Monday, January 19, 2015

Western Scrub-Jay Funerals

Western Scrub-Jay
Western Scrub-Jay
Back in 2012, a paper in the journal Animal Behavior presented a study about Western Scrub-Jays titled “Western scrub-jay funerals: cacophonous aggregations in response to dead conspecifics.” Researchers placed several objects, including pieces of wood, stuffed scrub jays, stuffed Great Horned Owls, and dead scrub jay carcasses, into people’s backyards to observe how the neighborhood scrub jays responded. Jays are naturally curious, and they discovered and inspected all the objects, though spent very little time checking out the wood. 

Dead scrub jays that had been stuffed and mounted in life-like poses elicited aggression. I’ve often noticed that sociable birds seem more distressed and aggressive toward a bird of their own species when that bird looks or acts different from the others. When I rehabbed, I could never let an injured crow out in my yard, because neighborhood crows would attack it. Intriguingly, many published observations as well as my own find that when a crow is injured or has a physical deformity, its family and neighborhood flock mates do not attack it, but often actually provide help, bringing it food and protecting it from nearby predators. But the combination of being a stranger and acting odd elicits aggression in crows, much as many of our own species have trouble dealing with people who look or act different from them. Something that looks like a perfectly normal jay but doesn’t move or react to others would seem pretty odd to jays who have never experienced such a thing before.

Great Horned Owl
Great Horned Owl
A stuffed and mounted Great Horned Owl elicited “hundreds of long-range communication vocalizations.” Squawking to beat the band calls in squads of other scrub jays, as the birds alert one another to the danger and work together to drive the predator away. Intriguingly, the researchers found that a prostrate dead jay also got a similar response, both in the high number of calls and in drawing in other scrub jays from afar. I noticed something similar with Blue Jays, back in the days when I was an occasional counter at Hawk Ridge. If a hawk nailed a Blue Jay out of a flock of migrants, the whole group remained in the area, often for 45 minutes or longer, yelling their heads off in what I called an Irish wake.

Both the mounted owl and the dead scrub jay caused the other scrub jays to decrease their foraging for food in the area for over 24 hours. The authors concluded in their abstract, “Our results show that without witnessing the struggle and manner of death, the sight of a dead conspecific is used as public information and that this information is actively shared with conspecifics and used to reduce exposure to risk.”

For some reason, a story about that research paper went around on Facebook last week as if it were new information, and several birders quickly started criticizing the authors’ use of the word “funeral.” That and my own use of “Irish wake” naturally smack of anthropomorphism. 

We humans can’t help but compare animal behaviors to our own. It is completely unscientific to draw a conclusion that animals grieve the loss of individuals or recognize death in the same way we humans do, but it’s equally unscientific to state that they don’t. In the study, those Western Scrub-Jays were hardly grieving the loss of one of their own—the authors didn’t kill a local jay for their dead specimen, so of course the jay wasn’t recognized as a particular individual, and the jays’ reactions almost certainly couldn't be called grief. But the ways we humans announce and gather after the deaths of our own conspecifics suggest that our funerals may serve the same purpose as the gatherings of those scrub-jays. We can’t yell as loud as they, but we ring the alarm far and wide in the obituary pages of our newspapers and on the news. Our own funerals involve family and close friends grieving for the loss of someone they love, but also include the wider community, many who are not grieving at all. If you listen in on conversations at any wake or funeral, you’ll hear people, including genuinely grieving loved ones, talking about the cause of death in ways that suggest we’re all using that information in hopes of forestalling our own deaths, just as the scrub-jays of the study apparently did. Some people pooh-pooh the idea that animals are capable of understanding death or envisioning their own. But we have plenty of evidence that a lot of humans, and not just reckless teenagers, can’t envision our own mortality or wrap our own heads around the concept of death, either.

Lots of data affirm that some species of birds and mammals suffer physiological stress after the death of a mate or young similar to the physiological stress of grieving humans. It’s fun to think we’re superior to animals and capable of deeper love than they, but considering the high murder and divorce rates between family members in our own species, that superiority is pretty questionable. Every species reacts to different things in different ways—including us—but we share a lot of common ground. Dismissing the term “funeral” for the scrub jays in this study seems to deny that truth. If we ever came upon intelligent life forms in outer space, there is no way we could hope to communicate with them until we figure out how to better understand and communicate with the intelligent life forms right here on earth.

