January 20 – Nice Ice Babies

Today’s Factismal: Today is Penguin Awareness Day.

Today is a day of Earth-shattering importance. I do not refer to the minor affairs of politics. No! I refer to the fact that today, of all days, is Penguin Awareness Day!

Penguins are among the world’s most mis-understood animals. When they aren’t being mis-cast in cola commercials, they are being portrayed as tap-dancing dandies. In truth, the seventeen living species of penguins are far more interesting than their stereotypes. In honor of World Penguin Awareness Day, here are ten quick facts about penguins:

  1. Penguins don’t just live in Antarctica. The Galapagos Penguin lives on the Galapagos Islands, right on the Equator. In addition, there are penguins in Africa (the Africa penguin), New Zealand (Snares, Erect-crested, Yellow-eyed, and Fiordland penguins), Australia (the Little Blue penguin), and South America (King, Magellanic, and Rock-hopper penguins).

    A penguin's stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

    A penguin’s stomach lining; the green color comes form the krill. (My camera)

  2. Penguins mostly eat krill. Though penguins enjoy fish when they can get it, they mostly dine on tiny little shrimpoids called krill. The problem with that is that krill is rich in fluoride, which can be poisonous in high concentration. In order to avoid that, penguins throw up their stomach linings, forming bright green puddles of goo on the shore.

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

    A proud Chinstrap father huddles over his chicks (my camera)

  3. Penguin chicks don’t all hatch at the same time. If all of the penguin eggs were laid at the same time and hatched together, then the whole colony would be vulnerable to an unseasonable cold snap or strong storm. By staggering the clutches of eggs, the colony ensures that there will always be another generation. As a result, it is very common to see eggs, hatchlings, and young adults in the same colony.
  4. Like all birds, penguins just have one opening for pooping, peeing, and laying eggs. Called the cloaca, which is Latin for “sewer”, this arrangement is common in amphibians and reptiles as well.

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

    A Gentoo tobogganing in the snow (My camera)

  5. Penguins will “swim” on snow by lying on their bellies and pushing along with their feet and fins. Biologists call this “tobogganing”; everyone else just calls it cute. They do this in order to move quickly, which helps them avoid predators.

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

    A Gentoo gathering pebbles for his nest (My camera)

  6. Most penguins build their nests out of pebbles. Because penguins live in extreme environments, there isn’t much in the way of plant growth. So there aren’t any twigs to use for a nest. But there are lots of rocks. Building a nest out of rocks also allows the nest to drain quickly when it rains. But because there aren’t enough really good pebbles lying around, penguins will steal them from other penguins’ nests!

    The world's largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

    The world’s largest congregation of Chinstrap penguins (My camera)

  7. The world’s largest Chinstrap colony is on an active volcano. More than 200,000 chinstrap penguins live in one colony on Deception Island. This active volcano had its last eruption in 1969

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

    The barbs on penguin tongues keep their dinner where it belongs (My camera)

  8. Penguin tongues have barbs. The barbs all point back into the throat, which helps the penguin as it tries to swallow things that would much rather be swimming away.

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

    Chinstrap penguins porpoising through the water (My camera)

  9. Penguins are the fastest swimming bird. They can go as fast as 20 mph while porpoising. As the name suggests, porpoising means that the penguin jumps in and out of the water like a porpoise. This helps them move very quickly and keeps them out of the water where orcas and seals (both of whom think penguins are quite tasty) live.

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

    A Gentoo takes the plunge (My camera)

  10. Penguins spend about three-quarters of their lives in the water, searching for food. It takes a lot of energy to be a bird, and it takes even more to be a bird that lives in a cold region. As a result, penguins must eat almost constantly in order to build up enough fat to survive the winter. Since their food lives in the water, that means that penguins must spend a lot of time in the water, hunting for food.

If you’d like to watch penguins as they frolic, then please hie you to

December 26 – One Geek A’Counting

Today’s factismal: There are six types of bird in “The Twelve Days of Christmas”.

Everyone knows the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas”. That’s no surprise, given that it has been a perennial favorite since 1780. Between Thanksgiving and Christmas, it is played approximately twelve zillion times in versions ranging from the traditional to the bizarre. But what many don’t know is that the song is based on the traditional period of Christmastide (also known as Yuletide).

