Thursday, May 11, 2006

Beauty: Not Just Feather-Deep

Carel Brest van Kempen tagged me with the 10 bird meme. A DC Birding Blog started the meme and is collecting the responses (over 50 so far) here.

As you can see, those are all birders and birdwatchers, real pros. They really know their birds. They picked their choices by beauty and grace, or by special meaning in their lives, or by excitement of having seen them.

But I am, unfortunately, not a birdwatcher. I always wanted to be, but Life interfered. It's never to late to start, though...

I grew up in the grey, dusty city of Belgrade, where there are only sparrows, pigeons and crows. On the trips out in the country, I saw swallows and storks, thrushes and robins, hawks and eagles, owls and seagulls, martins and swifts, but there was never anyone around who could tell me exactly what species it was.

I saw my first raven outside of Tower of London in 1980. Always in love with birds, I got my education from books and TV, as well as my habit of visiting a zoo and a natural history museum wherever I travelled around Europe. When I was a little kid, I thought that the Mandarin Duck was the most beautiful, and was excited by the condor, toucan, flamingo and the Lyre bird.

When I moved to the USA, I finally got to live in a house with a yard, so I put up three bird feeders up. Those attracted House sparrows, House finches, grackles and an occasional nuthatch. They spilled enough seed on the ground to attract starlings, American robins, brown trashers, blue jays and mockingbirds.

Here in North Carolina, one often sees red-tailed hawks and turkey vultures - those two species are so used to humans I sometimes see one on the side of the road, drive up to it, stop and watch it untill a car comes from behind and wants me to move on. I saw barred owls in Cary and spent almost an hour watching a single whooperwill down in Florida. There, I missed seeing a painted bunting by seconds - my lab mate, who is an avid birder, saw it, but I was too slow and blind!

So, how does a non-birder pick ten most beautiful birds? I don't know. So I asked my wife and my daugher (my son was in a homework frenzy at the time). So, here are their picks. Mrs.Coturnix chose these ten, often indicating a whole family in the absence of knowledge about particular species: hummingbird, eagle, owl, zebra finch, parrot, flamingo, pelican, swan, falcon and roadrunner.

Coturnietta is more sophisticated. She knew her #1 right off the bat. Then, she went to her room and picked up her Sibley and her Peterson and started leafing through them to pick the remaining nine. Here, at her age of 9, is her top ten list: snowy egret, great egret, wild duck, cardinal, bluebird, great horned owl, rufous humminbird, red-headed woodpecker, American robin and golden-cheeked warbler.

OK, so I am a biologist. I should know a little about birds myself, although I never took any ornithology classes. My criterion for "beautiful" may be a little different from a birdwatcher's. For me, beautiful is "cool", as in unique, unusual and "oh, how I wish I could study this species" sense.

I was always excited by biological oddities. So many birds are little brown ones, looking like a sparrow. So many others look just like a duck. Others are just like parrots. Starting with some dinosaurian ancestor, evolution produced many species of birds and so many of them are so similar to each other. But biological curiosities are not just cool because they are unusual. They are also cool because they demonstrate how far can evolution go, what extremes can it reach, can it produce real novelty or just tinker with what's already there. There is so much we can learn about evolution by studying the unusual species, their anatomy, biochemistry, development, physiology, reproductive strategies and behavior.

And no, despite my Internet handle, the Coturnix quail did not make the list. I guess after all these years I am a little blase about it - my heart does not race with excitement every time I see one any more. Though, I still believe it is the best avian model for laboratory and field studies, not just in my field of chronobiology, but also in physiology and behavior, including the mystery of avian olfaction - it has a proportionally (in comparison to the brain size) largest olfactory bulb of all birds except the turkey vulture. So, here are my top ten:

1. The Beautiful Mind - Clark's nutcracker (Nucifraga columbiana)
This is a master matematician of the avian world. An individual caches thousands of pine-cone seeds and, later, remembers the exact location of each buried seed. You can read a little more about it here and check out a lot of interesting scientific papers here, including Geometric rule learning by Clark's nutcrackers. There is even a whole book about it and its relatives:
Made for Each Other : A Symbiosis of Birds and Pines

