Category Archives: Bird Behavior

What Swans Do With Their Heads Underwater

This week Britain’s BBO Wildlife Trust shared a glimpse into the underwater world of swans and ducks.

Mute swans have such long necks that they can feed on the bottom while floating on the surface. Ducks have to dive.

While the swan is feeding tufted ducks come and go, their bodies so buoyant that their feet must flap continuously to keep them submerged.

If this had been filmed in North America they would be our own species: tundra swans and ring-necked ducks.

(video from Jack Perks via BBO Wildlife Trust)

A Bird That Smells Like Manure

Hoatzin in Ecuador (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s an amazing bird unlike any other. Found in the Amazon and Orinoco Basins of South America, the pheasant-like hoatzin (pronounced Watson, Opisthocomus hoazin) eats leaves as 82% of its diet.

Leaves are really hard to digest so the bird has a huge crop that ferments the leaves and makes adult hoatzins smell like manure. The breath of mammal ruminants — cattle, sheep, goats, deer — may smell sweet. Not so with the hoatzin!

The hoatzin’s huge crop allows little room for flight muscles, so the bird is barely able to fly but that doesn’t matter. No one eats a bird that smells this bad.

Hoatzin in flight (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Hoatzin nestlings don’t smell bad yet so they have to escape predators. During development in the egg, the young birds retain vestigial wing claws that all other birds lose during gestation. Before they can fly, hoatzin nestlings can climb back into their nests!

Read more about hoatzins and see video of a nestling crawling back into the nest at this vintage blog post: Watson, I Presume.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

A Sampling of The Longest Lived

Laysan albatross named Wisdom with egg, Dec 2018, approximate age 68-70+ (photo by Madalyn Riley / USFWS Pacific on Flickr)

This morning I found a fascinating list of longest-lived organisms. Here’s a sampling, young to old.

The longest living bird on earth is Wisdom, a female Laysan albatross who was banded as an adult at Midway Atoll in 1956. Since her species cannot breed until it’s five years old and usually delays breeding until age seven or eight, Wisdom was at least 68 years old last November (maybe >70) when she returned to Midway to lay her annual egg, shown above. Like all of her species she spends most of her life at sea.

The longest-lived terrestrial animal is the Aldabra giant tortoise (Aldabrachelys gigantea) of the Aldabra Atoll in the Seychelles. An individual named Adwaita lived to be 225 years old at the Kolkatta (Calcutta) Zoo. Unfortunately this species is vulnerable to extinction. It is sadly ironic that they outlive us but may not outlast us as a species.

Aldabra giant tortoise (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

The world’s oldest living clonal organism is a stand of quaking aspens (Populus tremuloides), nicknamed Pando, that covers 106 acres near Fish Lake, Utah. The stand is a single “tree” whose trunks are shoots from a single clonal root. Pando is thought to be 80,000 years old but that’s the conservative estimate.  It may be as much as 1 million years old.

Pando, a clonal colony of quaking aspens 88,000 years old (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

And finally, for a really long life you can’t beat immortality. Hydras do not undergo aging so they’re considered biologically immortal. They can live forever, theoretically.

Image of a hydra, magnified (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My husband’s grandmother once said, “There’s such a thing as living too long.”

For a list of the longest-lived organisms, see this link at Wikipedia.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals)

The Whining Is Over

By the end of September the whining is over. Juvenile raptors, like this young red-tailed hawk, have left home to start life on their own. Now they hunt in silence. Loud begging scares their prey.

I miss the begging sounds of summer because they helped me find songbirds. The whining juvenile red-tailed hawk in the linked video below has attracted songbird attention.

Juvenile red-tailed hawk calling (click for the video by JustBirds)

How many songbirds can you identify in the background? (Hint: he was filmed in Michigan.)

(video from Cornell Lab Bird Cams, screenshot from JustBirds)

Sheltering From The Storm

Immature Cooper’s hawk sheltering in a garage in Boca Raton, 2 Sep 2019, 3:44pm (photo by Natalie Mitchell)

As Hurricane Dorian approached Florida on Labor Day afternoon and a storm band dowsed the area with wind and rain, my sister-in-law went into her garage in Boca Raton and found a bird, 15-18″ tall, perched high near the ceiling. She texted me a photo. “What is it?”

