Category Archives: Musings & News

Similar But Not Related

Greater flamingo in flight, Walvis Bay (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Just because birds resemble each other doesn’t mean they’re related.

Flamingos and cranes are both tall birds with long necks and long legs but they come from different branches of the taxonomic tree.

Sandhill cranes in flight, Bosque del Apache (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

They resemble each other in flight and on the ground.

Greater flamingos at Kutch (photo from Wikimedia Commons)
Sandhill cranes in Lawrence County PA, July 2020 (photo by Steve Gosser)

However flamingos are related to grebes and cranes are related to sandpipers as shown in the phylogenomic supertree below. (Note the purple rectangles that highlight the birds.)

As odd as it seems, here are flamingos and cranes with much closer relatives.

Pied-billed grebe (by Chuck Tague) and flamingo (from Wikimedia Commons)
Least sandpiper and sandhill cranes (photos by Steve Gosser)

It’s possible to be similar but not related.

Keep this in mind when you look at a hawk and a falcon. They are not closely related either.

(Sandhill cranes in Lawrence County PA by Steve Gosser; pied-billed grebe by Chuck Tague; phylgenomic supertree from MDPI; remaining photos from Wikimedia Commons. Click on the captions to see their origin)

Geese At Work

Geese at work, protecting the flock (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

On Labor Day let’s honor working birds. This year … domestic geese.

A couple of domestic geese are often kept with chickens to guard them from predators. Geese are always alert and will naturally honk and shout when they see danger. The chickens run for cover while the large and aggressive geese may attack the threat. Some geese are so aggressive that they’ve injured people. (By the way, Canada geese will attack if you approach their young.)

A farmer who used geese and guineafowl to guard his chickens says domestic geese are the best. Geese alarm only when they see a threat; the farmer knows there’s a good reason to check on the flock. Guineafowl are noisy but they alarm for almost anything.

When you see geese with chickens you can be sure those geese are at work.

p.s. When seen in Pennsylvania, geese like those pictured above are barnyard escapees. Here are some tips on their background: Chinese geese have long necks and knobs on their heads (top photo) and were domesticated from swan geese (Anser cygnoides). Domestic geese in white or gray with faces like snow geese (the attacking goose above) are descended from greylag geese (Anser anser).

p.p.s. Sometimes the geese are fooled. In Medieval manuscripts, stained glass windows and carvings a fox dressed up as a monk or priest preaches to geese and chickens, then ultimately eats one of them. “When the fox preaches, look to your geese.

Fox preaching to chickens and a goose from Book of Hours, Maastricht, 1st quarter of 14th century (image from Wikimedia Commons

Dolphins Tell Fishermen When To Throw Nets

Bottlenose dolphins on the ocean (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

For more than 173 years humans and dolphins have worked together to catch fish on the coast of Laguna, Brazil. Dolphins initiated the cooperation some time before 1847 and taught humans what to do.

The dolphins hunt by herding shoals of mullet in the estuary. The fish would escape into shallow water except that the humans are helping.

Fishermen stand in the water with cast-nets and wait for a dolphin to signal them. When the signal comes, the fishermen throw their nets and catch many fish. The rest of the fish flee to deeper water where the dolphins are waiting to eat them.

Humans and dolphins both catch more fish than they would working alone.

Watch how it’s done in this Animal Planet video.

(photo from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)

Convergent Behavior

Eurasian wryneck (photo by Imran Shah via Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons license)

Did you know that, when threatened, this Eurasian woodpecker uses the same distraction display as a South American flycatcher? Though the birds aren’t related their similar behavior looks like convergent evolution.

Convergent evolution is when similar traits evolve in unrelated species because they’ve had to adapt to similar environments.

A classic example is the body shape of sharks and porpoises. Both have long streamlined bodies, dorsal fins and flippers because both must swim fast to catch underwater prey.

Black-tipped reef shark, Maldives (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But sharks are fish and porpoises are mammals. They aren’t related.

Long-beaked common dolphin (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Here’s another example of convergent appearance.

Eastern meadowlark, yellow-throated longclaw (photos from Wikimedia Commons)

The eastern meadowlark of North America (a member of the blackbird family Icterid) and the yellow-throated longclaw of Africa (a member of the wagtail/pipit family Motacillidae) live in similar habitats on separate continents. Though strikingly similar they are not related.

So what do you think? Is the neck-turning behavior of the Eurasian wryneck (Jynx torquilla) …

… like the distraction display of the royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) of Central and South America?

Royal Flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) display

(Video courtesy of Cameron Rutt via Flickr; see more about this bird here).

While they’re unable to escape both birds twist their necks. Perhaps the goal is to mesmerize the predator. It looks like convergent behavior to me.

p.s. See more examples of convergent evolution at this Univ of Texas link.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons. Videos by Anders Nielsen on YouTube and courtesy of Cameron Rutt on Flickr)

Yellow Leaves, Seeds and Goats

Spicebush hints at autumn, Schenley Park, 26 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

29 August 2020

It’s beginning to look like fall is coming though it hasn’t felt that way. This past week was hot and muggy yet spicebush leaves are starting to turn yellow and many flowers have gone to seed.

Wild senna (Senna hebecarpa) now has long green bean pods.

Wild senna seed pods, Schenley Park, 27 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

How did these flowers transform into beans?

Meanwhile at Frick Park the goats and their guard donkey are back in the large enclosure at Clayton East, munching away at invasive plants. The black goat at the fence is eating mile-a-minute weed on the fencing. Yay!

The goats are back! Frick Park, 28 Aug 2020 (photo by Kate St. John)

For more information about the goats see this month’s announcement. If you’d like to see the goats at work here’s a map of Frick Park’s Clayton area and the goats’ approximate location.

