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The Only Place You Can Still See a Dodo

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Getty

The last dodo sighting was reported in 1662, and in 1680, the bird was declared officially extinct. To add insult to injury, our depiction of dodos as strange, awkwardly-shaped birds may not even accurate—the skeletons in most museums are made of bones scavenged from different birds, so it’s difficult to know how close we get with our modern-day representations.

Because the dodo was extinct before cameras were invented, we can only rely on paintings and illustrations to help inform our current understanding of the flightless bird. Today, some researchers believe the traditional depiction of the dodo may have been a product of artistic license, because its skeleton couldn’t have supported such weight. In fact, some of the earliest images of the dodo, dating back to 1598, show a much thinner, almost athletic bird.

Despite all of the misleading information out there, there is one thing about dodos we’re certain we know: what its head looked like. And that’s because the Oxford University Museum of Natural History has the world’s only soft-tissue dodo specimen in existence.

It’s believed the mummified head came from a dodo once displayed in London as a public attraction. When she died, she was stuffed and given to John Tradescant Sr., a naturalist who collected interesting specimens. When Tradescant passed away in 1662, his collection went to his friend Elias Ashmole, who relocated it to the now-famous Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. Sadly, the taxidermied dodo was neglected. By 1755, the museum discovered that mites and other bugs had destroyed everything but the dodo’s head and one foot. The rest of the body was burned, lost forever to the annals of history.

The remains are typically only available for research; for example, scientists conducted DNA tests on the foot several years ago and discovered the dodo’s closest living relative is the Nicobar pigeon. Unless you’re a credentialed scientist or researcher, the closest you’ll probably be able to get is the replica of the remains on display at the Ashmolean. Still, being in the same building as a real dodo is closer than most people have gotten in the past 350 years.

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Animals
Where Do Birds Get Their Songs?
iStock
iStock

Birds display some of the most impressive vocal abilities in the animal kingdom. They can be heard across great distances, mimic human speech, and even sing using distinct dialects and syntax. The most complex songs take some practice to learn, but as TED-Ed explains, the urge to sing is woven into songbirds' DNA.

Like humans, baby birds learn to communicate from their parents. Adult zebra finches will even speak in the equivalent of "baby talk" when teaching chicks their songs. After hearing the same expressions repeated so many times and trying them out firsthand, the offspring are able to use the same songs as adults.

But nurture isn't the only factor driving this behavior. Even when they grow up without any parents teaching them how to vocalize, birds will start singing on their own. These innate songs are less refined than the ones that are taught, but when they're passed down through multiple generations and shaped over time, they start to sound similar to the learned songs sung by other members of their species.

This suggests that the drive to sing as well as the specific structures of the songs themselves have been ingrained in the animals' genetic code by evolution. You can watch the full story from TED-Ed below, then head over here for a sample of the diverse songs produced by birds.

[h/t TED-Ed]

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Tessa Angus
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Art
Surprising Sculptures Made From Fallen Feathers
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Kate MccGwire, Orchis, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire is a British sculptor with an unusual medium: feathers. Her surreal, undulating works often take the form of installations—the feathers spilling out of a drain, a stove, a crypt wall—or stand-alone sculptures in which antique bell jars, cabinets, or trunks contain otherworldly shapes.

MccGwire developed her obsession with feathers after moving to a studio barge on the Thames in 2006, as she explains in a video from Crane.tv recently spotlighted by Boing Boing. The barge was near a large shed full of feral pigeons, whose feathers she would spot on her way to work. "I started picking them up and laying them out, collecting them," she remembers. "And after about two weeks I had like 300 feathers." At the time, concerns about bird flu were rife, which made the feathers seem "dangerous as well as beautiful."

When not supplied by her own next-door menagerie, the feathers for her artwork come from a network of racing pigeon societies all over the UK, who send her envelopes full every time the birds molt. Farmers and gamekeepers also send her fallen feathers from birds such as magpies, pheasants, and roosters.

The cultural associations around birds are a big part of what inspires MccGwire. “The dove is the symbol of peace, purity, and fertility," she told ArtNews in 2013, "but it’s exactly the same species as a pigeon—which everyone regards as being dirty, foul, a pest.”

The same duality is present in her own work, which she frequently shares on her Instagram account. “I want to seduce by what I do—but revolt in equal measure. It’s really important to me that you’ve got that rejection of things you think you know for sure.”

You can see some pictures of MccGwire's work, and watch the video from Crane.tv, below.

Kate MccGwire's installation "Evacuate"
Evacuate, 2010
J Wilde

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Convolous"
Convolous, 2015
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's installation "Gyre"
Gyre, 2012
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Gag"
Gag, 2009
JP Bland

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Writhe"
Writhe, 2010
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Quell"
Quell, 2011
Tessa Angus

Kate MccGwire's sculpture "Taunt"
Taunt, 2012
Tessa Angus

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