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15 Birds With Fancy Feathered Noggins

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Special crests, crowns, and plumes can be found on birds all over the world, and can be used for anything from mating to intimidation.

1. Andean Cock of the Rock

The national bird of Peru is an interesting animal, known for its frog-like croaking and mud cup nests. The females are a dark orange, but the males display vibrant orange feathers and a disc-like puff of plumage on their heads. They spend most of the day croaking and displaying their unusual hairdos in hopes of attracting a female. As their name suggests, you can find these birds in the cloud mountains of the Andes. 

2. Guinea turaco

This fun green bird—which is very social and lives in flocks with as many as 30 members—has a little fluffy crest that puffs up when it's excited. Guinea turaco birds are monogamous: During courtship, the male bird will feed the female, and then they build a nest together. When the eggs are laid, they each take turns watching the nest.

3. Wilson's Bird of Paradise

These strange birds look like they're wearing skull caps. The male Wilson's birds of paradise are exceptionally colorful, featuring bright yellow, red, and green plumage; the inside of their mouths is a light yellow, and their tails curl into loose ringlets. The females are much more modest; their feathers are shades of brown, and their tails are plain. Both sexes have a turquoise head, which is, surprisingly, bare skin. When trying to woo a prospective female, males will tidy up an "arena" to perform a dance in. 

4. Royal Flycatcher

Royal flycatchers don't seem very interesting at first; their feathers are a drab light brown on top and light yellow on the underbelly. The bird's real beauty is in its crest, which normally lays flat on top of its head. When raised, it makes an impressive fan shape displaying either dark red for males or bright yellow for females. The fan is tipped with black and silver to further emphasize the pop of color.

It's believed the crest flies up when the bird is feeling stressed and threatened, as well as during courtship. They tend to move their heads back and forth in an almost hypnotic fashion, as seen above. 

5. King of Saxony

Male King of Saxony birds look like they have some really intense eyebrows. They use these head wires to attract females, by bouncing and inflating their feathers. To lure females in to the display, males will perch above their territory and call out to potential mates. The call sounds less like a bird, and more like a futuristic call alarm: 

6. Hoopoe

The Hoopoe lacks the vibrant colors of the other birds on the this list, but its black and white striped feathers are certainly eye-popping. Named for the sound it makes—a low "hoop, hoop"—the Eurasian Hoopoe is the national bird of Israel. The birds are fond of dust baths and sunbathing by spreading out their feathers. The crested avians are very territorial, and make their nests in holes in trees or walls. For added safety, females and nestlings contain a gland that smells like rotting meat to ward off predators and parasites. 

7. Wire-Crested Thorntail

Wire-crested thorntails are named for the tiny spike of feathers donned by the males of the species. Considered one of the smallest existing birds, they weigh in at 2.5g. Both sexes display iridescent coloring, but the males have crests and longer tails. Like most other hummingbirds, these tiny birds lead solitary lives and do not travel in flocks. Males and females will likely mate with several partners, and males have no involvement with nesting or raising the chicks. 

8. Golden Pheasant

Golden pheasants are native to China, but can also be found in the United Kingdom. The males look like tiny avian pharaohs with their nemes-like striped feathers. They use their vibrant plumage to attract the brown-and-black-feathered females by fanning out their neck feathers. The game birds have the ability to fly, but aren't very good at it, so most of their lives are spent on the ground.

9. Parotia

Males in the Parotia genus have brightly colored chests and distinctive blue eyes. Also known as the six-plumed bird of paradise, the bird has six plumes that emerge from the back of its head. When attracting a mate, the male will tidy up a space in the forest to set the stage. The bird will clear the floor of any debris, and will even use tools to scrub the branches. When everything is spick and span, the parotia will perform an impossibly silly dance that involves a lot of shaking and head bobbing.

10. Blue Crowned Pigeon

The blue crowned pigeon is the second largest type of pigeon in the world, and possibly one of the fanciest. The giant bird can weigh nearly five pounds. Its plumage is a nice toasty purplish blue with a fluffy crest on its head. Females are equally ornate to the males, but the males tend to be a little bit larger. 

11. Black Crowned Crane

Black crowned cranes live in the savannahs of Africa. They are black with pops of white and red, and a gold crown of feathers. The red pouch that hangs below their beak is called a gular sac, which is inflated to allow for loud mating calls. The elegant birds nest in the wetlands and eat small animals and bugs. Due to their disappearing habitat, the cranes are unfortunately considered a vulnerable species. 

12. Great Hornbill

The great hornbill is a big bird: they can be as tall as four feet and weigh as much as seven pounds. With a wingspan of five feet, its flapping can be heard from half a mile away. Their impressive beaks feature a fixture known as a casque, which is hollow; the rest of beak is also light, and filled with air pockets. The casque serves no known purpose, although some suspect it helps when finding a mate. Once courtship is completed, the female will imprison herself in a tree with a small opening for the male to bring her food. She will stay in the tree until her chicks grow feathers.

