Category Archives: Birds

How smart are parrots?

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Parrots are smarter than Nebo the dog


The dog’s name came from the direction of the enclosed front porch of the tin-roofed concrete block home of my friend Bwana Ndege, in Isiro, Zaire.


It sounded like an older woman, a somewhat crackly voice, insistent.

“Nebo. Kuya. Nebo.”

The old woman was calling the dog, in Swahili. Nebo, sleeping at first on the cool concrete floor under the dining room table startled awake, ears scanning. Nebo was a large Doberman who had never learned that one-man one-dog thing. He was gentle. And listening carefully.

“Nebo.” Louder, more insistent, the voice from the porch called. This time Nebo got it, jumped up, pushed his way past the legs of chairs and bounded past me in the living room, and onto the porch. Nobody there. Who had called him? I wondered if dogs ever considered that they might have dreamt something they they thought they had heard. Perhaps thinking that, Nebo looked around for a moment, and retired to his cool sleeping spot in the interior of the house.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,” the old woman cackled. Bwana Ndege’s African Grey Parrot had fooled the dog again. And was clearly amused.

This happened… Read on.

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Ten Thousand Birds

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There are over 10,000 species of bird on the Earth today. There is one blog called “10,000 Birds” for which I write a monthly article, in case you did not know. But this post is about Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin, a book by Tim Birkhead, Jo Wimpenny and Bob Monegomerie.

Birds and various studies of birds are central to evolutionary theory and the development of all of the surrounding biology and science. Here’s a short list of key roles birds have played in evolutionary biology:

<li>Darwin's study of pigeon breeding was central to <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780674637528'>On the Origin of Species</a> and later works. </li>

<li>The Galapagos <a href="">finches</a> and other birds, observed by Darwin during <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9781626365605'>The Voyage of the Beagle</a> were also key in the development of his work.</li>

<li>Darwin's work involved a great deal of other birds, such as <a href="">the Rhea</a> and helped shape his thinking about species.</li>

<li>Skipping past many examples, and far ahead in time, The Sibley–Ahlquist taxonomy was the first major application of DNA to develop phylogeny. </li>

<li>As described in <a href='' title='More info about this book at' rel='powells-9780679733379'>The Beak of the Finch: A Story of Evolution in Our Time</a>, the Grants' study of finches in the Galapagos advanced evolutionary theory with detailed tests of Darwin's models, and influenced <a href="">one of the most important works on the origin of humans</a>. </li>

<li>Birds have often been used as examples in teaching evolution.  Have a look at this example: <a href="">It May Be Hard To Swallow, But Bumpus Could Get Bumped To The Back Burner</a> </li>

Ten Thousand Birds: Ornithology Since Darwin is an absolutely spectacular book. It is big and heavy and over 500 pages long. It is dark green like all great scholarly books. Despite it’s great lenght it has only 11 chapters, so you know the material is treated in depth. It has dozens and dozens of pages of notes and references. It has an appendix with a list of 500 ornithologists. It has a separate appendix with a list of ornithologies.

That’s all nice but the meat of the book is in those long intense chapters. These chapters provide a very thorough, detailed, and fascinating history of ornithology, often focusing on the ornithologists, their quirks, their visions, the contexts in which they worked, and their findings. So, yes, this is a history of the science. The story starts when birds first flew into the field of evolutionary biology, or perhaps, were captured by it, and traces the history of biology from a birds eye’s point of view, including the development of the modern synthesis, and on to the behavioral revolution of Lack, the conceptual revolution of Tinbergen, and the ecological reframing of MacArthur.

This could serve as a very readable core of a college elective in the history of science, though it is certainly not a textbook. Richly illustrated, well written, engaging.

Tim Birkhead is a professor of zoology at Sheffield, and has done major bird research. He wrote The Wisdom of Birds: An Illustrated History of Ornithology and Bird Sense: What It’s Like to Be a Bird. Jo Wimpenny is a bird researcher at Sheffield. Bob Montgomerie is professor of biology at Queen’s University in Ontario, and studies the evolution of plumage and bird sex.

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Honey, I Shrunk The Dinosaurs …

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There is a fantastic paper just out in Science: “Sustained miniaturization and anatomoical innovation in the dinosaurian anceestors of birds” by Michael Lee, Andrea Cau, Darren Naishe and Gareth Dyke.

I want to talk about this research but if you really want to know more about it, don’t rely on me; one of the co-authors of this important paper is Darren Naish, who happens to be a stupendous blogger, and he has written the research up here. So go read that for sure, and revel in the excellent graphics. Meanwhile I have a few random thoughts….


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Eagles Adopt Unhatched Offspring Of Dinner

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Here in Minnesota we do things a little different sometimes. Let me splain. First, a little background.

Bird parental investment is intense, or at least it can be. You all know the stories. A bunch of carp are regularly fed in a pond, so they learn to come to the edge of the water when they detect a presence there, and stick their big round mouths out of the water to beg for bits of bread. A mother or father bird has just started to feed the little hatchlings, who beg for food with their gaping maws. A windstorm. A weakened branch. Some bad luck. The bough breaks and the nest, with baby and all, comes down. The rats and cats feast.

The next day the disoriented parent bird happens by the pond and triggers the mouth-gaping begging of the carp. The bird is cued into action and finds a morsel of food for the fish, and the fish respond with more gaping, and the parent bird responds with more feeding. This goes on for a while until the hormones wear off and the bird goes on to other things.

