The incredible story of the Black Robin

This is the Black Robin (Petroica traversi), a species found only in the Chatham Islands, New Zealand:

Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.

Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.

This was the total world population of Black Robins in 1980:


Five birds. That’s not great—and it gets worse. Guess how many of those were adult females?


Almost any conservationist would tell you that this was a hopeless situation. You can’t restart a species from one female—especially when that female is a whopping eight years old already, in a species that generally lives four years.

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Dinosaurs probably looked just as awesome as you think they should have

When you’re little, you play with toy dinosaurs all bright red or blue or painted spotted with many colors. You fill coloring books with purple velociraptors taking down plaid apatosaurs. Then you get older and learn about camouflage; and you watch nature documentaries of brown felines taking down brown gazelles in tall brown grass; and—zebras notwithstanding—you start to think that probably dinosaurs weren’t plaid after all.

Well, buck up! They—at least some of them—probably did look really awesome.

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Research is personal (two quotes)

Quote 1 – preface to reviews accompanying the rejection of my application for a grant

“In reading the reviews, please keep in mind that the reviews are… [not addressed] to you, the investigator… Some reviews may contain irrelevant, non-substantive, erroneous or ad hominem statements.”

I love that last sentence – it’s both horrible and hilarious. I would probably find it less hilarious if there had actually been any ad hominem attacks in the reviews I received, but my reviewers were all professional. I can easily imagine how there might be less professionally objective reviews, however.

"This applicant is, personally, the sole reason why we haven't solved deforestation and climate change! Not only shouldn't we give her money, we should actually steal money from her when she isn't looking! Come on, Review Committee, who's with me?"

“This applicant is, personally, the sole reason why we haven’t solved deforestation and climate change! Not only shouldn’t we give her money, we should actually steal money from her when she isn’t looking! Come on, Review Committee, who’s with me?”

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Learning how to eat like a bird

When you’re an altricial baby bird, life is either great or over. If it isn’t over—that is, assuming you aren’t eaten by a mouse, chipmunk, snake, slug, coyote, etc.—then your life is sitting still in the warm and having food shoved in your face. Excellent.

Reed Warbler chicks. This is the life.Photo by nottsexminer

Reed Warbler chicks. This is the life.
Photo by nottsexminer

But that doesn’t last. After you fledge, your parents keep feeding you, but soon they start feeding you less. You can follow them around begging, but soon even that doesn’t do any good. You have to face it: you need to learn how to catch your own food. But that food flies and crawls and runs away!

Doesn't matter. I can catch it.Photo by David Mikulin

Doesn’t matter. I can catch it.
Photo by David Mikulin

We tend to think of wild animals as “instinctually” being able to do everything they do, but in fact, a lot of those skills have to be learned and practiced. Two of my favorite scientific papers looked at how fledgling birds developed their foraging skills. As adults, they were the expert bug-catchers you see all the time; but as fledglings, they did—well, about as well as the four-year-old child of a champion fisherman would do, the first time you handed her the fishing rod.

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Badges of status, or, keeping House Sparrows honest

In many bird species, the males have to acquire and defend a good territory – filled with great food or great places to put a nest – in order to have a prayer of attracting a mate. There’s even evidence that some females pay more attention to the quality of the male’s territory than to the quality of the male, so having a good territory is a big deal.

In these species, males fight a lot. They fight to get territories and then they fight to keep them. It’s a bit like a football game: you have to run fast and smash into people in order to get the ball, and then continue running fast and smashing into people (and withstanding them smashing into you) in order to hang onto it.

Male House Sparrows fighting.Photo by Jessica Lucia

Male House Sparrows fighting.
Photo by Jessica Lucia

Take that!Photo by Jessica Lucia

Photo by Jessica Lucia

All that fighting takes a lot of time and energy, not to mention risk of injury. So the birds (and many other resource-defending animals) have found a less-dangerous shortcut: instead of fighting, they wear “badges of status,” color markings on their body that stand for how tough they are. Birds with less-tough badges don’t bother challenging the tougher birds, and everyone has to fight less. Sounds great, right? It’s the equivalent of a football player wearing a jersey that says “I’m Tougher Than You,” and the other football players just leaving him alone. So much less violent!

… but it doesn’t seem like it should work, does it? If it did, then anybody could put on a jersey that says “I’m Tougher Than Everybody” and win the Superbowl. What stops the birds from lying?

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