This immature Cooper’s hawk is too young to have seen a hurricane before, but he knows that the weather is bad and he can feel it’s going to get worse. If he’s a skillful hunter he’s already eaten a lot in anticipation of the storm and just needs a safe place to wait out the weather, so he picked the best available option. He came indoors.

Cooper’s hawks don’t breed in South Florida but they spend the winter there (see range map). This youngster arrived recently and is improvising in bad weather. So far so good.

Cooper’s hawk range map from Wikimedia Commons (orange=breeding, purple = all year, blue=winter)

The bird may have to wait in the garage for a while. Hurricane Dorian could take 24 hours to move out of the area.

When the storm is over this bird will be glad to leave.

UPDATE, 3 Sep 2019, 8a: The storm isn’t bad in Boca Raton. The hawk left.

(photo by Natalie Mitchell, range map from Wikimedia Commons)

Guineafowl At Work

Guineafowl at Aqualand Farm, Australia (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day let’s talk about working birds.

Guineafowl (Numididae) were domesticated for food but they work for us in other ways as well: They eat ticks and they’re great watchdogs.

When it comes to ticks, guineafowl perform a valuable service by reducing our exposure to Lyme disease. In the video below, a small flock is on tick patrol at Suffolk County Community College on Long Island, New York.

Their watchdog skills are important too, especially if a fox tries to get into the hen house. Guineafowl are quick to raise the alarm. They’re loud and they’re not shy about it.

But sometimes their idea of danger is not the same as ours. See the video below.

Guineafowl are so loud that it’s best to keep them where people don’t mind the noise.

Beaks Built For Fighting

Lesser violetear (green) confronts a sparkling violetear (photo by Julian Londono via Wikimedia Commons)

For centuries scientists have assumed that hummingbird beaks are always shaped for the flowers they feed on, but a recent study of their nectar-feeding mechanisms produced a surprising result. Some male hummingbirds have beaks that are inefficient for feeding but great for fighting.

Alejandro Rico-Guevara, an evolutionary biologist at UC Berkeley, assembled a team to study the biomechanics of nectar drinking. Using high-speed cameras they watched the entire feeding apparatus including bill shape, tongue shape, fluid trapping and elastic pumping.

Surprisingly, they found that male beak shapes in several South American species make it harder for males to draw in nectar. The females have nectar beaks but the males have straight dagger beaks or backwards facing teeth and hooked tips. You can see some of these features on the male tooth-billed hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis) below.

Tooth-billed hummingbird (photo by Andres M. Cuervo via Wikimedia Commons)

Among these species the females don’t fight much but the males are extremely belligerent. Examples include the tooth-billed hummingbird (Androdon aequatorialis) above, and the sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) and saw-billed hermit (Ramphodon naevius) below.

Sparkling violetear looks threatening (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Saw-billed hermit (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

This video from the UC Berkeley study shows what those beaks are really used for!

For more details see this article at Gizmodo and the study itself at Oxford Academic.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the captions to see the originals. video from UC Berkeley Research)

Blue Jay Fools A Young’un

Like other members of the Corvid family, blue jays (Cyanocitta cristata) are very intelligent and have strong family ties. Some of their intelligence and social awareness is put to use to fool each other, especially where food is involved.

Watch the video above by Lesley The Bird Nerd to see how an adult blue jay played a trick on a young one that was planning to steal his food.

(video by LesleyTheBirdNerd on YouTube. Click here for her YouTube site.)

Prankster on Camera

Last week Colin Roberts tweeted this video from one of his forest trailcams in southwest Scotland. His cameras record the activities of pine martens but the view is sometimes dominated by another species, the Eurasian jay.

Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)
Eurasian jay (photo by Pierre Dalous via Wikimedia Commons)

Eurasian jays (Garrulus glandarius) are intelligent, curious, and very vocal mimics. This particular jay punctuates his visits with the sounds of a squeaky tree, a tawny owl, and an amazing Star Wars riff.

Then he gets really close to the lens and … oh my!

(tweet and video by Colin Roberts @PinetenColin, photo from Wikimedia Commons)