A pair of bald eagles are nesting with a web cam in Minnesota. One of them killed a duck and brought it back to the nest. In case you were wondering, raptor style birds eat a lot of other birds, so that is not especially odd. Anyway, they ate the duck but the duck was about to lay an egg, which was inside her. The egg fell out. Normally, a hungry eagle would have just eaten the egg along with the rest of the duck, but in this case, the nesting, would be parental eagles, chose to nurture it instead. They moved the egg into the center of the next and are trying to hatch it.

What could possibly go wrong?

You should be able to find the Eagle Cam, or should I say, Eagle and Duck Cam, here.

Hat tip: Jaf.

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Bird Science and Evolution: 2013 Year In Review

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Many, many things happened in the area of bird science this year, so this review can not be comprehensive. But I’ve compiled a sampling of this year’s news and events for your edification. I’ve organized them by date (month/day) of the approximate reporting or blogging time of the item of interest, which does not necessarily reflect the actual date of occurrence.

click here to see my review at 10,000 Birds…

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The evolution of four-winged birds

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…When we look at living species (A and B) that we know shared a common ancestor resembling one of them (A), we can guess that the features seen in A evolved in steps more or less linearly to eventually resemble the corresponding features seen in B. For example, we think that chimpanzees and humans shared a common ancestor that resembled chimps a lot more than humans, and in fact, we consider living chimps to be a pretty close analog to this common ancestor. Chimp teeth are somewhat larger in relation to body size than human teeth, and human teeth have somewhat thicker enamel than chimp teeth. This might suggest that chimp-like teeth transformed over time, step by step, in a linear fashion, to become human-like … slightly smaller and somewhat thicker enameled … over evolutionary time.

That would be a reasonable hypothesis, but it would be wrong. When we look at the teeth found among fossil remains of human ancestors and their relatives, we clearly see that the creatures that arose form a chimp-like ancestor bore teeth are as different from both chimp and human teeth as one might see anywhere in the fossil record of mammals evolving over a few million years. …

Read all about it here in my latest post on 10,000 Birds.

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A new study of Natural Selection in Birds

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…there is a new study that has significant advantages of the Bumpus study, though the latter will still be useful in teaching about evolution because of its limitations and the questions it raises. The new study is about Cliff Swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska.

As you know, a lot of birds are killed in the U.S. because of collisions with vehicles. About 80 million, according to the Cliff Swallow study by Charles Brown and Mary Bomberger Brown. Brown and Brown examined the possibility that birds in a population subject to this particular form of mortality would undergo Natural Selection, with some traits that prevented death through vehicular collision being selected for over time. …

Read the whole thing here.

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Smoking is (good) for the birds

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Back in the 1980s, it became popular for biologists to consider plant secondary compounds in understanding inter-species relationships and other ecological matters. I was doing my thesis research at the time, and it even affected what I was doing, as the wild world was being reconceptualized in terms of tannins and alkaloids, seed edators and dispersers, and so on. I remember taking an advanced seminar in plant-animal interaction, in preparation for my own study of human-plant interactions. The first thing I learned was that most animal-plant interaction did not involve mammals, or even birds. Insects ruled. We spent most of the rest of the semester dealing with grasshoppers. At one point, for some reason, we had a debate. It was the heady, politically charged days of Roe v. Wade, and so we debated the issue of choice. The question was, did female plants choose which pollen would fertilize their ova, or were they merely raped by the patriarchal male plants? Luckily, I was chosen to be on the pro-choice side. We wore the appropriate buttons and hats and carried signs to the debate. Also, it turns out that we were scientifically correct; female plants exert considerable choice in whom they mate with, it turns out.

Read the rest here…

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Feederwatch: A course in art focusing on birds

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Here is the website, here is the Facebook page, and here is the writeup:

Feeder Sketch is an 8 week free one line casual course. You can come and go as you please. No requirements, and any level of participation is welcome (from just seeing what it is, to drawing 2 times a week for and hour).

Join us if you are just learning to draw or are an illustration superstar. A novice birder – or someone who can identify a bird by just a few little chirps. Everyone is welcome!

If you just want a weekly reminder about the group, you can hit maybe here, and stay updated.

Who are “we”?
We are staff and educators from the Science Museum of Minnesota and the Museum of Life and Science in North Carolina. Some of us draw for fun, while others have no art background whatsoever. None of us are bird experts. We will be “learning to look, and looking to learn” together.

What is it exactly?
This free, eight-week online program accommodates a range of birders and sketchers, from novice to expert, focusing especially on the novice sketcher. We’ll host observational and drawing activities each week online on the FeederWatch Forum, share our work with each other, and enjoy conversations about learning how to draw (again) as an adult and also learning to draw birds in particular.

The official FeederWatch season runs from November 10, 2012 through April 5, 2013. We will facilitate the accompanying FeederSketch program from November 26, 2012 through January 20, 2013. We encourage you to participate in both—sign up to count birds and submit your data to the Project FeederWatch program for the whole season, as well as sketch along with us for the eight-week FeederSketch companion program.

Questions or need help registering?
Email us at

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What is the real impact of cats, windmills, and other things on birds?

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I wrote a post at 10,000 birds that starts to explore this question by comparing the number of birds that there are, the number of birds that seem to die off every year, and the possible number that get munched by cats, and briefly discusses predator niches and that sort of thing. I hope this is the start of an interesting discussion that will eventually get us tilting at windmills.

Have a look: Are there so many birds that cats don’t matter?

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