25 Things You Might Not Know About the Birds in Your Backyard

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Humans are very preoccupied with flight. We've spent decades and billions of dollars refining air travel; we often dream about flying without the aid of technology. It's little wonder many of us find ourselves fascinated with birds, who make the act seem so effortless. In honor of National Bird Day January 5, we thought we'd take a closer look at some facts behind our avian friends.  

1. THEY HAVE A CURIOUS DESIRE TO COVER THEMSELVES IN ANTS.

A Northern cardinal sits on a branch
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While we know a lot about birds, we don’t always understand their motivations. One example: “anting,” or the practice of covering themselves in living or dead ants. Cardinals are prone to the practice, allowing ants to crawl around their bodies or stuffing ant corpses into their feathers. One theory is that the formic acid secreted by the insects helps rid birds of lice; ants may also help clean up dried oils left over from preening. If ants aren't handy, birds have also been known to use cigarette butts, beetles, and coffee.

2. SOME HUMMINGBIRDS WEIGH LESS THAN A PENNY.

A bee hummingbird hovers in the air
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Most people realize hummingbirds are pretty slight of stature: Their tiny bodies allow them to take flight quickly. While there are over 300 types of hummingbirds, the smallest species, the Bee hummingbird, weighs in at just 2 grams—.5 grams less than a U.S. penny.  

3. WOODPECKERS PECK WITH PURPOSE.

A red-bellied woodpecker sticks its head out of a tree
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Contrary to what cartoons may have taught you, woodpeckers don’t drill into trees for the sole purpose of annoying humans. Acorn woodpeckers use their beaks to hollow out wood structures so they can store acorns, almonds, hazelnuts, and other sustenance.

4. THEY’LL ATTACK THEIR REFLECTION.

A robin attacks its own reflection
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Birds have been known to tap on residential windows. It’s not to get your attention: Many migratory birds looking to put down roots for the warmer months get territorial. When they see themselves reflected in a window, they can mistake it for a rival bird and begin pecking. Some homeowners put up anti-reflective material to prevent birds from pestering themselves.

5. PIGEONS ARE ART CRITICS.

Two pigeons stand near one another
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Several studies have looked at whether pigeons can differentiate between the distinct visual stimuli found in paintings. In one study, the birds were presented with “good” and “bad” children’s artwork. Positive reinforcement was used when the birds pecked at the “good” artworks and could later identify previously-unseen paintings that met a human standard for quality. Another study found that pigeons could tell a Picasso from a Monet. Researchers believe the birds can use color and pattern cues to tell two images apart. 

6. THEY CAN NAP IN MID-AIR.

Frigatebirds fly through the air
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Some birds take very long commutes during migrating season—and like human travelers, they’re able to nap in mid-air. For a study published in Nature Communications, researchers attached a brain-wave activity sensor to frigatebirds and noted the birds spent some time asleep while "cruising" in higher air currents and altitudes.

7. THERE’S A REASON THEIR POOP IS WHITE.

Bird waste splatters on a car hood
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The creamy white splatter on your windshield is a result of a bird’s hyper-efficient waste system. Rather than have separate intestinal and urinary tracts, birds eliminate their waste from their cloaca, a catch-all orifice that allows for reproductive sex and egg-laying. The white is actually uric acid, which tinges the elimination white. The small brown center represents stool. 

8. BASSIAN THRUSHES USE FARTS TO HUNT PREY.

Birds may not find toots as funny as humans do, but they still make use of them. The Australian Bassian thrush farts toward the ground, with the noxious smell helping to unearth worms and other insect prey.

9. CANYON WRENS BUILD PATIOS FOR THEIR NESTS.

A canyon wren is seen in profile
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The canyon wren isn’t always satisfied with a nest made of foraged materials. Like a little home improvement host, the wren will use rocks to build a tiny, patio-like surface around the nest. Researchers aren’t entirely sure why they do this, but it may have something to do with keeping nests dry or attracting the opposite sex.

10. THEY COULD BE COMPETITIVE EATERS.

A Baltimore oriole is perched on a branch
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Your backyard may be home to a mini Nathan’s competitive eating contest every single day. Many species of birds chow down on an impressive number of insects, with the Baltimore oriole able to munch 17 caterpillars a minute; a house wren can pass on 500 spiders to its offspring in a single afternoon.

11. HUMMINGBIRDS CAN’T WALK.

A hummingbird looks up into the sky
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There are some compromises that have to be made when you’re a bird that can fly backwards. To reduce drag, hummingbirds have very tiny and non-locomoting feet. Their legs allow them to perch and shuffle sideways a bit, but they’re not designed for long walks.

