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
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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
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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.

Plano, Texas Is Home to a Dog-Friendly Movie Theater That Serves Bottomless Wine or Whiskey

K9 Cinemas
K9 Cinemas

For dog owners in Plano, Texas, movie night with Fido no longer just means cuddling on the couch and browsing Netflix. The recently opened K9 Cinemas invites moviegoers—both human and canine—to watch classic films on the big screen. And the best part for the human members of this couple? Your $15 ticket includes bottomless wine or whiskey (or soft drinks if you're under 21).

The theater operates as a pop-up (or perhaps pup-up?) in a private event space near Custer Road and 15th Street in Plano. Snacks—both the pet and people kind—are available for $2 apiece. Dogs are limited to two per person, and just 25 human seats are sold per showing to leave room for the furry guests.

Pet owners are asked follow a few rules in order to take advantage of what the theater has to offer. Dogs must be up-to-date on all their shots, and owners can submit veterinary records online or bring a hard copy to the theater to verify their pooch's health status. Once inside, owners are responsible for taking their dog out for potty breaks and cleaning up after any accidents that happen (thankfully the floors are concrete and easy to wipe down).

While many of the movies shown are canine-themed—a recent screening of A Dog's Journey included branded bandanas with every ticket purchase—they also hold special events, like a Game of Thrones finale watch party (no word on how the puppers in attendance responded to Jon Snow finally acknowledging what a good boy Ghost is).

13 Fascinating Facts About Bees

iStock.com/florintt
iStock.com/florintt

Sure, you know that bees pollinate our crops and give us honey. But there's so much more to these buzzing insects than that.

1. Bee stings have some benefits.

A toxin in bee venom called melittin may prevent HIV. Melittin can kill HIV by poking holes into the virus's protective envelope. (Meanwhile, when melittin hitches a ride on certain nanoparticles, it will just bounce off normal cells and leave them unharmed.) Scientists at Washington University in St. Louis hope the toxin can be used in preventative gels.

Bee stings may also ease pain caused by rheumatoid arthritis. Researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that molecules in bee venom increase your body's level of glucocorticoid, an anti-inflammatory hormone.

2. Bees work harder than you do.

During chillier seasons, worker bees can live for nine months. But in the summer, they rarely last longer than six weeks—they literally work themselves to death.

3. When bees change jobs, they change their brain chemistry.

bees flying to a hive
iStock/bo1982

Bees are hardwired to do certain jobs. Scout bees, which search for new sources of food, are wired for adventure. Soldier bees, discovered in 2012, work as security guards their whole life. One percent of all middle-aged bees become undertakers—a genetic brain pattern compels them to remove dead bees from the hive. But most amazingly, regular honeybees—which perform multiple jobs in their lifetime—will change their brain chemistry before taking up a new gig.

4. Their brains defy time.

When aging bees do jobs usually reserved for younger members, their brain stops aging. In fact, their brain ages in reverse. (Imagine if riding a tricycle didn't just make you feel young—it actually made your brain tick like a younger person's.) Scientists at Arizona State University believe the discovery can help us slow the onset of dementia.

5. Bees are changing medicine.

To reinforce their hives, bees use a resin from poplar and evergreen trees called propolis. It's basically beehive glue. Although bees use it as caulk, humans use it to fight off bacteria, viruses, and fungi. Research shows that propolis taken from a beehive may relieve cold sores, canker sores, herpes, sore throat, cavities, and even eczema.

6. Bees can recognize human faces.

Honeybees make out faces the same way we do. They take parts—like eyebrows, lips, and ears—and cobble them together to make out the whole face. It’s called "configural processing," and it might help computer scientists improve face recognition technology, The New York Times reports.

7. Bees have personalities

Even in beehives, there are workers and shirkers. Researchers at the University of Illinois found that not all bees are interchangeable drones. Some bees are thrill-seekers. Others are a bit more timid. A 2011 study even found that agitated honeybees can be pessimistic, showing that, to some extent, bees might have feelings.

8. They get buzzed from caffeine and cocaine.

bumblebee on a flower
iStock/Whiteway

Nature didn't intend for caffeine to be relegated to your morning pot of coffee. It's actually a plant defense chemical that shoos harmful insects away and lures pollinators in. Scientists at Newcastle University found that nectar laced with caffeine helps bees remember where the flower is, increasing the chances of a return visit.

While caffeine makes bees work better, cocaine turns them into big fat liars. Bees "dance" to communicate—a way of giving fellow bees directions to good food. But high honeybees exaggerate their moves and overemphasize the food's quality. They even exhibit withdrawal symptoms, helping scientists understand the nuances of addiction.

9. Bees have Viking-like navigation techniques.

Bees use the Sun as a compass. But when it's cloudy, there's a backup—they navigate by polarized light, using special photoreceptors to find the Sun's place in the sky. The Vikings may have used a similar system: On sunny days, they navigated with sundials, but on cloudy days, sunstones—chunks of calcite that act like a Polaroid filter—helped them stay on course.

10. Bees can solve hairy mathematical problems.

Pretend it's the weekend, and it's time to do errands. You have to visit six stores and they're all at six separate locations. What's the shortest distance you can travel while visiting all six? Mathematicians call this the "traveling salesman problem," and it can even stump some computers. But for bumblebees, it's a snap. Researchers at Royal Holloway University in London found that bumblebees fly the shortest route possible between flowers. So far, they're the only animals known to solve the problem.

11. Bees are nature's most economical builders.

In 36 BCE, Marcus Terentius Varro argued that honeycombs were the most practical structures around. Centuries later, Greek mathematician Pappus solidified the "honeycomb conjecture" by making the same claim. Almost 2000 years later, American mathematician Thomas Hales wrote a mathematical proof showing that, of all the possible structures, honeycombs use the least amount of wax. And not only are honeycombs the most efficient structures in nature—the walls meet at a precise 120-degree angle, a perfect hexagon.

12. Bees can help us catch serial killers.

Serial killers behave like bees. They commit their crimes close to home, but far enough away that the neighbors don't get suspicious. Similarly, bees collect pollen near their hive, but far enough that predators can't find the hive. To understand how this "buffer zone" works, scientists studied bee behavior and wrote up a few algorithms. Their findings improved computer models police use to find felons.

13. Bees are job creators.

beekeeper working with bees
iStock/Milan_Jovic

The average American consumes roughly 1.51 pounds of honey each year. On top of that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates that honeybees pollinate up to 80 percent of the country's insect crops—meaning bees pollinate over $15 billion worth of crops each year.

This article was updated and republished in 2019.

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