Andrea WansburyPuffin
Birds: Divine MessengersPuffin

Birds: Divine Messengers
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Bird Facts

  • 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.
  • The collective name for storks is a 'mustering of storks'.
  • A flock of goldfinches is called a 'charm'.
  • Hummingbirds build neat woven nests, held together by spider webs.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • By eating rotting, putrefying carcasses, vultures stop the spread of disease, but never get ill themselves.
  • 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 a national bird.
  • 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.
  • In England it was King Edward VII (1901-1910) who popularised 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 favourite Christmas fare for commoners.
  • The bird that makes the longest known migration is the Artic tern, which clocks up about 22,000 miles in a round trip.  It breeds in the summer months in the Artic, then flies to the Antartic to feed during the summer months there.
  • The Wandering albatross has the largest wingspan of any living bird, about 11 and a half feet (3.5 metres).
  • A flock of crows is called a 'murder'.
  • Honeyguides are unique in that they are the only birds that can digest wax, and have been known to eat candles in churches.
  • 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.
  • The collective name for woodpeckers is a 'descent of woodpeckers'.
  • Vultures are bald so they do not get blood and bacteria caught up in head feathers when they stick their heads into rotting carcasses.
  • For peace in a household, visualize a flock of white doves flying from the roof of the house.
  • 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.
  • 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 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 spurwinged 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.
  • Over half the world's known bird species live in tropical forests.
  • The famous musical composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart had a pet European starling that was said to be able to sing the first few bars of his Piano Concerto in G Major.
  • A flock of starlings is called a 'murmuration'.
  • 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.
  • The kiwi bird of New Zealand has no tail and no wings.
  • 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 in the delicacy bird's nest soup.
  • A flock of swallows is called a 'gulp'.
  • 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.
  • The smallest bird in North America is the Calliope hummingbird at about 3 inches long.
  • The smallest bird in Great Britain is the goldcrest at just over 3 inches long.
  • The smallest birds in Australia are the weebills at about 3 inches long.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Penguins only moult once a year when the oil on their feathers runs out.
  • The collective name for penguins is a 'parcel of penguins'.
  • It is the pigments contained in the microscopic water plants and animals on which flamingos feed that give flamingos their pink colouration.
  • 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.
  • The roadrunners of North America are a type of cuckoo.  The Greater roadrunner can clock up to 15 miles an hour.
  • The tallest bird in the world today is the ostrich; the males grow to a height of 8 feet (2.4 metres).  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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Brewer's blackbird of North America is named after Dr. Thomas Mayo Brewer (1814-1880) an American naturalist from Boston.
  • Buzzards have 5 times the number of light-sensitive cells in their eyes than humans.
  • 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).
  • A flock of magpies is called a 'tittering'.
  • 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.
  • Some owls hear sounds 10 times softer than a human ear can pick up.
  • The Dickin Medal for Valour 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 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).
  • 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.
  • A flock of parrots is called a 'pandemonium'.
  • The smallest living bird in the world is the Cuban Bee Hummingbird at 2 ¼ inches long, not much bigger than a bumblebee.
  • 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 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.
  • 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.
  • A flock of larks is called an 'exaltation'.
  • 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 word duck comes from the Anglosaxon word 'duce' meaning diver (from the verb 'ducan' - to dive).
  • 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 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.
  • A flock of sparrows is called a 'host'.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • When turkeys get excited, their heads change colour.
  • The collective name for turkeys is a 'rafter of turkeys'.
  • A hummingbird is the only bird that can fly backwards.
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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 bird with the fastest wingbeat is the horned sungem, a type of hummingbird found in South America, with a wingbeat of 90 beats a second. 
  • The word swift comes from the Old English word 'swifan', meaning 'to move quickly'.
  • 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'.
  • 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. 
  • When bat-parrots sleep, they hang upside down from branches by their feet (hence their name).
  • 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.
  • Names that are also a bird include: 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 menaing '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'.
  • 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 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 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 poorwill (a nightjar) is the only bird known to hibernate.
  • The most famous pigeon in World War I was Cher Ami who worked for the USA 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 Valour.
  • 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.
  • 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 realised that mistletoe was actually spread by birds eating the berries of the plant and the seeds excreted in their droppings.
  • A flock of rooks is called a 'parliament'.
  • Trafalgar Square in London, England, is famous for its flocks of wild pigeons.  But the site was originally owned by King Edward I (1272-1307) and 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, was so called as it was the site of King James I's bird aviary (James I 1603-1625).
  • In Hugh Lofting's books, it was a parrot called Polynesia that taught Dr Doolittle how to talk to the animals.
  • 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.
  • Cockrels were traditionally used on weathervanes as it was believed in olden times that cockrels were vigilant birds.  As such, they could look out for evil in all dirctions from their vantage point on top of a roof or church steeple.
  • In the world of aviation, any flying officer that is assigned duties on the ground is known as a 'pelican'.
  • 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.
  • The collective name for herons is a 'siege of herons'.
  • 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.
  • 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 noises 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 circle of feathers found around an owl's eyes are there to help the owl to 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.
  • In 1973 over Western Africa, a Ruppell's griffon vulture collided with an aircaraft that was travelling at an altitude of 36,000ft (11,250m).
  • 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 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 fibre 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 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.
  • 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 could 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 woodcocks carry away their young between their feet.
  • 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.
  • 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 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.
  • The marsh warbler, which migrates between Africa and Europe, is already 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • It has long been known that birds are very sensitive to vibrations.  In 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 in China and Japan, peacocks are still considered very dependable warning "devices" as they can detect seismic activity that could possibly lead to earthquakes, long before humans are aware of any such activity.
  • Taking domestic animals to live on islands can be bad news 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 brought his pet cat with him.  Within a short few months, the cat had killed off the whole population of wren that had lived exclusively on the island.
  • Some Egyptian vultures throw rocks at ostrich eggs to break open the hard shell in order to get to the contents 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.
  • 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.
  • 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 cockrel was accused of sorcery when it laid an egg!  The cockrel was found guilty, and was burnt at the stake along with the egg.
  • The scientific name for the kingfisher is 'halcyon', from the Greek words 'hals' meaning sea and '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
  • The continent with the largest concentration of bird species, is South America, with over 3,000.  Antartica has the least with about 65 different bird species.
  • 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.
  • The one area in the world that has lost the most bird species to extinction is Hawaii.
  • 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 colour; (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 caterpilla 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 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • In May 2007 a new hummingbird was discovered in Columbia, South America.  It has been given the name gorgeted puffleg.
  • "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 refering to blackbirds.
  • 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.
  • The most ancient living passerines (songbirds) are the New Zealand wrens.
  • 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 Antartica, South America, Africa, Madagasgar, Australia, New Zealand, New Guinea, Arabia and India).
  • 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, then 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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. 
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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!
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The white material that makes up bird droppings is not actually feces but urine.  Birds excrete urine containing the insoluble solid of 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 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.
  • Scientists working on an archaelogical 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.
  • 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 these birds as vultures 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. 
  • In battle, the Roman emperor Julius Caeser used to train birds of prey to kill the enemy's messenger pigeons.
  • The turkey vulture is the only bird of prey that uses its sense of smell to find food.

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Copyright 2006-2010 Andrea Wansbury

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