Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Original Angry Birds

I may not have an iPhone, iPad, or iAnything, but thanks to the generosity (or pity) of Google, I was finally able to get in on the Angry Bird craze.  I may be late, but at least now I'm in with the cool kids. While playing the game, I often wonder where the inspiration for the game came from. When would birds normally get so angry that they would attack pigs?  Are the green pigs a tribute to Dr. Seuss' Green Eggs and Ham?  Well, I may not have the answers to those questions, but I think I just may have an idea where the real-life inspiration for some of the angry birds came from.
The first bird that introduces us to the game of Angry Birds is good ol' red.  He initiates the attack against the greedy green pigs, seemingly coming out of no where with his aerial attack.  The inspiration for red must have come from the Northern mockingbird.
Want to read about a study that found Northern mockingbirds can recognize humans that disturb their nests?
Check it out here.

These guys have a reputation for dive bombing anything that comes too close to their nests, whether it be animal or human.  Mockingbirds may not be able to knock over small wooden structures, but they certainly can make anyone duck and cover.
The buckshot-like attack of the blue bird trio teaches us that there is power in numbers. In the real avian world, there are many birds that subscribe to this train of thought through mobbing.  Mobbing is when one or more birds ceaselessly harass a predator (who is often much larger than themselves) through dive bombing, raucous calling, and close pursuit. One of the birds that I think does the best job of mobbing and thereby might be the inspiration for the blue barrage is the American crow.  
Nothing clues me to the presence of a red-tailed hawk or great-horned owl like a large band of crows making an absolute commotion in a nearby tree. And if the raptor tries to get away from the attack? The whole crow flock will follow close behind, cawing and calling all the while.

Yellow is the next in the line of the avian arsenal, who specializes in an attack with a sudden burst of powerful speed. In real life, it's the peregrine falcon that possesses this kind of raw power. When hunting its prey, mostly small to medium-sized birds, the peregrine uses a powerful divebomb called a stoop to stun or sometimes even kill its prey. 
Being clocked at over 200 miles per hour while in a stoop, the peregrine is the fastest land animal in the world. Peregrines are also known to use their stoop for defending their nests, just like our yellow triangular bird friend. Far more impressive though is the ability of the peregrine to take predators as large as bald and golden eagles through a powerful blow to the head.
Can't say that I have yet found a bird that explodes upon contact. Moving on.

For some reason, the white bird strikes me as somewhat disturbing.  I think it has something to do with the deflated shape he takes after dropping his egg bomb, or the pathetic sounds he makes when bouncing off objects as he comes crashing down.  Although no real bird uses their own eggs in defense of well...their own eggs, there are most certainly those who drop a bomb of a different kind. The fieldfare, a European/Asian relative of our American robin, takes mobbing to the next level by bombing predators with its own poop.
I'd be willing to bet that if the white bird of Angry Birds employed this technique, that the pigs would go "aiee! aiee! aiee!" all the way home.

Spring will soon be here, and with it will come nesting birds. Be sure to steer clear of any nearby nests you may notice, or else you may just suffer the wrath of some real life Angry Birds!

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Well, that stinks.

Today was a stinky day.  Not that I had a hard day at work, mind you, rather I encountered two animals today that can be rather smelly. I found a green stink bug hiding in some leaves, and was relieved that he was too cold to live up to his name. I did however smell a red fox, whose odor is very similar to a skunk.  So given these smelly signs, this week I wanted to highlight two of nature's smelliest plants and animals, both of which can clear a room faster than my friend Paul can download the Phillies font to use illegally on his sports blog (watch out Paul, SOPA is coming for you).  The striped skunk and corpse flower may both stink, but their reasons for doing so are complete opposites.

The Striped Skunk
Which is more potent: a skunk's smell, or...

its cuteness?

Ah yes, the beloved striped skunk.  There are six species of skunk in North America, all of which can produce a strong smelling liquid, or musk, to scare off predators and annoyances, such as my neighbor's dog.  The distinctive musk comes from two glands on either side of the skunk's anus (yes kids, The Nature Geek just said anus!) and in the striped skunk at least, contains sulfur, among other delightful odors.  As if the smell isn't bad enough, the skunk can hit its target up to 12 feet away, and with a pretty impressive degree of accuracy.  If the skunk is really lucky, the musk will get in its pursuer's eyes and cause temporary blindness.

By the way, how do you remove the remains of this offensive odoriferous onslaught?  Tomato juice?  Scientists say nope. Apparently the only reason we think tomato juice works is because our noses have been so overwhelmed by the skunk's musk, that they stop smelling it altogether, a phenomenon known as olfactory fatigue.  You may not smell the skunk on your dog after giving it a tomato bath, but anyone visiting your house would smell it right away. "Ok smarty pants scientists, so what does work?" Apparently it's all about giving the musk some extra oxygen, thusly:

•  Bathe the animal in a mixture of 1 quart of 3% hydrogen peroxide (from drug store), 1/4 cup of baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), and a teaspoon of liquid detergent. 
•  After 5 minutes rinse the animal with water. 
•  Repeat if necessary. 
•  The mixture must be used after mixing and will not work if it is stored for any length of time. Since it releases oxygen, it cannot be stored in a closed container. For inanimate objects one cup of sodium hypochlorite solutions (liquid laundry bleach) in a gallon of water is cheap and effective. 

The Corpse Flower
Sir David Attenborough next to a corpse flower.  
I would like to take this time to state that David Attenborough is one of the coolest people. Ever.

With a name like "corpse flower", you've got to wonder why more people don't use them in weddings.  It might be because a six foot flower pinned to your lapel is hard to walk with.  The corpse flower is indeed the largest flower in the world, with the record for the largest individual being nine feet tall.  It might also have to do with the fact that the corpse flower smells like rotting flesh in order to attract pollinators. Flies and beetles, detecting the smell of a rotting animal, will fly to the source in hopes of depositing their eggs.