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas (My camera)

For some reason, the ostrich is not mentioned in the Twelve Days of Christmas
(My camera)

This twelve-day period stretches from Christmas day (the first day of Christmas) to January 5 (Twelfth Night) and culminates on Epiphany (the day when the Magi found Jesus). The days are:

  1. December 25 – Christmas (A partridge in a pear tree)
  2. December 26 – Feast of St. Stephen (Two turtle doves)
  3. December 27 – Feast of St. John the Evangelist (Three French hens)
  4. December 28 – Feast of the Holy Innocents (Four colly birds)
  5. December 29 – Feast of St. Thomas Becket (Five gold rings)
  6. December 30 – Feast of St. Anysia (Six geese-a-laying)
  7. December 31 – Feast of St. Sylvester (Seven swans-a-swimming)
  8. January 1 – Feast of the Circumcision of our Lord (Eight maids-a-milking)
  9. January 2 – Octave-Day of St. Stephen (Nine ladies dancing)
  10. January 3 – Octave-Day of St. John (Ten lords-a-leaping)
  11. January 4 – Octave-Day of the Holy Innocents (Eleven pipers piping)
  12. January 5 – Vigil of the Feast of the Epiphany (Twelve drummers drumming)
  13. January 6 – The Feast of the Epiphany (Christmas is over. Time to pay the bills!)

If you kept track of the birds, you’ll know that the song mentions six different types of bird and a total of 23 birds (assuming that you don’t count the endless repetitions; if you count those, then there are 184 – imagine the mess!).

This isn't a partridge and that ain't no pear tree! (My camera)

This isn’t a partridge and that ain’t no pear tree!
(My camera)

But what you might not know is that there is another grand tradition that also spans the twelve days of Christmas: the Christmas Bird Count! Run for the past 114 years by the Audubon Society, this event tries to tally all of the birds in the world so that researchers know which ones are doing well and which need help. If you’d like to take part, fly on over to:

November 18 – Zoo Is It?

Today’s factismal: The first modern zoo was created in 1826.

Odds are that on some sunny weekend you’ve found yourself wandering the paths at your local zoo, staring at the monkeys and trying to out-roar the lions. (And if you haven’t, you should have!) But have you ever wondered where zoos came from? It turns out, as is so often the case, that we have the Romans to thank.

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die (My camera)

The Roman Coliseum where menageries would go to die
(My camera)

People have always kept animals, for food, for pets, and for show. Egyptians had cats and hippopotamuses. Ancient Chinese had “houses of deer”. Andalusians had horses. But until the Roman Empire, most people only had a few animals and only from the area nearby. But under Rome all of that changed. Thanks to Rome’s control of the Mediterranean ocean and its constantly conquering armies, a steady supply of animals from all over came to Italy where they were showed to the public as proof of Rome’s might. Their menageries included lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!), bulls, elephants, rhinoceroses, hippopotami, giraffes, bulls, stags, crocodiles, and serpents and a host of other animals, all of which would be displayed for a short time before being sent to die in bloody combat as part of the Roman Games.

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike (My camera)

Feeding the giraffes is a popular zoo activity with people and giraffes alike
(My camera)

Why were the animals killed? Because the Romans had no idea of how to keep them alive. And that problem would continue through the ages. During the Dark Ages, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own, filled with exotic animals that would die exotic deaths (and sometimes be used in exotic cooking). And during the Renaissance, kings and emperors would have menageries of their own that would add “dissected (sometimes alive)” to what was done during the Dark Ages. An example of those menageries is Tiergarten Schönbrunn which was created in 1540, expanded in 1752, and opened to the public in 1779; many consider it to be the first “public zoo”.

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time (My camera)

Zoos are where many people encounter exotic animals for the first time
(My camera)

That wouldn’t change until 1826 when a group of English scientists decided that they’d like to study animals for as long as they could without the trouble of going to another country. And so the London Zoological Society was born; two years later, they opened their zoo for research – but not to the public! They studied how animals lived, what they ate, where they hid, how they hunted, and a host of other things that we are still studying today. It would take another two decades before they would start allowing the public in to view the animals (and defray some of the research costs).

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter (My camera)

Many zoos rehabilitate wild animals, like this bald eagle that was shot by a hunter
(My camera)

Today there are zoos in every country across the globe, most of which subscribe to a set of rules designed to keep the animals healthy and happy for as long as possible. And research happens at most of those zoos, with an increased emphasis on preserving endangered species. Interestingly, a lot of the best zoo research nowadays doesn’t happen at the zoo; it happens in the field where scientists use trap cameras to capture images of the animals in their native habitat acting the way they do when nobody is watching. (Anyone who has ever sung in the shower can understand that last bit.) And, just as the first modern zoo was built to keep the scientists from having to travel, the research can be done by you without having to go to the zoo (but you really should; it’s all happening there). If you go to the Toledo Zoo Wild Shots site, you can classify the pictures by getting rid of those without animals and by saying what animal you think is present. To learn more, head over to:

October 20 – Eye On The Sparrow Hawk

Today’s factismal: The American Kestrel is the smallest and most common raptor in North America.

