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John James Audubon's Discovery of a Bird That Might Not Exist

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“It was in the month of February, 1814, that I obtained the first sight of this noble bird, and never shall I forget the delight which it gave me.”

That’s John James Audubon, the American naturalist and artist, writing in The Birds of America. Audubon is remembered today for creating some of the most spectacular paintings of North American wildlife ever made, identifying 25 new species and a number of sub-species of birds and lending his name to the Audubon Society, an environmental organization dedicated to conservation. His spotting of that noble bird one morning, though, left a blemish on his legacy, stirred up a years-long controversy among ornithologists, and led some people to brand him a liar or a nut. The bird has turned out to be unidentifiable and is rarely reliably reported in the wild.

The First Sighting

Audubon first saw one on a trip up the Mississippi River with a Canadian fur trader. Both were tired, cold, and miserable when an eagle flew overhead. The trader’s mood changed instantly.

"How fortunate!" he said. “This is what I could have wished. Look, sir! The Great Eagle, and the only one I have seen since I left the [Great] Lakes.”

Audubon leapt to his feet and watched the bird for a few minutes as it circled over their heads. It resembled an immature bald eagle, but he couldn’t identify it and decided it was a species new to him, if not everyone. The fur trader explained that the huge, brown birds were rare, and sometimes followed hunters and trappers in the north to scavenge what they could from a kill. They were also formidable hunters in their own right, diving into the Great Lakes to retrieve fish in their beaks. The behavior didn’t sound like that of either known North American eagle—the bald eagle, Haliaeetus leucocephalus, and the golden eagle, Aquila chrysaetos—and Audubon was convinced that the bird was an undiscovered species.

A few years later, he had another encounter with the mystery bird. He was in Kentucky visiting a friend, and walking along a path near a shack where they had slaughtered a hog a few days before.

“I saw an Eagle rise from a small enclosure not a hundred yards before me…and alight upon a low tree branching over the road,” wrote Audubon in Birds of America. “I prepared my double-barreled piece, which I constantly carry, and went slowly and cautiously towards him. Quite fearlessly he awaited my approach, looking upon me with undaunted eye. I fired and he fell.”

He and his friend examined the bird and acknowledged that neither of them knew what it was. They collected the corpse and brought it back to the house for further study. Audubon made a biological description and a life-size painting of what he dubbed Falco washingtonii, the bird of Washington or Washington’s eagle, in honor of America’s first president. He said of the connection between the two, “He was brave, so is the Eagle; like it, too, he was the terror of his foes; and his fame, extending from pole to pole, resembles the majestic soarings of the mightiest of the feathered tribe. If America has reason to be proud of her Washington, so has she to be proud of her great Eagle.”

According to Audubon’s description and depiction of the bird, it stood 3 feet, 7 inches tall and had a wingspan of 10 feet, 2 inches, making it far bigger than any known North American raptor. Given its size and a few other physical distinctions—among them a uniform scaling on its tarsi (the lower parts of a bird’s legs)—biologists accepted Audubon’s discovery as a legitimate new species and additional sightings, especially in the Great Lakes region, were reported in scientific journals for years after.

Not A New Species, After All

Soon, though, the tone around Washington’s eagle began to change. In the later years of Audubon’s life, other naturalists began to question whether the bird was really a distinct species. He was accused of taking sloppy measurements of his specimen and overstating the physical differences between his bird and other species. Washington’s eagle, as a species, was quickly discredited among scientists, the consensus being that the bird was either a misidentified bald eagle or a hoax and publicity stunt. Just a few years after Audubon’s death in 1851, the journal American Naturalist called it a valid species only among “amateur ornithologists.”

What did Audubon see, shoot and make such a big deal out of? Most of his critics suspected it was an exceptionally large northern bald eagle, which are all brown before they reach maturity and lack the distinctive white head the bird is known for. It’s possible that Audubon misidentified it because he was unfamiliar with the species’ development, but he wrote about plenty of encounters with both mature and immature bald eagles and should have been familiar with their changing appearance, and known one when he saw one. There’s also the nagging matter of his eagle’s size and tarsal scaling.

If Audubon really did discover an unknown giant North American eagle, science might never be able to confirm it. Ornithologists haven’t reported seeing anything like it in all their years studying raptors since, and reports from the public have turned out to be misidentifications. Only a handful of the birds were ever said to be captured, killed and preserved during Audubon’s day, and everyone one of those supposed specimens is long gone. One that was sent to the Linnean Society of London for safekeeping was auctioned off and its location is unknown. One at the Peale Museum in Philadelphia was destroyed in a fire. The ones at the New England Museum, the Cleveland Academy of Science and Museum of Natural History in Boston have all been lost and possibly destroyed. Even the specimen that Audubon painted is missing in action. Without a live or stuffed specimen matching Audubon’s description on which to run a DNA analysis, Washington’s eagle remains something of an avian Bigfoot, and maybe just an idea for the birds.

