Really Weird Bird Anatomy

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The closer you look, the weirder Mother Nature appears. Some birds that look absolutely common on the outside have anatomical features that will surprise you.

Trombone Trachea

The trachea is also known as the windpipe. It's what we breath through. In most animals, that's all it's for. Humans have a larynx in the middle, to make noises we call speech using the moving air already there. Most birds have a simple trachea like ours, but others take in air through an extensive labyrinth. Swans have long necks, but trumpeter swans have tracheas that are three times as long as their size should indicate. It loops and coils through the breastbone in a totally unnecessary fashion, unless you are a trumpeter swan and want to make loud noises to attract the opposite sex. The same is true for cranes, as the whooping crane with its distinctive voice has the longest trachea of all crane species. The trumpet bird (Phonygammus keraudrenii), a species of bird of paradise, has the longest trachea of all, as you can see in this diagram.
445_Trumpet_bird_trachea

These birds have a long way to breathe! The purpose of extra elongated windpipes has to be the sounds these birds make.

Trumpeter swans, Whooping cranes and Trumpet birds are the noisiest members of their respective groups, and exhibit the most complicated and elongate tracheae of their respective groups. I think we can safely infer that extinct birds with long, looping tracheae - like those moa - made loud, striking calls too.

After all, these pipes closely resemble the loops in tubas, french horns, and trumpets.

The Lake Rapist

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Most male birds do not have a penis, but some that do seem to make up for the rest. The Argentine lake duck's penis is shaped like a corkscrew and can extend to 17 inches. Seventeen. Inches. The bird is only about 16 inches tall.
445_lake duck

Argentine lake ducks practice forced copulation and the females are often observed trying to get away. Possibly the long penis evolved to make reaching a female easier. Or conversely, the long penis could be the reason the females try to escape.

Woodpecker Tongue

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Woodpeckers are strange birds all around. They bang their heads against trees, telephone poles, and sometimes aluminum siding, making  noises that would wake the dead. The woodpeckers in my neck of the woods are about the size of a cocker spaniel and could rip your flesh to shreds if you get too close. But those things seem almost normal when you look at a woodpecker's tongue. It has a bone, an extension of the hyoid bone found in many animals. It is quite long, in order to dip into trees and extract insects. Some woodpeckers have sticky tongues or barbed ends on the tongue to grab more insects. What's really weird is that in some woodpecker species, the tongue starts in the throat and grows up under the jaw, loops through the bird's sinuses, out one nostril, wraps around the back of the skull, and grows back inside through the other nostril!  In some species, there is a loop of tongue around the eye, which is where the excess is stored when the tongue is not in use. Also, the tongue is forked into two for part of the length, but united into one tongue at both ends.
445_WoodpeckerSkull01

If it weren't for the relatively photogenic hyoid bone left behind when the flesh is gone, you wouldn't believe this bizarre layout, The woodpecker's tongue is a bone of contention between creationists (who believe this bizarre configuration couldn't have evolved) and evolutionists (who say it could and did). My brother once told me that woodpeckers use their tongues to hold their brains in place while they hammer on trees. I didn't believe him. That idea doesn't seem so far-fetched now.

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July 23, 2009 - 4:03am
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