Western Scrub-Jay

Friday, January 16, 2015

Wild Gull Chase: No Show

My trusty Golden Guide, which made me lust to see an Ivory Gull.
On Friday, January 2, there was a post on the ABA Rare Bird Alert on Facebook that an adult Ivory Gull had been seen down in Quincy, Illinois, over 650 miles away. I had just had some basal cell carcinomas removed from my face and plastic surgery to close the wounds a few days before, and couldn’t go anywhere while the stitches were still in, and then wasn’t supposed to be spending time in the cold or sun for a few weeks. I consoled myself with the thought that it probably would have moved on by the next day anyway. But it didn’t. Hour after hour throughout the weekend, and then every day the following week, people added photos and jubilant posts to the rare bird alert. By Friday the ninth, my frustration level was at the boiling point.

Only two weeks earlier I’d chosen not to drive a mere 50 miles from New York City to see two potential lifers—Pink-footed and Barnacle Geese—and didn't feel the least bit cranky or deprived about them. What was the difference? 

I’d been fixated on the Ivory Gull since first looking through my field guides in 1974. The pristine whiteness of the plumage, contrasting beautifully with the black legs and feet, the dark eye ringed with red in breeding plumage, and the improbably yellow-tipped beak were cosmically appealing to my eyes. Most of these birds never move south of the Arctic Circle, yet one or two individuals may wander south to show up in the US like unexpected grace notes. Their mysterious habits and allure somehow filled me with a deep longing from the time I started birding. Seeing an Ivory Gull would be far, far from a mere entry on my lifelist. It would be experiencing genuine magic. And throughout the week, as I read Facebook posts by more and more people experiencing that magic, I was feeling increasingly trapped and frustrated.

Then on Friday afternoon, one of my birding acquaintances from the Twin Cities, Tony Lau, posted on the Minnesota birding page that he was interested in driving down to Quincy at about 5 o’clock the next morning, and wondered if anyone wanted to carpool. He was hoping to make the trip in one day. Even as I impulsively emailed him right back, my brain was calculating the 155 miles in my car to Otsego—I’d have to leave by 2:30 to get to his place in time for us to start out on the 532 mile trip to Quincy. Tony’s round trip would be 1064 miles—a long day not even counting birding time. And my trip would be 1374 miles. The longest “chase” I’ve ever made for a single rare bird before this was to East Grand Forks in 1988 to see a Brambling that had turned up at a feeder—that trip was about 265 miles each way, with four of us carpooling. I’d not have driven to Quincy, Illinois, to see a Brambling. But this—this was an Ivory Gull.

I have a personal rule about chasing rare birds—I hardly ever do it at all, but when I do, I need to be sure the experience of traveling and looking for the bird will be reasonably satisfying even if I don’t see it. It’s always a crapshoot—if you absolutely must see a particular bird, you’re wisest visiting a zoo or museum. The hope of seeing a new bird provides the motivation to get going, but if that hope morphs into need or expectation, you’re doomed. The delight of finding it is lost when you expect it, and the disappointment if you miss it is worse. Some birders do have a sense of entitlement about seeing every good bird, but most of us accept the risks of chasing like any good poker player. And if you like seeing all the other birds along the way, you win either way.

From the start, this particular chase looked like a good idea. Tony’s a nice guy, so I knew I’d be in good company, and since it was only the second week in January, I knew I’d be seeing plenty of new birds for my 2015 list, including some I’d not likely see for months in northern Minnesota. Because we came up with this plan late Friday afternoon, I didn’t have time to think much about it before heading to bed early, my alarm clock set for 2 am.
My drive to the Cities in the dark was uneventful, and utterly devoid of birdlife. When Tony and I got on the road just after 5, it was still too dark to see any birds until we’d reached the Iowa border. We saw a flock of Snow Buntings mixed with other birds—either longspurs or larks, but I didn’t get a long enough look to be sure. We saw lots and lots of Bald Eagles, and our first American Kestrel, too—we added another in Missouri. I was trying not to jinx us by checking Facebook on my phone, but when I finally checked the postings at mid-morning, the news wasn’t good—no one had found it yet, though at least 200 birders from all over the country were searching.

