Ask Kenn Kaufman: Do Birds Get Bored?

Also this month: How did the Harris's Sparrow get its name? And what's the difference between a beak and a bill?

Who's Kenn? Simply put, Kenn is a national treasure. A renowned birder, author, and conservationist, Kenn Kaufman has spent his life dedicated to observing birds, reading about birds, writing about birds, and sharing the world of birds with others. With all that birdy knowledge in his brain, he also acts as the field editor for Audubon magazine. So, whenever we have a bird question stumping us around the office, we just ask Kenn. And now you can, too! If you have a bird or birding question you'd like Kenn to answer, leave them in the comments below or on Facebook. Maybe next month you'll get the kind of thorough, thoughtful, and even humorous response from Kenn we've grown so fond of over the years. —The Editors 


Q: Do birds get bored?

Kenn Kaufman: Well, consider this. It’s always fascinating for us to watch birds, and birds get to watch each other pretty much all the time. So how could they possibly get bored?

Seriously, though, birds probably do have the potential for boredom, and some kinds probably more than others. Much has been written about this in regard to parrots kept in cages. Parrots are generally social birds, and they’re thought to be quite intelligent. So for a lone parrot to sit by itself in a small cage, with no stimulation and nothing to do, is probably somewhat akin to torture. It can lead to problematic actions, such as the caged bird randomly pulling out large numbers of its own feathers, a behavior we wouldn’t see in healthy wild parrots.

During a normal day in the wild, birds probably don’t have much opportunity to get bored. The hunt for food undoubtedly occupies much of their attention, and they also have to avoid becoming food, keeping an eye out for predators at all times. Even a large bird of prey with nothing to fear still has to watch for others of its own species that might invade its territory.

One aspect of avian life that might lead to serious boredom is the stage when they are incubating eggs. Of course, this behavior is essential for the survival of the species, but it seems as if it would be deadly dull to just sit on eggs for up to hours at a time. The extreme case involves male Emperor Penguins, which incubate by holding the single egg on top of their feet and covering it with a fold of skin; they simply stand there on the ice, in the bleak darkness of the Antarctic winter, for up to two months without a break while the female goes out to sea. Talk about boring! 

By contrast, in hummingbirds, females do all the incubating. They may leave the nest several times per hour for quick foraging trips, but otherwise, they can be found dutifully tending to their eggs. The cumulative hours spent sitting in the nest can’t be very exciting. But we know from studies of various birds that they go through major hormonal changes leading up to the incubation period, so maybe they have something like a different emotional condition then. I’d like to think that they can enter some kind of meditative state while incubating, helping them pass the time until the boredom gives way to the frenzied activity of caring for their newly hatched young.

Q: I’ve read that John James Audubon named the Harris’s Sparrow for his friend Edward Harris. But the bird was first described to science and given its latin name by Thomas Nuttall. What gives? 

KK: What gives? Well, a lot! But you asked, so here we go. 

The scientific names of species are applied according to a system first established in the 1750s by Carolus Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist. Each official name—in Latin, or in Latinized Greek—consists of two parts, the genus and species. So, for example, Linnaeus himself described several of the northern waterfowl to science in 1758, including the Mallard, which he named Anas platyrhynchos. At first, Linnaeus put all the ducks and geese in the genus Anas, so he named the Canada Goose Anas canadensis. Now the goose is in a different genus, so it’s classified as Branta canadensis. But the rules of nomenclature are such that the species name canadensis still applies, even if the bird is shifted to yet another genus. Priority is the important thing, so the first specific name to be published with a formal description is the one that sticks.

By contrast, the English, or common, names of species are not subject to such strict rules. Some birds have been called by many different names, and it doesn’t matter which one was used first. For ease of communication, the English names of North American birds have been standardized since 1886 by a committee of the American Ornithologists’ Union (now called the American Ornithological Society). The official English name for a bird here is just whatever the AOS says it is.

