Growing up, I used to watch the Mallards breeding in the local pond every summer. The female would start out with many tiny, adorable ducklings; then, day by day, their number would shrink. I remember not understanding why I couldn’t take a few of the little fluffballs home and have them for myself. (Well, aside from the fact that a city apartment is perhaps not the optimal environment in which to keep ducks.) When so many died anyway, would they be missed? And wouldn’t I really be saving them by taking them?
I’ve been seeing similar sentiments on the internet lately: people who have found out how dangerous it is to be a baby bird asking whether it wouldn’t be best to preemptively “save” the chicks from their probable fate. They are babies in danger, after all—shouldn’t any good person help babies in danger?
Shouldn’t I just keep little YAMM for myself?
The simplest answer is that one should not steal away baby birds because it is illegal under the Migratory Bird Treaty Act—but that isn’t an answer likely to ease the consciences of animal lovers. So I’d like to talk about what it means to help wild animals, and when “helping” can be a really, really bad thing.
One of the biggest changes for me in being in the field, aside from the living-in-a-tent-and-smacking-mosquitos aspects, is becoming intensely aware, all the time, of sound. I’m listening for singing juncos, to know where the territories are; for quietly cheeping juncos, who are usually foraging, to read their band combinations; for angry chipping juncos, whose nests are nearby; for juncos giving what I think of as the ba-boo boo boo call, affectionately greeting their mates. We live in the midst of the juncos, so I’m always listening. And so I hear all the other birds too.
Everyone knows ducklings: yellow fuzz, big flat bills, big flat feet, cute little waddles all in a line after Momma, and superpowers.
Photo by Farrukh*
What, didn’t you know that last part?
Several duck species nest high above the ground in tree cavities. This is safer than nesting on the ground, predator-wise, but it also means that the ducklings hatch very, very high up. And then they have to get down.
When they hatch, the ducklings weight very little, which helps: the less you weigh, the less you are hurt by falling. Terminal velocity—the fastest that gravity will make you fall—depends on weight, so small creatures are essentially safe from falling no matter how far they fall. The cushiony leaf litter on the ground helps the ducklings too. And notice how they flatten out, spreading their little legs out behind and their wing stubs out front, their bodies as spread out as possible: they are gliding—albeit not as well as a true glider like a flying squirrel, but nevertheless slowing their descent so that they can land safely.
The last week has felt very hectic, not just for me but for my whole lab. It seems we’re all prepping for a field season/writing a paper/learning how to solder under a microscope. (Okay, that last one might not apply to all of us.) Not only do I have too much to do, but I can’t seem to decide when I should be doing what. Is it most crucial to be writing the paper revisions that are due soon, or packing dinners for the field? Or wait, isn’t starting the camera batteries charging the first most-important thing? But if I don’t take the car to the mechanic before doing everything else, we won’t even be able to get to the field…
So, to balance out my crazy disorganized brain, here are some birds who are doing exactly what they need to be doing and not second-guessing themselves at all.
Animals interact visually all the time. Males try to look big and scary to rivals, or sexy to females. Prey animals try to look inedible—or better, invisible—to predators. Sometimes these animals use visual trickery to assist their cause.
You’ve probably encountered visual illusions before. Here are some classic ones:
a) The vertical line looks longer than the horizontal line, even though they’re both the same length. b) The top line looks longer than the bottom line, even though both are the same length. c) The middle circles are both the same size, but the one on the left looks bigger. d) The middle grey rectangle is just solid grey, but against the gradient background, it looks like a gradient. e) Both circles are the same shade of orange, but the one surrounded by black looks brighter.
Animals can use visual illusions a) and b) to appear bigger by changing their posture. Vertical stances make you look bigger than horizontal ones, and making a Y with your limbs looks bigger than letting them fall down. So if you’re a male peacock spider trying to look big and sexy to a female, you can raise a pair of back legs up in a Y to look bigger than you really are.