Category Archives: Birds

The Feather Orchestra

Everyone knows that birds sing, but what about the ones that play instruments? After to listening to half an hour of recordings of the snipe’s winnowing tailfeather sounds the other night, my mind turned to all the other birds I know who produce music with their feathers instead of their voices. The first to come to mind was the Mourning Dove, whose whistling wingbeats I have often welcomed as the first notes of an early morning as they shoot like a volley of arrows over the empty street. The choppy whistling of a startled dove seems to act as a predator warning alarm to other doves, as well as any other birds in the immediate area; cardinals and chickadees that hear recordings of dove wing-whistles are much slower to return to a feeding ground than if surprised in any other way.

Tattletale.

The second birds I thought of were the hummingbirds; back in my California days, I would watch Anna’s Hummingbirds performing mating displays over the San Francisco heath, their flared tail feathers vibrating stiffly to produce a distinctive chirp as they divebombed the ground like young show-off stunt pilots.

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Snipe Hunt

As a young cub scout going away to camp, my father and grandparents warned me against a prank the older scouts might play on me. “Never go on a snipe hunt,” I was warned. As far as I could gather, it was a fool’s errand of sorts: older boy scouts would suggest to us rookies that we chase the snipe, a bird that was nearly impossible to find, never mind catch. Great glory would go to the boy who caught the elusive snipe, we’d be told. But we should resist this seemingly honorable quest, for the snipe, as the bullies would describe it, could never be captured because it did not exist. The snipe hunt would inevitably end with us WeBeLos lost in some swamp while the smug Tenderfoots raided our candy stash.

I never was sent on a snipe hunt, but the warning left me with the impression that the snipe was, in fact, mythological. (I believed the same about gypsies until a trip to Europe at age 16.) This was no doubt reinforced by my poor recollection of Lewis Carroll’s jabberwockese poem The Hunting of the Snark, a short farce about a beast that is hunted by diverse characters but found by none. At some point, I misremembered The Hunting of the Snark as The Hunting of the Snipe, which seemed like an equally nonsensical title.

I don't exist. I was never here. Got it?

But there is a genuine animal behind the never-seen cryptid “snipe,” and it is almost as elusive. Snipes are wading shorebirds, most of which are part of the Scolopacidae family with the woodcocks, which they also resemble in so many ways: the cryptic coloration that gives them excellent camouflage against the rushes and pebbles of their home, the high-set eyes, the long bill for probing for worms and crustaceans below the muck. Snipes are animals that are built to disappear. If camouflage fails, the snipe will escape danger with a flight pattern so erratic and zigzagging that hunters find them almost impossible to take down. Only a supremely skilled sharpshooter would be able to both find and finish a crafty snipe with mere bullets; hence, the origin of the “sniper.”

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Je Ne Sais Quoi

Pity the poor peacock. He can truss himself up in iridescent blues and greens built of billions of intricate, light-catching nanostructures in the feather barbules; he can fan his train of tail feathers that open their hundred eyes to a peahen like an adoring audience; he can coo, bob his head, and shiver so that he positively glimmers like blue bonfire in the forest; and still, the female — who isn’t even that hot — can sniff and walk away. He is the product of millions of years of sexual selection for extravagance, and possesses the most spectacular, show-stopping plumage in the world, but he is far from irresistible. Having seen plenty of peacocks in my life, nowadays I’m more intrigued by the peahens and their discerning gaze. So frustratingly fickle! So charmingly coy! It’s that pickiness that has undoubtedly driven the male to such desperate majesty.

Who hasn’t felt a little like a peacock at times, trying their best to be noticed by the object of their affection and falling short no matter what? What am I doing wrong?, I’ve asked myself. What am I missing? What could she possibly be looking for? I find myself sympathizing with the peacock and his unrequited attempts at winning love on the zoo lawn, coldly rebuffed time after time until he’ll display for any toddler in a pair of brown overalls. Because peacocks look more or less equally fantastic to us, we can’t imagine why a female chooses one and not another. Some guys just don’t have it, the biologists tell us, after a peahen takes a pass on a shimmering fountain of male grandeur. Not wanting to guess the mind of a peahen, they throw up their hands and decline to say what “it” is. That certain something that captures the peahen’s heart. That je ne sais quoi.

Ice cold.

Well, to hell with that! Je veux savoir “quoi”! If the peacock can look like that and still get shot down in flames, unless it possesses that je ne sais quoi, I think I speak for males of all species when I say I sure as hell want to know what the “quoi” is.

