Learn about speciation from that one weird duck at the park

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Every park has at least one weird duck. It’s the wrong colors—all white, or patchy white; its bill bright storybook orange or its face weirdly red and lumpy. Next to the other ducks it looks oversized and bulky, like a linebacker in a crowd of quarterbacks.

How new species form, and what determines whether they last, is one of the major topics in evolutionary biology; and much of this topic is embodied by that one weird duck.

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Parallel universes

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Male Common Yellowthroat, a frequent visitor at the banding station.

Unusually heavy rains have put much of the banding station underwater for the past three months. One side effect of this is that, on the days when the area is sufficiently dried out for us to squelch out in our rubber boots and band birds, the mud shows the tracks of everyone else who has been out there before us.

Usually the denizens of the banding station of whom I am aware are the birds we catch in the nets and band. These tend to be small- to medium-sized songbirds. The mud reveals an entirely different set of creatures living in the area.

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Raccoon hand prints near a human bootprint.

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Bathtime, carefully

For birds, cleanliness is not optional. They rely on their feathers for flight and insulation, and only replace those feathers once or twice each year. In between molts, they need to keep their feathers as whole as possible.

Feathers, like our hair, are made of protein; and like all organic things, they degrade over time. Sunlight hastens this degradation, but certain aspects of the feathers themselves can slow it: dark feathers colored with melanin last longer in sunlight, for example. Of more concern, though, are the many creepy-crawly things that like to eat protein, and will happily hang out in a bird’s feathers, munching and laying eggs.

To combat these parasites, birds coat their feathers in protective oil from the preen gland located at the base of their tail, and they bathe.

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But they have to be careful. Small wild birds are lunch for everything from feral cats to Cooper’s Hawks, and no bird wants one of these sneaking up on it while it is obliviously scrubbing behind its ears. So they bathe in bursts, a plunge into the water followed by a quick look around.

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Did anybody see that?

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House Wrens are complicated, mysterious cheaters

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I got my start in ornithology studying the love lives of House Wrens. House Wrens pair up to raise their babies in a manner compellingly analogous to the human “nuclear family;” but, like most birds, both partners also often “cheat” on each other (i.e., copulate with other birds). This means that the male wren may have chicks in other nests besides his own, and he may end up caring for chicks that are not biologically related to him. (Note: edited. The original version of this sentence had a mistake.)

This sets up a number of interesting questions, such as: why cheat on your partner? Are the chicks sired by outside birds somehow better? Do males know when they are caring for chicks who aren’t their own? The answer to the latter question seems pretty clear (no, the males do not know), but the former two are more challenging.

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This webcomic gets it

As a scientist, I can’t exactly claim to to be underserved by the webcomic community. xkcd does nerdy jokes, including ones about biologists and birds; Hark A Vagrant occasionally covers historical scientists like Rosalind Franklin and Charles Darwin (twice); and Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal often delves into evolutionary biology, with takes ridiculousentertaining, and sometimes a bit too real.

Still, before today, I had never seen an ornithological behavioral ecology comic. (Talk about niche audiences.)

Thank you, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, for filling this hole in my life.

(Original comic webpage here.)

Cats are in a human-made trap. It’s our duty to get them out of it.

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When I was kid, I thought I didn’t like cats. It didn’t help that every time I got near one, my eyes got itchy and my nose ran. My cat allergy disappeared around the time I went to college, where I volunteered at the local animal shelter and got a new perspective on felines. In the second year of my PhD program, I went to the East Bay SPCA and adopted a 3-year-old former stray.

I love my cat. She is 40% sweetheart, 40% terror, and 20% judgmental staring statue.

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It looks like I’m sleeping, but I am watching your every move.

I am an ecologist, an ornithologist, and a bird-lover, so I know some things about cats that a lot of cat lovers may not. It all adds up to this: humans have put cats into an ecological trap, and we continue to do so, often with the best of intentions. It is not the cats’ fault. It is our human duty to get them out of this trap, for the cats’ sakes and for wildlife.

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Happy Valentine’s Day, pigeons

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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).

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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.

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