As to your specific question about the Harris’s Sparrow: By the 1830s, when John James Audubon was publishing his monumental Birds of America, most of the bird species of eastern North America had been formally described and given scientific names. But some birds of this region were still undiscovered, and ornithologists of that era were out actively trying to find them.

Audubon himself discovered and named several new birds. On a few occasions, however, he provided descriptions and names of species he assumed were new, only to find out later that he had been scooped by someone else. In that era, it was a major challenge to keep up with scientific publications, especially for a naturalist-explorer out on the frontier, so Audubon certainly can be excused for having missed the prior descriptions of these birds.

Harris’s Sparrow is a case in point. Thomas Nuttall, another active naturalist of the early 1800s, discovered this bird in Missouri in late April 1834, but he didn’t get around to describing it to science until 1840. He called it the Mourning Finch, Fringilla querula. It’s now classified in a different genus and called Zonotrichia querula, but Nuttall’s specific name querula is still official.

By a remarkable coincidence, the sparrow was “discovered” again by another scientist and explorer—Maximilian, Prince of Wied—just a couple of weeks later, in May 1834, and not far away in southeastern Nebraska. Maximilian named the bird Fringilla comata (at the time, many sparrowlike birds were dumped into the catch-all genus Fringilla). But Maximilian was even slower than Nuttall in getting his work published, so his description and name didn’t come out until 1841.

In 1843, John James Audubon made one last major expedition, traveling up the Missouri River as far as the Dakotas. In May, along the Missouri-Kansas border, he and his expedition encountered these sparrows. The following year he published a painting and description of this “new” species in volume 7 of the Octavo Edition of his Birds of America. To honor his friend Edward Harris, he named the bird Harris’ Finch, Fringilla harrisii.

Thus, Audubon wasn’t the first to name this species. He wasn’t even the second. So why has his English name for it persisted? Simply because his work was so much more popular and better-known than the publications by Nuttall or Maximilian. By the strict rules of nomenclature, Nuttall’s specific name of querula is permanently attached to the bird. But under the looser guidelines for common names, Audubon’s star power carries the day, and we still commemorate his friend Harris in the name of this striking bird, even though it’s now called a sparrow instead of a finch. 

Q: The words "beak" and "bill" seem to be used interchangeably at times. Do they have different meanings?

Technically, there isn’t any difference in meaning between "beak" and "bill" when we’re talking about that part of the bird. But there are some slight differences in the way these words are used.

Ornithologists usually prefer the word bill. It crops up in the names of dozens of bird species all over the world, from familiar North American examples like Ring-billed Gull and Yellow-billed Cuckoo to more exotic types like the Green-billed Malkoha of southern Asia. It even makes up more than half the name of the Wrybill, an odd plover from New Zealand with a bill that curves to one side. The word beak is used far less often in official bird names, but it makes cameo appearances in the Silver-beaked Tanager of South America and the Sharp-beaked Ground-Finch on the Galapagos. (Not to mention several kinds of grosbeaks around the world.) 

Informally, beak may be used more often for strong, hooked bills like those of hawks or parrots. Of course, there are some completely different kinds of creatures that also have beaks, including octopus, squids, and turtles. And the extended snouts on some mammals are referred to as beaks, such as on the short-beaked echidna or the long-beaked common dolphin. The word bill isn’t applied as often to non-birds, but one notable exception is the duck-billed platypus, which does in fact have a bill resembling that of a duck.

I’ve given this a lot of thought in the past, and I may choose to use either of these terms depending on the situation. If I’m talking to ornithologists or serious birders, I almost always say bill. But if I’m talking to people who aren’t involved in birding, especially if they’re children, I’ll keep in mind that the word bill has several other meanings—including something that’s owed, a piece of legislation, part of a hat, or a person’s name—so I may start off by saying beak at first. That way we avoid confusion at the start, and we can introduce the alternate usage of bill later. The whole point of language is to communicate, so the correct word to use is the one that the listener is most likely to understand.


Have a bird or birding question for Kenn? Leave it in the comments below, and maybe he'll answer it in a future column.