Archive for the 'Bird Anatomy' Category

Mar 09 2012

An Ancient Grackle?

Published by under Bird Anatomy


If you ever saw this bird, you might think it was a cross between a grackle and a scissor-tailed flycatcher because of its iridescent blue-black color and long, thin tail feathers.

But it’s not a bird.  This is a drawing of a Microraptor, a pigeon-sized dinosaur that lived 130 million years ago.  We know what it looked like thanks to extensive research published in yesterday’s issue of the journal Science, and this image by Mick Ellison of AMNH.

The research was a collaboration of American and Chinese scientists who examined Microraptor’s fossilized feathers at the microscopic level. 

The iridescence breakthrough has an Ohio connection.  Dr. Matt Shawkey, a co-author of the study and associate professor of biology at the University of Akron, discovered that in the commonly iridescent feathers of modern birds, arrays of pigment-bearing organelles called melanosomes were uniquely narrow.  These same shapes were found in Microraptor melanosomes.

Want to learn more about this dinosaurThe American Museum of Natural History will have a live video chat today (Friday, March 9) at 12:30pm to discuss this earliest record of iridescence.

For more information, pictures and videos visit this page on the American Museum of Natural History’s website.

(drawing of a Microraptor based on digital overlays of nine fossilized specimens, by AMNH/Mick Ellison. Image featured here on Science Daily)

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Jan 24 2012

Feather Facts to Impress Your Friends

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Did you know that… ?

  • For most birds, feathers make up 5-10% of their total weight but are two to three times heavier than their skeletons.
  • Tundra swans have 25,000 feathers, 80% of which are on their heads and necks.
  • Doves and herons have some specialized “powderdown” feathers whose barbule tips disintegrate into a talcum-like powder.  These feathers grow continuously so they can do this.
  • Dark feathers are stronger than white feathers.  The dark pigment melanin provides strength.
  • Feathers are held in place on birds’ bodies by follicle muscles. Some birds, such as nightjars, experience “fright molt” when something scary causes those muscles to relax and the bird loses some feathers.
  • Owls have fringe-like leading edges on their primary feathers and long filament-like barbules on other feathers.  These features reduce air turbulence, allowing owls to fly silently.
  • Archaeological evidence indicates feathers first appeared on meat-eating dinosaurs.    (Peregrines’ ancestors!)
  • Desert sandgrouse in Africa have specialized belly feathers that can absorb and carry water.  The male sandgrouse flies as much as 18 miles from his nest to a watering hole where he soaks his belly in the water.  He then flies back to the nest where his young squeeze his belly feathers in their bills to get a drink.  (Pictured above is a male Namaqua sandgrouse in the Kalahari.)

(photo by Chris Eason, via Creative Commons License on Wikimedia Commons.  Click on the photo to see the original.)

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Sep 02 2011

Amazing Tongues … With Zippers

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Yesterday’s nasturtium looked inviting to a hummingbird, but how does he drink its nectar?

This Science Friday video — originally published on May 27, 2011 — shows how both the dog and the hummingbird use their tongues to drink.

The dog drinks by sucking liquid up in a column, not by using its tongue as a ladle to its mouth.

The hummingbird is even more amazing.  Its tongue has a zipper that opens in liquid and shuts when withdrawn.  It holds the liquid inside its tongue.

Watch and see!

(video from Science Friday)

p.s. What kind of hummingbird is this?  (I have no idea.)

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Mar 18 2011

Anatomy: Field of View

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Several weeks ago I declared an end to my Friday bird anatomy series but I found this interesting diagram so here’s an unscheduled lesson.

Field of view is the angular extent of vision at any given moment.  It’s basically “all you can see without moving your eyes.”

Prey species, like pigeons and robins, usually have a very wide field of view because they need to see danger coming from any direction.  To achieve this most of their vision is monocular, like our peripheral vision, with only a narrow angle of binocular vision with good depth perception.  It’s so important for them to see what’s coming that some prey species can move each eye independently!

As shown above a pigeon can see nearly 360 degrees around its head, a real advantage when avoiding a peregrine.

Predator species usually have a narrower field of view because they need to have good depth perception in order to capture prey.  The owl’s field of view is more like ours with a wide area of binocular vision and narrow bands of peripheral, monocular vision on either side. 