13. Cassowary

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These prehistoric-looking birds stand at six and a half feet tall, weigh over 100 pounds, and can run over 30 miles per hour; they are the second largest bird in the world (ostriches being the first). Similar to the hornbill, they have an impressive casque on top of their heads. The giant dinosaur-birds are generally peaceful, but shouldn't be taken lightly: they have claws and powerful kicks, and have been known to kill dogs. 

14. Red-whiskered bulbul

These punky birds sport tiny feathered mohawks. Both sexes have these black crests and will raise and lower them during courtship, like miniature curtsies. They originated from India, but have been established in Florida after some domestic bulbuls escaped a Miami aviary in 1960. 

15. Hawk Headed Parrot

The charming hawk headed parrot comes from the Amazon Basin, but you can find one at your local pet store. Hawk-heads look like normal parrots, but they have colorful feathers that they can raise into a colorful mane to look more threatening. 

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Penn Vet Working Dog Center
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Stones, Bones, and Wrecks
New Program Trains Dogs to Sniff Out Art Smugglers
Penn Vet Working Dog Center
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

Soon, the dogs you see sniffing out contraband at airports may not be searching for drugs or smuggled Spanish ham. They might be looking for stolen treasures.

K-9 Artifact Finders, a new collaboration between New Hampshire-based cultural heritage law firm Red Arch and the University of Pennsylvania, is training dogs to root out stolen antiquities looted from archaeological sites and museums. The dogs would be stopping them at borders before the items can be sold elsewhere on the black market.

The illegal antiquities trade nets more than $3 billion per year around the world, and trafficking hits countries dealing with ongoing conflict, like Syria and Iraq today, particularly hard. By one estimate, around half a million artifacts were stolen from museums and archaeological sites throughout Iraq between 2003 and 2005 alone. (Famously, the craft-supply chain Hobby Lobby was fined $3 million in 2017 for buying thousands of ancient artifacts looted from Iraq.) In Syria, the Islamic State has been known to loot and sell ancient artifacts including statues, jewelry, and art to fund its operations.

But the problem spans across the world. Between 2007 and 2016, U.S. Customs and Border Control discovered more than 7800 cultural artifacts in the U.S. looted from 30 different countries.

A yellow Lab sniffs a metal cage designed to train dogs on scent detection.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

K-9 Artifact Finders is the brainchild of Rick St. Hilaire, the executive director of Red Arch. His non-profit firm researches cultural heritage property law and preservation policy, including studying archaeological site looting and antiquities trafficking. Back in 2015, St. Hilaire was reading an article about a working dog trained to sniff out electronics that was able to find USB drives, SD cards, and other data storage devices. He wondered, if dogs could be trained to identify the scents of inorganic materials that make up electronics, could they be trained to sniff out ancient pottery?

To find out, St. Hilaire tells Mental Floss, he contacted the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a research and training center for detection dogs. In December 2017, Red Arch, the Working Dog Center, and the Penn Museum (which is providing the artifacts to train the dogs) launched K-9 Artifact Finders, and in late January 2018, the five dogs selected for the project began their training, starting with learning the distinct smell of ancient pottery.

“Our theory is, it is a porous material that’s going to have a lot more odor than, say, a metal,” says Cindy Otto, the executive director of the Penn Vet Working Dog Center and the project’s principal investigator.

As you might imagine, museum curators may not be keen on exposing fragile ancient materials to four Labrador retrievers and a German shepherd, and the Working Dog Center didn’t want to take any risks with the Penn Museum’s priceless artifacts. So instead of letting the dogs have free rein to sniff the materials themselves, the project is using cotton balls. The researchers seal the artifacts (broken shards of Syrian pottery) in airtight bags with a cotton ball for 72 hours, then ask the dogs to find the cotton balls in the lab. They’re being trained to disregard the smell of the cotton ball itself, the smell of the bag it was stored in, and ideally, the smell of modern-day pottery, eventually being able to zero in on the smell that distinguishes ancient pottery specifically.

A dog looks out over the metal "pinhweel" training mechanism.
Penn Vet Working Dog Center

“The dogs are responding well,” Otto tells Mental Floss, explaining that the training program is at the stage of "exposing them to the odor and having them recognize it.”

The dogs involved in the project were chosen for their calm-but-curious demeanors and sensitive noses (one also works as a drug-detection dog when she’s not training on pottery). They had to be motivated enough to want to hunt down the cotton balls, but not aggressive or easily distracted.

Right now, the dogs train three days a week, and will continue to work on their pottery-detection skills for the first stage of the project, which the researchers expect will last for the next nine months. Depending on how the first phase of the training goes, the researchers hope to be able to then take the dogs out into the field to see if they can find the odor of ancient pottery in real-life situations, like in suitcases, rather than in a laboratory setting. Eventually, they also hope to train the dogs on other types of objects, and perhaps even pinpoint the chemical signatures that make artifacts smell distinct.

Pottery-sniffing dogs won’t be showing up at airport customs or on shipping docks soon, but one day, they could be as common as drug-sniffing canines. If dogs can detect low blood sugar or find a tiny USB drive hidden in a house, surely they can figure out if you’re smuggling a sculpture made thousands of years ago in your suitcase.

