A Billion Bird Flock: The magic, mystery, and biology of bird migration

A flock of sandpipers in Canada Imagine a billion birds passing overhead during your morning commute. This isn’t the plot of some cheap Hitchcock knock off; it’s the exact situation John J. Audubon (yes, that Audubon) found himself in during the autumn of 1813 in Kentucky: The air was literally filled with Pigeons; the light of noon-day was obscured as by an eclipse, the dung fell in spots, not unlike melting flakes of snow; and the continued buzz of wings had a tendency to lull my senses to repose...Before sunset I reached Louisville…. The Pigeons were still passing in undiminished numbers, and continued to do so for three days in succession… The banks of the Ohio [river] were crowded with men and boys, incessantly shooting at the pilgrims… For a week or more, the population fed on no other flesh than that of Pigeons, and talked of nothing but Pigeons. This excerpt describes the Passenger Pigeon’s extraordinary fall migration from the Northern US and Canada to the Southern United States. Audubon’s words begin to describe the enormity of this species. During their heyday, colonies of Passenger Pigeons were so large that their combined weight broke tree limbs, and

Hatching the Birdphiles

By Michael Wheelock, @MSWheelock Northern Starling I like birds. Not in the casual “oh yeah, penguins are cute” kind of way, but in the “wow, look at the iridescent purple on that Northern Starling” kind of way (side note: Shakespeare introduced the Starling to North America. Well, sort of). Unfortunately, I’ve been caught up in the NYC hustle lately and haven’t had any time to enjoy this little hobby. Flashback to mid-January- I was in New Orleans to meet up with some friends, celebrate a birthday, and eat some alligator. On the last day of the trip, my girlfriend suggested we go for a walk in the local park. It was sunny and 75oF out (on a day when it was 20oF and snowing in NYC), so I was more than excited to soak it in. Things began normal enough, with small talk and puppy ogling (“that black lab was awesome!”). That is, until we got to the edge of a small pond and I saw this:   Domesticated Swan Goose (Photo: Michael Wheelock) What is that?! I asked my girlfriend for her iPhone and took a quick photo. She knew I liked birds so this

Pigeons: Darwin’s Unappreciated Avian Assistant

By Michael Wheelock, @MSWheelock The Fallacy of Finches If I contribute as much to science as the pigeon has, I’ll consider my career an overwhelming success. Why? Because pigeons were instrumental in helping Darwin argue for evolution by natural selection. “Wait a second Mike,” you might be thinking, “don’t you mean finches?” Absolutely not, but I know where you’re coming from. In middle school, I was taught that Darwin encountered finches (pictured below) while island hopping in the Galapagos, a series of volcanic islands off the coast of Ecuador. Source: http://beacon-center.org, reprint from Darwin’s Journal of Researches Darwin noticed that on each island, the shape and size of finch beaks correlated with their available food sources. For example, short and stout beaks were well suited for eating seeds from the ground, whereas long, pointed beaks were ideal for eating fruits. This led him to speculate that all of the finches were derived from a single species that had traveled from mainland South America via wind, and adapted differently on each island over time. Ultimately, this inspired him to propose the idea of evolution by natural selection in his book On the Origin of Species, published in 1860. Unfortunately,

Jargon Rehab: A Call for Clearer Communication

By Laura Seeholzer Miscommunication Pronunciation of the Kiswahili words for mosquito (mbu) and penis (mboo) are precariously close. Unfortunately, I only became aware of this a month after I started researching mosquitoes in Tanzania. The project I was working on required me to use a blended nylon material found in men’s boxers so once a week I would go down to the market and buy men’s Tommy Hilfigers (they had the perfect blend). When explaining to the marketplace vendors why I wanted men’s underwear, not women’s, I’d say in Kiswahili, “I study penises. I need underpants for an experiment with the penis” of course, I thought I was using the word mbu (mosquito), but I was of course saying mboo (penis). Yikes. This innocuous miscommunication can be used as an analogy for a serious problem: a disconnect between what scientists think they are communicating and what the public is actually hearing. In December, Alan Alda spoke to the Rockefeller community about this communication gap, a problem I knew existed but never fully appreciated.  He first asked us: “what level of knowledge is the public really starting at?” For instance, if you told a person on the street that you study