Hummingbirds are amazing fliers. They fly forward at up to 26 miles per hour; they fly backward; they hover. They beat their wings 50 times a second, so all you see is a blur, with that enameled little body floating serenely in the middle. They are flight acrobats. They are flight artistes. How do they do that?
Rufous Hummingbird. Photo by M. LaBarbera
It helps that they are quite small. The amount of power that you can get out of your muscles increases as muscle mass (size) increases—bigger muscles, more power—but the amount of power increases less quickly than mass does. That is, if you double the size of the muscle, you get less than twice the amount of power out of it. This means that as an animal gets bigger, its ratio of muscle power to muscle mass decreases. An ant can carry enormous things for its size. A small bird can generate enough power with its muscles to hold its own body aloft and still in the air—to hover. A California Condor? Not so much. Hummingbirds’ small size means that they are, relative to their own body mass, very strong.
Small size is a Rufous Hummingbird’s secret weapon. Photo by M. LaBarbera
Despite pop culture’s image of the scientist as solitary genius, hidden away in his office surrounded by old coffee cups and rat mazes, with escaped fruit flies whirring around his head while theories fizz in his lonely brain, scientists can be quite social. Networking is important in science: it’s how you get jobs, find collaborators, and see new ways to think about your data. (Of course, the networking you’re doing is with other scientists, so escaped fruit flies may still be involved.) This week I’m attending the conference of the International Society for Behavioral Ecology in order to do just that, and the prospect of networking myself has made me think of other animals who network and the benefits they get from it.
In February, a pair of Red-tailed Hawks began to build a nest in the window of a tenth-floor conference room in Yonkers, NY. Over the next four months, Jerry and Beverly—who work in that office—watched and documented the red-tails as they raised their chicks. Many thanks to Jerry and Beverly for agreeing to share their photos and videos, and thanks to James for passing them on to me!
One of the adults at the nest. Red-tails like their nests to have a commanding view of the surroundings; you can see that this fits the bill nicely.
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.
First, and undoubtedly oddest, is the Piip Show, which is a “bird reality show” (read: livestream from a birdfeeder shaped like a bar) from a Norwegian television network. Apparently this is an experiment in “slow tv,” which I did not know was a thing. Follow this link and click the red arrow in the bottom-left corner of the picture to watch live, or scroll down a few lines to watch a popular clip (the birds are at the end of the clip). As an American, I’m enjoying watching the exotic-looking-to-me birds like Blue Tits. Thanks to Rachel for the tip!
The Decorah Bald Eagles are back, and as I type this, a very small small grey-fuzzed chick is struggling to get out from under its rather bemused-looking parent.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology maintains a number of excellent bird cams. My recent favorite has been the Laysan Albatross one on Kauai, HI, not least because the time difference means you can watch it in daylight even when it’s quite late for you if you live in the continental US. Also, the chick looks like a wet mop. The chick is named Kaloakulua and was recently identified as female. Sometimes she is visited by nonbreeding adult albatrosses doing lovely practice courtship dances, and it’s interesting to see how long the chick is left alone as the parents forage: sometimes they don’t return to feed her for weeks.
ARKM, a male junco from one of my study sites in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Photo by M. LaBarbera
Ah, my noble research junco. Dramatic black hood, peach flanks, rusty back, hopping around the Sierra Nevada mountains and (hopefully) giving me insights into behavior, life history, and adaptation to environmental variability. That’s the story you mostly get from this blog, because it’s the one that I’m most intimately wrapped up in. But it’s a very small piece of the larger world of juncos and junco research.
The Junco Project has produced a series of videos entitled “Ordinary Extraordinary Junco,” all about the wide world of junco research. The videos are wonderful, covering the research in an interesting and accessible way, and filled with great footage of juncos doing every possible thing. If you only have time to watch one, check out Chapter 2: Appalachian Spring, which shows the field methods that I also employ, like nest searching, mist netting, banding, and collecting blood. It’s one thing to see photographs, and quite another to see how these birds look in motion. (As you watch, try to ignore the sound of my so-intense-it’s-audible envy of the resources these junco researchers have—aviaries! eight field assistants! nest cameras! radio-tracking devices!)
Just as my research is one tiny part of junco research overall, my population of juncos is a tiny portion of the juncos that are out there – and many of them are quite different. The juncos in Berkeley, CA, despite being quite far away from the Sierra Nevada juncos and many thousands of feet lower in elevation, look pretty much the same as “my” juncos…
Don’t get me wrong, the winter Olympics is fun and all, but isn’t it just a little bit small-minded to limit ourselves to human competitors? Here are some videos illustrating how great this athletic competition could be if we made it just a bit more inclusive (and added some new events):
Event: Team Vertical Iceberg Jump. Competitor: penguin