to their life lists without even leaving their arm chairs. It’s time to update our field guides—even the brand new Sibley’s. The Western Scrub-Jay has now been split into the California Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma californica, left) and the Woodhouse’s Scrub-Jay (Aphelocoma woodhouseii).