12. NOT ALL BEAKS ARE CREATED EQUAL.

A male hawfinch sports a distinctive beak
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A bird’s beak will vary depending on what nature has instructed it to do. Cone-shaped beaks are perfect for cracking nuts and seeds; a hummingbird’s long bill is ideal for sipping nectar. Birds of prey often have hooked beaks that are perfect for tearing into flesh and causing fatal wounds to the neck of their next meal.

13. LITTLE BLUE HERONS HAVE A BUILT-IN GROOMING COMB.

A little blue heron is seen in profile
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Whether you consider the heron a backyard bird or not may depend on whether you have a pond, but if you spot one of these fish-chompers, try to take note of their middle toe: it has a serrated edge to it that the heron uses to groom and scratch itself.

14. CROWS CAN RECOGNIZE FACES.

A crow sits on a porch railing
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If you think your local murder of crows is out to get you, it may not be paranoia. Research conducted at the University of Washington in 2008 demonstrated that the bird is able to recognize faces and hold a grudge when provoked. In the study, scientists donned a caveman mask and then trapped crows (humanely, of course) before banding and setting them free. When the researchers walked the campus in the mask, the crows circled and vocally scolded their suspected captor.

15. KILLDEER FAKE INJURIES TO FOOL PREDATORS.

A killdeer stands in the middle of a field
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The killdeer, which is found across North America, is the avian equivalent of a scam artist in a neck brace. The species will feign being injured or crippled in order to lure predators toward them and away from their nest of offspring. When the predator gets close enough, the killdeer miraculously “recovers” and beats a hasty retreat.

16. BLUE JAYS ARE HELPING RESTORE OAK TREES.

A blue jay perches itself and cocks its head
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The vibrant blue birds are so fond of burying acorns and other nuts that the species is being credited with an uptick of oak trees sprouting in North America. When they’re not busy being conservationists, they don’t mind if you leave a few peanuts out: They can crack the shell by holding it steady with their feet.

17. NORTHERN CARDINALS ARE EARLY RISERS.

A northern cardinal sits on a branch
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These bright red birds don’t let much of the day go to waste: People with residential bird feeders report that the northern cardinal is the first bird up in the morning and one of the last to disappear at night. They rarely get the worm, though: These birds prefer seeds.

18. THERE’S A REASON THEY DON’T FALL OFF BRANCHES WHILE SLEEPING.

A papuan frogmouth naps in the trees
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Most birds not only sleep standing up, they do it while perched on a thin tree branch. Why don’t they fall off? The flexor tendons in their legs make an involuntary contraction when they settle in, keeping their feet locked in place during sleep.

19. BLUE JAYS CAN MIMIC THE SOUND OF A HAWK.

A blue jay sings while sitting in a tree
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The vocal ability of birds is renowned, particularly the elocution of parrots. But the more pervasive blue jay has a pretty good parlor trick: It can mimic the sound of a red-shouldered hawk. In addition to terrifying humans, the noise may help to scare off fretful birds from their territory.

20. BLUE JAYS AREN’T ACTUALLY BLUE.

A blue jay arrives for a drink
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Their name is a bit of a misnomer. A blue jay’s feathers are actually brown. But thanks to light scattering, jays and other blue-tinged birds will give off the appearance of being bolder in color. Blue light doesn’t pass through the structure of the feather—it’s reflected. It only works one way, though, so if you turn a feather around, you’ll see its natural brown color.

21. ROBINS HAVE A SWEET TOOTH.

A robin stands in a field
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Worms make up the majority of their diet, but robins don’t mind if you leave out a dessert tray. The birds are partial to pastry dough, fruit cake, and coconut cake.

22. THEY KNOW HOW TO COOL OFF.

A red-bellied woodpecker spreads its wings
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In warmer climates, birds beat the heat by spreading their wings and allowing for better air circulation. They’ll also flutter their neck muscles—called gular fluttering—to expel body heat.

23. SOME OF THEM USE TOOLS.

A brown-headed nuthatch perches on a branch
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In a sure sign that Birdemic may one day be considered a documentary, some species of birds have been shown to use tools in order to make their lives easier. In North America, the brown-headed nuthatch will take a piece of tree bark and use it to pry off other bark in search of insects. American robins will use twigs to sweep aside leaves for the same purpose.

24. HUMMINGBIRDS ARE ALWAYS STARVING.

A ruby-throated hummingbird feeds on bottle brush
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With fierce metabolisms brought on by constant movement, hummingbirds are always in search of nourishment—they require so much of it, in fact, that they’re perpetually a few hours away from starving to death. Ruby-throated hummingbirds will eat up to three times their body weight a day.  

25. THEY’LL NEVER BE MOVIE STARS.

A bluethroat sings in a field
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American migratory bird species are hardly ever depicted in movies thanks to the Migratory Bird Treaty Act that prevents domestic birds from being bought or sold for commercial purposes. If you spot a backyard bird in film or on a show, it’s either an imported species or a computer effect. To see a jaybird, you’ll have to turn off the TV and look out a window.

