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.

14 Cute Facts About Rabbits

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Rabbits are much more than the cute, carrot-munching creatures pop culture makes them out to be. They can dig sophisticated tunnels, grow to weigh up to 22 pounds, and even eat their own poop. Here are some more facts worth knowing about the beloved mammals.

1. THEY CAN’T LIVE OFF CARROTS.

Rabbit eating carrots.
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Cartoons suggest that rabbits can happily survive on a diet of carrots alone. But in the wild, rabbits don’t eat root vegetables—they’d much rather munch on greens like weeds, grasses, and clovers. That doesn’t mean you can’t give your pet some carrots as a snack from time to time, but don’t overdo it: Carrots are high in sugar and contribute to tooth decay in 11 percent of pet bunnies.

2. SOME ARE TODDLER-SIZED.

Flemish giant rabbit.
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Not all rabbits are cute and tiny. Some, like the Flemish giant rabbit, grow to be downright monstrous. This rabbit breed is the world's largest, reaching 2.5 feet in length and weighing up to 22 pounds. Fortunately these giants are the gentle kind, which makes them popular pets.

3. BABY RABBITS ARE CALLED KITTENS.

Baby bunny in field.
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Nope, not bunnies, technically. Another word for the young is kits. Mature females are known as does while adult males are called bucks. "Bunny," meanwhile, falls into the same category of cutesy terms as "kitty" and "doggy"—they're not scientific, but everyone will know what you mean.

4. THERE'S SOME TRUTH TO THE PHRASE "BREED LIKE RABBITS."

Two rabbits outside.
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Rabbits really are a busy bunch. A rabbit is ready to start breeding at just 3 to 8 months old. Once they reach that point, they can copulate eight months out of the year every year for the rest of their 9- to 12-year lifespan. A doe's reproductive system doesn't follow cycles; instead, ovulation is triggered by intercourse. After a 30-day gestation period she'll give birth to a litter of about four to 12 kits.

5. THEY "BINKY" WHEN THEY'RE HAPPY.

Rabbit hopping outdoors.
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If you spend enough time around rabbits, you may be lucky enough to witness one of the cutest behaviors in nature. A bunny will hop when it's happy and do a twist in mid-air. This adorable action has an equally adorable name: It's called a "binky."

6. THEY EAT THEIR OWN POOP.

Cute rabbit indoors.
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This behavior, on the other hand, is significantly less adorable. After digesting a meal, rabbits will sometimes eat their poop and process it a second time. It may seem gross, but droppings are actually an essential part of a rabbit's diet: They even produce a special type of poop called cecotropes that are softer than their normal pellets and meant to be eaten. Rabbits have a fast-moving digestive system, and by re-digesting waste, they're able to absorb nutrients their bodies missed the first time around.

7. THEY GROOM THEMSELVES LIKE CATS.

Rabbit grooming itself.
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Rabbits are remarkably hygienic. Like cats, they keep themselves clean throughout the day by licking their fur and paws. This means rabbits generally don't need to be bathed by their owners like some other pets.

8. THEY CAN'T VOMIT.

Rabbit eating grass in a field.
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While a cat can cough up a hairball after a long day of self-grooming, a rabbit cannot. The rabbit digestive system is physically incapable of moving in reverse. Instead of producing hairballs, rabbits deal with swallowed fur by eating plenty of roughage that pushes it through their digestive tract.

9. THEY CAN SEE BEHIND THEM.

Rabbit in a field.
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It's hard to sneak up on a rabbit: Their vision covers nearly 360 degrees, which allows them to see what's coming from behind them, above them, and from the sides without turning their heads. The trade-off is that rabbits have a small blind spot directly in front of their faces.

10. THEY ARE REALLY GOOD JUMPERS.

Rabbit hopping.
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Those impressive back legs aren't just for show. Rabbits are built for evading predators in a hurry, and according to Guinness World Records, the highest rabbit jump reached 3.26 feet off the ground and the farthest reached nearly 10 feet. There are even rabbit jumping competitions where owners can show off their pets' agility.

11. THEIR TEETH NEVER STOP GROWING.

Rabbit chewing leaves.
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Like human fingernails, a rabbit's teeth will keep growing if given the chance. A rabbit's diet in the wild includes a lot of gritty, tough-to-chew plant food that would eventually wear down a permanent set of teeth. With chompers that grow at a rate of up to 5 inches a year, any damage that's done to their teeth is quickly compensated for. The flip-side is that domestic rabbits who aren't fed abrasive foods can suffer from overgrown teeth that prevent them from eating.

12. THEY LIVE IN ELABORATE TUNNELS CALLED WARRENS.

Rabbit butt sticking out of burrow.
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Rabbits don't end up in Wonderland when they go down the rabbit hole, but the place where they live is more complicated than you might expect. Rabbits dig complex tunnel systems, called warrens, that connect special rooms reserved for things like nesting and sleeping. The dens have multiple entrances that allow the animals to escape in a pinch, and some warrens are as large as tennis courts and extend 10 feet below the surface.

13. THEIR EARS HELP THEM STAY COOL.

Rabbit walking toward camera.
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A rabbit's ears serve two main purposes. The first and most obvious is hearing: Rabbits can rotate their ears 270 degrees, allowing them to detect any threats that might be approaching from close to two miles away. The oversized ears also have the added benefit of cooling rabbits down on a hot day. More surface area means more places for body heat to escape from.

14. THEY'RE HARD TO CATCH.

Rabbit running outdoors.
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If their eyes, ears, and powerful legs don't give them enough of a head start when avoiding predators, rabbits have even more tricks to rely on. The cottontail rabbit moves in a zig-zag pattern when running across an open field, making it hard to target. It also reaches a top speed of 18 mph—they really are "wascally wabbits."

Ice Age Wolf Pup and Caribou Mummies Discovered in Yukon

Government of Yukon
Government of Yukon

Officials in Canada recently announced that gold miners in Yukon territory unearthed a mummified wolf pup and caribou calf, both of which roamed the continent during the Ice Age, CBC News reports. The specimens were found preserved in permafrost in Dawson City in 2016, and researchers used carbon dating to determine that the animals are more than 50,000 years old.

While fossils from this period often turn up in the Yukon, fully intact carcasses are a lot rarer, Yukon government paleontologist Grant Zazula told CBC News. “To our knowledge, this is the only mummified Ice Age wolf ever found in the world,” Zazula said.

The caribou calf carcass—which includes the head, torso, and front limbs—still has its skin, muscle, and hair intact. It was found in an area that contains 80,000-year-old volcanic ash. Observed in a similar condition, the wolf pup still has its head, tail, paws, skin, and hair.

A caribou calf
Government of Yukon

Close-up view of the wolf club
Government of Yukon

These findings also hold special significance for the Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in First Nation, an indigenous group in the Yukon. “The caribou has fed and clothed our people for thousands of years,” Tr’ondëk Hwëch’in Chief Roberta Joseph said in a statement. “The wolf maintains balance within the natural world, keeping the caribou healthy. These were an amazing find, and it’s a great opportunity to work collaboratively with the Government of Yukon and our community partners.”

The Canadian Conservation Institute will be tasked with preserving the animal specimens, and the findings will be displayed in Dawson City until the end of the month. They will later be added to an exhibit at the Yukon Beringia Interpretive Centre in Whitehorse.

[h/t CBC]

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