Tag Archives: birds

Don Cowlione: How Cowbirds Run A Songbird Mafia

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If I were to imprint on you one main point stringing together every article I’ve ever written for Badass Biology, I hope it would be this: nature has produced no shortage of jerks. I say “jerk” like it’s a bad thing, but take the time to think about the word and you’ll realize “jerk” becomes a bit endearing when we’re talking about nature.

First, let’s review what it means to be called a “jerk” species. First, a jerk has to be abundant enough to merit some sort of attention or recognition, but not more abundant than non-jerks, otherwise the jerk strategy would be much less effective. This population size balance is very delicate, but jerks seem to manage it well.  Second, being a jerk means going against some established natural norm. Usually, jerks exploit some mutually beneficial arrangement between individuals, leaving another party to carry their weight for them. It’s a pretty clever strategy if I say so myself. Third, present a jerk with an opportunity and it’s likely to get snagged. Another admirable trait in favor of biological jerks

Back to the point, Planet Earth has lots of jerks. Consider the bluestreak cleaner wrasse. On Southeast Asian reefs, cleaner wrasse set up cleaning stations where they pick off the tiny parasites that live in the skin of larger fish. This arrangement seems to work for everyone (except the parasites, unfortunately); the wrasse get dinner while the larger fish get a good skin treatment. Some jerk wrasses, let’s call them “wrasseholes”, like to instead bite big chunks out of the mucus membranes on these fish instead, turning this mutualistic interaction into a parasitic one.

To be honest, it’s not that I find this interaction all that neat. The main reason I bring this up is to mention that it DID spawn an article in Discover Magazine with a really clever name: Cheater Cheater Mucus Eater.

Sure, jerks are great and all. My favorite? This little guy:

Awwwwww. SO PRETTYYYYYYY.

Adorable, right? What about now?

The Birdfather

Why yes, I AM proud of this joke.

Make no mistake. This stone cold killa is ruthless, even enough so that I’d put the word “killa” in an article that I’m reasonably sure a future employer will read.

So what about this little bird makes it so much of a wrassehole? To start, an introduction. This is the brown-headed cowbird, a member of the family Icteridae, which consequently means nothing at all to me but sounds pretty badass all the same. What distinguishes cowbirds is that they are notorious brood parasites. They find nests belonging to other aviary families, mostly songbirds but varying from hummingbirds to birds of prey, lay their eggs next to theirs, and let those other poor bird parents feed, raise, protect, bathe, clothe, and attend PTA meetings of cowbird babies. As of 1999, approximately 140 species of birds have been documented raising cowbird young.

Here’s what’s odd about this. I’m sure you’ve guessed that cowbirds are able to get away with this sneaky business because their eggs and young look an awful lot like the birds they’re parasitizing. They don’t. More often than not, cowbird eggs are either much larger than the eggs of their host AND a different color and pattern. Moreover, cowbird chicks are gigantic when they hatch, making little songbird chicks look tiny by comparison.

One of these eggs is a parasitic cowbird’s. Can you guess which one? Did you guess the one on the bottom left? You did!? Very good!

You may be asking yourself, “why do these other birds raise babies that aren’t their own?” Right now, I’m asking myself, “have I smelled like this all day?”, but that’s really of no consequence to anyone (except my wife, I guess).

Oddly, one theory explaining why the hosts hadn’t murdered these little guys is, and I’m serious, that the host birds don’t have the cognitive ability to recognize that these chicks are different from the others. It seems odd to me that the same birds can relocate their nests among thousands of other similar-looking forest objects with near-identical colors and patterns would not be able to recognize that one of their babies is a freakish monster.

Meanwhile, I only learned today that I live 5 minutes from a major interstate highway, but I’m confident that there’s no gigantic monster baby living in my house. One of our cats is pretty large, sure, but I’m not convinced I’m her father or anything.

No, the real reason host don’t viciously murder cowbird young is pretty sinister. In 2007, two researchers from the University of Florida set up a field experiment where they manipulated cowbird presence in predator-free nests of host birds. In “ejector” nests, the researchers removed cowbird eggs from host nests, mimicking a host that rejected a cowbird egg,  whereas “acceptor” nests saw through the raising of a strange foreign cowbird hatchling. In all, 56% of ejector nests saw some the destruction of host bird eggs, but only 6% of acceptor nests were ruined. What happened?

Cowbirds happened. Females, actually. These jerks monitored the nests of their hosts, checking in on the progress of their young from time to time. If cowbirds found that their babies weren’t receiving the star treatment (or weren’t in the nest at all), the cowbirds would lay ruin to the eggs of the host bird. Essentially, these birds were exhibiting mafia behavior, laying down some pretty severe consequences if the host rejects the parasite.

What’s equally sinister is the explanation for destruction in the 6% of acceptor nests. Why kill the young of a nest that’s satisfactorily caring for your own young? Simple: murder creates room in the nest for more cowbirds.

