Fun Bird Facts

Things you didn’t know about birds….!!

General Knowledge | Birds and Famous People | Birds and CultureBirds: smallest, largest…. | Birds and War | Collective Names of Birds | Birds in History | Birds and Royalty | Birds in the Bible | Names and Birds | Birds and Archaeology | Birds and Natural Science

General Knowledge

  • There are about 10,000 known species of birds alive in the world today, of which over 400 are endangered.
  • Since the 1800′s, 103 bird species have become extinct in the world.  The main reason is man’s invasion of their territory.
  • Storks communicate by clapping their mandibles together.
  • Hummingbirds build neat woven nests, held together by spider webs.
  • Hornbills have long black curling eyelashes.
  • There are more chickens in the world than people.
  • Vultures have weak claws and legs, and cannot attack or lift their prey.
  • Honeyguides, found in Africa, have a wonderful working relationship with the honey badger.  Honeyguides will lead the honey badger to a bees nest, and once the honey badger has opened up the nest, the honeyguides and honey badger will then share the spoils.
  • For peace in a household, visualize a flock of white doves flying from the roof of the house.
  • A female swan is called a pen, a male swan is called a cob, and a baby swan is called a cygnet.
  • The kiwi bird of New Zealand has no tail and no wings.
  • Over half the world’s known bird species live in tropical forests.
  • Some swifts build nests that are made almost entirely from the bird’s saliva, on the rocky surfaces inside caves.  These nests are then harvested by man because they are the main ingredient for the delicacy bird’s nest soup.
  • Penguins only moult once a year when the oil on their feathers runs out.
  • The white material that makes up bird droppings is not actually feces but urine.  Birds excrete urine containing the insoluble solid uric acid instead of the soluble urea, as a way of conserving water when urinating.  The phenomenon came about by birds starting their life in an enclosed egg, which necessitates the passing of insoluble excreta.
  • The roadrunners of North America are a type of cuckoo.  The Greater roadrunner can clock up to 15 miles an hour.
  • Because tropical forests are so dense, most of the birds that live there do not bother to fly, but rather move from tree to tree by walking along the branches.
  • The kiwi bird of New Zealand is the only bird to have nostrils at the tip of its bill. A nocturnal bird with poor eyesight, the kiwi’s nostrils give it a keen sense of smell.
  • When turkeys get excited, their heads change color.
  • A hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards.
  • When bat-parrots (found in the southern regions of Asia) sleep, they hang upside down from branches by their feet, hence their name.
  • The poorwill (a nightjar) is the only bird known to hibernate.
  • In the world of aviation, any flying officer that is assigned duties on the ground is known as a ‘pelican’.
  • The circle of feathers found around an owl’s eyes are there to help the owl hear.  The closely-packed feathers in this facial disc (as the circle of feathers is known) help channel high frequency sound waves to the owl’s ears which are situated behind the discs.
  • For the Florida scrub jay, rearing the newly hatched chicks is a family affair.  The elder brothers and sisters help with the feeding of the chicks, as well as protecting them from predators.
  • The woodpecker finch, found only on the Galapagos Islands (about 680 miles off the coast of Ecuador, South America) often uses tools like a cactus spine or a thin twig, to prize out insects from tree bark or to impale grubs.
  • The turkey vulture is the only bird of prey that uses its sense of smell to find food.
  • Frigate birds are tropical sea birds, but their feathers are not waterproof!  Unable to catch their own food by diving into the sea or swimming (as their feathers would become waterlogged), frigate birds have turned to piracy.  A frigate bird will bully other birds in flight into regurgitating their food, then it will grab the food the other bird has dropped before it falls into the sea.
  • The marsh warbler, which migrates between Africa and Europe, is known to be an outstanding mimic of other birds’ songs.  But scientists studying the song of one marsh warbler discovered its repertoire contained phrases copied from over 200 other different birds.  Half the phrases were from birds in Africa, and the other half from birds in Europe.  So much for copyright laws!
  • Birds have the best developed color vision in the whole animal world.
  • Sandgrouse that nest in the desert regions of North Africa have to make sure their young chicks get water.  So one of the parents will fly to a water source (that may be anywhere up to 50 miles away), to wallow and soak their breast feathers in the water.  The breast feathers are specially adapted to absorb and hold large amounts of water.  The bird then flies back to the nest with its load, where the young chicks drink directly from the feathers.
  • The crow population has increased dramatically over the last few years in Japan, and is causing problems.  On the south island of Kyushu, blackouts are regularly caused by crows nesting on electric poles.  The influx of these birds is thought to be due to the growing amount of garbage Japan is now producing, resulting in more crows, who are scavengers.  ‘Crow Patrols’ have been set up to try and control the numbers, but the crows are proving too smart for these humans: in Kagoshima, for example, crows are building dummy nests as decoys to draw the Crow Patrols away from the real nest sites!
  • The most ancient living passerines (songbirds) are the New Zealand wrens.
  • The two indigenous sparrows found in South Africa, the Cape sparrow and the Greyheaded sparrow, both like to brighten and freshen-up the inside of their nests by adding fresh sprigs of aromatic herbs.  The males of both species takes time in choosing the right herb for the right occasion.
  • Research undertaken in Britain recently has shown that sparrows thrive better in poorer areas.  This is because these areas tend to have the older houses which provide better nesting sites.  Sparrows find it easier to build nests in old houses that still have curved roof tiles and wooden fascia boards, and subsequently, it was found that sparrows do not nest in houses built after 1986 or that have had roof repairs.
  • Birds that live in noisy urban areas generally have louder, higher pitched calls than their country counterparts.  Obviously city birds need to make sure their calls are heard above the din of city life, something that birds living in the country do not have to contend with.
  • A wine estate in the Western Cape, South Africa, has gone “green”.  It is employing a large flock of Indian Runner ducks to walk up and down the grape vines where they not only fertilize the ground as they go, but eat the pests that plague vineyards, like snails and insects.  Indian Runner ducks are specifically chosen as they are able to walk rather than waddle, and being a naturally lean duck, they are less likely to be stolen and eaten.  In between their job as pest controllers, the ducks sleep, eat, and are given a nine week vacation every year to stop the temptation of eating the ripening grapes.
  • Police in Germany are going to experiment with training vultures to help them find human corpses in areas that are not easily accessible to people or the traditional sniffer dogs.  They’ve decided to use vultures as these birds have a very good sense of smell and can detect rotting flesh up to 3,000 feet in the air.  The birds will be fitted with global positioning tracking devices, and will be able to cover much wider areas than dogs or humans.  The first vulture to begin its training has been named Sherlock.
  • Birds protect their young in many ways.  A mute swan, for example, will hiss and grunt at an intruder getting too close to its nest, and can deliver a blow with its wings that is so powerful it can break a man’s arm.  Other birds like the plover, will stagger around with one wing hanging, pretending to be injured, to take a predator’s focus away from their nests on the ground.  Rails, on the other hand, carry their young away from danger, one chick at a time, in their beaks, while woodpeckers carry away their young between their feet.
  • The penduline tits found in Africa, build their nests in such a way that the nests have a false entrance leading into a false chamber, while the real entrance can only be accessed by a hidden flap that is sealed with sticky spider’s webs once the penduline tits have entered.
  • It used to be illegal to kill swans in the west of Ireland as the locals believed it was a swan that carried the souls of the dead to heaven.
  • The plant Columbine comes from the Latin word Columba meaning dove, as its flower spurs were thought to resemble doves drinking.
  • The white feather as a symbol of cowardice originally stemmed from the sport of cockfighting.  It was believed that if a cockerel had a white feather in its tail it was not a pure-bred and therefore would prove to be a poor fighter.
  • In the last few years India has seen an appreciable decline of wild owls.  The Indian government has put some of the blame on the popularity of the Harry Potter books and movies, because, it was found, many middle-class Indian parents were giving their children live owls as presents, copying Harry Potter and his pet owl Hedwig.  The other reason for the decline of owls in India is their use in black magic rituals and as sacrifices on special auspicious occasions.
  • In Ireland the 26th December is known as St Stephen’s Day which celebrates the life and death of St Stephen, believed to be the first Christian martyr.  This day is also known as Wren’s Day as it was thought that a wren gave away the hiding place of St Stephen as he hid from his enemies, leading to him being captured and stoned to death around 36AD.
  • The oldest known musical instrument is believed to be a 35,000 year old flute that was made from a vulture bone.
  • The color of a hen’s egg yolk is determined by the hen’s diet.
  • Hens with white feathers tend to lay white eggs, while brown-feathered hens tend to lay brown eggs.
  • Tailor birds are so called because they pull large leaves around their nests to envelop the nest, and then sew the leaves together with their beaks using strips of leaves or grass.

