Why birds hold their heads still (that awesome chicken ad)

First, if you haven’t seen it yet, watch this chicken video. Yes, it’s an ad, but it’s completely worth it.

What are those chickens doing? And more importantly, can you learn to do it in time for your next dance party?

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Spotty, squishy, and sweaty mushrooms of the field

We may go out in the field to study birds, but that doesn’t mean we turn a blind eye to all the other strange and interesting life on the mountain. This year I particularly noticed the mushrooms after I encountered a fantastically cool species called, appropriately, the Alpine Jelly Cone or Poor Man’s Gumdrop.

2013_mushroom_squishy2These guys are small and conical, attached to dead wood just at their tip. They came out in force at one of our sites early in the season among lingering patches of old snow. I like their color and geometric neatness of shape, but the best thing about them is—unfortunately—not conveyable by photograph: they are squishy. Like jello, but not at all sticky, just dry and weirdly, wonderfully squishy.

2013_mushroom_squishy

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Say “aah”

There are a few easy ways for baby juncos to distinguish me from their parents. For example, their parents have feathers and dark heads and are about their size, while I am a gigantic fabric-draped Godzilla monster. However, hungry chicks seem to not always be alert to such nuance, so I’ve accumulated quite a few photographs of the view down the gullets of baby juncos.

SEAL and NORA's chicks

SEAL and NORA’s chicks

In the above photo you can see how the bright pink/red of the mouth, surrounded by the yellow bill outline, makes an obvious target for a parent with food.

Mostly, though, I just like how these photos make the chicks look even more like crazy pink alien beings than usual.

INGA's chicks

INGA’s chicks

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The amazing fox domestication experiment; or, how your puppy got floppy ears and a waggly tail

More than fifty years ago, Russian scientists began an experiment in domestication. At that time, silver foxes had been raised for fur for about 100 years already, so their care and breeding was well known. The scientists began their project like this: they would approach the cage of a silver fox and note its response. The fox would crouch, ears flattened, snarling in fear, or else back away as far as it could until its body was vertical against the back wall of the cage. All of the foxes were frightened of the humans—but some less than others. The scientists chose the foxes that showed the least fear of humans, and bred them. Then they did the same with the pups, raising up and breeding the least-frightened of them; and so on and so on.

Young wild silver fox. Photo by Matt Knoth

Young wild silver fox. Photo by Matt Knoth*

The original foxes were as close to wild animals as anything can be after being bred for fur for a century. Their descendants, after many generations of selection for just one thing—tameness, a liking of humans—look and act like dogs. They seek out humans, they whine and lick your face, they wag their tails. They even look like dogs—mostly, like border collies.

Fox kit showing the white markings characteristic of domestication. Photo by Luz Rovira

Fox kit showing the white markings characteristic of domestication. Photo by Luz Rovira*

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Update on The Nest That Came Back

We banded the chicks from The Nest That Came Back From The Dead. They were all a bit small, looking about a day younger than their actual age; that might be because of their pinecone encounter, but it also might simply be that they aren’t getting much food. They hatched pretty late in the season, so there aren’t as many insects out now, and we’ve only ever seen one parent feeding them. Their “single mom” may be having trouble finding enough food for the three of them.

That may not sound great, but the important thing is that they’re alive. If they can make it another two weeks, they’ll be flighted and fattening themselves on fall’s plentiful seeds. The biggest of the chicks, ROAN, clearly can’t wait to be flying:

Big sister ROAN

Big sister ROAN

I can do it!!

I can do it!!

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The fleeting beauty of the fall molt

As fledglings undergo their fall molt (the Prebasic I molt), their appearance changes from obvious-youngster to apparent-adult. In the middle of that transition, they look a little… wild. It’s a strange and fleeting look, here-today-and-gone-in-two-weeks. We’ve caught enough molting fledglings that I’ve been able to put together a series of photos showing the transition.

Fledgling juncos start out a streaky light brown, with dark bills and yellow gapes.

Young fledgling GRAS

Young fledgling GRAS

As they get older, the yellow gape shrinks.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

Older fledgling KALI. Note the remnant of yellow gape at the edge of the bill.

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