11 Unusual Facts About Birds
Jan Savery's 1651 Painting of a Dodo
1: New Lease of Life for the Dodo?
In the Oxford University Museum of Natural History are the only real body parts of the dodo in existence. Plaster casts of the treasured specimens are on display. The genuine articles, though, are kept securely behind the scenes in the storeroom, available only to those given over to serious study of one of the most famous of extinct animals.
The two fragments, dating back to the seventeenth century, are preserved in two boxes each containing a foot and a head. Skin tightly sheaths the skull. Similar to the pinprick marks you'd see on a plucked turkey, it's possible to see where feathers once sprouted, and indeed there are a few small feathers remaining around the beak. The foot, covered in scales, is kept in the smaller of the two boxes.
There are recent thoughts that this precious flesh, present only on a head, and a single foot, might yield DNA of enough robustness to regenerate this iconic bird. But how might it be done?
In the United States scientists collaborating under the organisation Revive and Restore think it may be possible using cutting edge reproductive and genetic technology. And incredibly they're talking of a timescale within the next twenty years. Not to say there are't considerable hurdles to overcome.
Unfortunately living in Mauritius, in the tropics, conditions are the exact opposite for the good preservation of samples. Leave a slab of meat out on a hot sunny day and it soon goes off, as you know. Unsurprisingly, the tiny bits of soft tissue available for scientists to work with is not of outstanding quality. Rather the opposite.
Nevertheless, revival of the dodo is still on the cards. The work required is lengthy by any standards. Using the genome of a chicken, probably the nearest living relative to the dodo, the revolutionary idea is to modify its genome to recreate the extinct organism. It's a slow process - we are talking somewhere in the region of a million changes.
Once you have your genome-complete cell, it's popped into a host - probably another chicken and fertlised, which in turn produces another chicken with dodo sperm and so on. As you can surmise, nothing is going to happen overnight. Still, if the whole genome of Neanderthal man, who inhabited our planet thousands of years before the dodo, can be mapped then maybe this genetic-led technology stands a real chance of success.
So you never know, this odd looking bird, first described by Dutch sailors in 1598 and completely dead by about 1680 - less than a shameful one hundred years after coming in contact with humans - may walk the earth again. At first it would be kept in captivity, then eventually released back into its original habitat on the island we associate with it, well away from the predators which did it in.1
And that well-known phrase 'as dead as a dodo' might in turn, become extinct.
The Oxford University Museum Dodo Specimen
Lewis Carroll and the Dodo
Lewis Carroll was a don at Oxford University and came to see artifacts on display in the museum. He drew his inspiration from the dodo for his famous character in Alice in Wonderland and it's believed the dodo was indeed how Lewis Carroll personified himself.
2: Cackling Cuckoos
Think of the cuckoo and you immediately bring to mind that two note call, falling downwards, traditionally associated with the arrival of spring. It's the call that's inspired the onomatopoeic name of the bird - cuc-koo. But it's not the only way the cuckoo hails to the unsuspecting in its territory.
It's now been researched that after a cuckoo lays its egg in a different nest, the female of the species mimics the call of a sparrowhawk. The research focused on reed warblers and, just as the villain of the piece in a pantomime might cackle after he or she has performed an evil deed, incredibly so does the female cuckoo.
After hiding undercover in the marsh, she patiently awaits her opportunity and whilst her targeted nest's guardian has its back turned, nips in and lays her egg. This parasitic act of deception takes a mere ten seconds or less.
Then immediately after, the female cuckoo opens its beak and instead of emitting the soporific dual note hoot, she turns raucous and crows the laugh of triumph. But why would she be drawing attention to herself when she's so carefully stage-managed her subterfuge? After all, she's just tried to hoodwink an innocent bird into taking on her foreign egg as its own. Won't it notice and turf it out?
But so closely does this call resemble the sparrowhawk's that it fools the duped bird into thinking danger is nearby, and it flies to a safer place to save its skin, leaving the eggs exposed. On its return the poor disturbed bird is unaware of the pretender who is intent on murdering its step brothers and sisters now settled comfortably into the nest..
The cuckoo is clever enough to limit this call to this event - if it cackled on a regular basis the warbler could easily wise up and conclude its rival was in effect, crying wolf, or should I say, sparrowhawk?2
So next time you hear a sparrowhawk in spring, just take another second to think - now is it really a sparrowhawk, or could it be something else intending on treachery?