Peregrines and people have fields of view similar to the owl’s.  Ours is actually wider than the diagram.  We can see 180 degrees. 

Here’s how you to find your field of view, which is basically a test of your peripheral vision.  Hold up your index finger in front of your nose and close one eye.  While looking straight ahead, move that finger around your head toward the ear near your open eye.  When you can no longer see your finger, that’s where your field of view ends. 

Now find out where your binocular vision ends.  Open your closed eye, close your open eye (i.e. switch eyes).  Look straight ahead and move your finger in the same direction as before.  When you can no longer see your finger, that’s where your binocular vision ends.

Of course, these tests only work if you have good vision in both eyes.

(illustration from Wikimedia)

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Feb 25 2011

Anatomy: Pterylae

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Fifteen months ago I started this Friday series on bird anatomy as a project for the winter of 2009-2010.  Now, 67 entries later, I’m declaring that winter is over and freeing up my Fridays for time to write about spring flowers, bird migration, and peregrines.  This is the last regularly scheduled anatomy lesson but it’s not the last blog I’ll ever write on anatomy.  Who knows?  I might change my mind and restart the series in July.  ;)

Today’s topic was suggested by Tony Bledsoe when I posted a photo of a warbler whose belly feathers were blown aside to expose its fat reserves.  We can see birds’ belly skin because their feathers are arranged in tracts. 

Unlike mammals whose hair sprouts uniformly from the skin, most birds’ feathers sprout in tracts called pterylae with bare patches of skin between them.  Pterylae are like forests of feathers and that’s what the word means: pteron is “feather,” hulé is “forest.”  The bare patches between them are called apteria:  “without feathers.”

Shown above are the pterylae of a rock pigeon.  You can see from the illustration that there are apteria on the neck and belly but we rarely see a bird’s bare skin because their feathers fan out to cover their bodies.  It’s interesting to realize that the bare spot on the belly is a good beginning toward a brood patch for incubating eggs and brooding young.

Some birds are exceptions to this rule.  Penguins’ feathers sprout uniformly across their bodies.  You can’t blow on a penguin’s belly and see its skin.  

I’ll bet the lack of pterylae explains why penguins don’t use their bellies to incubate their eggs.  They use their bare feet!

(clip art from the Florida Center for Instructional Technology (FCIT) at University of South Florida.  Click on the image to the see the FCIT clip art library.)

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Feb 18 2011

Anatomy: Right-handed?

Published by under Bird Anatomy

Scientists who study birds’ brains long ago discovered that, just like humans, birds can be right-handed or left-handed. 

In humans, dominance on the left side of the brain results in right-handedness and vice versa.  Birds’ brains have functional lateralism too and can show behavior that indicates they favor one “hand” over the other.

An easy way to tell this is on birds whose eyes face sideways (instead of straight forward) because they obviously use one eye or the other for important tasks.  What eye do they use to scan for predators?  In 2001, Franklin and Lima found that most dark-eyed juncoes use their right eyes.

Crossbills take “handedness” one step further.  Their bills cross either to the right or the left and they walk the pinecones on which they feed in a clockwise or counterclockwise direction depending on the “handedness” expressed in their bills.

So, what do you think?  Is this crossbill right-handed or left-handed?

(photo of a white-winged crossbill by Raymond Barlow. Inspiration and information from Ornithology by Frank B. Gill)

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Feb 11 2011


Itchy?  Actually, she’s probably preening.

Preening is very important to a bird’s health and well-being.  If her feathers aren’t in top condition she’ll lose warmth and perhaps some flight ability.

Birds spend hours every day methodically preening their feathers, using their bills to spread oil from their preen glands, align the feathers and remove parasites. 

Many tiny parasites have evolved to eat feathers.  Chewing lice eat the down and barbules, leaving the vane and barb structure.  This gives damaged feathers a thin, almost see-through appearance. 

Since their bills can’t reach their head and neck feathers, birds use their feet to vigorously scratch away the parasites.  This works so well that the reverse it true.  Those who are crippled or have lost a foot carry a heavy parasite load.