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Birds and Famous People

  • The famous musical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet European starling called Vogel Star, who was said to be able to sing the first few bars of his Piano Concerto in G Major.
  • Bailey’s chickadee is named after Florence Bailey (1863-1948), the first woman to become a member of the American Ornithologist’s Union in 1929. She was strongly opposed to the use of bird feathers in women’s fashions, and encouraged the use of binoculars rather than guns to be aimed at birds.
  • The Brewer’s blackbird of North America is named after Dr. Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814-1880) an American naturalist from Boston.
  • The Greek dramatist, Aeschylus (525-456 BC) decided to consult a prophet one day, and was told he would die from “a blow from heaven”.  Not long afterwards, an eagle carrying a tortoise mistook Aeschylus’ bald head for a stone, and dropped the tortoise onto it, killing the dramatist outright.
  • William Shakespeare mentions 49 different birds in his written works: blackbird, bunting, buzzard, chough, cockerel, cormorant, crow, cuckoo, dabchick (grebe), dove, duck, dunnock (hedge sparrow), eagle, falcon, finch, goose, house martin, jackdaw, jay, kite, lapwing, lark, loon, magpie, nightingale, osprey, ostrich, owl, parrot, partridge, peacock, pelican, pheasant, pigeon, quail, raven, robin, snipe, sparrow, sparrowhawk, starling, swallow, swan, thrush, turkey, vulture, wagtail, woodcock, and wren.
  • In Hugh Lofting’s books, it was a parrot called Polynesia that taught Dr Doolittle how to talk to the animals.
  • In battle, the Roman emperor Julius Caesar used to train birds of prey to kill the enemy’s messenger pigeons.
  • Frankie Howard, the well-known British comedian, used to rehearse his repertoire of jokes and funny stories in his local village church with only the resident church barn owl as his audience.  If the owl remained on its perch then Frankie knew the jokes were fine.  But if the owl flew up to the church’s rafters, he knew that the joke wasn’t funny and needed to be rewritten.  When the owl eventually died, Frankie had it stuffed and put back on its familiar perch in the church, where it can still be found today.
  • In 1784, Benjamin Franklin was unhappy that the eagle had been chosen as the symbol of America, because he wanted the turkey to be America’s national bird.
  • Einstein was given a parrot for his 75th birthday by a friend.  One day when Einstein thought the parrot was depressed, he told it jokes to try and cheer it up!
  • James Bond, secret agent 007, the famous spy character in Ian Flemming’s books, was actually named after an American ornithologist.  The real James Bond (1900-1989), was an expert on Caribbean birds and when Ian Flemming, a keen birdwatcher, read Bond’s book “Birds of the West Indies”, he decided the simple name James Bond was just right for his fictional spy character.  So Flemming wrote to Bond asking his permission to use his name, and they became lifelong friends.
  • Edward Jenner, famous for developing the smallpox vaccination in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, was already well known as a scientist who studied cuckoos.  He was the first known person to document how cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, and how the baby cuckoos then discarded the other rival eggs and chicks from the nest.  Even though Jenner was made a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1788 as a result of the scientific paper he wrote and presented about his findings on cuckoos, many of his peers didn’t believe him.  It wasn’t until the 1920′s when research proved Jenner’s findings on cuckoos to be correct.
  • In the USA, Presidents James Madison (1809-17), Andrew Jackson (1829-37), Ulysses S Grant (1869-77), William McKinley (1897-1901), and Theodore Roosevelt (1901-9) all owned parrots.
  • US Presidents Zachary Taylor (1849-50), Rutherford B Hayes (1877-81), Grover Cleveland (1885-89), Warren G Harding (1921-23), Calvin Coolidge (1923-29) and John F Kennedy (1961-63) all owned canaries.
  • Martha Washington owned a parrot whom, it was reported, her husband George Washington (1789-97) hated!
  • The well-known Laurel and Hardy theme tune which was played over the opening credits of their films, was called “Dance of the Cuckoo”.
  • Famous cellist, Beatrice Harrison (1892-1965), would often practice her cello in the garden. Many a time nightingales, who frequented the area, would sit near her and sing along with her playing.  In 1924 the BBC recorded Beatrice playing her cello in her garden with the accompanying nightingales and broadcast it live on air on the radio.  It became the first BBC live outside broadcast.  Records were also made of Beatrice playing her cello with the nightingales singing along, and became very popular.

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Birds and Culture

