November 20, 2017
Dear Erin Chack,
We at the National Audubon Society noticed you had some thought-provoking questions on why birds are so wonderful and weird and disturbing at the same time. While we aren't really birds—our CEO is halfway there—we're basically their human proxies. So, we feel it's on us to respond on their behalf (except for the Black-capped Chickadee . . . what a lazy bum).
Here goes nothing.
1. Where do you go when it rains?
Most birds are weatherproof (they use preening oils to stay greased up; plus their feathers are built to repel water), so they just chill in their typical habitats in the rain. But many smaller species do refrain from flying through downpours.
2. Can you tell yourself apart from other birds or are you like, “hey, that guy looks just like me” a hundred times a day?
Whether birds are self-aware is still up for debate (check out this Australian stone-curlew that “fell in love” with its own reflection). But crows, magpies, and other corvids might be: Experiments have shown that they can recognize themselves in mirrors, whereas parrots can’t.
3. When you lay an egg do you know there's a baby in there, or are you like why the fuck do I care about this rock so much?
Given the care and energy birds put into incubating their eggs, they must know their bloodline depends on this thing the female just pushed out of her cloaca (more on that nasty word later).
Correction: This response was edited to clarify that birds pin the continuity of their genes on their eggs, rather than their own survival. Either way, please don't try to hatch any rocks.
4. Do all birds lay blank eggs like chickens or is that strictly a chicken thing? Do chickens have a monopoly on blank eggs?
Eggs are dope: In the wild, their colors, patterns, and shapes are incredibly diverse to help increase the chances of survival. African nightjars, for example, lays eggs camouflaged to match the dirt and dead leaves that they nest in. Other species will “print passwords” on the shells to single out imposters. Even chickens can lay speckled eggs—they just typically don't make it to the grocery shelves.
Update: Erin Chack and the public have weighed in, and it seems that we've misinterpreted this question. Do wild birds shoot blanks? Rarely, given that, unlike chickens, they only lay fertilized eggs after doing it in breeding season. It's also not in their best survival interests: Making and nurturing an egg takes a fair bit of energy. Females will even sacrifice calcium from their own bones to form the shell.
5. Do you know other birds are birds even if they look different from you? Like if you are a sparrow and you run into an ostrich do you give him a subtle bird head nod or are you like get that feathery giraffe away from me?
6. What's with migrating? How do you know it's time to go if you don't own a calendar? Do you own a calendar? Does it feature pictures of sexy robins dressed as firefighters?
Let’s just say birds are better at keeping time than the NYC subway system. Certain species use internal clocks to keep them running on the same migration schedule each year. Others rely on environmental cues like sunlight and temperature to tell them when it’s time to shake a wing. Unfortunately, with climate change messing up the onset of seasons and temperatures, those cues aren’t so trustworthy anymore. (But your sexy calendar idea is definitely worth exploring.)
7. How high can you fly? Gun to your head could you fly to space? Are there birds in space and they're just not telling us?
They’ve sent chimps into space; they’ve sent mutts into space; they’ve even sent Chuck Berry into space. But they’ve never sent live birds into space. Bar-headed Geese have probably come the closest, though, flying nearly 20,000 feet above sea level to cross the Himalayan Mountains. (A stray Ruppell’s Griffon Vulture was once also found close to 37,000 feet above the ground.) The reason they don’t pass out? They have big lungs, take deep breaths, and have the most oxygen-rich hemoglobin.
Update: A reader tip led us to the fascinating story of how both the United States and Russia sent fertilized eggs into space. Read about it (and see the first zero-gravity quail chicks) here.
8. Why do you make so much noise? Are you communicating with other birds or screaming because you're afraid of heights?
They’re definitely communicating, maybe screaming, and possibly even conspiring against you. But fear not: You can decipher their calls by learning how to bird by ear.
9. I also really love bread. Maybe I . . . am . . . bird?
Are you the evil genius behind @ProBirdRights? Seriously, though, bread isn’t the best bird food: It fills animals up without delivering much nutrition. Depending on the species, insects, native fruits, seeds, and even bacon fat (or a vegan substitute) are much better options.
10. Are you cool with bats? Or are they like the goth kids at high school that you know exist but don't really interact with?
Goth kids are about as morbid as Pixar characters when compared with Cutthroat Finches. But yeah, birds are cool with bats and will sometimes hang out at watering holes with them—except for the aptly named Bat Falcon, which preys on the furry flyers.
11. Do you ever crash into bees when you're up there flying around?
Birds are pretty good at flying around objects—minus things that are practically invisible such as glass. Sometimes they do get stung, however. And sometimes, they track down beehives, tip off humans, and take the honey. SWEET REVENGE.
12. When you walk are you just mocking us?
Hey, it’s not always about humans: Walking is often the best way to scrounge for food. Certain birds are particularly well-adapted for certain terrains—like gallinules with lily pads. Also, you wish had thighs like an Ostrich.
13. Why do you always get stuck inside the Home Depot? Are you looking to build an addition on your nest?
Wait, you’ve never gotten lost inside a Home Depot? Sorcery.