What is especially amazing about the corpse flower is how it spreads its eau de cadaver. Growing in dense Sumatran forests, the corpse flower ensures that its siren scent travels far and wide by growing a large delivery device (the flower) that produces smelly steam which rises in the jungle night.  In one study, a corpse flower that was air temperature (68 degrees F) reached an astounding 90 degrees and held that temperature for over four hours.  Apparently if you find yourself suffering from hypothermia in a Sumatran forest, just go snuggle up with a giant flower that smells like a dead thing (Of course that's assuming you can find one; they only bloom every one to three years).

The striped skunk may be trying repel animals and the corpse flower attract them, but let's face it, both strategies stink.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

A Bite with a Punch: the Short-tailed Shrew

Do you know what lies beneath your feet?  Well for me right now that would be the coffee table, but that's beside the point.  What I'm referring to is an animal that is a venomous terror. An animal with an insatiable appetite.  An animal...that is four inches long and furry. It's the killer short-tailed shrew.

Don't be fooled by that adorable face!

You read that right, a venomous mammal!  The short-tailed shrew is one of only a few venomous animals in the world, joining the club with the platypus of Australia.  

Our shrew has such a high metabolism that it must consume the equivalent of its body weight each day and can starve to death in just a matter of hours. As you can imagine, this can be pretty problematic if you can't find food in the frigid winter soil.  But this is where the venom comes in.  When a short-tailed shrew finds a large supply of food, it's favorite being insects and earthworms, it will go around and bite each one.  Its venomous saliva then works like that of a cobra's and paralyzes its victims without killing them.  The shrew can then carry its prize back to its nest and have a store of food available at all times.  Insects that have been paralyzed by short-tailed shrews have been known to remain alive for another 3 to 5 days. This strategy works so well for the minute mammal that it actually increases its weight in the winter!

It seems that mother nature wanted to do everything it could to make the short-tailed shrew as badly cool as possible.  Not only is it venomous, but the teeth with which it delivers its venom have red tips that make them appear to be dripping with blood.

This dental trait is shared with close relatives, whom are all appropriately referred to as "red-toothed shrews".  They may all have red-tipped teeth, but not all of them are venomous!

Now before I go, I should calm your now frazzled nerves by telling you that the venom of the short-tailed shrew is of no danger to humans.  Those whom have been bitten have described the effect to be similar to a bee sting.  I did however find an interview with a well-respected shrew biologist that described a more memorable bite: "he remembers one student who was bitten on the hand by a particularly angry shrew that had to be pried loose. The student's arm became swollen and painful and showed signs of internal bruising that lasted more than a week (Source found here)." The moral of the story?  

Don't mess with the short-tailed shrew.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Not So Ordinary Birds

It's very common for us to take for granted that which we see every day.  Having lived in North Dakota and Colorado, Canada geese were a very common sight.  It wasn't until I lived in Florida for eight years, where I didn't see a single goose, and then moved back up north to Pennsylvania that I realized how much I missed seeing them.

Many birds that we see every day are more intelligent than one might give them credit for. Vultures, rock doves (pigeons), and European starlings all score high on their avian ACTs.  In fact, one of the most clever of bird families can be found in your own backyard.  Corvidae is the family of birds that includes crows, ravens, and jays, all of which are bird brainiacs. Recently I have had the privilege to get to know a fish crow on a personal basis thanks to my friends at the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic, here in Philadelphia. 

Crow with his best friend, Michele, of the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic

The fish crow, known just as "Crow", was brought to the center after reportedly landing on people's heads and shoulders without any fear.  Still young enough to have blue eyes and the remnants of a fleshy gape at the corners of his beak, Crow was so imprinted on humans and disinterested in his own species that he was deemed non-releasable.  I got to meet Crow in his large outside pen just a week after his arrival at the center and was charmed by watching that big ol' brain at work.  After a brief introduction, I crouched down and started digging in the soil with a stick.  Although Crow had been skittish around me just moments before, he now boldly hopped onto the ground in front of me and watched intently as I dug.  He even reached in and tugged as hard as he could on a root I had unearthed.  Crow was watching me like a family member, learning what to eat by my example.  I picked up a mouse bone on the ground and offered it to him, which he snatched out of my hands faster than Gollum can say "My preciousssss".  Anything that I picked up and showed interest in had to immediately go into his beak.

I had the opportunity to visit Crow again in his spacious inside abode last week, this time accompanied by Mr. Nature Geek.  Crow immediately took to Mr. Nature Geek and would land on him willingly.  It seems that my novelty had worn off!  Mr. Nature Geek is as smitten with corvids as I am, and he and Crow spent quite a bit of time together exploring the velcro and zipper pulls on his jacket.  His jacket also has a pocket on the arm, which gave Mr. Nature Geek, Michele (Crow's "mom" at the clinic), and I an idea.   Most if not all corvids store, or cache, food to come back to eat later, usually by burying it in the ground.  Would Crow try to store food in Mr. Nature Geek's pocket?  Crow was offered the previous night's leftovers, a water logged and headless mouse, and what happened next you can see for yourself.

Yup, nothing says "you're my new best friend" like stuffing a decapitated mouse into your pocket.  

If given the chance, Mr. Nature Geek and myself would have stayed all day in that room playing with Crow and watching his mind at work.  The great news though is that you don't have to go far to find fascinating bird behaviors and intelligence, just take a closer look at the birds you see every day.

If you'd like to learn more about the Schuylkill Center Wildlife Rehabilitation Clinic or would like to give a donation to spoil Crow rotten with toys and mice that he can decapitate, just click here!