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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.

A Bassian thrush stands in a field

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.

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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.

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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.

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The Real Bay of Pigs: Big Major Cay in the Bahamas
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When most people visit the Bahamas, they’re thinking about a vacation filled with sun, sand, and swimming—not swine. But you can get all four of those things if you visit Big Major Cay.

Big Major Cay, also now known as “Pig Island” for obvious reasons, is part of the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Exuma includes private islands owned by Johnny Depp, Tyler Perry, Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, and David Copperfield. Despite all of the local star power, the real attraction seems to be the family of feral pigs that has established Big Major Cay as their own. It’s hard to say how many are there—some reports say it’s a family of eight, while others say the numbers are up to 40. However big the band of roaming pigs is, none of them are shy: Their chief means of survival seems to be to swim right up to boats and beg for food, which the charmed tourists are happy to provide (although there are guidelines about the best way of feeding the pigs).

No one knows exactly how the pigs got there, but there are plenty of theories. Among them: 1) A nearby resort purposely released them more than a decade ago, hoping to attract tourists. 2) Sailors dropped them off on the island, intending to dine on pork once they were able to dock for a longer of period of time. For one reason or another, the sailors never returned. 3) They’re descendants of domesticated pigs from a nearby island. When residents complained about the original domesticated pigs, their owners solved the problem by dropping them off at Big Major Cay, which was uninhabited. 4) The pigs survived a shipwreck. The ship’s passengers did not.

The purposeful tourist trap theory is probably the least likely—VICE reports that the James Bond movie Thunderball was shot on a neighboring island in the 1960s, and the swimming swine were there then.

Though multiple articles reference how “adorable” the pigs are, don’t be fooled. One captain warns, “They’ll eat anything and everything—including fingers.”

Here they are in action in a video from National Geographic:

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13 Secrets From the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London
Christine Colby
Christine Colby

Christopher Skaife is a Yeoman Warder at the Tower of London, an ancient fortress that has been used as a jail, royal residence, and more. There are 37 Yeoman Warders, popularly known as Beefeaters, but Skaife has what might be the coolest title of them all: He is the Ravenmaster. His job is to maintain the health and safety of the flock of ravens (also called an “unkindness” or a “conspiracy”) that live within the Tower walls. According to a foreboding legend with many variations, if there aren’t at least six ravens living within the Tower, both the Tower and the monarchy will fall. (No pressure, Chris!)

Skaife has worked at the Tower for 11 years, and has many stories to tell. Recently, Mental Floss visited him to learn more about his life in service of the ravens.

1. MILITARY SERVICE IS REQUIRED.

All Yeoman Warders must have at least 22 years of military service to qualify for the position and have earned a good-conduct medal. Skaife served for 24 years—he was a machine-gun specialist and is an expert in survival and interrogation resistance. He is also a qualified falconer.

Skaife started out as a regular Yeoman Warder who had no particular experience with birds. The Ravenmaster at the time "saw something in him," Skaife says, and introduced him to the ravens, who apparently liked him—and the rest is history. He did, however, have to complete a five-year apprenticeship with the previous Ravenmaster.

2. HE LIVES ON-SITE.

The Tower of London photographed at night
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As tradition going back 700 years, all Yeoman Warders and their families live within the Tower walls. Right now about 150 people, including a doctor and a chaplain, claim the Tower of London as their home address.

3. BUT HE’S HAD TO MOVE.

Skaife used to live next to the Bloody Tower, but had to move to a different apartment within the grounds because his first one was “too haunted.” He doesn’t really believe in ghosts, he says, but does put stock in “echoes of the past.” He once spoke to a little girl who was sitting near the raven cages, and when he turned around, she had disappeared. He also claims that things in his apartment inexplicably move around, particularly Christmas-related items.

4. THE RAVENS ENJOY SOME UNUSUAL SNACKS.

The Ravenmaster at the Tower of London bending down to feed one of his ravens
Christine Colby

The birds are fed nuts, berries, fruit, mice, rats, chicken, and blood-soaked biscuits. (“And what they nick off the tourists,” Skaife says.) He has also seen a raven attack and kill a pigeon in three minutes.

5. THEY GET A LULLABY.

Each evening, Skaife whistles a special tone to call the ravens to bed—they’re tucked into spacious, airy cages to protect them from predators such as foxes.

6. THERE’S A DIVA.

One of the ravens doesn’t join the others in their nighttime lodgings. Merlina, the star raven, is a bit friendlier to humans but doesn’t get on with the rest of the birds. She has her own private box inside the Queen’s House, which she reaches by climbing a tiny ladder.

7. ONE OF THEM HAS EARNED THE NICKNAME “THE BLACK WIDOW.”

Ravens normally pair off for life, but one of the birds at the Tower, Munin, has managed to get her first two mates killed. With both, she lured them high atop the White Tower, higher than they were capable of flying down from, since their wings are kept trimmed. Husband #1 fell to his death. The second one had better luck coasting down on his wings, but went too far and fell into the Thames, where he drowned. Munin is now partnered with a much younger male.

8. THERE IS A SECRET PUB INSIDE THE TOWER.

Only the Yeoman Warders, their families, and invited guests can go inside a secret pub on the Tower grounds. Naturally, the Yeoman Warder’s Club offers Beefeater Bitter beer and Beefeater gin. It’s lavishly decorated in police and military memorabilia, such as patches from U.S. police departments. There is also an area by the bar where a section of the wall has been dug into and encased in glass, showing items found in an archaeological excavation of the moat, such as soldiers’ discarded clay pipes, a cannonball, and some mouse skeletons.

9. … AND A SECRET HAND.

The Byward Tower, which was built in the 13th century by King Henry III, is now used as the main entrance to the Tower for visitors. It has a secret glass brick set into the wall that most people don’t notice. When you peer inside, you’ll see it contains a human hand (presumably fake). It was put in there at some point as a bit of a joke to scare children, but ended up being walled in from the other side, so is now in there permanently.

10. HE HAS A SIDE PROJECT.

Skaife considers himself primarily a storyteller, and loves sharing tales of what he calls “Victorian melodrama.” In addition to his work at the Tower, he also runs Grave Matters, a Facebook page and a blog, as a collaboration with medical historian and writer Dr. Lindsey Fitzharris. Together they post about the history of executions, torture, and punishment.

11. THE TOWER IS MUPPET-FAMOUS.

2013’s Muppets Most Wanted was the first major film to shoot inside the Tower walls. At the Yeoman Warder’s Club, you can still sit in the same booth the Muppets occupied while they were in the pub.

12. IF YOU VISIT, KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR MONEY.

Ravens are very clever and known for stealing things from tourists, especially coins. They will strut around with the coin in their beak and then bury it, while trying to hide the site from the other birds.

13. … AND ON YOUR EYES.

Skaife, who’s covered in scars from raven bites, says, “They don’t like humans at all unless they’re dying or dead. Although they do love eyes.” He once had a Twitter follower, who is an organ donor, offer his eyes to the ravens after his death. Skaife declined.

This story first ran in 2015.

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