I once saw a talk by a scientist who works on jumping spiders—those colorful, fuzzy, big-eyed teddy bears of the spider world—in which the speaker paused, after discussing the spiders’ excellent vision (courtesy of their many eyes, which are of several different types and see in various ways) and their sensitivity to vibrations (which they perceive through their legs and through the many fine hairs covering their body), to wonder, “What does the world feel like to these animals? What is it like to be a jumping spider?”
What is it like to be something other than human? There is so much research touching on this question, studies asking everything from “How does a bee navigate?” to “Are rats kind?” It’s a fascinating question, and it’s incredibly difficult.
What is it like to be an octopus?
Isn’t he beautiful? He was caught in the hills in Marin County, not all that far from me, and kept in captivity until he died in 1931.
You might think he’s purely colorless at first glance, but he isn’t. He’s more blue-silver than white, an incredible color to come shining out of a drawer of junco specimens when you’ve just spent the last few weeks measuring the same brown-and-black birds over and over. When you look close you find that hidden in those pale feathers are the whispers of normal junco coloration.
Sometimes the titles of scientific papers are so surprising that they seem to transform into news headlines in my head:
Adoption of chicks by the Pied Avocet - Adoption of fledglings by Black and Red Kites - Caspian Terns fledge a Ring-billed Gull chick - Adoption of young Common Buzzards by White-tailed Sea Eagles
How can this be true? Raising chicks is hard; it takes energy and time and risk. Why would any bird make those sacrifices for an unrelated chick?
Okay, I would absolutely adopt this guy.
Pied Avocet chick. Photo by Keith Marshall
Museum collections are a scientific resource. They let researchers refer to a single specimen over and over, or look at variation over an entire continent, or go back and look at change over a century.
They can also be weirdly beautiful.
We’ve all seen them do it.
If you’re impatient for the New Year’s fireworks displays, here are some explosions of color in bird form.
Nicobar Pigeon. Photographed at Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.
I just noticed that I forgot to post the last bycatch of the season. Whoops! Here it is—only about three months late.
Adult Green-tailed Towhee
When I saw my first Green-tailed Towhee, I had only just moved to California and was not at all familiar with western birds. I remember looking through my binoculars at the bird singing from the top of a tuft of sagebrush, memorizing traits in order to look it up in my bird guide, and thinking “No way am I going to find this. This is going to be one of those birds that I’m seeing in a weird light so that I’ll never be able to ID it, and I’ll tell people, ‘I swear it was green with a red cap!’ and they’ll never believe me.” But then there it was in my Sibley’s: green with a red cap. I love these birds.