Nothing better demonstrates the axiom “familiarity breeds contempt” than the pigeon. Pigeons have remarkable navigation skills and are extremely powerful fliers. They perform courtship dances and mate for life (as much as any bird does, anyway). Both parents care for the chicks. They have an adaptation—”crop milk,” a substance that they produce and feed to their chicks, similar in concept (if not physiology) to how we mammals produce milk for our babies—that allows them to breed in habitats most birds could never hope to raise a family in. They thrive in urban environments, making them probably the first and most-often seen wild animal of many city-dwellers. They recognize each other as individuals. They are smarter than you think.
Concerning their usefulness to humans, pigeons are easily raised in captivity and edible. They have been bred into many domestic varieties with strange attributes, such as the propensity to roll over in mid-air. Charles Darwin studied domestic pigeons extensively, and they contributed to the formation of his theory of evolution by natural selection. They have been important message carriers in wartime; pigeons have received the Dickin Medal—like the Medal of Honor, but for animals—32 times, more than any other species (dogs are closing in with 31 medals).
And they come in sparkly colors with crazy eyes.
“Rats with wings,” people say—patently untrue: you can’t get plague from pigeons. “Dirty,” people call them; as if it isn’t our dirt they are wearing, and yet thriving anyhow.
One of the joys of biology lies in appreciating how strange and varied the world is. When humanity starts to feel claustrophobic, you can imagine the life of an albatross, aloft over the ocean for most of her life, searching out schools of delicious fish by their scent; or a cuttlefish, flashing colored signals at his companions as he shoots through the currents, flexible tentacles waving. When the world feels narrow and limiting, you can remember that clownfish change sexes depending on their place in the dominance hierarchy, with males becoming female when they advance to the position of top dog.
Yet—amazingly—biology used to be even wilder. Before satellite tracking and genetic analysis, before “biology” was a recognized science at all, natural philosophers looked at a perplexing natural world and invented some truly outside-the-box explanations for what they saw.
Some of these are fairly well known: for example, the idea that there is a “homunculus”—a tiny human—inside the head of each human sperm cell.
To be fair, we now know that sperm (and eggs, etc.) contain the genetic blueprint for building a human, which isn’t all that far off from containing a tiny human.
But my favorite old science myth involves—of course!—birds.
While I was working on my dissertation, I imagined that finishing it (finally!) would mean a sudden change in my life. I pictured an acceleration, a speeding-up of things: all the junco research published, a new research project started up efficiently thanks to everything I had learned from the juncos, new analyses performed and revealed quickly.
But although the junco research is on its way to publication, and although I am starting a new research project, neither process has been swift. I catch myself laying the blame for this at my own feet: why can’t I work faster? Why didn’t this get done yesterday?
I’ve been spending a lot of my free time in marshes lately. I like the combination of open space and dense impenetrability. I like the stalking egrets, the hovering kites, the harriers bounding along just above the reeds.
“Rare” is context-dependent. My Collins Bird Guide lists the Dark-eyed Junco as a “rare vagrant,” but that is, of course, because Collins is a bird guide to Europe. Common birds where you don’t expect to find them are exciting. We have our own rarities at the banding station, birds that may be common in the general region but rarely grace our nets; and although no one else would consider them remotely remarkable, we still get excited.
Juncos flock in huge numbers all around the area, but for whatever reason, they do not like the specific patch of riparian land that the banding station monitors. The banding station catches only around five juncos every year, making them rare by our very particular standards.
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.
It’s been a rough few days. If you find birds and flat, open landscapes calming, as I do, here is a video.
We know a little bit about how dinosaurs probably looked: we’re learning that a lot of them had feathers, and even beginning to be able to figure out what patterns might have been on their plumage. But there’s a lot we don’t know; we may never know for sure.
In evolutionary biology, when you don’t know something about an extinct species—what kind of nest it built, or what sounds it made, or how many babies it had—you look at the species that evolved from it. You infer that it probably was similar to at least some of its descendent lineages. For dinosaurs, then, we would look at birds.
I remember, as a kid, thoughtfully coloring my dinosaur coloring books and paper-mache dinosaur scultures in shades of green and brown. I knew about camouflage, and I was sure that this earthy color palette must have been the one favored by these animals. Silly me.