Instead of a peacock, let’s talk about its simpler, arachnid analogue, the Peacock Spider. I recently discovered this charming little guy via the famous and fabulous Myrmecos blog, the hot place to be for gorgeous insect photos and bug scuttlebutt. Like its namesake, the Australian peacock spider females are dun and its males garish, with an amazing technicolor dream-abdomen that fans out like a peacock’s tail. Like the bird, the peacock spider male does a display dance for the cautious and picky female, though his involves waving his third pair of legs in the air as if to say, “Hey, baby! Hey! Over here!”

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Rosie the Riveter

Chick flick or no, you cannot deny the greatness of the 1992 film A League Of Their Own. It’s a comedy, a history, and one of the best baseball films of all time. It’s got memorable lines (“There’s no crying in baseball!”), memorable characters, an all-star cast, and is singularly responsible for starting my lifelong crushes on both the statuesque red-headed Amazon genius Geena Davis and the totally underrated tomboy hottie Lori Petty. More importantly, it’s the only movie I know that tells the story of American women fulfilling traditionally male roles during World War II, a fairly significant turning point in the feminist movement.

Also, Madonna did not sing.

I bring it up because I was recently discussing both the movie and the movement around the campfire with a co-worker. Later in the evening, another co-worker and I were discussing birds, and he told me an incredible story about chickadees. I knew that chickadee flocks work a little like wolf packs, with a few mated pairs in an alpha-beta hierarchy, plus the occasional floating loner. Usually, the death of an alpha male or female means that the beta male or female moves up the ladder to take his or her place in the alpha marriage. But according to my friend, this is not always so simple. He watched a flock of banded chickadees for a year, and noticed something peculiar: the alpha female lost her mate over the winter, and in the spring, the alpha female was singing male songs. What’s more, she passed over the beta male in favor of a socially less-desirable floater for a mate, and whenever the new husband would try to sing, the alpha female would fly over and knock him off his perch. Clearly, once she had gotten a taste of the male chickadee lifestyle and the power that confers, she was reluctant to part with it.

And he was reluctant to admit he kind of liked it.

Between the discussion of the WWII female factory workforce, A League Of Their Own, and the chickadee story, I got to wondering: what other bird species are there in which the female wears the proverbial pants? I know that in some species, male birds take on traditionally female roles, such as the egg-incubating male ostrich. And in others, the females are showier than the males; when Belted Kingfishers go to prom, it’s the ladies who wear the cummerbund. But to see a true display of gender-bending, you need to travel to the Arctic Circle to see the breeding grounds of the phalaropes.

"Don't worry, I've also never heard of me."

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Long-Distance Relationship

When you are a child, you imagine animals pairing off neatly, like Noah’s menagerie coupling and marching up the gangplank to the chapel of bestial matrimony. Lovebirds are joined at the hip like a tween romance, and two swans form a perfect heart-shape with the teacup-handle arcs of their necks. Then you grow up, take a few biology courses, and discover that everything you thought was wrong. To your dismay, you realize that animals, even the kind that seem to exist in a monogamous marriage of sorts, cheat on one another constantly. Lovebirds get a little action on the sly; cuckoos can be cuckolded; monkeys can be real swingers; owls can get a little extra loving after midnight; house sparrows can be homewreckers; even swans, those regal symbols of romantic love swimming atop a wedding cake, are less backyard birds than backdoor men. In the avian world, it’s estimated that 90% of bird couples are socially monogamous (as opposed to 7% in mammals), but of those, 90% are sexually non-monogamous. Long under the spell of prudish human social norms and presuming fidelity among animals, scientists now seem to revel in revealing the promiscuity of the animal kingdom. But if polyamory is the true norm, that makes the monogamous animals the true weirdos, and therefore worth a closer look-see. What is the biological root of monogamy?

Dads with shotguns?

Without cracking open the scientific Ark of the Covenant that question implies, or the world’s largest can of worms that is human sexuality, let’s just talk about the birds. (And, this time, not the bees.) Can anything be said of that thin sliver of avifauna that is both sexually and socially monogamous? Yes, it seems. Most of the few birds that are both socially and sexually monogamous do it for the same reason many married couples do: for the kids. These are birds that live in such a hostile habitat that it takes every ounce of parental care to nourish their chicks. In other words, the parents would cheat on each other; they just don’t have the time or energy.

Not tonight, honey. I've got a *zzzzzzzz*

Seabirds in rocky, windy, or icy climes — like Emperor Penguins — make up the majority of sexually monogamous pairs, but one type of bird creates a hostile habitat for itself specifically so it cannot engage in extra-marital canoodling. That’s because in this species, the female is literally imprisoned behind a wall. It’s the Monteiro’s Hornbill of Namibia, and it is a master mason on the level of an Edgar Allen Poe antagonist. A mated pair of hornbills will scope out a suitable neighborhood to nest, preferably a stand of old-growth forest with large cavities in the trees. The holes may have been made by a fallen branch, or may have been carved out by a woodpecker. But however it’s made, it should be large enough for the female to enter and sit comfortably. She chooses carefully, because she’s going to be inside for a very long time.