  • Many countries have birds portrayed on their national flags.  They include: Albania (double-headed eagle); Dominica (Sisserou parrot); Ecuador (Andean condor); Egypt (eagle of Saladin); Fiji (dove); Kiribati (frigate bird); Mexico (eagle); Moldova (eagle); Papua New Guinea (bird of paradise); St Helena (unnamed bird); Uganda (grey-crowned crane); Virgin Islands (USA) (bald eagle); and Zambia (eagle).
  • England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales do not have an offcial national bird.
  • For centuries, vultures have played a vital role for the Parsi community of Mumbai, India.  The Parsi believe that burying a dead body in the ground pollutes the earth and water, so the dead are ritualistically laid out in the Malabar Hills for vultures to eat, (known as ‘sky burials’).  But this sacred tradition was threatened recently because the vulture population in the area had dramatically declined due to the use of an anti-inflammatory drug used to treat cattle, the carcasses of which the vultures also fed.  In a bid to save the Asian vulture from extinction, and to help preserve the Parsi religious traditions, the Indian government banned the use of this drug, opting for a much safer alternative that isn’t fatal to vultures when ingested.  The good news is that as a result of this move, the number of vultures in the region is increasing.
  • The secretary bird is featured on the National Coat of Arms of South Africa.  This bird was specifically chosen as it is considered a messenger from the heavens that passes on grace to the earth.  It is pictured with uplifted wings to symbolize the ascendance of South Africa as a nation.
  • One Health and Safety rule laid down by the European Union says that a person must not be exposed to any noise louder than 87 decibels.  The problem is that a nightingale’s song has been measured at 95 decibels, and the EU is not happy about it breaking the law!

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Birds: smallest, largest….

  • The Wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, about 11 and a half feet (3.5 meters).
  • The continent with the largest concentration of bird species, is South America, with over 3,000.  Antarctica has the least with about 65 different bird species.
  • The fastest animal in the world is the Peregrine falcon, which can reach a speed of up to 100mph in a diving swoop for prey.
  • The fastest birds flying in level flight are ducks and geese, notably the red-breasted merganser, the eider and the spur winged goose, who can reach speeds of up to 65mph (104kmh).
  • The slowest bird in the world is the American woodcock flying at speeds of 5mph (8kmh) without sinking.
  • The smallest bird in North America is the Calliope hummingbird at about 3 inches long.
  • The one place in the world that has lost the most bird species to extinction is Hawaii.
  • The tallest bird in the world today is the ostrich; the males grow to a height of 8 feet (2.4 meters).  Next comes the emu at 6 feet (1.8m), the cassowary at 5 feet (1.5m), and the Emperor penguin at 4 feet (1.2m).
  • The bird that can dive the deepest is the Emperor penguin which can dive to depths of 870 feet (265m).  The deepest divers of flying birds are the loons, reaching depths of about 262 feet (80m).
  • The heaviest flying birds in the world are the kori bustard of Africa and the great bustard of Europe and Asia, weighing in at about 40lbs (18kg).  Second comes swans at 35lbs (16kg).
  • The smallest living bird in the world is the Cuban Bee Hummingbird at 2 ¼ inches long, not much bigger than a bumblebee.
  • The smallest bird of prey is the white-fronted falconet of NW Borneo, which is the size of a sparrow and weighs about 35grammes.
  • The bird with the longest bill in the world is the Australian pelican, with a bill measuring between 13-18 inches (33-45cm) long.  The bird with the longest bill in relation to its size, is the sword-billed hummingbird of South America.  Its bill is the same length as its head, body and tail combined.
  • The bird with the fastest wing beat is the horned sungem, a type of hummingbird found in South America, with a wing beat of 90 beats a second.
  • The most abundant bird found in the wild is the red-billed quelea of Africa, numbering about 1500 million.  The most abundant domestic bird is the chicken, numbering about 4000 million.
  • The smallest sea bird in the world is the least storm petrel which breeds off the gulf of California, weighing in at 1oz (28g).
  • The largest egg ever found was that of the now extinct elephant bird that lived on the island of Madagascar about 2 million years ago.  The egg measured 3 feet (1m) in diameter, and would have contained about 2 gallons (4.5L) of liquid inside.
  • The bird that flies at the highest altitude is the bar-headed goose.  These geese have been reported to reach heights of almost 30,000ft (9000m) as they fly over the Himalayas during migration.
  • The largest eagle in the world is the Haribon eagle.  The bird is found exclusively in the Philippines, where the word haribon means bird king in the local language.

