May 19, 2007 | David F. Coppedge

Science Is for the Birds

Birds, with all their variety and functionality, are a never-ending source of study for scientists.  Here are some recent feathery findings:

  1. Memory masters:  Scrub jays are like us: they can plan ahead, regardless of mood.  Current Biology did a study that proved these common western birds can cache tomorrow’s breakfast regardless of their motivational state.  The authors said, “The fact that the birds act in favor of a future need as opposed to the current one challenges the hypothesis that this ability is unique to humans.”
  2. Lab masters:  A Nevada scientist wrote Science about his backyard experience watching his labrador retriever trying to match wits with a crow.  When the dog would get too close to the crow’s cache, the bird would grab it and move it to a new location.  Watching this “regular ritual of food hiding and searching,” he quipped, “The crow relied on his memory of his stashed food to beat the dog to the prize nearly every time.”
  3. Whoops, no sexual selection here:  A “textbook example of sexual selection” has been called into doubt.  Current Biology reported that the longer tails of male barn swallows are not just for attracting mates.  They apparently are “due to naturally selected variation in the aerodynamic optimum for each individual” – in other words, they have a function for the male’s flying behavior.  See also the original paper.
  4. Whoops, co-evolution in trouble:  Elisabeth Pennisi in Science described a situation in which co-evolution has apparently stalled out, and is not a simple arms-race kind of story.  Clark’s nutcrackers and the pine cones they feed on are in a more complex situation when the squirrel factor is considered.  “Ecologists have found that, in organisms from birds to bacteria, coevolution is not a sure thing,” she said, describing “nagging inconsistencies” in the observations.
  5. Rabbit terror:  National Geographic had a one-page description of South America’s “terror birds,” known only from fossils.  These 7-foot monsters with scary-looking beaks “could have outrun an Olympic sprinter,” the article by Peter Gwin says.  They were likely driven to extinction when a land bridge from North America allowed big cats, dogs and bears to enter their territory  Despite the artist’s illustration of the big bird closing in on a terrified man, Gwin said they likely chased down rabbits (not humans) for food.

In Current Biology, Nicola Clayton described how fascination with birds led to his career in determining the intelligence behind their songs: “I have always been fascinated by birds, especially by how their minds work and why they engage in such amazing behavioural displays.  Watching birds triggers my two passions: science and dance!” 

What does a 7-foot, 250-pound terror bird say?  (Deep voice) “Polly want a rabbit, NOW!  Humans call them “terror” birds, but who knows; maybe they were as silly as turkeys.  It’s hard to infer behavior from bones.  There are living birds dangerous to man, though; the cassowary can run fast and deliver a disembowelling kick to a human unlucky enough to intrude on its territory.  Thank goodness most birds are cute little things without Alfred Hitchcock conspiracies lurking in their highly intelligent brains.
    Watch the classic nature film Winged Migration to get your passions triggered about birds.  Our feathered friends are an endless source of fascination with their amazing abilities to fly, swim, run, sing, dance, and communicate with a high degree of intelligence.  Think of the tremendous variety between a terror bird and a hummingbird: visualize penguins (09/10/2004), condors, swans, egrets, kiwis, pigeons, toucans, woodpeckers, spoonbills, doves (09/09/2004), albatross, chickadees, birds of paradise, flamingos, ostriches (08/17/2004), swifts (04/29/2007), cormorants (05/24/2004), parrots, majestic eagles, owls, and many more.  Birds have mastered and adorned the sea, the land and the skies.
    Think how many birds add music to the world.  How does a little lightweight critter project its voice over the range of half a mile?  Sing “Listen to the mockingbird” and then do it.  Think; what amazing intelligence lies behind this ability to sing a rapid-fire repertoire of dozens of unique, complex melodies for hours?  Evolutionists are up a tree even with their textbook cases.  Each month it seems they have to scuttle a previous story.  Do a good deed; teach your parrot to say “Charlie was a slacker; birds believe in God.”

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Categories: Amazing Facts, Birds

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