In summation, I quite admire cowbirds. In a group of organisms whose ability to distinguish which egg is their own is questionable, these ladies are clever. It’s pretty rare to see such a sophisticated racket exist in animals with brains the size of beans. Think about the cognitive power cowbirds need to keep track of which nests are parasitized, then decide on whether to murder or not murder depending on what they see. I gotta say I’m impressed.

So, like a Don collecting tribute from his corner of Little Italy, cowbirds command respect. They’re clever, manipulative, aggressive, greedy, and all of it is so sinisterly bundled in a package that I’d rather enjoy petting.  Plus, it’s nice to know that some species out there gives others an offer they can’t refuse.

Alpine swifts’ 200-day non stop flight

Original photo credit: D. Occiato- http://www.pbase.com/dophoto

You know how damn exhausting it must be to fly? I don’t. Having never had the ability to fly without propulsion, I can’t say just exactly how hard it must be. Studying the metabolism of flying birds gives us some idea, and current evidence suggests flying is really really f**king hard.

A lot of people compare flying to swimming, which I think is a bit of a BS comparison. Water is a much more dense and heavy medium than air. Sure, it’s harder to move through water than it is to move through air, but long-distance travel through the oceans has the advantage of buoyancy to counteract the effects of gravity. Without having to spend energy from falling to the ocean bottom, all effort can be spent moving forward.

In contrast, flying truly is falling with style. Most of the forward energy generated from flight occurs because of gravity, or the downward force of the wing generating movement in the forward direction. Thus, flying animals are tasked with the mind-numbingly complex task of controlling their descent and forward travel, modifying body position as air currents change, all in an attempt to keep oneself from crashing into the ground in a puddle of crushing sadness.

Basically, it’s generally agreed that moving flying is more energetically demanding than swimming or walking. Migratory birds that choose to embark on long-distance flights typically rest for a while throughout the journey. Even the largest sea-faring gliders have to rest every few days to recover from their grueling haul.

Unless you’re the alpine swift. These aviary ass-kickers don’t stop for jack shit.

“But don’t birds have to land on the ground to eat, rest, or sleep?”. F**king nope, not the Alpine swift.

These birds are built for ass-kickery. They have a body design that’s conducive for long-distance travel, mixing flapping and gliding to travel long distances using little energy. And their yearly migration is a long one, beginning in the mountains of Western Europe across the Mediterranean and Sahara to their wintering sites in the African interior and back, a journey spanning some 2500 miles round-trip.

Migration routes and non-breeding range of three Alpine swifts breeding in Switzerland.

Migratory behavior of the three birds assessed in the study published by Leichti et al. Each bird is a different color, and the arrows represent periods of non-stop flight (Figure 1 in Leichti et al 2013, link below).

There have been rumors for decades that some swifts never land for any reason, which honestly sounds ridiculous and stupid. So, to resolve the stupidity, a group of Swiss researchers placed sensors on six Alpine swifts, seeking outline their migration from the Swiss Alps to western Africa for the winter. What they found, described in a paper published in the October 2013 issue of the journal Nature Communcations, ended up being so mind-blowingly balls out that I myself can hardly believe they didn’t just make it the f**k up.

The transmitters they used collected only two parameters: light level to extrapolate position, and acceleration to determine other metrics like pitch (a measure of body position, indicating whether the animal was in flight and where it was traveling), flapping rate, metabolic activity, and a few others. They were also able to tell when and where birds were breeding, wintering, or migrating based on how the birds behaved and where they were located.

This is the tiny transmitter used by the authors to collect data over an entire year. Science! Source: https://www.sciencenews.org/sites/default/files/images/js_tiny-data-logger_free.jpg

Based on the distinct difference in activity between roosting and migrating metabolic activity and pitch, the researchers observed that the three birds they recaptured in Switzerland the following year had been on the wing for at least 200 days. Every bit of food they ate over the trip was snagged in the air during migration. And sleep? Well, the authors aren’t really sure whether swifts feel the harmful effects of sleep deprivation:

“In Alpine swifts there seems to be no necessity for physical inactivity to maintain any of the relevant physiological processes. However, our data indicate that there are distinct periods of increased and decreased activity, which could go along with some kind of sleep in flight.”

Such periods of decreased activity suggest swifts spend several nighttime hours gliding to conserve energy or perform other physiological functions. The researchers’ data backs this up too; swifts were most active and had highest flapping rates near sunrise and sunset, probably because they need to ascent to great heights to avoid gliding into the ground overnight, and probably had to work to recover this altitude at sunrise. How do they control their flight if they’re asleep? Nobody really knows, but they may only sleep one brain hemisphere at a time.

So, despite hours of grueling physical activity, swifts seem to recover without having to land on the ground or water. They travel huge distances over impossibly barren terrain, hauling ass with more long-term gusto than any land creature ever documented. They’re masters of endurance and champions of travel with a purpose.  Also, never challenge one to a “lets’s see who can fly the longest” contest. Literally every other organism on the planet will lose.

Want to suggest a topic? Write it  in the comments below!

Further reading:
https://www.sciencenews.org/article/alpine-swifts-fly-nonstop-more-six-months

http://www.livescience.com/40268-alpine-swifts-fly-nonstop.html