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Birds and War

  • The Dickin Medal for Valor is an award exclusively given to animals that have performed heroic deeds.  In World War II, 31 different pigeons received the award, more than any other animal.
  • The most famous pigeon in World War I was Cher Ami who worked for the US Army Signal Corps in France.  His feats included delivering 12 important messages and saving the Lost Battalion of the 77th Division in the Battle of Argonne.  The pigeon was shot in the breast in its last mission, but still managed to deliver its message.  Cher Ami was awarded the Croix de Guerre for its bravery.
  • The most famous pigeon in World War II was GI Joe who worked for the US Army Pigeon Service in Italy.  Its main feat was saving over 1000 lives in an Italian village by delivering a message to the Allied Forces to tell them that the village had already been captured by the British Forces so there was no need to bomb the village, as had been planned.  GI Joe was awarded the Dickin Medal for Valor.
  • It has long been known that birds are very sensitive to vibrations.  During World War II, pheasants in England would react with excited alarm calls to the noise of bombs going off miles and miles away that humans couldn’t hear.  And today in China and Japan, peacocks are considered very dependable warning “devices” for predicting seismic activity that can herald forthcoming earthquakes.
  • The use of white feathers to symbolize cowardice began in World War I when in 1914 Admiral Charles Fitzgerald commandeered 30 women in Folkstone, Kent, England, to hand out white feathers to all men not wearing military uniform.  This humiliating gesture towards those opposed to fighting a war, commonly known as conscientious objectors, soon spread across the whole country.
  • At the end of World War II the USA experimented with using live pigeons to guide missiles to a target within a 20ft range.  Named Project Pigeon, it was eventually scrapped, not because it didn’t work, but because nobody would take it seriously.  The experiment was never repeated as electronic guidance was then used.
  • During World War I songbirds in cages were placed in the hospital trains to cheer up the wounded British soldiers.

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Collective Names of Birds

  • The collective name for storks is a ‘mustering of storks’.
  • A flock of goldfinches is called a ‘charm’.
  • A flock of crows is called a ‘murder’.
  • The collective name for woodpeckers is a ‘descent of woodpeckers’.
  • A flock of starlings is called a ‘murmuration’.
  • A flock of swallows is called a ‘gulp’.
  • The collective name for penguins is a ‘parcel of penguins’.
  • A flock of magpies is called a ‘tittering’.
  • A flock of parrots is called a ‘pandemonium’.
  • A flock of larks is called an ‘exaltation’.
  • A flock of sparrows is called a ‘host’.
  • The collective name for turkeys is a ‘rafter of turkeys’.
  • Geese on the ground are collectively known as a ‘gaggle of geese’, while geese in the air are collectively known as a ‘skein of geese’.
  • A flock of rooks is called a ‘parliament’.
  • The collective name for herons is a ‘siege of herons’.