(photos by Kate St. John and from Wikimedia Commons; see the captions for photo credits)

Life Imitates Math Imitates Life

Icebergs would love to look like this — a gömböc (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mathematicians spend a lot of time working on problems in their heads, imagining solutions and proposing theorems. Sometimes an engineer is inspired to flesh out a proposal in real life to prove it’s true. Thus was born the gömböc, pictured above.

In 1995 Russian mathematician Vladimir Arnold described a theoretical object that has just one stable and one unstable point of equilibrium. When it sits on a flat surface it always rights itself like a roly poly toy except the gömböc is not weighted (the toy is).

The gömböc was harder to flesh out than you’d think. Hungarian engineer Gábor Domokos discussed the theory with Arnold in 1995. In 2006 he presented the real life solution. This 5 minute video shows why a gömböc is unique and describes Domokos’ quest.

During the quest, Domokos looked for gömböcs in nature and found tortoises that are shaped this way.

If an Indian star tortoise ends up on his back, he draws into his shell and automatically rights himself because his shape closely resembles a gömböc. (He has to use his limbs sometimes due to less than flat ground conditions and shell imperfections.)

Indian star tortoise resembles a gömböc (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Life imitates math imitates life.

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

Birds Were Their Favorite Animals

The Spider, Nazca Lines, Peru (aerial photo from Wikimedia Commons)

20 August 2020:

Today’s Picture of the Day at Wikimedia Commons is an aerial photo of the 154-foot-long geoglyph called the Spider, one of the Nazca Lines of Peru.

The Nazca Lines are hundreds of enormous lines and figures in the Nazca Desert, created about 2,000 years ago when people cleared the reddish pebble surface from the underlying soil. The desert’s stable windless climate has kept the lines visible to this day, helped by the fact that the underlying soil contains lime which hardens when exposed to morning mist.

Many of the Nazca Lines are long straight lines or geometric patterns but more than 70 are animals. The most frequently depicted are birds. Some of the birds are local, some from far away. Naturally the Nazca people depicted an Andean condor though it appears to have a hummingbird’s beak.

If you find it difficult to see the condor click here for an outlined image or compare it to the Andean condor below.

Andean condor in flight, Colca Canyon, Peru (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

My favorite of the birds, and perhaps theirs too, is the hummingbird whose geoglyph is 305 feet long!

Learn more about the Nazca Lines, see the hummingbird and others from the air in this vintage article: A 2000-year-old Drawing of…

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

Mixed Up Ducks

Mixed up ducks in Germany (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the challenges of city birding is identifying the mixed up ducks not found in any field guide. These “mutt ducks” are the hybrids of mallards paired with escaped domestic ducks.

It’s easy for domestic ducks to hybridize with mallards because nearly all of them(*) are descended from mallards (Anas platyrhynchos).

Mallard cross with a domestic duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Mallards hybridize with wild ducks, too, as shown in this a mallard X gadwall mix.

Mallard X gadwall hybrid Brewer’s duck (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

Some ornithologists worry that mallards will hybridize their closest relatives — American black ducks, Mexican ducks and mottled ducks — out of existence, as in this mallard X Mexican duck mix.

Mallard X Mexican duck hybrid (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

But perhaps they’re forgetting how recently those species evolved from mallards. The Mexican duck (Anas diazi) that occurs in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest was thought to be a subspecies of mallard until 1957.

Mallards are just working on creating new species. 😉

Read more about mixed up ducks in this vintage article: Ugly Ducks

(*) Some domestic ducks are descended from Muscovy ducks.

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

Moving Day

The Last Load: Can’t you take a few things more?
Moving Day cartoon, New York City 1869 (image from Wikimedia Commons)

Today my husband and I are officially downsizing from a house in Greenfield to a high-rise in Oakland. We’re not moving far, just 1.7 miles as the crow flies.

Moving itself is a pain but I’ll be in a neighborhood I know well, having worked nearby at WQED for 24 years. I’ll miss Greenfield’s nesting robins, cardinals and song sparrows but I’ll gain closeups of my favorite birds: common nighthawks, roosting chimney swifts, the winter crows and peregrine falcons.

Did I say peregrine falcons? Here’s a view from the high-rise roof deck (not from our apartment). When I took this photo I saw two peregrines perched on the Cathedral of Learning, one on the north face, one on the east.

View from the roof of my new home (photo by Kate St. John)

Today we’ll be really busy moving from one side of Schenley Park to the other.

The movers come at 8:45am. Gotta run!

(photo by Kate St. John. Moving Day cartoon from Wikimedia Commons, click on the caption to see the original)

Ants Know When To Quarantine

Black garden ants (photo from Wikimedia Commons)

One of the biggest challenges facing the U.S. during the coronavirus pandemic is our poor ability to quarantine to stop the spread. This summer’s COVID-19 surge in Pittsburgh was sparked by travelers who returned from vacation (Myrtle Beach, Hilton Head, Florida, Raleigh, Nashville) but did not quarantine for 14 days.

Perhaps we could learn from ants. An April article in Treehugger described how social species avoid each other to stop the spread of disease. This includes black garden ants.

Ants are very social creatures, always working together to feed and protect the colony. Nurse ants stay inside the nest and tend the larvae; workers forage outside for food. A study of black garden ants found that when workers contract a fungal infection they know to stay outside the nest and avoid contact with other ants. Meanwhile nurse ants move the larvae deeper inside the nest to avoid infection. Ants basically quarantine themselves.

We could learn a lot from ants.

Read more at “How other species handle social distancing when someone is sick.”

p.s. The article also describes other species that practice social distancing including bees, mice, monkeys and bullfrog tadpoles.

(photos from Wikimedia Commons; click on the caption to see the original)