14. What if I shit on your car for once? How would you like that?
Sounds uncomfortable and unsanitary. Most birds poop, pee, and make babies out of the same orifice—called a cloaca, which is Latin for sewer—so relieving on the run is relatively easy for them. Aside from helping plants spread their seeds, bird poop can provide ancient clues for scientists, as well as help fight climate change.
If it makes you feel any better, though, here are some photos of owls getting stuck in toilets.
15. The first time you flew were you like “OH FUCK OH FUCK OH FUCK” and then when you got the hang of it were you like “WOOOOOOOOOW!!!!”?
Thanks for reading this pelican’s thoughts for us.
16. Are parrots just the absolute worst?
Hardly. Yet they are the absolute worst-poached birds on the planet: At least 28 percent of the parrot species out there are threatened or endangered. (They can also be the best neighbors and model urbanites.)
17. Is it hard not having hands? How do you high-five other birds when they do a cool flying move?
Opposable thumbs are amazing and all, but talons are pretty useful for wielding tools, setting fires, and snatching chicks out of nests. Plus, birds’ necks are so flexible they can scratch any itch and reach every part of their bodies with their beaks. If you’re still not convinced that hands are a bad idea, do yourself a favor and watch this terrifying commercial.
18. Do you ever hitch a ride on the back of a deer when you're too tired to fly?
Nah, that’s boring. Hippos make for way gnarlier rides.
19. At night do you sleep or do you just sit very still with your eyes open waiting for morning? I cannot picture you sleeping.
Exhibit A: “Snoring” hummingbird
Exhibit B: Napping owl babies
Exhibit C-Z: Frigatebirds that snooze WHILE FLYING
20. Do you understand how much it would make a person's day if you landed on their shoulder and stayed there long enough for them to take an Instagram picture? Like, do you realize how much power you hold?
That’s what Clark’s Nutcrackers and Gray Jays are for. Just climb a mountain with a bunch of snacks, put out your hand, and wait. Or you can move to Australia and adopt an orphaned magpie. Whichever gets you more street cred.
21. What's your relationship with squirrels? You guys get along? I feel like you're coworkers.
Squirrels steal all the seed out of bird feeders, and they poach California Quail eggs. Hard pass.
22. Have you ever blown away in the wind? You have hollow bones, right? You are like a leaf with a face and I am worried about you.
Sometime around 200 million years ago, when birds were part of a group called the theropod dinosaurs, they evolved to have hollow bones to lighten the flight load. It’s really one of the coolest features unique to avians. And yes, birds can be blown around by hot air and hurricanes, but they usually use the winds to their advantage.
23. Why are you so jumpy? You know we only eat the fat birds who can't fly, right?
“Time flies even if turkeys don’t.” – Barack Obama, Presidential Pardon, Thanksgiving 2015
We love a good Dad joke here at Audubon, but we have to call out the former president on this one. Not only can turkeys fly, they can also drag race at 60 mile-per-hour air speeds. Also, there are plenty of svelter, flight-abled birds that end up on people’s dinner plates, such as Ortolan Buntings in France and Blackcaps in Cyprus. And if it’s not the birds themselves, it’s their spit people want to eat—as the popularity of Edible-nest Swiftlet farming in Southeast Asia proves.
24. Is building a nest hard or do you just kinda throw a bunch of shit together and then stuff the gaps with hair you got from the barber shop dumpster?
Nest building is an art. Hummingbirds spin together spider webs to make their delicate digs; honeyeaters decorate their nests with koala-butt fur; weaverbirds construct the bird equivalent of highrises; and male Satin Bowerbirds carefully arrange junk around their homes to flirt with females. But if there’s one group that doesn’t put much effort into nesting, it’s the shorebirds: Most of them will just drop their eggs in a little dent in the sand.
25. When you see a bird in a cage do you think they're in jail?
India's currently having an existential debate over this—and the legal theories are fascinating.
26. When you're flying in a flock who is in charge? Is there an elected official or is it anarchy? Is that why you're always changing directions without warning?
Depends on the flock. To run a battalion of pigeons, you have to know what you're doing. If you lead your flockmates astray—or even worse, to their deaths—you get demoted to the back of the pack.
27. Also, who decided on the V-formation? Why not a fancy script “Q” or the frying pan emoji? (It has an egg in it: It's very on brand.)
“V” stands for very efficient, at least for larger species like pelicans and geese. By flying in this shape, birds can mooch off currents made by the flapping wings of individuals in the front (you can read more about the physics behind it here). Other species might get in more creative formations to evade predators, like the starlings in these beautiful photos.
28. Are birds who can't fly like penguins and kiwis the equivalent of humans who choose to live in New York City? Are they like, “Sure it's not easy having to walk everywhere, but this is who I am, baby!” And you're like *jerk-off motion only with a wing instead of a hand*?
We read this question five times and still don’t get it. But birds can “jerk-off,” if that helps at all.
29. Are wi