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Birds in History

  • Turkeys were first brought to England in 1526 by William Strickland, a merchant from Yorkshire, England.  He obtained 6 turkeys from North American Indian traders, and sold them in Bristol, England, for 2d each.
  • Why is it traditional to eat turkey on Thanksgiving Day in the USA?  In 1621 the Pilgrim Fathers put on a big feast that included roasted wild turkey, to give thanks for their successful harvest, and invited all the native American Indians who had helped them to set up the colonies, to join them.  In view of this, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln decided that every fourth Thursday in November was to be a national holiday to keep up the tradition of thanksgiving, with roast turkey on the menu.
  • The first animals to be transported by air were a cockerel, a duck and a sheep.  The Montgolfier brothers from France, sent the live animals up in a hot air balloon in 1783 to see how they would fare.  The experiment was a success, the animals survived, and as a result, the first manned flight was launched in the hot air balloon two months later.
  • For over a thousand years cormorants have been used in China to catch fish. A ring is put around each bird’s neck to prevent it from swallowing the fish caught.
  • Reuters, one of the world’s biggest news agencies, began with pigeon-post.  In 1850, German bankers needed a quick way to get stock-exchange prices from Paris, but had no means to achieve this as the telegraph system of the day didn’t extend from Germany to France.  So a young German bank clerk, Paul Reuter, came up with a plan – he used pigeons to successfully and speedily transport the much needed prices.  As a result, Reuters was established.
  • Blackbirds were eaten in olden times in Europe, as depicted in the nursery rhyme “Sing a song of sixpence, a pocket full of rye, four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie……”.
  • The pink-chested pigeon used to be the most prolific bird in North America.  Unfortunately, it was very popular for its meat which led to its demise.  The last time a pink-chested pigeon was seen in the wild was in 1900, and the last one to die in captivity was in 1914 at the Cincinnati Zoo.
  • Starlings and sparrows never existed in North America before the late 19th century.  In the 1880′s, Eugene Scheifflin, an affluent man from New York, brought over from England flocks of these birds and set them free in the city’s Central Park.  His reason?  He wanted to introduce to America any bird that was cited in the works of William Shakespeare.
  • In 1945 a farmer from Fruita, Colorado in the USA, went to kill a chicken for dinner; the farmer cut the chicken’s head off but missed the vital brain stem and jugular vein.  Subsequently, the chicken survived and ran around headless for another 18 months, fed by an eyedropper through the neck.  The chicken was given the name Mike, and became famous as the Headless Chicken on tours along the West Coast.
  • St. Valentine’s Day (14th February) is traditionally associated with lovers because it was believed in the Middle Ages that this was the  day when birds started to mate.
  • The dodo became extinct in 1790.  A flightless bird and a member of the dove family, the dodo was only found on Mauritius, an island in the Indian Ocean that was often a stopover for sea voyages from Europe to the East.  The bird became extinct because it was a regular source of food for the sailors, and also because many sailors captured dodos to take them back to Europe, but the dodos only survived a few months in captivity.
  • Cockerels were traditionally used on weather vanes as it was believed in olden times that cockerels were vigilant birds.  As such, they could look out for evil in all directions from their vantage point on top of a roof or church steeple.
  • At the Paris Olympics in 1900 the strange event of Live Pigeon Shooting was held.  Belgium took the gold medal by killing 21 pigeons, France took the silver medal by killing 20 pigeons, and America took the bronze medal killing 18 pigeons.  The event was never held again.
  • Taking domestic animals to live on islands can be risky business for the native wildlife inhabitants.  In 1894, a new lighthouse keeper arrived on Stephens Island (located between the north and south islands of New Zealand) and bought his pet cat with him.  Within a short few months, the cat had killed off the whole population of wren that lived exclusively on the island, rendering that particular wren extinct.
  • In 1973 over Western Africa, a Ruppell’s griffon vulture collided with an aircraft that was traveling at an altitude of 36,000ft (11,250m).
  • In 1949 in London, England, starlings landed on the minute hand of the clock face of Big Ben, making the famous clock lose four and a half minutes in time.
  • In Medieval Europe it was just as common for animals to be brought to a court of law and tried before a judge for various misdemeanors, as it was for humans.  In the 1400′s in Basel in Switzerland, a cockerel was accused of sorcery when it laid an egg!  The cockerel was found guilty, and was burnt at the stake along with the egg.
  • Every year since 1674, swans on the Alster river in Hamburg, Germany, have been given under cover shelter during the cold winter months by the city.
  • In the middle ages, a food delicacy that was eaten as well as swan was heron.
  • In times gone by it was only the eggs of chickens that were sought after as food.  Only when a chicken became too old to produce anymore eggs was it killed and used as meat.  But by 1800, the demand for chicken meat rose so sharply that mass-production of chickens and their eggs was started.
  • During the devastating Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, a new nursery rhyme became popular with British schoolchildren: “I had a bird, it’s name was Enza.  I opened the door and in-flu-enza“.  A sad reflection of the virulent disease that killed more people than any other known single outbreak of disease in man’s history.
  • In February 1928, members of the Saint-Germain Golf Club in France voted to have an errant blackbird killed as the bird had stolen 30 golf balls off the course.
  • DRAW-A-BIRD day is officially celebrated every year on April 8th.  This date was the birthday of a little girl called Dorrie Cooper who, at the age of seven in 1943, went to visit her uncle who was wounded in the Second World War and asked him to draw a bird as a way to cheer him up.  Tragically, three years later, Dorrie was killed in a road accident, and her coffin was lined with hand drawings of birds, drawn by the soldiers and nurses who were in her uncle’s ward during the war.
  • In 1974 a blast of cold icy air swept across Arkansas in the USA during a storm killing ducks in mid flight.  The frozen ducks then came raining down onto the unsuspecting people below.
  • It is said by the Church of Latter Day Saints that in 1848 their Mormon community’s first ever harvest in Utah looked as if it was going to be eaten by a swarm of locusts.  But at the last minute, a huge flock of California gulls miraculously appeared and saved the harvest by devouring the locusts.  This is why the California gull was chosen as the state bird of Utah.
  • In the 1500′s and 1600′s asparagus was also known as “sparrow grass” among the poor people.
  • In the 1600′s it was believed that a good cure for redness and pimples on the face was to cover the face with warm pigeon’s blood extracted from beneath the pigeon’s wing, leaving it on the face all night, and then washing it off with warm water in the morning.