Cuckoo Being fed By a Reed Warbler
3: The World's Highest Flyer
Ever wondered which bird flies the highest?
I'm always mesmerised watching birds of prey - buzzards and kites are common round where I live - picking up the thermals, rising higher and higher until they're mere cruising specks.
And indeed it is a raptor winning this particular prize - Ruppell's griffon vulture - sailing the skies at a comfortable 20,000 feet from where it can detect its next meal over the savannah due to the most astonishingly sharp eyesight.
Carrion eating griffon vultures are recorded as achieving, perhaps not quite stratospheric heights, but still dizzy by anyone's standards, soaring on its wingspan of 241 cms to 37,100 feet. We know this fact because the hapless bird met with a jet airplane which just happened to share its flight path.3
Ruppell's Griffion Vulture
Rupell's vulture was named after Eduard Ruppell who travelled extensively around Africa in the nineteenth century, mapping the region, collecting zoological specimens and even ancient Ethiopian manuscripts. He lived an extraordinarily long life, dying at the grand old age of ninety in 1884.
4: Forty Thousand year Old Bone Flutes
The griffon vulture is a high flyer in another sense, having lent itself to an auspicious artefact - the oldest known bone flute, dated to around 40,000 years old.
It was discovered in the Hohle Fels cave near Ulm, Gemany and made from the radius of the vulture. Having a large wingspan, this bird was ideal in providing a convenient length for such an instrument. As bird bones are hollow but strong, the maker was able to fashion holes with relative ease. Ivory is more difficult. It needs to be cut in half, hollowed out, the finger holes bored, then glued back together creating an airtight seal - difficult to achieve.
Far from looking obscure, this bone flute is remarkably similar to any whistle-type instrument you'd find today. Not only that but it sounds familiar too, the finger holes are spaced at intervals to produce the pentatonic scale still very much in in popular use around the world.4
For any of us who have played only the black notes on a piano keyboard, this is the sound of the five note pentatonic scale. It's used in jazz and the blues and you can find a plethora of guitar based examples on how to play these scales on the internet.
Wulf Hein is an experimental archaeologist who has made a replica of the griffin bird bone flute and you can hear him playing it at the Holhe Fels cave site via the video here. He even plays the Star Spangled Banner on it! A happy marriage of ancient and modern.
Wulf Hein Playing a Replica of the 40,000 Year Old Bone Flute
5: The Oldest Bird Vomit
120 million years ago in the Cretaceous period, ancient toothed enantiornithe birds were regurgitating pellets from their gizzards.
The gizzard is a part of a bird's stomach devoted to squeezing the indigestible parts of its food into dried pills using a method called antiperistalsis. In effect the bird's throat is designed to contract and reverse the downward trend of whatever its eaten and throw it back up.
The fossilised pellet was discovered in the Jehol region of China in Liaoning province. It was lodged under a wing and the bird evidently died shortly after its final regurgitation. The paleontologist Min Wan studied the specimen and concluded the pellet was distinguished from poo by the inedible fish bones scrunched up in it.5
Now that's one pellet that's come up in the world.
Example of a Bird Pellet
6: Teeth Versus Gums For Birds
The first types of birds had teeth. Whats's the received wisdom of why we don't come across toothed birds today?
When the asteroid slammed into the Yucatan peninsula 65 million years ago, it created a dark cloud so widespread as to globally block out the sun for nearly a year. Toothed birds were designed to tear at flesh, potential meat that was quickly dying off as, in turn, the food supplies of those they predated also ran out. But the birds adapted to consuming seeds were able to draw on a nutritional supply with storage longevity, and survived the catastrophe.6
How refreshing to think a life without teeth can actually be an advantage!
Monograph of an Extinct Toothed Bird
7: Barn Owls Don't Turn a Deaf Ear
Unlike humans, barn owls don't lose their hearing as old age creeps up on them.
Tests measuring the hearing capabilities of captive barn owls from the very young to the very old found no deterioration in the level of sound they were able to detect. Scientists discovered barn owls are able to regrow cells in the inner ear, preventing the onset of deafness.
As we approach the age of 65, on average we will have lost 30 decibels of high register frequencies. For millions of us straining to hear, barn owls are now regarded as a pathway that could transform our auditory experience. And then we'll all be able to easily make out their screech in the dead of night. What a hoot that would be!7
The Beautiful Barn Owl
8: What's in a Name For Robin Redbreast?