Photographer's Up-Close Images of Animal Eyes Will Have You Seeing Wildlife in a Whole New Way

A parrot eye
A parrot eye
Suren Manvelyan

Few people ever get close enough to a hippo, hyena, or crocodile to snap a photo of one, let alone get a detailed shot of their eyes. Yet that is exactly what theoretical physicist-turned-photographer Suren Manvelyan, of Armenia, has done. His macro photography series of animal eyes, spotted by My Modern Met, offers a rare look at the animal world, amplified.

Some of Manvelyan's eye photos—like that of the camel, which has three eyelids—look like strange landscapes on some distant, alien planet. The smallest details have been captured in his photos, from the kaleidoscopic irises of the chinchilla and chimpanzee to the shimmery edges of a raven's eye. If the photos weren't labeled, it might be difficult to tell what you were looking at.

"It is very beautiful and astounding," Manvelyan told Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty. "The surface resembles the surface of other planets, with craters, rivers, and valleys. It looks like something from another world. Every time I photograph the eye, I feel myself traveling through the cosmos."

Manvelyan keeps his photography techniques secret, but he says he sometimes spends an hour with an animal just waiting to capture the right moment. To date, he has photographed both domestic animals (like a husky dog and Siamese cat) as well as exotic ones (including a variety of tropical birds and lizards). Check out some of his shots below, and visit his website to see more photos from this series.

Eye of a caiman lizard
A caiman lizard's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A camel's eye
A camel's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chinchilla eye
A chinchilla's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A raven's eye
A raven's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A husky dog's eye
A husky dog's eye
Suren Manvelyan

A horse eye
A horse eye
Suren Manvelyan

A chimpanzee eye
Eye of a chimpanzee
Suren Manvelyan

A tokay gecko's eye
A tokay gecko's eye
Suren Manvelyan

[h/t My Modern Met]

11 Lesser-Known Animal Phobias

iStock.com/Scacciamosche
iStock.com/Scacciamosche

He’s dealt with elaborate booby traps, KGB agents, and a face-melting artifact, but to Indiana Jones, nothing’s more unsettling than snakes. Many people can relate. Ophidiophobia—or “the persistent and irrational fear of snakes”—affects roughly 1 to 5 percent of the global population. So does the clinical fear of spiders, also known as arachnophobia. But did you know that some people feel just as uncomfortable around chickens? From puppy-induced panic to equine terror, here are 11 lesser-known animal phobias.

1. Lepidopterophobia

Academy Award-winner Nicole Kidman is unfazed by spiders or snakes, but she can’t escape her lepidopterophobia, or fear of butterflies. As a young girl, the Australian actress once scaled a fence just so she could avoid a butterfly perched nearby. “I jump out of planes, I could be covered in cockroaches, I do all sorts of things,” Kidman once said, “but I just don’t like the feel of butterflies’ bodies.” (The Independent reported that she tried to break her phobia by spending time in a museum butterfly cage. “It didn’t work,” the actress said.) Kidman and her fellow lepidopterophobes may refuse to leave windows open in the summertime, lest a stray monarch come fluttering into their home.

2. Batrachophobia

A giant river toad
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No, frogs can’t give you warts. That urban legend—and others like it—may explain some cases of batrachophobia, a deep-seated fear of amphibians, including frogs, toads, and salamanders. It’s thought that the condition might also be linked to an overarching disdain for slimy things. By the way, if you specifically don’t like toads, then you could have a case of what’s known as bufonophobia.

3. Entomophobia

Entomophobia is a family of fears related to insects that includes lepidopterophobia, the previously mentioned butterfly-related dread. Another phobia within this group is isopterophobia, the fear of wood-eating insects like termites. Then we have myrmecophobia (the fear of ants) and apiphobia (the fear of bees or bee stings). Of course we can’t leave out katsaridaphobia, or the debilitating fear of cockroaches. “Cockroaches tap into this sort of evolutionary aversion we have to greasy, smelly, slimy things,” Jeff Lockwood, an author and professor of natural sciences at the University of Wyoming, told the BBC. “Plus, they’re defiant little bastards.”

Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí was terrified of grasshoppers. “I am 37 years old,” he wrote in 1941, “and the fright which grasshoppers cause me has not diminished since adolescence ... If possible, I would say it has become greater.” He went on to say that if a grasshopper ever landed on him while he was standing “on the edge of a precipice,” he’d instinctively jump to his death.

4. Ornithophobia

Traumatic childhood experiences involving birds—like, say, getting chased by a goose—can give birth to a lifelong fear of feathered critters. For Lucille Ball, they always reminded her of her father's untimely death when she was just a toddler: As her mother was delivering the horrible news, a couple of sparrows gathered by the kitchen windowsill.