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Birds and Royalty

  • In England it was King Edward VII (1901-1910) who popularized the eating of roast turkey for Christmas dinner.  But it wasn’t until the 1950′s, with the advent of refrigerators, that turkeys became the favorite Christmas fare for commoners.
  • The swan was first introduced to England when Queen Beatrice of Cyprus gave King Richard I (1189-1199) swans as a present.  Since that time, the swan has been regarded as a royal bird and is still held under legal protection.
  • Trafalgar Square in London, England, once famous for its flocks of wild pigeons, was originally owned by King Edward I (1272-1307) and was then known as the King’s Mews where the royal hawks were kept and the royal falconers were lodged.
  • Birdcage Walk in St. James’ Park, London, England, is so called as it was the site of King James I’s bird aviary (James I 1603-1625).
  • In 1850 a royal commission was appointed, led by Queen Victoria’s husband Prince Albert, to raise money for an international exhibition to be held in London, England.  As a result, a massive iron and glass conservatory called the ‘Crystal Palace’, was built in Hyde Park to house the Great Exhibition, which was officially opened by the queen in May 1851.  As part of the design, the Crystal Palace was constructed in such a way that it incorporated many of Hyde Park’s precious trees, but along with the trees came the sparrows that were nesting in them.  A problem soon arose with sparrow droppings spattering many of the exhibits, including the Persian carpets on display.  The Duke of Wellington came to the rescue, however, by coming up with an idea of introducing sparrowhawks into the Crystal Palace to get rid of the unwanted sparrows, which worked.
  • Eleanor of Castile, the wife of Edward I (1272-1307), was given a gift of parrots by the Princess of Salerno.
  • In the days before shotguns were invented, hawks and falcons were used to bring down wildfowl from the sky in a sport known as falconry.  Different types of hawks and falcons were used, but only the King of England was allowed to use the gyrfalcon.
  • In years gone by, pigeon dung was frequently used by medical doctors as it was believed it helped with many ailments.  These included kidney stones, baldness, tumours, and plague sores.  When King Charles II of England (1660-1685) was on his deathbed, one of the many treatments given to him by his personal physicians was the application of special plasters made from pigeon dung to the soles of his feet.  Unfortunately, nothing seemed to help and the king died a few days later.
  • In England, King Henry VIII (1509-1547), King George V (1920-1936), and Queen Victoria (1837-1901) all owned African grey parrots, as did Marie Antoinette, the wife of the French king, King Louis XVI (1774-1792).

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Birds in the Bible

  • There are over 30 different birds mentioned in the Bible. They include: bittern, chicken, cockerel, cormorant, crane, crow, cuckoo, dove, eagle, falcon, hawk, heron, hoopoe, kite, lapwing, nighthawk, nightingale, osprey, ostrich, owl, partridge, peacock, pelican, pigeon, quail, raven, sparrow, swallow, swan, stork, vulture.

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Names and Birds

  • The word duck comes from the Anglo-Saxon word duce, meaning diver (from the verb ducan – ‘to dive’).
  • The word swift comes from the Old English word swifan, meaning ‘to move quickly’.
  • In times gone by, the European blackbird was known as a merle, and the song thrush was known as a mavis.
  • The girl’s name Penelope comes from the Greek word penelopeia meaning duck.
  • The name kestrel comes from the Latin root word crepitare meaning ‘to rattle or crackle’, which was how the ancients described the call of the kestrel.
  • The albatross is also known as a gooneybird or mollyhawk.
  • Names that are also a bird include: Aleta meaning ‘winged’ (Spanish); Arno meaning ‘eagle’ (Teutonic); Arend meaning ‘eagle power’ (Teutonic); Arnold meaning ‘eagle strength’ (Teutonic); Arthur meaning ‘eagle of thor’ (Teutonic); Bertram meaning ‘bright raven’ (Teutonic); Corbert or Corbin meaning ‘raven’ (Latin); Columbine meaning ‘dove’ (Latin); Ingram meaning ‘raven’ (Teutonic); Jonah or Jonas meaning ‘dove’ (Hebrew); Jemima meaning ‘dove’ (Hebrew); Mervin or Mervyn meaning ‘raven of the sea’ (Celtic).
  • Where German surnames are concerned, Adler means ‘eagle’, Kray means ‘crow’, and Strauss means ‘ostrich’.  The surname Faulkner means ‘falconer’.
  • The mistletoe plant derives its name from the Anglo-Saxon words mistel meaning ‘dung’ and tan meaning ‘twig’.  It was noticed in ancient times that mistletoe grew where there were bird droppings on the twigs and branches of trees, and so it was believed that the plant grew directly from the droppings, (hence ‘dung-on-twig’).  It was centuries later when botanists realized that mistletoe was actually spread by birds eating the berries of the plant and the seeds excreted in their droppings.
  • The Portuguese/Spanish name for pelican is alcatraz.  It is from the Arabian word Al-qadus meaning ‘water carrier’, as it was believed that pelicans carried water for its young in its beak.
  • The scientific name for the kingfisher is ‘halcyon’, from the Greek words hals meaning seaand kyon meaning ’conceiving’.  In Greek mythology it was said a kingfisher made a floating nest on the sea, and the eggs successfully hatched when the weather was calm and clear (from which the term ‘halcyon days’ comes).
  • What’s in a name…. in times gone by, the bird we now call a pelican was known by the name albatross, and the bird we now call a guinea-fowl was known by the name turkey.  Similarly, the bird we now call a woodpecker was known by the name pelican (from the Greek word pelekan, from pelekys meaning ‘axe’).  And the name ‘grouse’ comes from the Latin word grus meaning crane.  How confusing!
  • There are four butterflies in the world that are named after birds: (1) the Common Crow Butterfly, found in Australia, and so called because it is dark brown or black in color; (2) the Owl Butterfly, found in Central America, and so called because it has markings on its hind wings that look like the eyes of an owl; (3) the Peacock Butterfly, found in Europe and Asia, and so called because the eye spots on its wings resemble the ones found on the peacock train feathers; and (4) the Cuckoo Butterfly, found in Europe, and so called because its caterpillar coaxes a particular red ant (using a scent) to take it to the ant’s nest, where it is fed by the nurse ants until it pupates and metamorphoses into a butterfly.
  • In ancient times, the word hawk was cried out while hunting with this bird.  It meant, ‘sieze’ or ‘take hold’.  The word has Teutonic origins, originally meaning ‘to plunder’.
  • In South Africa the red-billed woodhoepoe is known as ‘inblekabafazi’ in Zulu, which means the laughter of women, because the call of this bird sounds like cackling laughter. 
  • “On the first day of Christmas my true love sent to me, a partridge in a pear tree.”  Verses from this traditional Christmas song continue with ”four calling birds“, but this is incorrect as it should be “four colly birds“.  Colly is an old word for black, and the rhyme was probably referring to blackbirds.
  • The word falcon comes from the shape of this bird’s claws, which resembles a sickle, or falx in Latin.
  • The green woodpecker is colloquially known as a yaffle because of its characteristic laughing call.
  • The name swan comes from the sanskrit word meaning sound, as it was believed a swan’s eggs were hatched by thunder and lightning.
  • The word pedigree comes from the shape a family tree takes on when written on paper, like a crane’s foot - pied de grue.  The symbol of a crane’s foot clutching a rock was later used in English heraldry as a symbol of vigilance.