You might be surprised to learn that the real name for the robin is redbreast. Robin is only a nick name, like Jenny is for the wren and Jim for a crow.
But if you really observe the redbreast, it's not red at all, it's orange! So why is it called redbreast?
The word 'orange' didn't enter the English language until those juicy oranges started to be imported and appeared at the English table - the word takes its name after the fruit and is old French. Before that the orange colour as we know it was referred to in hybrid form - yellow-red.
As there wasn't a dedicated word to refer to the robin's bright breast, the nearest available colour was settled upon, and redbreast has stuck until this day.8
Robins aren't born with orange breasts. It's thought this is to stop fatal clashes for the younger less experienced birds over territorial rights . They don't acquire their lovely warm waistcoat until after the first moult.
9: Ostriches Think They're Lions
Male ostriches may not only run fast, or be the heaviest bird on the planet or have the largest eye in the animal kingdom. They roar!
Well maybe not quite like a lion but its booming call is designed to be a warning call to rivals wanting to encroach on his territory. Ostriches live in groups of around ten or so and there's no way any self-respecting male of the species is going to relinquish his girls after he's fought so hard to win them. Hence his roar.9
Sound of the Ostrich Roar
10: The Emperor Penguin is Breathtaking
The Emperor penguin, the largest of the penguin family, is a highly fascinating bird.
Not only do they raise their chick, just the one, in the most gruelling of conditions, but this remarkable avian is able to hold its breath the longest of all birds. It can last an amazing 22 minutes underwater, diving down to a murky 550 meters coping with extreme water pressure.
But how does the Emperor penguin hold its breath for so long? To conserve oxygen while swimming to the depths of the ocean, the Emperor penguin alters its heart rate.
Before the dive its heart rate measures between 70 and 80 beats per minute. But as it prepares to plunge down into the sea it tops itself up with oxygen and its heart rate rises to between 180 and 200 bpm. It slows down dramatically as it enters the ocean when it drops to just 20 bpm, preserving oxygen as it searches for food. On resurfacing the penguin restocks its oxygen levels by raising the heart rate again to its pre-dive intake, to 180 bpm.
All in the pursuit of foraging for fish in Antarctic waters in order to feed a chick on an ice shelf at up to -60°, battling through winds reaching up to 180 km per hour, the males fasting for an average of 115 days while the females are away searching for food.10
The illusionist David Blaine may have set himself many feats: entombed in ice, 44 days without food and briefly holding the record for the longest held human breath at 17 minutes 4.5 seconds. He just didn't do them all at the same time.
Emporer Penguins Go For a Dive
11: The Singing Feathers of the Club-Winged Manakin
Thousands upon thousands of words have been written about birdsong. Like me though, would you assume the sweet trills, caws or cackles are solely produced through the beak?
Of course most of the time they are, but there is a bird that has another trick up its sleeve. Or rather, its wing.
Researcher Kimberley Bostock was in the Andean forest when she observed a male club-winged manakin vibrating one of it feathers against its neighbour. The bird gets its name from the club shape of one type of wing feathers and it was this one that he was vibrating against a regular ridged feather. Remarkably it seemed to be causing them to resonate and therefore produce sound. However she had to somehow prove it was indeed the feathers that were making the sounds she could hear, and didn't come from its throat.
To verify her prediction that this was indeed the case, Bostock had to recreate the effect in the laboratory with specimens she collected. The sound she had recorded oscillated at 1500 cycles per second, or 1500 hertz. When she tested the feathers she knew they would also have to vibrate at the same rate to confirm her hunch.
To do this the team used a piece of equipment using lasers called a mini-shaker which calculated the cycles per seconds. Lo and behold Bostock's hypothesis held up. It was indeed the feathers 'singing' away.
But that wasn't the end of the story. Bostock then looked at the surrounding feathers on the same ligament. Nine of them also vibrated, amplifying the sound. The little bird was a musical ensemble all on its own, a sort of Elton John accompanying himself at the piano, singing into the microphone. All power to its elbow, don't you think?11
To read about classical music inspired by birds click here.
The Club-Winged Manakin
1 BBC Natural History
2 BBC Earth News
3 Zoological Society of London
4 Live Science
5 The Daily Mail
6 The Telegraph
7 Hearing Times
8 BBC Nature
10 Planet Science
11 National Geographic
© 2017 Frances Metcalfe