If you ask the typical seven year old “What is a raptor?”, they will probably tell you that it is a kind of dinosaur. They are right (sort of), but they are also wrong (sort of). That’s because biologists use the word “raptor” to refer to any bird that has good eyesight for finding prey, strong talons for catching prey, and a hooked beak for eating prey; as you might guess, the other term that biologists use for raptors is “birds of prey”. (But the biological raptors are related to the dinosaur raptors, so the seven year old wasn’t completely wrong.) And one of the coolest raptors is also one of the most common: the American Kestrel, also known as the sparrow hawk or Falco sparverius (“falcon of sparrows” – refers to the hooked {falconate} beak).

An American Kestrel (or sparrow hawk) in flight (Image courtesy USFWS)

An American Kestrel (or sparrow hawk) in flight
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Interestingly, the sparrow hawk rarely eats sparrows, simply because they are almost as large as it is! Instead, this kestrel prefers to eat grasshoppers, mice, and small lizards, which are much easier to catch and provide a filling meal to the foot-long sparrow hawk. Because their prey lives in a variety of habitats, so do American kestrels; they can be found in deserts, meadows, prairies, and even cities. About all they require is something to perch on while they look for prey, open spaces to catch the prey in, and empty cavities to put their nests in. Thanks to their adaptability, they are found from Alaska (where they can spend the summer) to Tierra del Fuego (where they pasa el verano). An estimated 2.4 million American kestrels live in North America in the summer, dropping to about 480,000 in the winter. However, there are large uncertainties in both numbers as the American kestrel hasn’t been extensively studied.

A young American kestrel (Image courtesy USFWS)

A young American kestrel
(Image courtesy USFWS)

What is known about this bird is fascinating. They range in size from as big as your fist to as large as a Harry Potter novel (and just as entertaining). Like all birds, they are light for their size; a fully grown American kestrel won’t weigh much more than 4 oz. They can live for about twelve years (though five years is more typical) and are sexually mature after just one year. They pair bond, frequently for life, and often reuse the same nest from year to year. The female will lay up to seven eggs, with one egg each day. After a month of incubation (during which the female does most of the work), the chicks hatch and immediately start arguing over who gets the worms. The chicks grow to full weight in two weeks and just one month after being hatched, they leave the nest.

An adult American kestrel (Image courtesy USFWS)

An adult American kestrel
(Image courtesy USFWS)

Despite their apparent fecundity, the American kestrel population is declining. Biologists aren’t sure quite why this is happening. It may be due to reductions in their habitat, or a subtle reaction to new pesticides, or changes in climate leading to changes in the number of prey. The only way for biologists to understand the change is for them to get data – and that’s where you come in. The American Kestrel Partnership is looking for reports of sparrow hawk sightings and for people willing to build and observe kestrel nestboxes. If you’re game, then head over to their site to learn how you can participate:

October 3 – Trump This

Today’s factismal: The trumpeter swan is the heaviest living bird native to North America and the biggest living waterfowl anywhere in the world!

There is indescribable beauty in the dance of a hummingbird, as it flits from flower to flower. And the tiny Least Auklet has a googly-eyed grace that charms. But this is America, home of the SUV, the 128 oz soda, and XXX t-shirt; we need a big bird to match our big lives. And that’s exactly what we’ve got – the trumpeter swan, the world’s largest waterfowl.

Though the trumpeter swans’ wings stretch out just over eight feet wide (more than a foot shorter the California Condor’s 9 ft, 10 in), its weight makes it the champ. A typical adult male trumpeter swan (a cob) will weigh 26 lbs while an adult female (a pen) will tip the scales at a dainty 21 lbs. And some individuals have been known to grow to nearly 40 lbs! But this is a gentle giant, who prefers to live on small islands in secluded ponds where its nests are safe from predators such as otters, foxes, raccoons, bears, and wolves.

Three trumpeter swans in flight (Image courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers)

Three trumpeter swans in flight
(Image courtesy US Army Corps of Engineers)

And the giant is a vegetarian, too. Though the cygnets (baby swans) are fed a diet rich in insects, crawfish, and small fish that provide the protein needed for their rapid growth, the adults prefer to munch on the leaves, stems, seeds, and even roots of water plants. Unfortunately, that love of small, swampy plants has led to one of the greatest threats to the trumpeter swan: buckshot. The shot that misses ducks and other waterfowl will fall into the water where it can be ingested by trumpeter swans. When they regurgitate the shot as a meal for their cygnets, the adults unwittingly cause lead poisoning in their offspring. Fortunately, the adults are somewhat more resistant to lead poisoning, thanks to their greater mass.

However, the other form of lead poisoning has already done a job on trumpeter swan numbers where they used to roam from Alaska to Texas, today they are only rarely found farther south than. Fortunately, the numbers are slowly making a comeback from their lows in the early part of the previous century. And right now is the perfect time to start looking for trumpeter swans as they migrate from their summer homes in Alaska to their winter quarters in Montana, Colorado, and Ontario. If you happen to see one flying by, then why not pause for a moment to enjoy the sight of North America’s largest bird in flight and then head over to Trumpeter Watch to let them know about your sighting?