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Pigeons Are Secretly Brilliant Birds That Understand Space and Time, Study Finds
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Of all the birds in the world, the pigeon draws the most ire. Despite their reputation as brainless “rats with wings,” though, they’re actually pretty brilliant (and beautiful) animals. A new study adds more evidence that the family of birds known as pigeons are some of the smartest birds around, as Quartz alerts us.

In addition to being able to distinguish English vocabulary from nonsense words, spot cancer, and tell a Monet from a Picasso, pigeons can understand abstract concepts like space and time, according to the new study published in Current Biology. Their brains just do it in a slightly different way than humans’ do.

Researchers at the University of Iowa set up an experiment where they showed pigeons a computer screen featuring a static horizontal line. The birds were supposed to evaluate the length of the line (either 6 centimeters or 24 centimeters) or the amount of time they saw it (either 2 or 8 seconds). The birds perceived "the longer lines to have longer duration, and lines longer in duration to also be longer in length," according to a press release. This suggests that the concepts are processed in the same region of the brain—as they are in the brains of humans and other primates.

But that abstract thinking doesn’t occur in the same way in bird brains as it does in ours. In humans, perceiving space and time is linked to a region of the brain called the parietal cortex, which the pigeon brains lack entirely. So their brains have to have some other way of processing the concepts.

The study didn’t determine how, exactly, pigeons achieve this cognitive feat, but it’s clear that some other aspect of the central nervous system must be controlling it. That also opens up the possibility that other non-mammal animals can perceive space and time, too, expanding how we think of other animals’ cognitive capabilities.

[h/t Quartz]

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10 Fun Facts About Pelicans
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Here’s a scoop for you: Pelicans are awesome. They’ve got interesting feet, spectacular hunting habits, and throat pouches that can trap a lot more than fish. Here are 10 things you might not have known about these eccentric birds.

1. THE PELICAN FAMILY IS AT LEAST 30 MILLION YEARS OLD.

The earliest pelican fossil on record is a 30-million-year-old skull that was found in the Oligocene deposits of France. Paleontologists have also uncovered younger material from places like Germany, India, Kenya, Peru, Australia, and North Carolina. Today, there are eight living species and you can find some combination of them dwelling on every continent except Antarctica.

The question of where pelicans fit on the avian family tree has been debated for centuries, though genetic evidence now suggests that their closest extant relatives are the bizarre-looking shoebill and a wading bird known as the hamerkop.

2. THEY DON'T STORE FOOD IN THE POUCH ON THEIR BILLS.

The large, fibrous skin pouch that dangles from a pelican's bill is called the gular pouch (or, occasionally, the gular sac). Many people mistakenly believe it’s used to store food, like a built-in lunch box. The idea was popularized by a limerick of unknown authorship:

“A wonderful bird is the pelican.
His beak can hold more than his belly can.
He can hold in his beak enough food for a week.
But I’ll be damned if I can see how the helican."

While the rhyme is amusing, it isn’t accurate. In reality, pelicans use their gular pouches as a means of capturing food—not as a place to keep it tucked away for extended periods. The highly-flexible sacs can expand or contract, and the lower jaw bones they’re connected to are capable of bowing outwards, which enables the birds to use their sacs as fishing nets. Once a pelican captures its prey, the bird drains any water it may have accidentally captured with it by tilting its head and contracting those pouch muscles. (Fun fact: Some species can hold three gallons’ worth of liquid in their gular sacs.) Usually, the prey is swallowed immediately after the water purge.

3. PELICANS DON’T JUST EAT FISH.

In 2006, Londoners were shocked when a pigeon was swallowed whole by a great white pelican in front of some horrified kids at St. James's Park. Attacks like that aren’t unusual: Although pelicans specialize in eating fish, they also prey on crustaceans, amphibians, turtles, and—yes—other birds. If it can fit down their throats, it’s fair game.

4. TWO SPECIES PLUNGE-DIVE FOR FOOD.

The brown pelican is a keen-eyed predator that can spot a fish swimming under the ocean’s surface even while flying 60 feet above. Its bigger cousin, the Peruvian pelican, also has great vision. Once a target has been spotted from above, the pelicans plunge into the sea bill-first at high speeds—and often from a height of several stories. When they collide with the prey, the impact force usually stuns the victim and it’s then scooped up in the gular pouch.