Eurasian Tree Sparrow
My first Illinois Eurasian Tree Sparrow!
We made it to Quincy around noon, and birded every spot we’d read about, checking Facebook every few minutes to see if anyone else had found it. At one spot by a marina on a small island where people were staring out so hopefully, we took a short walk to a brushy area where we saw White-throated, Fox, and Song Sparrows, along with several unexpected Eurasian Tree Sparrows. I was thrilled—that was the first time I'd ever seen them in Illinois. We kept scanning every gull, and going back to good spots, and checking Facebook in case anyone else had seen it, but no luck. Birders had seen the last of the Quincy, Illinois, Ivory Gull the day before. We had dinner before we cut out, and drove and drove and drove back to Tony’s place, getting there just after 2 am. I slept on his sofa and drove the rest of the way home Sunday morning, adding a pheasant and a couple of Rough-legged Hawks to my year list on the drive. 

In one day I’d more than doubled my 2015 list, added Eurasian Tree Sparrow to my Illinois list, and spent several hours in exactly the places where for over a week an Ivory Gull had flown and rested and fed. During those few hours, I may have been breathing in molecules of air that that Ivory Gull had breathed out. If I’m lucky, some day I’ll have another chance to chase another Ivory Gull. But I’m sure glad I at least tried to see this one.

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Wild Goose Chase: No Go

The Barnacle Goose, shown in my first edition Golden Guide.

Last month, when I was in New York City, in Brooklyn, visiting my daughter, two species popped up on the national bird rarity list, only 50 miles away, in New Jersey: Barnacle and Pink-footed Goose. Both  were birds I’d never before seen in the wild. If they had shown up 50 miles from Duluth, I’d have been in the car in a heartbeat. But driving in or out of New York City is not something I do easily. I am always tense by the time I reach my daughter’s place. I pull up in front of a fire hydrant, call up to her apartment, and her partner Michael parks the car for me. Then I try not to move it again until it’s time to head home.

The Barnacle Goose is a species I first read about when I got my first field guides in 1974, but I never got fixated on seeing one because both field guides emphasized that it was an Old World species. When one showed up occasionally, usually in winter along the East Coast, it was simply an accidental stray. Barnacle Geese are strikingly beautiful, with a white forehead and face contrasting with a black neck and bill, and are often raised in captivity, so at least some North American records are probably of birds that escaped game farms or aviculturists.

There are three non-overlapping populations of the Barnacle Goose: one nests in Russia and winters in the Netherlands and northern Germany; the Svalbard population nests in an island archipelago halfway between mainland Norway and the North Pole and winters on the Solway Firth in Scotland; and the population nesting in Greenland winters in western Scotland and western Ireland. None of them belong in the United States or Canada, but they have occasionally been reported here. The first North American record was in 1867, when one appeared on James Bay in Quebec. Sightings were sporadic until recent decades, with marked increases beginning in the 1990s, probably coinciding with greater enforcement of game conservation laws in Europe. But as beautiful and rare as they are, and much as I’d love to add Barnacle Goose to my lifelist, I don’t feel any deep need to chase one even as close as 50 miles away—at least, not if the driving involves New York City.

The brand new (2014) edition of Sibley shows the Pink-footed Goose. It's not shown in the first edition, from 2000. All six editions of the National Geographic field guide, starting in 1983, include the Pink-footed Goose. 

The Pink-footed Goose isn’t shown in any edition of the Golden or Peterson guides, because it had never been seen in North America when the first editions of those field guides were written, and was exceptionally rare until just recently. Except for its feet, the Pink-footed Goose is fairly nondescript, and not often kept in captivity in America. Its main claim to fame is its role in the book and movie The Big Year. When Sandy Komito broke the all-time record for a Big Year in 1998, as written about in Mark Obmascik’s book, the Pink-footed Goose Komito saw in Pennsylvania was a Code 5 species—the rarest classification—because fewer than three had been recorded in the previous 30 years. By 2004, there were 17 records of the species in the eastern North America, and one on in Washington State—the bird is now considered a Code 4, for birds that have been seen more than 3 times on the continent in the past 30 years but aren’t occurring annually, and soon may be downgraded on the rarity scale to a mere Code 3 because they seem to be turning up every year now. The movie The Big Year played with a lot of bird facts, and the oddest may have been its ending the year with Steve Martin and Jack Black’s characters seeing a Pink-footed Goose in Colorado, a state where none has ever been seen, in a tiny puddle in the snow, which could not possibly have furnished any waterfowl with food for any length of time.