September 27 – Bird In The Hand

Today’s factismal: Birds are born with belly buttons but they lose them as they grow older.

At first blush, it seems like an odd question: “Do birds have belly buttons?” but it turns out that, as is usually the case in science, it is the odd questions that are the most revealing and interesting.

A boy bonds with his chick over their shared love of belly buttons (Image courtesy National Library of Medicine)

A boy bonds with his chick over their shared love of belly buttons
(Image courtesy National Library of Medicine)

Before talking about birds and their vanishing belly buttons, it would help to review why mammals have belly buttons. Most mammals have a few things in common: they are warm-blooded, have hair, the females nurse their young with milk, and give live birth to young. (The only exceptions to that last are the duck-billed platypus and the echidnas.) That last is the important part because it means that the mammals need some way to feed the fetus while it grows inside the mother; for most mammals, that way is the placenta which links to the growing baby critter with an umbilical cord. When they are born, that umbilical cord dries up and falls away, leaving a scar that we call a “belly button”.

Though birds don’t give live birth, they do have to feed the developing chick as it grows in the egg. And the way that they do that is with a large sack of fat, protein, and minerals that we call a yolk and biologists call a vitellus (Latin for “yolk”). The yolk attaches to the chick with a cord similar to the umbilical cord. And, like the umbilical cord, the yolk sack withers away and drops off as the chick gets ready to hatch. This leaves a tiny little scar – a belly button of sorts. But after the bird hatches and gets older, the scar fades and is covered with feathers; the belly button has disappeared!

The chick has a bell button. The adult penguin, not so much (My camera)

The chick has a bell button. The adult penguin, not so much
(My camera)

If you think the disappearing belly button is neat, then wait until you find out what else birds do! And the best way to do that is to head over to Celebrate Urban Birds, where they have tons of facts about birds, an opportunity for groups to earn mini-grants to support urban bird watching activities, and even a place for you to enter information about the birds that you’ve seen!

September 19 – A Confusion of Terms

Today’s factismal: There are more than fifty different terms for groups of birds.

If you are a typical hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you tend to count like this: one bird, two birds, three birds, many birds. Anything more than three is just “many”, simply because that’s all that you need to know. But, if you are a typical smarty-pants hunter-gatherer (or mathematician), then you don’t want to keep saying many. (“I saw many geese. I saw many crows. I saw many people saying many.”) So you’ll come up with a term to use instead; your English teacher would tell you that the term you use is called a collective noun. And it turns out that English is rife with collective nouns for the many different types of birds; there are at least 58 different terms!

They include:
A band of jays
A bevy of quail
A bouquet of pheasants
A brood of hens
A building of rooks
A cast of hawks
A cauldron of raptors
A charm of finches
A chattering of starlings
A clamor of rooks
A colony of penguins
A company of parrots
A congress of ravens
A congregation of plovers
A convocation of eagles
A cover of coots
A covey of partridges
A deceit of lapwings
A descent of woodpeckers
A dissimulation of herons
A dole of doves
An exaltation of larks
A fall of woodcocks
A flight of cormorants
A flock of swifts
A flush of mallards
A herd of cranes
A host of sparrows
A kettle of nighthawks
A knob of widgeons
A murmuration of starlings
A murder of crows
A muster of storks
A nye of pheasants
An ostentation of peacocks
A pack of grouse
A paddling of ducks on the lake
A parliament of owls
A party of jays
A peep of chickens
A pitying of turtledoves
A raft of ducks
A rafter of turkeys
A run of poultry
A siege of bitterns
A skein of geese in flight
A gaggle of geese on the ground
A sord of mallards
A spring of teal
A team of ducks in flight
A tidings of magpies
A trip of dotterel
An unkindness of ravens
A walk of snipe
A watch of nightingales
A wedge of swans
A whiteness of swans
A wisp of snipe

A whiteness of swans, swimming (My camera)

A whiteness of swans, swimming
(My camera)

As you can tell from the list, many of the names come from the characteristics of the birds (e.g., the wedge shape that a group of swans makes in flight or how ducks get around the pond). And others are borrowings from old English and other languages. But they are all fun to use. So the next time you see a bunch of birds, don’t say “I saw many starlings”; amaze your friends and confuse your enemies by saying “I saw a murmuration of starlings”.

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge (My camera)

A flock of swifts nesting under a bridge
(My camera)

And if you are the sort of person who would say “I saw a watch of nightingales”, then why not wing over to eBird, where you’ll be among birds of a feather? You can enter information about any birds you see and get information about birds that other people see, all in real time: