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Blog Birding #216

Ship-assistance. It’s the great conversation killer when it comes to vagrants on the coasts. But how often does it happen, and does it really matter? Steve Tucker of Bourbon, Bastards, and Birds, explores this controversial topic.

There are a lot of ships in the ocean. They travel places. Migrating birds traveling overseas will occasionally land on them to rest. Sometimes they will only land for a few seconds, but some may ride a ship for days, and even longer. These birds are known as “ship assisted”. This phenomenon really bothers some birders. They get the notion in their head that any “lost” bird that would have had to cross part of an ocean to get here must have arrived via ship, rather than under its own power. They then blather their bizarre and ridiculous conspiracy theories about ship assisted birds to anyone who will listen. Unless you buy into this (and thus perpetuate the horrible cycle), it’s a major bummer to have to listen to or read about.

The recent publication of a number of bird taxonomy papers in the last weeks have re-written the bird family tree in several fascinating ways. David Ringer, writing at 10,000 Birds, offers what is perhaps the best explanation of what it all means I’ve seen yet.

Unlike previous studies that had to rely on, relatively speaking, just a few bits and pieces of DNA, Jarvis et al. processed the entire genomes of 48 bird species and compared nearly 42 million base pairs of DNA (Hackett et al. were revolutionary for using 32,000 base pairs!) in a massive computational effort that — as the authors point out with what I imagine must be glee — would have taken a single computer processor more than 400 years to accomplish.

That birds are just modern day dinosaurs has been evident for some time, but we don’t know a lot about those early birds because bird bones don’t fossilize well. But Brian Switek at Laelaps shares some new, and very cool, evidence that sheds a little light on how they coexisted.

The trouble is finding those birds. They were often so small and so delicate that their bones didn’t make it into the fossil record in the same abundance as their larger, more robust relatives. And that’s where a different sort of fossil comes to the rescue. Thanks to tracks, paleontologists have been able to detect the presence of Mesozoic birds in strata where their bones have remained elusive. Among the latest to be uncovered are dozens of birds tracks found in eastern Utah.

Turkey Vultures famously have a face only a birder could love, and Jim McCormac at Ohio Birds and Biodiversity is one to sing their praises.

One could write a book about just this species of vulture, as they have so many interesting facets to their lives. For me, as a young lad, Turkey Vultures were an endless source of fascination. I would lie on my back under big blue skies and watch them trace lazy loops high in the ether. Their flight is effortless, often not involving as much as a flap of the wings for many minutes on end. I thought that, if one had the opportunity to be a bird, Cathartes aura might not be a bad choice. Yes, the menu might leave something to be desired, but that’s just the egocentric take of Homo sapiens. To the vulture, a fermenting opossum is t-bone steak.

We’re all familiar with the Wilsons, the Audubons, and even the Le Contes, but how many of us know about the Pontoppidan, whose names for a number of familiar birds remain in use today. Rick Wright of Birding New Jersey and Beyond has more.

Pontoppidan was more than a bit of a polymath, and his publications range from theology and church history to biology and linguistics. Birders know him chiefly for two works, the First Essay on the Natural History of Norway and the Danish AtlasIf I’ve counted right, his are the scientific names we still use for eight species of birds, among them some of the best-known and most widespread northern breeders of both hemispheres.