The pros and cons of trying to eat everything

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The noble California Gull, a diet generalist

Animals eat different things. Every kid knows about herbivores vs. carnivores. Strangely, the other type of diet variation—diet breadth—is much less generally known. Generalists have broad diets, being able to eat a wide variety of things, while specialists eat only a few types of items. Anteaters and hummingbirds are specialists; the seagull who flew off with your lunch is a generalist.

Being a generalist gives a species a lot of advantages, especially in unpredictable environments. The more you can eat, the less likely you are to run out of food. An anteater without ants will starve, but a seagull without fish can eat crabs, or carrion, or Cheetos.

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Or whatever this is.

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Why do birds flock in winter?

If you live in a temperate climate and pay attention to your local birds, you have probably noticed that their preferences for companionship change with the seasons. In spring, pairs stick close by each other and three’s a crowd—any third-wheel interloper is likely to be chased off in a flurry of angry wingbeats. But in fall and winter, the birds suddenly become community minded, travelling around in flocks of dozens of their fellows. In Chicago in the winter you can find trees liberally decorated with the round orange forms of fluffed-up American Robins, bearing more than a passing resemblance to Christmas tree ornaments. Even in the Bay Area, not generally known for its seasonal variation, huge flocks of quietly chirruping Dark-eyed Juncos make it clear that (mild, occasionally rainy) winter has arrived.

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Not pictured: about fifteen of this robin’s winter friends.

Why flock in winter? Or, why flock only in winter?

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Birds and mirrors, revisited

I wrote about birds and mirrors a while ago, and not much has changed scientifically since then. Most bird species tested have interpreted their own reflections as other individuals, responding either with aggression or courtship. Female pigeons who view their own reflections ovulate, apparently interpreting their reflections as suitable mates. Among birds, only magpies, so far, have been demonstrated to understand that the mirror reflects their own image, although pigeons can be trained to use spatial information from mirrors correctly in the real world.

So why bring this up again? Recently I saw a Yellow-rumped Warbler interacting with its reflection in a car side mirror, and took a video with my phone. Here it is (apologies for the lack of zoom):

At the time I took the video, I didn’t think much of it beyond general amusement. But rewatching it, I began to have some questions.

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Animal accomplishments that have caused my students to break into applause

I’m teaching an Animal Behavior course this semester. The lectures are 80 minutes long and exactly during the sleepiest time of the afternoon; I enjoy the challenge of getting a reaction from the students under these circumstances. Videos of baby animals in peril always get attention (some good ones: marine iguana, barnacle goose, water buffalo), but they’re so reliable it almost feels like cheating.

My students have actually broken into applause during lecture three times so far. One of these will not be discussed in detail (it involved the recitation of poetry), but the other two were in response to two quite different animal accomplishments, which I thought I would share.

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Why is a bird like a violin?

Don’t worry: this isn’t Lewis Carroll’s maddeningly unanswered riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” (Although, if you’re interested, it turns out that has been answered.) There is an answer to this one—two answers, in fact.

Answer 1: They both make sounds by vibrating strings.

Well, strings, feathers—they’re all the same, right? This Club-winged Manakin produces its courtship song by vibrating its wing feathers: they strike each other about 107 times per second.

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Niche partitioning by the bay

DSC_6511The sun dips low over the bay, its fading rays gilding the avocets as they swish their heads through the water. The egrets eye their own reflections as if in profound self-contemplation. A willet flashes past, its black-and-white wings an exclamation in the dusk.

DSC_7921Faced with such beauty, two words come irrepressibly to mind: niche partitioning.

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Finding the tiny dinosaurs in hummingbirds

Hummingbirds wear a public image of fragile, ethereal beauty: tiny jewels whirring through the air, occasionally pausing to drink daintily from a flower. Their unusual appearance supports this: the iridescent feathers, the long dainty bill, the near-invisible feet all make them seem quite apart from the everyday world of animals who don’t shimmer in the sun and do have feet.

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80% gemstone, 15% fairy from a storybook, only maybe 5% actual bird. He doesn’t even have feet! (Yes he does.)

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But hummingbirds, like all birds, evolved from dinosaurs. Hidden under that glimmering exterior is a tiny, fierce raptorial dinosaur.

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