Ducklings with superpowers

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*

Photo by Farrukh*

What, didn’t you know that last part?

Death-defying leaps!

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.

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Spend your weekend watching these live bird cams

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.

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“Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” and the wider world of juncos

ARKM, a male junco from one of my study sites in the Sierra Nevada mountains

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…


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Winter Olympics: Animal Edition

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

Event: Snow Diving. Competitor: red fox.

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Featured paper: cuttlefish are lying cheaters

Although the cuttlefish may be best known for making those flat cuttlefish bones that your pet bird nibbles to get calcium, this paper shows that it should be known for being a lying cheater.

That was uncalled for. Photo by Tom Olliver

That was uncalled for.
Photo by Tom Olliver

Cuttlefish, like their relatives the squids and the octopuses, are masters of visual communication. They can change their appearance almost instantaneously (video here), and they use color and pattern to say things like “Back off, I’m angry!” and “Pretty lady, I would like to do some romance with you now,” and “Please don’t do romance with me, I am male.”

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Animal April Fools

Oh no! I broke my wing! I’m so injured and defenseless and tasty!

Look how broken my wing is! Are you looking? Ooh, it stings!(Photo by Glenn Loos-Austin)

Look how broken my wing is! Are you looking? Ooh, it stings!
(Photo by Glenn Loos-Austin)

Ooh better follow me as I flop brokenly over this way!(Photo by Ken Slade)

Ooh better follow me as I flop brokenly over this way!
(Photo by Ken Slade)

Ouch ouch! What a flailing broken mess of deliciousness I am being over here!(Photo by Jon Rutlen)

Ouch ouch! What a flailing broken mess of deliciousness I am being over here!
(Photo by Jon Rutlen)

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Bird dances for two

The birds of paradise have been getting a lot of attention lately for the elaborate courtship dances of their males, and nobody is going to argue that they don’t deserve it. But it isn’t all “males dance, females judge” in the avian world. The displays of male birds of paradise reflect high reproductive skew: a few males mate a lot, a lot of males never mate. It’s worth it to the males to devote incredible amounts of energy and resources to attracting females, because if they’re successful, they may sire many chicks. They can afford to spend all that energy and resources on crazy feathers and tricky dance moves because that’s all they have to do, parent-wise: they don’t help females build the nest or incubate the egg or raise the chicks.

Male Greater Bird-of-paradise. Photo by Ivan Teage.

Male Greater Bird-of-paradise. Photo by Ivan Teage.

But birds are diverse; the birds of paradise reflect just one point on a spectrum of mating systems. Near the other end are birds with low reproductive skew. Males of these species look pretty much like the females, and they contribute about equally to parental duties. You might expect that these species would lack dances the same way they lack meter-long curlicue tailfeathers, but some of them have dances every bit as formalized and elaborate as the birds of paradise. The difference is that these dances are duets.

Laysan Albatross pair performing courtship dance. Photo by Michael Lusk.

Laysan Albatross pair performing courtship dance. Photo by Michael Lusk.

(Note on videos: I know clicking on videos is annoying. But it’s worth watching the videos in this post, I promise.)

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Sounds and video from Cornell’s Macauley Library

The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macauley Library of sounds and videos has been fully digitized and posted online for browsing for free by everyone. It is really fun to explore.

Ever wanted to know what an Oilbird sounds like? It sounds like this!

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Oilbird. Photo by Dominic Sherony

Check out a colorful mantis shrimp swiveling its crazy eyes, then listen to it making sounds eerily like those of a drum set!

Go eye-level with Adelie Penguins, get close enough to a sea turtle to count the scales under its chin, then listen to a baby walrus ruff like a puppy!

Here is an article from the Lab of O – scroll to the end for links to: the earliest recording (a Song Sparrow from 1929); the sounds of an ostrich chick still in the egg; the haunting clarinet-like moan of the idri, a lemur; a bird of paradise apparently imitating a very melodious UFO; and a cute video of an American Dipper living up to its name by bobbing and dipping.

And then explore the library yourself! Hooray for open-access science.

Happy holidays!

Edit: I have added identifications to each photo in the caption.

The curators at the museum decorate for the holidays by changing around the mounted specimens on display. (These are all pretty old, usually gifted to us – we almost never mount specimens in a lifelike way.) For Thanksgiving, all the specimens on display were edible animals.

For the winter holiday season… quiz! What connects all of the specimens in these pictures?

(And if you’re not into the quiz, here is your holiday/day-before-the-end-of-the-world gift: a video of a sledding crow.)


Northern Hawk Owl

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