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Birds and Archaeology

  • Fossil records indicate that there is a strong possibility that all passerines (songbirds) evolved from Gondwanaland (the super continent that existed about 200 million years ago, that eventually broke up into several land masses that today include Antarctica, South America, Africa, Madagascar, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Arabia and India).
  • Scientists working on an archaeological site in the Western Cape, South Africa, have discovered fragments of ostrich eggs that date back 60,000 years to the Stone Age.  But more remarkably is that the eggs were found to have patterns etched on them, which could be the oldest form of written communication ever known. The etchings were made by hunter-gatherers in Africa, as a probable way of marking the ownership as well as the use of each egg.
  • In northeastern China recently, the fossil of a bird-like dinosaur was unearthed.  The four-winged Anchiornis huxleyi was the size of a chicken, and is thought to have been on the earth about 160 million years ago.  It is older than the earliest known bird, the Archaeopteryx, and could be proof that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
  • The age-old debate of whether feathers originated as a means of flight, insulation or display, may have been solved.  Palaeontologists studying the Sinosauropteryx, a dinosaur that lived on earth 100 million years ago, have found rudimentary feathers, but only on its tail.  Not only that, but the feathers contained orange and white pigments arranged in ring patterns down the tail.  The fact that these feathers were not found on a wing, and that they were only on the tail, rules out feathers originating for the purposes of flight or insulation.  The feathers being colored strongly suggests that they were originally used for display, and only later for flight and insulation.
  • In 2003 a fossilised leg bone of a Tyrannosaurus Rex was found in the Rockies in the USA.  Remarkably, DNA could be extracted from collagen still attached to the bone.  Even more remarkably was that the closest match to this DNA is that of the modern chicken.