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Animals
15 Confusing Plant and Animal Misnomers
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People have always given names to the plants and animals around us. But as our study of the natural world has developed, we've realized that many of these names are wildly inaccurate. In fact, they often have less to say about nature than about the people who did the naming. Here’s a batch of these befuddling names.

1. COMMON NIGHTHAWK

There are two problems with this bird’s name. First, the common nighthawk doesn’t fly at night—it’s active at dawn and dusk. Second, it’s not a hawk. Native to North and South America, it belongs to a group of birds with an even stranger name: Goatsuckers. People used to think that these birds flew into barns at night and drank from the teats of goats. (In fact, they eat insects.)

2. IRISH MOSS

It’s not a moss—it’s a red alga that lives along the rocky shores of the northern Atlantic Ocean. Irish moss and other red algae give us carrageenan, a cheap food thickener that you may have eaten in gummy candies, soy milk, ice cream, veggie hot dogs, and more.

3. FISHER-CAT

Native to North America, the fisher-cat isn’t a cat at all: It’s a cousin of the weasel. It also doesn’t fish. Nobody’s sure where the fisher cat’s name came from. One possibility is that early naturalists confused it with the sea mink, a similar-looking creature that was an expert fisher. But the fisher-cat prefers to eat land animals. In fact, it’s one of the few creatures that can tackle a porcupine.

4. AMERICAN BLUE-EYED GRASS

American blue-eyed grass doesn’t have eyes (which is good, because that would be super creepy). Its blue “eyes” are flowers that peek up at you from a meadow. It’s also not a grass—it’s a member of the iris family.

5. MUDPUPPY

The mudpuppy isn’t a cute, fluffy puppy that scampered into some mud. It’s a big, mucus-covered salamander that spends all of its life underwater. (It’s still adorable, though.) The mudpuppy isn’t the only aquatic salamander with a weird name—there are many more, including the greater siren, the Alabama waterdog, and the world’s most metal amphibian, the hellbender.

6. WINGED DRAGONFISH

This weird creature has other fantastic and inaccurate names: brick seamoth, long-tailed dragonfish, and more. It’s really just a cool-looking fish. Found in the waters off of Asia, it has wing-like fins, and spends its time on the muddy seafloor.

7. NAVAL SHIPWORM

The naval shipworm is not a worm. It’s something much, much weirder: a kind of clam with a long, wormlike body that doesn’t fit in its tiny shell. It uses this modified shell to dig into wood, which it eats. The naval shipworm, and other shipworms, burrow through all sorts of submerged wood—including wooden ships.

8. WHIP SPIDERS

These leggy creatures are not spiders; they’re in a separate scientific family. They also don’t whip anything. Whip spiders have two long legs that look whip-like, but that are used as sense organs—sort of like an insect’s antennae. Despite their intimidating appearance, whip spiders are harmless to humans.

9. VELVET ANTS

A photograph of a velvet ant
Craig Pemberton, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 3.0

There are thousands of species of velvet ants … and all are wasps, not ants. These insects have a fuzzy, velvety look. Don’t pat them, though—velvet ants aren’t aggressive, but the females pack a powerful sting.

10. SLOW WORM

The slow worm is not a worm. It’s a legless reptile that lives in parts of Europe and Asia. Though it looks like a snake, it became legless through a totally separate evolutionary path from the one snakes took. It has many traits in common with lizards, such as eyelids and external ear holes.

11. TRAVELER'S PALM

This beautiful tree from Madagascar has been planted in tropical gardens all around the world. It’s not actually a palm, but belongs to a family that includes the bird of paradise flower. In its native home, the traveler’s palm reproduces with the help of lemurs that guzzle its nectar and spread pollen from tree to tree.

12. VAMPIRE SQUID

Drawing of a vampire squid
Carl Chun, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

This deep-sea critter isn’t a squid. It’s the only surviving member of a scientific order that has characteristics of both octopuses and squids. And don’t let the word “vampire” scare you; it only eats bits of falling marine debris (dead stuff, poop, and so on), and it’s only about 11 inches long.

13. MALE FERN & LADY FERN

Early botanists thought that these two ferns belonged to the same species. They figured that the male fern was the male of the species because of its coarse appearance. The lady fern, on the other hand, has lacy fronds and seemed more ladylike. Gender stereotypes aside, male and lady Ferns belong to entirely separate species, and almost all ferns can make both male and female reproductive cells. If ferns start looking manly or womanly to you, maybe you should take a break from botany.

14. TENNESSEE WARBLER

You will never find a single Tennessee warbler nest in Tennessee. This bird breeds mostly in Canada, and spends the winter in Mexico and more southern places. But early ornithologist Alexander Wilson shot one in 1811 in Tennessee during its migration, and the name stuck.

15. CANADA THISTLE

Though it’s found across much of Canada, this spiky plant comes from Europe and Asia. Early European settlers brought Canada thistle seeds to the New World, possibly as accidental hitchhikers in grain shipments. A tough weed, the plant soon spread across the continent, taking root in fields and pushing aside crops. So why does it have this inaccurate name? Americans may have been looking for someone to blame for this plant—so they blamed Canada.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

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