How can ants lift such huge things? How did T. rex move? Why do we find squirrels cute? Could the alien from Alien really exist? What should you do if you are faced with an ant radioactively blown up to elephant size?
If you’re intrigued, check out It’s Alive! by Michael LaBarbera on Amazon, part of the Chicago Shorts series (it’s just 52 pages) from the University of Chicago Press. I normally never advertise things, but this merits an exception because it’s cool science in small bites, a lot like this blog. Well, except that the author is a respected professor at a prestigious university, so you have to pay $3 for that extra 40 years of knowledge.
And yes, the author is also my father: this is the guy who gave me my love of science. If you’re at all interested in the physics of biology and behavior, or in what really killed the rampaging giant octopus in It Came from Beneath the Sea (it’s not what you think!), it’s definitely worth a look.
Recently we caught, as bycatch, two birds from two orders that we had never caught before. (Order being a high hierarchical level of organization of species relatedness, as in kingdom-phylum-class-order-family-genus-species.) Both were simultaneously thrilling and terrifying, although for different reasons.
Female Calliope Hummingbird (I think?)
This beautiful bird was terrifying to catch because hummingbirds are very fragile. We don’t expect to catch them in our nets—the mesh size is large enough that in most cases a hummingbird could zoom right through—and in fact we hope not to catch them, since they can be especially stressy little creatures. They are also strange birds to handle, not permitting any of the usual bird grips: bander’s grip, a very secure and safe grip, puts your fingers around a bird’s neck, but hummingbirds have too-tiny necks for it; photographer’s grip relies on grasping the bird’s thighs, and hummingbirds’ thighs are much too short.
Fortunately I was able to quickly extract our hummingbird from the net. She rested on my palm for about thirty seconds, then—just after this next picture was taken—zoomed off high into the canopy.
Two weeks ago, it rained on us for a solid 22 hours. (Which, I discovered, is exactly the time it takes for puddles to start forming inside my tent.) So when it got grey and thundery at the beginning of last week, I jumped: “We’ve got to process this junco quickly! Take down the nets! We have to get back to camp to cover the firewood!”
Of course, it didn’t rain. The next time it got grey and thundery, I jumped less: “Let’s take down one net and keep this one. Tell me if you see lightning.” It didn’t rain.
The third time it got grey and thundery, I didn’t jump at all. Then it actually started raining—but I really wanted another junco. So we caught a male in (very light) rain and banded him under a tree, naming him KKRA, which sounds a bit like the thunder that was rolling in the distance.
KKRA, who has one white feather on his cheek
We only try to catch juncos, but when you have nets up in good habitat, some accidental capture of other species seems to be inevitable. These other species—our “bycatch”—are quickly extracted from the nets and released, although not without a few photos first.
Do you know who I am?
Unhand me at once!
Juncos use their feet more than many birds, not just to perch but to hop about while feeding. Their legs and feet, viewed close, are a contradiction: incredibly slender and fragile-seeming, but also covered in a hard, scaly, tough surface. You hope for their sake that the fragility is the illusion and the toughness reality, but of course each is a little true.
LANK has a permanently bent toe on his right foot. When he perches, his weight rests on what should be the top of the toe, and I imagine the same is true when he stands on the ground.
The bent toe is the left-most top toe on his right foot.
View from the other side, for comparison with his healthy left foot.
Birds need to know a lot about each other. They need to know things like who will be the best parent; who will pass on the best genes; who could defeat them in a fight; and which offspring is worth investing in the most. One of the ways that birds can perceive such information about each other is by observing each other’s color signals—and the more researchers study these, the more it becomes clear that birds can tell a lot from color alone.
Let’s make up a bird species – the Superb Junco. This imaginary species has a black hood and pink bill like the Oregon Junco, but its body and tail are iridescent blue-violet. Here is an illustration of three individuals of this species:
These individuals are clearly different: A has a paler head, B has a paler bill and is less brightly shiny, and C is brightly colored in all aspects. But what does that tell us?