The Pink-footed Goose breeds in Greenland. One population winters in Great Britain, mostly in Scotland; the other population winters mostly in the Netherlands and Denmark, and also in Norway, northern Germany, and Belgium.

Cool as Barnacle and Pink-footed Geese are, and as much as I'd love them on my lifelist, my dread of big city driving was larger than my hunger to see either, or even both together, so my car stayed in the same parking spot in Brooklyn until I left for home. There’d be no wild goose chase for me on that trip.


Then, just last week, I set out on a journey an order of magnitude longer than a mere 50 mile trip would have been, just to see a gull. But my wild gull chase is a story for another day.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

My new birding sidekick

In July 1998, I got a Bichon Frise puppy named Photon. She instantly became my birding companion and plucky sidekick—she and I birded together in at least 31 different states and Washington, D.C., and I saw at least 450 species of birds with her at my side. She was 15 and slowing down by the time I did my big year in 2013 so didn’t get to travel with me for that, and she died last April. Birding has not been the same without her.

Pip just born
Pip is the smallest one, on the right.

























I didn’t even think about getting a new dog for a while, but now I’m ready. I'll be getting a female puppy on March 21. She's a Havana Silk Dog, the same breed as Charles Dickens once had, so I’m calling her Pip, after the main character in Great Expectations. She was born on January 2, and the breeder sent me photos taken right after she was born and when she was two days old, and promises to keep me up to date. Her two litter mates are males, also named for characters in Great Expectations—Herbie after Herbert Pocket and Joey after Joe Gargery.


























Birding with a dog requires a lot of logistical planning. Before I knew I’d be getting her, I’d already agreed to speak in Kansas in April, at the two-day-long Wings N Wetlands Birding Festival, which is centered around two amazing birding spots—Cheyenne Bottoms and the Quivira National Wildlife Refuge. I’m not sure I’ll be able to bring Pip along to this. In May, when she’s a little further along in her training, I will be bringing her along to Trempealeau, Wisconsin, and to the wonderful birding festival in Ohio called The Biggest Week in American Birding—organizers from both of those gigs will be putting me up in their houses rather than a hotel so when I can’t have her with me, she’ll be safe and comfortable.

Piping Plover

Many great birding spots forbid dogs, and with good reason. As fun as it is to play with a dog on the beach, that’s particularly dangerous where plovers or small terns breed—even the gentlest dogs and most benevolent owners present a danger when running through a nesting area where eggs look like little stones. And birds get stressed out when potential predators walk through their territories in any habitat, especially during the breeding season. I learned that first hand with Photon. Whenever we walked on a narrow path through the woods in spring or summer, warblers, vireos, and wrens would drop down to scold her. Neither she nor I meant any harm, but the birds couldn’t know that, and diverting them from more important activities wasn’t safe for them or their young, so when I had Photon along, I started limiting my birding to wider roads during the nesting season. Photon never in her life chased any kinds of animals except white-tailed deer. I have no idea what she’d have done if she ever managed to get close to one—whether her goal was to bring it down or be best friends—but deer can easily bring down a little dog with a good swift kick to the spleen, so I never allowed her to get close enough to find out.

Photon in the Wichita Mountains
Photon eyeing the deer, and them eyeing her back, in the Wichita Mountains

























Photon drew in a Bald Eagle at Crex Meadows once. The eagle circled over her, eyeing her carefully, but fortunately I was too close for the eagle to even try to attack. Photon also brought in a whole group of coyotes to my tent one night at a wildlife refuge in Arkansas. I always kept her on a long retractable leash—I’d hooked the handle to my belt with a carabiner, and drew her in any time I needed her close. I don’t know if Pip will find deer attractive, but as I did Photon, I’ll train her from the start to stick by me, and I’ll keep that retractable leash on her at all times anywhere outside of our fenced in backyard. It’s fun to think our dogs are perfectly trained and will instantly come no matter what, but I’d sure hate to learn otherwise the moment a bear appears on the horizon or a family of baby ducks waddles past.