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Birds and Natural Science

  • An ivory-billed woodpecker, the largest woodpecker in North America and thought to have been extinct for 50 years, was recently spotted in the Big Woods in Arkansas.
  • Vultures are bald so they do not get blood and bacteria caught up in head feathers when they stick their heads into rotting carcasses.
  • Some birds deliberately build their nests next to the nests of stinging insects, so that the insects can protect the birds’ eggs from predators.
  • The eyes of sea birds, such as gulls, contain special droplets of red oil in the retinas, which act as a sun filter to help with the glare from the sea and sand, rather like built-in sunglasses.
  • Weaver birds are not shown how to build their intricately woven nests by their parents; rather the instinctual knowledge is passed down through the genes.
  • It is the pigments contained in the microscopic water plants and animals on which flamingos feed that give flamingos their pink coloration.
  • Birds never fall off their perches, even when asleep, because of tendons that run down the back of their legs and into their feet. When the bird lands on a perch, these tendons automatically tighten as soon as the legs are bent, giving the bird a secure grip on the branch. When the bird is ready to fly off, it straightens its legs, which slackens these tendons and loosens the grip on the perch.
  • Seabirds only drink sea water but never become ill because of built-in desalination glands in their heads. These glands filter out the salt from the water, and the excess salt is then excreted from their nostrils.
  • Buzzards have 5 times the number of light-sensitive cells in their eyes than humans.
  • Some owls hear sounds 10 times softer than a human ear can pick up.
  • Chickens have two ovaries, but only one is functional at any given time. If that ovary gets damaged and stops working, the other ovary kicks into life and takes over. Very occasionally, though, things don’t always go to plan….
  • ….recently in England, an egg-laying chicken had a spontaneous sex-change, and turned into a cockerel. To the surprise of its owner, the hen grew a comb, wattles and long tail feathers, and started to crow at dawn. Experts say the very rare condition was caused by a significant rise in the male hormone testosterone when the hen’s one ovary malfunctioned and the high testosterone levels caused the second ovary to turn into a testis instead.
  • The Hooded pitohui, a rare bird found in the tropical rainforests of New Guinea, is the only known poisonous bird. A neurotoxin found in the bird’s skin and feathers causes numbness and tingling to those who touch it.  The bird acquires its poison from its diet of toxic Choresine beetles.
  • Many birds allow ants that eject formic acid, to run around their feathers as the acid helps to kill parasites, like ticks and fleas.
  • The best architects in the bird world are the bowerbirds of Australia and New Guinea.  The males build structures, or bowers, not as nests but as a way to attract females.  Some bowers are so elaborate they resemble small thatched houses.  The bowers are often decorated with berries, flowers and snail shells, and can be painted using natural pigments like charcoal mixed with the birds’ saliva, and applied with a brush made from bark fiber or leaves held in the birds’ beaks.  Ironically, once mated, the male bowerbirds take no part in the nest building or care of the eggs or young.
  • The tambalacoque tree used to grow prolifically on the island of Mauritius.  By the 1970′s, however, only 13 trees were left – no new trees had grown from seed since the dodo became extinct in the 17th century.  It was then discovered that the seeds of the tambalacoque tree would only germinate if they had been eaten and passed through the digestive system of the dodo.  When the dodo became extinct, the future of the tambalacoque tree also looked doomed.  But by experimenting to find a bird with a similar digestive tract to the dodo, scientists have discovered that the tambalacoque seeds will germinate after passing through turkeys.  So it seems as if the tambalacoque trees are safe once more.
  • Along the Great Rift Valley in East Africa are a series of soda lakes – lakes whose waters are naturally caustic because they contain different concentrations of sodium carbonate.  The lake with the most concentration of soda is Lake Natron in Tanzania, which is completely uninhabitable to all birds and mammals, except flamingos.  Flamingos are unique in that they have bills that contain a special filtering mechanism that, when the bills are held upside down in the water, allows micro organisms to be strained out of the water for food.  This filtering system is the reason why flamingos are so adapted and able to live on either caustic or very salty lakes.  The flamingos at lake Natron do have to fly to freshwater lakes to drink, but they feed and breed on this soda-ridden lake because their nests are naturally protected by would-be predators.
  • Birds are most known for their vocal abilities.  Birds produce sound from a special chamber called a syrinx, which is situated at the base of the windpipe where it splits into two tubes (the bronchi), one tube going into each lung.  Sound is produced by air passing from the lungs over thin elastic membranes in the syrinx.  When the tension of these membranes is altered by special muscles that tighten and relax, a bird can change the pitch and tone of the sound.  A remarkable feature is that the left side of the syrinx can work independently from the right side.  In other words, air passing over the membranes in the left side of the chamber can produce one note or tune, and air passing over the membranes in the right side of the chamber can produce a completely different note or tune simultaneously.  This means many songbirds are able to sing two notes or even two tunes at the same time.
  • Some Egyptian vultures throw rocks at ostrich eggs to break open the hard shell in order to get to the contents inside.
  • Owls are able to accurately locate the direction of sound within a one degree angle because they anatomically have one ear positioned slightly forward in relation to the other ear.  Humans, on the other hand, with their ears on an equal level, can only accurately locate the direction of sound within a three degree angle.
  • Most cuckoos lay their eggs in other birds’ nests, where the surrogate birds are expected to hatch and rear the young cuckoo chicks along with their own brood.  The fact that these young cuckoos, when they finally leave the nest, fly exactly the same migratory routes as their real parents (whom they have never known or seen), gives a strong indication that migratory patterns are inherited.
  • However, migration must involve some learning and practice too.  When migrating European starlings were deliberately pulled from their normal migration path by scientists, the experienced adult birds were able to get themselves back on course.  But the young starlings, making their first migratory flight, were not able to do so.
  • In May 2007 a new hummingbird was discovered in Columbia, South America.  It has been given the name gorgeted puffleg.
  • Scientists from the University of California have discovered that the Anna’s hummingbird can fly faster than a jet fighter plane and the Space Shuttle, relatively speaking.  It was found that this hummingbird can fly at 385 body lengths per second as oppose to the Space Shuttle’s 207 body lengths per second (during its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere), and a jet fighter’s 150 body lengths per second.
  • The debate of which is the fastest in delivering a message – a pigeon or Internet broadband – was put to the test recently in South Africa.  An IT company strapped a 4GB memory stick to the leg of an eleven month old pigeon called Winston, and sent it flying from their offices in Howick to their head office in Durban, about 60 miles away.  The same 4GB data was also sent between the two offices via ADSL.  Despite the 68 minutes it took Winston to safely deliver the whole package and the further one hour it took the technicians to upload the data, only 4% of the data had come through via ADSL in the same amount of time!  Viva Winston!
  • Experiments on captive migratory birds revealed a behavior called zugunruhe (from the German ‘zug’ meaning move, and ‘unruhe’ meaning anxiety/restlessness).  What happened was that the captive birds showed a restless back and forth movement in their cages at the time they would be starting their migration.  Not only did the birds move towards the same direction they would have been flying, but more fascinatingly, the birds repeatedly turned this way or that, changing the direction they faced and shuffled towards, in exact simulation to the way they would’ve been changing direction on their migratory paths.  Scientists also found that the longer the migratory flight the birds would have undertaken, the longer the zugunruhe.
  • In a paper published in Current Biology, scientists have suggested that the gene for the color red in a bird is a sign of how well the bird is able to detoxify poisons from its body.  The redder the feathers, beak or legs, the better shape it’s in, leading to the likelihood of being the first choice of a prospective mate.
  • In a new publication in Nature Communications, scientists have now discovered that birds do indeed sleep while flying.  It had always been a theory to explain how birds fly for months on their migration, but now it has been scientifically proved.

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Copyright 2006-2012 Andrea Wansbury