Fun: birds in small words

The webcomic xkcd posted a comic a while ago that explains rocket science using “only the ten hundred words people use the most often.” It’s a great idea, and clearly the creator thought so too, since he’s now writing an entire book around the concept. He has also made freely available a tool that allows you to write using only those one thousand most common words.

Here is the first sentence of an old post (Animal visual illusions), as I originally wrote it: “Animals interact visually all the time.” Here is the same sentence rewritten using only those thousand most common words: “Animals do things with each other using what their eyes see all the time.” The second version is much harder to understand; there is definitely value in having more than a thousand words to work with.

But what about words that don’t represent some especially nuanced or complex concept, but exist for the sake of specificity: labels, like bird species names? Dark-eyed Junco does not pass muster in the xkcd word checker tool, unsurprisingly. I can get as far as Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has white on the outside of its — but now I’m in trouble: tail isn’t allowed; neither is butt feathers or bottom fan. I have to switch directions and go instead with: Dark eyed small brown bird that jumps along the ground and has a white stomach and black head and looks round in the cold.

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Why not just say “Very great best bird”?

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Puffins taking baths

I always thought of puffins as fairly dignified birds. They look sleek and posed in the photos you usually see, like statues of themselves. Recently, however, I discovered that to get that sleek, clean look, puffins take on some poses that would be quite hard to capture in a statue.

Just preening in a photogenic way....

Just preening in a photogenic way….

SPLOOSH!

SPLOOSH!

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Vampire birds

The vampire strikes again! Photo by Ian White*

The vampire strikes again!
Photo by Ian White*

In honor of Halloween, let’s talk about vampire birds.

I am using “vampire” loosely here, the same way people do when they talk about “vampire” bats. These vampire birds are hematophagic (blood-eating!), but do not follow other items of vampire lore: they have reflections in mirrors, can enter your house without an invitation, do not shape-shift, are mortal, and do not sparkle in the sunlight.

Sharp-beaked Ground Finch, Geospiza difficilus

This is one of the famous Darwin’s Finches of the Galápagos Islands. This species is a vampire only on two of the islands, Wolf and Darwin; everywhere else it eats bugs and seeds like a regular finch. Even on Wolf and Darwin, it mostly eats bugs and seeds, but sometimes it craves something a little… richer…

Dum-dum-DUMMMM. (Sharp-beaked Ground Finch. Photo by budgora*)

Dum-dum-DUMMMM.
(Sharp-beaked Ground Finch. Photo by budgora*)

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Chicks with attitude

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Mammals—including us—use facial muscles to communicate, by, say, smiling or frowning. Reptiles and birds don’t do that: they don’t have the right muscles for it. If you think a bird looks grumpy, or angry, or has any similar human-type facial expression, you’re projecting your human perceptions onto an animal that really doesn’t work like that. (Now, whether the bird actually is grumpy is a different matter; I’m just saying that you can’t tell if it is by looking at its face.)

So the appearance that all these junco chicks have of possessing some serious attitude is merely an entertaining illusion.

What are you looking at?

What are you looking at?

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