If you look closely at this female goldfinch you’ll see that the feathers on her scratching side look thick and normal but those on her non-scratching side look thin.  I wonder if this is feather damage.  Poor dear.

Scratching is good.

(photo by Chuck Tague)

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Feb 04 2011

Anatomy: He Has a Beard

Even though this turkey’s chin is scruffy, that’s not where his beard is. 

The “beard” on a wild turkey is that cluster of long hairlike feathers sticking out of the center of his chest.  They average nine inches long. 

Generally only male turkeys have beards but 10 to 20 percent of female turkeys grow them as well.  This poses a problem for those ladies during Spring Gobbler hunting season when only bearded (i.e. male) turkeys can be hunted. 

Don’t worry about this turkey, though.  He’s probably safe all year long because he’s a regular in Cris Hamilton’s back yard.

(photo by Cris Hamilton)

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Jan 28 2011

Talk to me

A few days ago Steve Gosser posted this video of his grandmother’s talking budgerigar.  Amazingly, the bird speaks in complete sentences.

How and why do parrots learn to do this?

Birds sing using their syrinx, a fancy two-sided voicebox with muscles that can control each side independently.  This allows the bird to sing harmony with itself, something that wood thrushes are especially good at.

Songbirds, parrots and hummingbirds(!) learn their songs.  The rest make appropriate sounds but don’t improve upon them.

Most songbirds learn during a sweet spot of time while they’re growing up.  In white-crowned sparrows this is at 10 to 50 days old, and then they’re done.  Mockingbirds, on the other hand, learn new songs throughout their lives.

Birds learn by listening to and memorizing the phrases and song traditions of adults in their area, though they don’t practice them at first.  After they’ve memorized the audio template, they begin practicing out loud to match it.  Studies on the brain waves of zebra finches show that they think about their songs while asleep and practice in their dreams!

Because parrots are social birds, they learn and practice the song traditions of their flock in order to become part of the group.  For pet birds, their flocks are the members of their household so they learn the phrases they hear and repeat them when the flock is happy together or when they want attention (as in “Flock, come here!”).

Even so, it’s impressive when a bird speaks in complete sentences.  Turn up the sound on your computer and listen to Steve’s video.  This bird is a virtuoso!

(video by Steve Gosser)

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Jan 21 2011

Wearing Black-n-Gold!

Did I tell you I live in Pittsburgh where the Steelers are playing the AFC Championship game against the New York Jets this Sunday? 

It’s a rare day that bird anatomy is related to the Steelers, but today is that day.  Here’s how it happened. 

For many weeks I’ve been using Frank B. Gill’s Ornithology to inspire Friday’s anatomy lesson.  Rather than read the whole book I open the index at random and with my eyes closed I point to a word.  Then I look up that word and find something interesting to write about.  Today’s word was “Yellow-throated Brush Finch, page 328.”

Page 328 discusses the advantages of multispecies flocking.  Many species form mixed flocks because they get more to eat when there are many eyes watching for danger.  In Pennsylvania we often see mixed flocks in winter led by titmice and chickadees.  The leader species are dominant, the other species are subordinate.

Some birds go one step further.  Ornithology describes how in some mixed flocks “unrelated bird species have similar plumage color patterns that promote flock cohesion.  Subordinate species increase acceptance by resembling dominant flock members.” 

These distinctive color patterns are called flock “badges.”

The yellow-throated brush finch (bottom right) is a member of one of these unusual flocks in Western Panama.  His compatriots are all yellow and black.

As I assembled this photo, I suddenly realized that the brush finch and all his friends are wearing Steelers colors.  It’s a whole flock of black-n-gold birds!  How cool is that?! 

So this is what we look like in Pittsburgh right now.

We’re wearing Black-n-Gold.  We’ve got our Flock Badges on!


(composite photo credits, top left to right, then bottom left to right:
1. Slate-throated Whitestart: Corey Finger on
2. Sooty-capped Bush Tanager: Wikipedia
3. Yellow-thighed Finch: Wikimedia Commons
4. Collared Whitestart: Jan Axel on
5. Silver-throated Tanager: Kent Fiala’s Website
6. Yellow-throated Brush Finch: Atrevido1 at Solo Aves on Flickr

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