15 Amazing Facts About 15 Birds

iStock.com/Khmel
iStock.com/Khmel

From brilliantly colored hummingbirds to farting thrushes, birds are among the most beautiful and bizarre creatures on Earth. With over 9000 species, our fine feathered friends inhabit almost every inch of the planet, making their homes in the frozen expanses of Antarctica, the humid rainforests of South America, and every climate in between. Here are 15 amazing facts you might not know about 15 amazing bird species.

1. Ravens are great at mimicking human speech and sounds.

A raven with its beak open
iStock.com/step2626

While ravens in the wild are unlikely to pick up human language, in captivity they can become quite talkative. Some ravens are even better than parrots at mimicking human speech, not to mention sounds from the human world like car engines revving or toilets flushing. In the wild, meanwhile, ravens sometimes imitate other animals, mimicking predators like wolves or foxes to attract them to tasty carcasses they're unable to break open on their own.

2. Ostriches have the largest eyes of any land animal.

portrait of an ostrich
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Ostrich eyes are the largest of any animal that lives on land (though they can't rival some of the massive creatures that inhabit the depths of the sea). Approximately the size of a billiard ball, their eyes are actually bigger than their brains.

3. Cardinals like to cover themselves in ants.

a cardinal on a branch
iStock.com/mirjana simeunovich

Cardinals (along with several other bird species) sometimes cover themselves in crushed or living ants, smearing them over their feathers, or allowing living ants to crawl on them. While scientists still aren't sure what the purpose of "anting" is, some believe the birds use the formic acid secreted during their ant bath to help get rid of lice and other parasites.

4. Owls devour their prey whole.

An owl landing on the grass
iStock.com/Lothar Brademann

When owls catch larger animals (raccoons and rabbits, for instance), they tear them up into more manageable, bite-size pieces. But, they've also been known to simply swallow smaller animals, from insects to mice, whole. Owls then regurgitate pellets full of indigestible elements of their meal like animal bones and fur.

5. Some ducks sleep with one eye open.

four sleeping ducks
iStock.com/CRISTINAGUTIERREZDELOLMO

When they nap in groups, the ducks on the perimeter keep guard by sleeping with one eye open. While the other ducks sleep more deeply, those on the outside of the circle also keep one side of their brain awake, even as they doze, so that predators won’t be able to sneak up on them.

6. Kiwis are sometimes called "honorary mammals."

a kiwi bird
iStock.com/Jason Magerkorth

Native to New Zealand, kiwis are a bizarre, land-bound bird. Scientists, so mystified by the kiwi's strange properties—which include feathers that feel like hair, heavy bones filled with marrow, and nostrils on the tip of their nose (rather than on the base of their beak like most birds)—have sometimes called them "honorary mammals."

7. Most hummingbirds weigh less than a nickel.

A hummingbird by a flower
iStock.com/webguzs

Hummingbirds are incredibly lightweight. The average hummingbird is around 4 grams (one gram less than a nickel), while the smallest, the bee hummingbird, is closer to 1.6 grams, less than the weight of a penny. The largest member of the hummingbird family, meanwhile, is the aptly named giant hummingbird, which can get up to 24 grams—enormous for a hummingbird, but only equivalent to about a handful of loose change.

8. In ancient Greece, pigeons delivered the results of the Olympic games.

two pigeons
iStock.com/focusphotoart

Believed to be the first domesticated bird, pigeons were used for millennia to deliver messages, including important military information, and the outcome of the early Olympic games. Though non-avian mail delivery has become more popular over time, pigeons were used as recently as World War II to carry select messages.

9. Parrots can learn to say hundreds of words.

African grey parrot on a branch
iStock.com/Naked King

While most parrots only learn around 50 words, some African grey parrots have been known to learn hundreds. Einstein, a brilliant African grey parrot at the Knoxville Zoo in Tennessee, can say around 200 words.

10. Swiftlet nests are a delicacy.

a dried swiftlet nest
iStock.com/dextorTh

Some swiftlets, appropriately named Edible-nest swiftlets, build nests almost exclusively from their hardened saliva. The saliva nests are considered a delicacy in some countries—in China, they are most frequently used to make bird’s nest soup—and are one of the most expensive foods in the world, despite having little flavor and no real nutritional value.

11. Bassian thrushes find food by farting.

Worm-eating Bassian thrushes have been known to dislodge their prey from piles of leaves by directing their farts at them. The excretion of gas shifts the leaf-litter on the ground and apparently provokes worms to move around, revealing their location.

12. Woodpeckers hoard acorns.

woodpecker with acorns
iStock.com/SteveByland

Acorn woodpeckers store acorns by drilling holes in trees, fence posts, utility poles, and buildings, and depositing their nuts there. They have been known to store up to 50,000 acorns—each in its own tiny hole—in a single tree, called a "granary tree."