“I’ve been superstitious about birds ever since,” Ball wrote in her autobiography. “I don’t have a thing about live birds, but pictures of birds get me. I won’t buy anything with a print of a bird, and I won’t stay in a hotel room with bird pictures or any bird wallpaper.”

5. Ailurophobia

Tabby cat against a gray background
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Lucy van Pelt (sort of) mentions ailurophobia in A Charlie Brown Christmas, although she bungles the nomenclature and tells Charlie Brown, "If you’re afraid of cats, you have ailurophasia." (The -phasia suffix generally refers to speech disorders, such as aphasia.) That being said, the fear of cats is a phenomenon that goes by many names, including gatophobia and felinophobia.

Rumor has it that Napoleon Bonaparte and lots of other famous conquerors were terrified of kitties. In Bonaparte’s case, the allegations are probably false; according to historian Katharine MacDonogh, “No record exists of Napoleon either liking or hating cats.” She thinks this myth reflects the long-standing cultural belief that our feline friends wield supernatural insights. “Cats have been endowed with a magical ability to detect the overweening ambitions of dictators, many of whom have consequently been accused of ailurophobia on the flimsiest evidence,” MacDonogh wrote in her book Reigning Cats And Dogs: A History of Pets At Court Since The Renaissance.

6. Alektorophobia

Chickens, hens, and roosters put alektorophobes on edge. A rare type of ornithophobia, this fowl-based fear is no laughing matter. One 2018 case study reported on a 32-year-old man who would experience heart palpitations, a sudden dryness of the mouth, and uncomfortable feelings in his chest upon seeing a neighbor’s hen. It was ultimately determined that the man's phobia was the result of a frightening childhood encounter he’d had with a rooster.

7. Ostraconophobia

“I have a lobster phobia, I don’t know why. I just don’t like them,” NASCAR driver Denny Hamlin told the press in 2017. “I cannot eat dinner if someone beside me is eating lobster.” The admission came just after Hamlin had won the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series. Why did that matter? Because the event took place at the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, where race-winners are customarily rewarded with giant, live lobsters. But when somebody approached Hamlin with a 44-pounder, he tried to flee the stage. Ostraconophobia, or fear of shellfish, can also manifest itself as a fear of crabs or oysters. The majority of people who deal with this phobia develop it after getting sick from the shellfish that makes them feel uneasy.

8. Ichthyophobia

Piranha fish on black background
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Ichthyophobia is a bit of an umbrella term that covers an irrational disdain of fish in a variety of situations. It can refer to the fear of being around live fish, the fear of eating dead ones, or the fear of touching them. A common version of that first anxiety is galeophobia, the widespread fear of sharks. And then there are those who are disturbed (and sometimes even physically sickened) by the sight or smell of fishy entrees; these ichthyophobes may take pains to avoid supermarkets with large seafood aisles.

9. Musophobia

Among the British adults who participated in a 2017 phobia survey, more than 25 percent reported that they were afraid of mice. By comparison, only 24 percent said they dreaded sharp needles or airplanes. In addition to disliking mice, musophobes are often afraid of other rodents, such as hamsters and rats.

10. Equinophobia

Sigmund Freud once wrote a case study on a boy who was terrified of horses. At age 4, Herbert Graf—referred to as “Little Hans” in the paper—had seen an overloaded work horse crumble to the ground in a heap. Following the traumatic incident, Hans became easily spooked while in the presence of horses; just the sound of clopping hooves was enough to trigger his anxiety. As a result, Hans often refused to leave the house.

Little Hans eventually overcame his fears, but equinophobia is still with us today. Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry developed it after being bitten by a pony at a petting zoo when he was a child. Unfortunately for Berry, one of the Chiefs’s mascots is a live pinto horse named Warpaint. As former teammate Derrick Johnson told NFL Films, “He’s always watching for the horse, making sure the horse doesn’t look at him or do something crazy.” Berry has taken steps to overcome his horse phobia, though; in fact, he has even worked up the courage to (briefly) pet Warpaint.

11. Cynophobia

Pug wrapped in a pink blanket
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If you’re afraid of snakes, at least you’ll (probably) never have to worry about some coworker bringing his pet anaconda into the office. Cynophobes aren’t so lucky. Defined as the “fear of dogs,” cynophobia is an especially challenging animal phobia to have because, well, puppers are everywhere. Cynophobic people may go out of their way to avoid parks and tend to feel uncomfortable in neighborhoods where loud pooches reside.

As with ornithophobia, the fear of canines often stems from a traumatic childhood event. Therapists have found that, for many patients, the best way to overcome this aversion is through controlled exposure; spending quality time with a well-trained dog under a supervisor’s watchful eye can work wonders.

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