Also, how are the schools?

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Dead Reckoning

“It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,” wrote Lewis Carroll in Through the Looking Glass. But it’s not true when that backwards-thinking memory is spectacular. Those few with truly eidetic memories, also called photographic memories, have mixed feelings about the power, but there’s no arguing that the ability isn’t incredible. Witness Stephen Wiltshire, an autistic savant and architectural artist who can draw an entire city skyline from memory from just one helicopter ride, or a cathedral after a glance. Or remember the late Kim Peek, the inspiration for Dustin Hoffman’s character in Rain Man, who was estimated to have the complete content of 12,000 books committed to memory. Truly, memory is the library of the mind.

Then there are more or less fortunate people with hyperthymesia, or perfect autobiographical memory. Instead of memorizing the names and numbers of everyone in the phonebook, a person with hyperthymesia can recall with unblinking clarity everything they’ve ever experienced in their life. There have only been six documented cases of hyperthymesia in the world, but in each case, the patient can remember every detail of every day they’ve lived: what color shirt they wore, the faces of people who passed them in traffic, the arbitrary shapes of clouds. Every slight, every embarrassment, every victory, every heartbreaking moment. Forgetfulness is the gardener of memory, and hyperthymetics live in an unweeded wilderness of places, times, and emotions. In Jorge Luis Borges’ short story Funes el memorioso, the author invents a character with such a remarkable memory that he can relive a previous day’s events in real time, which, of course, takes an entire day to do. Funes is cursed by the inability to understand abstractions; able to remember absolutely every experience in crystal clear detail, he cannot understand the need to generalize. Poetry and dreams are beyond him. Every moment in the past is just as real to him as the current one, and his life one unbroken and contiguous chain of events interrupted only by sleep.

I remember a man on the streets of Prague who would make money from tourists by betting them that he could tell them their area code with only the name of their hometown. What I didn’t realize then was that anyone is capable of such feats of memorization, with practice. Mnemonists can memorize the sequence of a deck of shuffled playing cards in under 25 seconds, or the names of 1,500 conference attendees after hearing them once. Humans can do this by the use of mnemonic devices: acronyms, memory journeys, and storytelling. Our species is lousy at remembering abstractions — the opposite of memory, you’ll recall — but pretty good at remembering images and places. So a mnemonist will associate numbers (which are abstract concepts) with pictures and turn the first 100,000 decimal places of pi into a kind of mental comic book. Or they will take every line from The Iliad, turn each line into an image, and store each image somewhere in a “memory palace” (the remembrance of a well-known building, like one’s home) where the images can be “collected” in sequence. The spatial memory that helps you navigate your world is actually pretty keen; we lab rats have figured out the maze of our own construction quite nicely. But when it comes to spatial memory, there’s at least one animal who makes humans look like babes in the woods.

You look a little lost, dear.

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Crane Style

It’s Kung Fu Week on The Quantum Biologist! Chinese martial arts have been imitating the hunting and defense styles of animals for thousands of years. What can we learn about the animals from the fighting styles? Shaolin Kung Fu has five major animal styles: Tiger, Panther, Crane, Snake, and Dragon. But there are many subcategories from other regions, including Horse, Mantis, Monkey, Frog, and even Duck. We’ll examine three this week.

Winter in New Mexico is a time for cranes. Sandhill cranes from Canada and Idaho fly south to the shores of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque and the Bosque del Apache refuge. I’ve been watching these elegant birds lately at the local wildlife preserve, strolling the mown meadows hunting for frogs, mice, snails and insects, purring their Spanish “rr”s with a sing-song trill. Occasionally, they leap above the tall grass. Occasionally, they fight. And when they fight, I cannot help but think of kung fu.

Shaolin White Crane Boxing is one of the few martial arts credited to a woman, a farmer named Fang Quiniang living in the Fujian province in the mid-1800s. Legend has it that Quiniang was tending her family’s rice field when a crane landed next to her. She tried hitting it with a stick, but with each thrust, the crane would jump and parry, blocking the stick with its feet and jabbing it with its beak. She studied the crane’s natural technique, imitating the movements of the wings and neck with her arms, and eventually founded one of the most graceful forms of Shaolin Kung Fu, a path which emphasizes physical balance, evasion over attack, and only the most efficient violence. But is Crane Style really much like the cranes’ style?

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