13. The unique black and white coloring of penguins works as camoflage.

Penguins swimming in the ocean
iStock.com/Musat

While penguins might stand out on land, underwater their black and white coloring helps them stay hidden from both predators and prey. As they swim, their black backs blend in with the darker ocean water below them so that they're difficult to spot from above. Their white chests, meanwhile, help them blend in with the lighter, brighter surface of the water, so that from below, they're near-invisible. On land, meanwhile, their black backs may stand out sharply against the snowy landscape, but in most regions, the birds face so few predators on land, it's unnecessary to try to blend into the background.

14. Hoatzin chicks are born with claws on their wings.

A hoatzin bird
iStock.com/Gaardman

Though they disappear after three months, young hoatzin (also known as "stink birds" for their unique stench) have two claws on each wing, which they can use to climb across tree branches or pull themselves out of water onto dry land. The claws also help chicks hide from predators: After jumping from their nest into the water below, the little hoatzin swim some distance, then pull themselves on land with their claws. When the coast is clear, they use their claws to climb up onto a tree branch.

15. Budgies catch each other's yawns.

Three budgies on a ledge.
iStock.com/Khmel

Budgerigars, or budgies, a common parakeet, are the only bird species so far discovered who are susceptible to contagious yawning. While humans, dogs, chimps, lab rats, and a few other creatures have all been known to catch each other's yawns, budgies are the first non-mammal species observed exhibiting the behavior. Many scientists believe the unconscious, instinctual response may be a primitive way of showing empathy, or it might be a sign of group alertness.

This story first ran in 2016.

The Tower of London Welcomes New Baby Ravens for the First Time in 30 Years

Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Some of the baby ravens born at the Tower of London
Tower of London Twitter (screenshot)

There are some new residents at the Tower of London. They're only about 11 inches tall, are very noisy, and eat rats for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Fortunately, they're also adorable—not to mention protected by legend.

On May 17, the Tower of London announced that their breeding pair of ravens, Huginn and Muninn, had welcomed four healthy chicks, the first born at the Tower since 1989. The ravens are part of an unkindness that's been located at the Tower for centuries as a sort of protective asset. According to legend, the Tower must always have ravens, or both the Tower and the kingdom will fall. It's not exactly clear when the legend began, but according to the Tower, Charles II decreed there must always be six ravens present.

Huginn and Muninn are newer additions, having arrived at the Tower in late 2018, and they weren't expected to breed this spring. So it was a surprise in mid-April when the devoted Tower Ravenmaster, Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife, noticed something exciting going on. "My suspicions were first piqued that we might have a chance of baby chicks when the parents built a huge nest suddenly overnight and then almost immediately the female bird started to sit on it," Skaife said in a Tower press release. On April 23, Skaife noticed the birds flying to the nest with food, but it was only this week he was able to get close enough to see the four healthy chicks. The sight delighted him: "Having worked with the ravens here at the Tower for the last 13 years and getting to know each of them, I feel like a proud father!"

The chicks have grown quickly, already quadrupling in size since they were born, and eat a diet of quail, rats, and mice the Ravenmaster provides. The raven parents have an egalitarian feeding arrangement: Huginn, the male, preps the food and passes it to Muninn, the female, who feeds it to her tiny chicks.

The plan is for one of the chicks to stay at the Tower and join the rest of the ravens there. "As the ravens started to hatch on the 23 April, St. George’s Day, the raven that will be staying at the Tower will be called George or Georgina in honor of the occasion," the Tower explained in a press release. According to The Telegraph, the breeding program at the Tower kicked off in response to a decline in the number of legal raven breeders in the UK.

The last raven chick born at the Tower was Ronald Raven, born May 1, 1989. In his 2018 book, The Ravenmaster: My Life with the Ravens at the Tower of London, Skaife wrote that "a baby raven looks a bit like a grotesque miniature gargoyle, but then you see them grow and develop ... It really is wonderful."

The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019
The baby ravens born at the Tower of London in 2019 making some noise
Yeoman Warder Chris Skaife

Dozens of Donkeys, Mini-Donkeys, and Baby Donkeys Are Looking for New Homes

iStock.com/huggy1
iStock.com/huggy1

Cats and dogs aren't the only rescue animals that need permanent homes. At the Humane Society of North Texas (HSNT), there are over 60 donkeys, miniature donkeys, baby donkeys, and Thoroughbred horses up for adoption, the Cleburne Times-Review reports.

Many of the equines at HSNT's ranch in Joshua, Texas came from owners who had to give them up, and others were transferred from different animal rescue groups. As part of the ASPCA’s Help A Horse Home Challenge, HSNT is hosting events to help find new homes for its horses and donkeys.

Between April 26 and June 30 this year, the ASPCA is challenging equine organizations to adopt out as many animals as they can. The groups that see the biggest increases in adoptions between this year and last year's Help A Horse Home Challenge will share $150,000 in grant funding. On May 18 and June 8, HSNT is holding open houses at its ranch for anyone interested in adopting an animal. The events will also be used as opportunities to educate the public about the demands of equine ownership.

If you're not free to swing by one of HSNT's open houses, you can still apply to adopt a horse or donkey. Interested owners can fill out and submit this form [PDF] to equine@hsnt.org. And if you'd like to spend time with baby and mini-donkeys without taking one home, HSNT is also looking for volunteers.

[h/t Cleburne Times-Review]

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