Remember the first time you were puzzled by the arrangement of birds in your field guide? Why were loons at the beginning of the book? Why did kingfishers come after hummingbirds?
It took me a long time to get used to taxonomic order but I finally mastered it and could thumb to the right place every time.
Not anymore! DNA testing has revealed new relationships. The old order is shaken up. Ducks are first, kingfishers follow motmots, falcons have moved to be near their closest relatives.
So here’s a quiz:
Of the four birds shown below, which two are most closely related to peregrines?
Red-tailed hawk? Red-crowned parrot?
Red-legged seriema ? Yellow-crowned night heron?
Amazingly, parrots and seriemas are the falcons’ closest relatives. Seriemas, from South America, are actually an older species than falcons and peregrines.
The evidence first surfaced in 2006. In 2012, a proposal was made to the AOU (American Ornithological Union) to change the taxonomic order of falcons, moving them away from hawks and near parrots. Here’s a wealth of information on the move.
And this link has a chart of the new relationships and descendants. Click here for a large version of the chart where the most ancient species are at the bottom, the newly evolved at the top. Falcons are a relatively new species, third from the top … saving the best for last.
These four swans are really hooting it up. The quartet began when two pairs encouraged their mates with lean-forward and wing-quiver calls. But the quivering wing display is also used in antagonistic encounters. When the males got too close the dominant male had had enough. He rushed the other one.
Whoa! The less aggressive male immediately sat on the water in a submissive posture and the situation defused. Watch him curl his neck down in an S position and look away.
Tundra swans can make music together. Sometimes they jazz it up.
For 30 years Charles Brown and his wife Mary Bomberger Brown have studied cliff swallows (Petrochelidon pyrrhonota) in southwestern Nebraska. They’ve meticulously monitored, measured and banded the birds at their nests under bridges and overpasses and they’ve counted and measured the road killed birds.
Their attention to detail has paid off in an unexpected way.
Cliff swallows attach their mud nests to cliffs or bridges. In Nebraska where there are few cliffs, the swallows use busy highway overpasses. If the swallows aren’t quick to fly up out of traffic they become road kill.
When the Browns began their study in 1982 they typically found 20 road killed cliff swallows per season, but since 2008 they’ve usually found less than five. The traffic has remained the same while the swallows’ population has more than doubled, yet the road kill numbers dropped dramatically.
What changed? The swallows changed!
The Browns’ data reveals that thirty years ago Nebraska’s cliff swallows had longer wingspans. Today’s shorter wings allow the birds to maneuver more quickly and turn away from oncoming vehicles. In fact, the few road killed birds they find today have longer wings than the rest of the population.
The shorter-winged birds survive to breed, the long-winged birds do not. In only 30 years, traffic’s unnatural selection has forced cliff swallows to evolve.
If traffic can do this to cliff swallows, I wonder what it’s done to Pennsylvania’s white-tailed deer.