Fun with owl pellets, part 1

Today I submitted the Big Grant Proposal that I’ve been working on for a while. To celebrate this, because I am a normal person, I dissected some owl pellets.

Now that's what I call a party.

Now that’s what I call a party.

These particular owl pellets were from Great Horned Owls—these ones, in fact:

owlpellets_owls_scratchingWhen an owl eats something, it doesn’t digest the whole thing. The hard-to-digest parts—bones, fur, exoskeleton—get smooshed into a pellet in the gizzard and then regurgitated. These pellets are a record of what the bird has eaten.

This is my "How is it your business what I've eaten?" look.

This is my “How is it your business what I’ve eaten?” look.

Continue reading

Our regular programming will resume shortly

I’ve been neglecting my blog-writing duties lately, preoccupied with the annual Big Grant Proposal Deadline. My grant proposal is on sexual selection in juncos. What part of juncos is sexually selected, you ask? Why, that flashy tail, of course! They’re practically peacocks!

LANK showing off his sexy tail

LANK showing off his sexy tail

You're not quite there yet, little one...

You’re not quite there yet, little one…

I’ve also been TAing a class on animal behavior, so while I don’t have many extra words to spare right now—I need them all for that grant proposal—I do have a wealth of animal videos that have been brought to my attention by my fellow animal behavior fans. Please accept some videos in lieu of words.

Here is a video of a bird even drabber than a junco who attracts females with his sexually selected aesthetic tastes in things like flowers, shiny beetles, and slightly… er… less attractive items as well: the Vogelkop Bowerbird.

And here are some flies that—well, you should just watch it to believe it. It starts with them gulping air bubbles into their heads, and that’s not even the weird part.

Why are they like that? Sexual selection! Females in this species prefer their males as hammerheaded as possible.

Hey, why not?

Chicks with attitude

2014_attitude1

Mammals—including us—use facial muscles to communicate, by, say, smiling or frowning. Reptiles and birds don’t do that: they don’t have the right muscles for it. If you think a bird looks grumpy, or angry, or has any similar human-type facial expression, you’re projecting your human perceptions onto an animal that really doesn’t work like that. (Now, whether the bird actually is grumpy is a different matter; I’m just saying that you can’t tell if it is by looking at its face.)

So the appearance that all these junco chicks have of possessing some serious attitude is merely an entertaining illusion.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

Continue reading

Velella velella! Or, falling off the edge of the world

They were strewn all along the beach, these transparent, tripartite things. At first glance they looked like plastic trash, but they felt organic in my fingers.

velella5

Fortunately I happened to be beachcombing with a world expert on marine invertebrates. “Ooh,” he said, “Velella!”

Velella velella, or by-the-wind sailor: a living sailboat, a jellyfish on a stiff frame. In their preferred state, i.e. when not washed up on beaches, these animals float on the ocean surface with their tentacles just below the water, to catch food, and their upright sails above the water, to catch the wind.

velella8

 

Continue reading

Avian flight III: hummingbird flight

Hummingbirds are amazing fliers. They fly forward at up to 26 miles per hour; they fly backward; they hover. They beat their wings 50 times a second, so all you see is a blur, with that enameled little body floating serenely in the middle. They are flight acrobats. They are flight artistes. How do they do that?

Rufous Hummingbird. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Rufous Hummingbird. Photo by M. LaBarbera

It helps that they are quite small. The amount of power that you can get out of your muscles increases as muscle mass (size) increases—bigger muscles, more power—but the amount of power increases less quickly than mass does. That is, if you double the size of the muscle, you get less than twice the amount of power out of it. This means that as an animal gets bigger, its ratio of muscle power to muscle mass decreases. An ant can carry enormous things for its size. A small bird can generate enough power with its muscles to hold its own body aloft and still in the air—to hover. A California Condor? Not so much. Hummingbirds’ small size means that they are, relative to their own body mass, very strong.

Rufous Hummingbirds are small. Photo by M. LaBarbera

Small size is a Rufous Hummingbird’s secret weapon.
Photo by M. LaBarbera

Continue reading

The chickarees want my car

The chickarees have gone crazy. They spent the summer curious but shy, often fleeing us and then scolding from the safety of a tree. Now they seem to have no fear. They run under our table as we eat breakfast. They jump on top of our tents while we are inside. Sometimes they sneak in under the tent fly and look right at us, giant mammals separated from them only by some tent mesh, then saunter off unimpressed. As I was sitting with my back against a tree, one of them went up the other side of the trunk and then crept around to my side, at eye-level, until our faces were a bare few inches apart.

I have somewhat mixed feelings about this new friendliness. On the one hand, they’re cute.

Juvenile chickaree

Photo by M. LaBarbera

On the other hand, when we call them “plague squirrels,” it’s not just a term of endearment.plague

And then there’s the fact that they seem to be planning to steal my car.

Continue reading

The mystery of the robot bear

It was well past dark when I first heard it: around 2 in the morning, it woke me in my tent. I lay awake for what felt like a long time, listening, trying—and failing—to classify the noise definitively as not a danger so I could go back to sleep. At the same time, I tried to think of what it sounded like, so that I could describe it the next morning. A large animal roar. A metal chair scraping across the floor. A death-metal chord. A train whistle.

Whatever it was, it neglected to devour me that night, and in the morning I was relieved to find that one of my field assistants had also been woken by the noise and shared my bewilderment. We agreed that it was primarily a cross between the bellow of some large mammal and the scrape of something mechanical, and so it was dubbed “the robot bear.”

The robot bear

The robot bear

The robot bear called most nights after that. Sometimes I thought it must be a noise of pain, or maybe rage—the tearing roughness in it sounded like strong emotion. Sometimes I was sure it was distant machinery; but we were surrounded by forest, and why would anyone be running machinery in the middle of the night?

Continue reading