2. The Bat Wanna-be: Oil-bird (Steatornis caripensis)

I first heard about it during my oral prelims - I was asked about it! Well, it lives in caves and flies out to eat fruit during the night. How much more weird can it be? You can read more about it here and here (pdf), or check out some recent papers, e.g., The eyes of oilbirds: pushing at the limits of sensitivity and Retinal Morphology and Electrophysiology of Two Caprimulgiformes Birds: The Cave-Living and Nocturnal Oilbird (Steatornis caripensis), and the Crepuscularly and Nocturnally Foraging Common Pauraque (Nyctidromus albicollis).

3. Big Bird: Ostrich (Struthio camelus)

Ooooops! Wrong picture! Here:
But really, it is this life stage I may be most interested in:What developmental biologist would not like to study such a huge embryo in such a huge egg? And with current techniques of in-ovo embryo manipulation and avian transgenesis, the price is the only obstacle, and the rise and fall of the ostrich farming industry is not helping on that matter. Check out some more science papers here, for instance: The ostrich blastoderm and embryo development following storage of eggs at various temperatures.

4. The Snake-Handler: Secretary Bird (Sagittarius Serpentarius)
An amazing bird! I has a special awe of it since I was a little kid. Just check out these papers: Terror birds on the run: a mechanical model to estimate its maximum running speed and Growth and behaviour of secretary bird nestlings.

5. Modern Pteranodon: Hoatzin (Opisthocomus hoazin)
The most odd of the avian oddities. Who else has claws on their wings? Or foregut fermentation? Or such nutty behaviors? Read more about all of this and more here. Check out some science as well. Oh, and they are still debating how to classify it: Phylogenetic relationships of the enigmatic hoatzin resolved using mitochondrial and nuclear gene sequences and More Taxa, More Characters: The Hoatzin Problem Is Still Unresolved.

6. Brilliant At Breakfast - Raven (Corvus corax)

The genius of the avian world. While the nutcrackers may be mathematical idiot-savants, ravens actually think! Check out the recent scientific research, e.g., Ravens follow gaze direction of humans around obstacles, or read the wonderful book about them: Mind Of A Raven.

7. Furball - Great Spotted Kiwi (Apteryx haastii)
No comment neccessary: so weird, yet so pretty. And a huge egg, too! And now for some science.

8. The Mystery of the Laughing Shadow - Common Mynah (Acridotheres tristis)
If you grew up reading The Three Investigators - the best detective series for kids ever - you will know what a laughing shadow has to do with the mynah bird. The best talker and sound mimic of the whole avian world. Of course, check the science.

9. To see the world: Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea)
Why would one migrate from the North Pole to the South Pole and back? Does not make sense, does it? But ask the Arctic tern why and how it does it, e.g., check these papers here.

10. Baudelaire and the nose: Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans)

So impressive. So inspiring. And so interesting to study, especially the way it uses olfactory and magnetic cues to navigate.

And this is the list. This leaves out so many other cool birds: the bower bird, scrub jay, African Grey parrot, bobolink, peacock, Arctic Ptarmigan, cassowary, all the penguins and hummingbirds, and many, many others (that is for the Top 20 meme...).

I am supposed to tag some other people to do this meme as well. It appears that all the birding blogs have already tagged each other. But, hey, what happened to Grrrlscientist? Is it possible she did not get tagged? If not, she is my first choice. And I can't believe nobody tagged PZ!?

I see some tagged two people, some three, some one, some none. To spread the meme outside the circle of birdwatching blogs, I'd like to tag quite a few people, some scientists, some not, so if two of them actually do it, I'll be happy. Here they are: Darren Naish, The Lancelet, Sahotra Sarkar, Newton's Binomium, Archy and Lindsay. Perhaps one of them will take a different approach altogether - maybe a list of ten coolest extinct birds, from Archeopteryx, through Epyornis, Moa and Dodo, to Passenger Pigeon and Carolina Parakeet. Wait and see - I'll link to their lists if and when they get posted.

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