It’s a dangerous stunt, but pelicans have numerous adaptations that keep them from injuring themselves when they smack into the water. To keep their neck vertebrae from getting broken, they stiffen the surrounding muscles as they dive; by throwing their wings straight backwards, pelicans can avoid fracturing any of the bones in the appendages on the unforgiving waves. Air sacs under the skin around their neck and breast area inflate before the bird hits the water’s surface, and the gular pouch behaves like an air bag: the instant a bird’s jaws are thrown open under the water, its forward momentum is slowed. Good form takes practice. Young brown and Peruvian pelicans struggle with their marksmanship at first, but over time, they get better at successfully dive-bombing fish.

5. SOME HUNT IN GROUPS.

Most pelicans don't dive bomb their prey; they scoop it up while treading along on the water’s surface. To increase their chances of success, the birds occasionally form hunting parties, gathering in a U-shape and beating their wings on the water to corral fish into a tight cluster—or drive them into the shallows.

6. THE AMERICAN WHITE PELICAN GROWS A TEMPORARY “HORN.”

An impressive bird indigenous to North America, this pelican stands around 4 feet tall and sports a 9-foot wingspan. Every year, something weird happens to the adults. Breeding season for American white pelicans lasts from late March to early May. When it arrives, a broad, flat, yellow or orange “horn” appears on the upper bills of sexually mature birds (both male and female). At some point in May, the fibrous structures fall off, to be replaced with brand new ones the following season.

7. ALL FOUR OF A PELICAN'S TOES ARE UNITED BY WEBBING.

Water birds tend to have four toes on each foot along with some degree of webbing. But in geese and ducks, the webbing is only present between the three toes that point forward. None is connected to the fourth toe, which—in the aforementioned species—is small and oriented in the opposite direction. Pelicans are different. They have totipalmate feet, which means that on each foot, there’s webbing that connects all four toes. Other birds with this kind of arrangement include cormorants, gannets, and boobies.

8. THEY PLAYED A SURPRISING ROLE IN THE HISTORY OF CHRISTIAN ART.

In medieval Europe, it was believed that whenever food grew scarce, mother pelicans would intentionally stab themselves on the breast with their beaks and then use the blood to feed their chicks. It's a noble idea, but it's a myth that probably has something to do with the gular pouches of Dalmatian pelicans, which turn an orang-reddish color during the breeding season. Maybe an onlooker saw one preening and got the wrong idea. Regardless, the myth of bloodletting pelicans struck a chord with Christian artists, who compared the gesture to the sacrifice Jesus made on humanity’s behalf. Thus, the motif became widespread in Europe during the late medieval and early Renaissance periods. A 1611 edition of the King James Bible featured the image of a breast-piercing pelican. The symbol also appears in a 1575 portrait of Queen Elizabeth I.

9. THEY'RE MOUTH-BREATHERS.

As this video from Ohio University explains, pelicans technically have nasal openings. However, in all eight species, the nostrils are sealed off, buried under the beak’s horny sheath. This doesn’t mean that the cavities are functionless, though: The hidden nostrils house special glands which remove excess salt from the blood stream. Since pelicans and other maritime birds ingest sea water to survive, this trait is a real life-saver. Because their nostrils are walled-off and clogged up by desalinizing glands, it should come as no surprise that pelicans predominantly breathe through their mouths.

10. BROWN PELICANS HAVE MADE A REMARKABLE COMEBACK OVER THE PAST 50 YEARS.

The insecticide known as DDT, which rose to prominence during the 1950s and 1960s, infested whole food chains. After it was sprayed on crops, it was consumed by earthworms, and run-off ensured fish got a dose, too. In turn, these animals were transferring the substance to the various birds that ate them. Although DDT didn’t kill many avians directly, it did have a knack for weakening their egg shells. As a result, the populations of many beloved species—including bald eagles, peregrine falcons, and brown pelicans—took a hit, and the brown pelican all but vanished in vast swaths of the country.

A 1938 census had counted 5000 breeding pairs of brown pelicans in Louisiana. But in 1963, not a single brown pelican sighting was recorded within the state. Texas birders observed similar declines. While early declines were caused by hunters and fishermen, these later declines were pinned on industrial pollutants and insecticides like DDT. Then, a badly-needed break came when public outrage drove the Environmental Protection Agency to ban DDT in 1972. Since that time, the brown pelican has reversed its once-gloomy fortunes. Reintroduction campaigns helped the birds bounce back in Louisiana, Texas, and elsewhere. The brown pelican was listed as endangered in 1970, but in 1985, brown pelicans in a few southern states were removed from the list. Then in 2009, the species was taken off the list entirely.

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