Seeing song: an interview with a partially deaf ornithologist who studies bird song

Alma Schrage is a recent graduate of UC Berkeley and a research assistant in the Bowie lab in the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. Over several years I have watched her become an ornithologist. In this interview she discusses her research on bird song and how it has been affected—or not—by being partially deaf.

Alma in the field. Photo courtesy of Alma Schrage.

Alma in the field. Photo courtesy of Alma Schrage.

Why study bird song?

It’s interesting on several different levels. If you’re interested in cognition and behavior, bird song provides so many different things to study. You can also study how vocalizations tie in with genetics, morphology and such to help provide a fuller picture of the bird, or you can study the factors that drive development of bird song such as different acoustic environments, and selective forces on calls and songs.

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Does food taste the same to animals as it does to us?

Every day, I feed my cat small, round, hard pellets that look about as appetizing as old gravel, and she gets so excited about them. I tasted one (for you, dear readers!) and I would describe the taste as falling somewhere between the meh of cardboard and the bleh of rancid fish. Not recommended. For her part, the cat flinches if I consume an orange anywhere near her; you can tell she thinks I am disgusting for eating them. It seems pretty clear that she and I have different tastes in food. Are such differences simply matters of individual preference, or is there a biological basis for them?

As in all things, I am right and you are wrong about this.

As in all things, I am right and you are wrong about this.

It’s hard to know what something tastes like to someone else. My personal experience of peanut butter (disgusting) is likely to differ from yours (mmm, yum), despite our belonging to the same species. However, we can say with some certainty that both of us can taste peanut butter, and that it will not taste like lemons to either of us. Humans have five major types of taste receptors: sweet, umami, bitter, sour, and salty. Sugar is sweet, hamburgers and mushrooms are umami, coffee and India pale ales are bitter, lemons are sour, and salt is salty.

And mice are micey.

And mice are micey.

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Let’s talk about bird tongues

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Nathan Rupert*

Ferruginous Hawk. Photo by Nathan Rupert*

You don’t have to look at many birds to realize that they are very variable in appearance: hawks look different from hummingbirds, and both look different from peacocks. You can spend a lot of time looking at birds, though, before you realize that they are hiding a lot of variation inside their mouths: long tongues, short tongues, spiky tongues, curly tongues, forked tongues, frayed tongues, brush-like tongues.

Like bird bills, bird tongues are specialized to each particular bird’s way of feeding. Birds that feed on nectar have tongues specifically adapted to nectarivory, often with many little protrusions at the tip of the tongue, giving it a frayed or brush-like appearance. This brushiness increases the surface area of the tongue, making it better at picking up nectar.

Rainbow Lorikeet. Photo by Alan (Kaptain Kobold)*

Rainbow Lorikeet using its brush-like tongue to feed on flowers. Photo by Alan (Kaptain Kobold)*

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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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Featured paper: cheating Common Yellowthroats, or, the world is more complex than you think

There is a thing that happens a lot in biology, especially in animal behavior: one set of researchers finds an interesting relationship, like, say, “Birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with lots of spots, and don’t like to eat bugs off of cows with no spots.” (This is a made-up example.)

Starlings flying near a cow; Pt Reyes, CA.

Blackbirds flying near a cow, Pt Reyes, CA.

Then, some other researchers do a study and say, “Hey, our birds prefer to eat bugs off of cows with no spots! That’s the opposite!”

Then still different researchers do another study and say, “Our birds don’t care at all about the number of spots, they just care whether the spots make a shape like a smiley face. You guys must all have made a mistake. The Smiley Face Rule is the new Lek Paradox! #nobelplease”

To put it less ridiculously: scientists get different results sometimes, and it can be hard to figure out why. Did someone make a mistake? Who is right? Today’s featured paper takes an example of this confusing scientific disagreement and elegantly makes sense of everything, with the help of this handsome little bird:

Common Yellowthroat (male). Photo by Dan Pancamo*

Common Yellowthroat (male).
Photo by Dan Pancamo*

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Our regular programming will resume shortly

I’ve been neglecting my blog-writing duties lately, preoccupied with the annual Big Grant Proposal Deadline. My grant proposal is on sexual selection in juncos. What part of juncos is sexually selected, you ask? Why, that flashy tail, of course! They’re practically peacocks!

LANK showing off his sexy tail

LANK showing off his sexy tail

You're not quite there yet, little one...

You’re not quite there yet, little one…

I’ve also been TAing a class on animal behavior, so while I don’t have many extra words to spare right now—I need them all for that grant proposal—I do have a wealth of animal videos that have been brought to my attention by my fellow animal behavior fans. Please accept some videos in lieu of words.

Here is a video of a bird even drabber than a junco who attracts females with his sexually selected aesthetic tastes in things like flowers, shiny beetles, and slightly… er… less attractive items as well: the Vogelkop Bowerbird.

And here are some flies that—well, you should just watch it to believe it. It starts with them gulping air bubbles into their heads, and that’s not even the weird part.

Why are they like that? Sexual selection! Females in this species prefer their males as hammerheaded as possible.

Hey, why not?

Velella velella! Or, falling off the edge of the world

They were strewn all along the beach, these transparent, tripartite things. At first glance they looked like plastic trash, but they felt organic in my fingers.

velella5

Fortunately I happened to be beachcombing with a world expert on marine invertebrates. “Ooh,” he said, “Velella!”

Velella velella, or by-the-wind sailor: a living sailboat, a jellyfish on a stiff frame. In their preferred state, i.e. when not washed up on beaches, these animals float on the ocean surface with their tentacles just below the water, to catch food, and their upright sails above the water, to catch the wind.

velella8

 

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