You don’t need a dog to go birding, nor do you need any other birding companion. But a buddy on road trips can enhance the experience, and a good dog will never tell you that you’ve misidentified a bird or argue about who spotted it first. A good dog may never help with driving, but will give you someone to talk to when you need to stay awake. And puppies are just so hopeful and fun. Winter always seems to last too long, and waiting for spring is always hard, but this year will be worse than usual. March 21 seems very far off when I’m so filled with great expectations.

Pip!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Hazards of Birding

Black-capped Chickadee
What, watching me is hazardous?
On a frigid December morning when I’m snug indoors, sipping hot coffee at my window as I watch my backyard birds, I consider what a safe and cozy endeavor bird watching can be. But then I read on social media about some poor birder going off the road in the Sax-Zim bog and remember my own experience getting stuck in a ditch on Eagle Lake Road, or I read about someone’s optics being stolen out of their car. The late Claudia Wilds’s definitive book about birding in the Washington D.C. area is filled with caveats to help birders avoid theft and personal attacks in urban areas. When I’ve been in more natural habitats, I’ve found myself dangerously close to diamondback rattlesnakes, bears, a wolf, a pack of coyotes surrounding my tent, and even a mountain lion. So I guess birding does have its hazards like just about any other activity.

I recently paid the piper for my long years of spending so many hours birding in the sun—a hazard that may be 93 million miles further than the furthest mountain lion on earth but nevertheless causes skin cancer. On Christmas Eve, I had two small basal cell carcinomas removed from my face. It was disconcerting to see comments on my Facebook update advising me to start using sunscreen or wear hats. If you're not a physician conversing with your own patient, telling anyone dealing with any form of cancer to change their lifestyle is cosmically rude even beyond the presumptuousness of assuming their cancer was a justifiably expected outcome of their behavior. In my case, I’ve always worn hats and sunblock. My eyes as well as my skin are vulnerable to sun and I hate the color distortion caused by sunglasses, so I hardly ever went out without a hat even as a teenager. Indeed, my wide-brim red L.L. Bean crusher hat was sort of a trademark for many years, from the early 1980s until people started inundating me with questions about some “Red Hat Society” rather than birds.

Laura with Common NIghthawks at Hawk RIdge
Me in my red hat, in the early or mid-90s, years before anyone came up with the "Red Hat Society."
But even without that hat, I seldom go outdoors without some sort of head protection—a Tilley hat or at least a newsboy or baseball cap. And I’ve been in the habit of slathering on broad-spectrum sunblock every morning, and adding more on my nose and chin when I go outside, for over 3 decades. My nose does get too much exposure despite my precautions, especially since I started photographing birds. When I pull my camera up, the tip of my nose rests against the camera body, and my sunblock smears off onto the camera.

Photographing Sharp-tailed Grouse
See how my nose presses against the camera?

Laura looking at lifer California Condor
Oops--photographing a California Condor is exactly the kind of thing that wipes off the sunscreen from my nose.
I try to remember to apply more sunscreen a few times during the day, but when the birding is good, I get too focused to remember. But so far I haven’t had any cancer on the tip of my nose. One carcinoma was on the side of my nose, though the sunblock seems to stay there just fine, and the larger one was on my forehead at the hairline, where the sun virtually never reaches—my bangs as well as my hat always keep that area well protected. Considering how much time I’ve spent outdoors and the fact that I’m 63, I’m lucky I didn’t get skin cancer before this—but that’s probably because I really do use sunscreen and hats all the time.

Happy birthday girl!
It's virtually impossible to find a photo of me outdoors without a hat of some sort completely covering my upper forehead, where the larger carcinoma was.

If you have to be diagnosed with cancer, an early basal cell carcinoma is the best choice. Treatment usually involves only a minor procedure, and the recovery rate is the highest of all cancers—around 99 percent when the tumor is removed via micrographic surgery in the Mohs procedure, wherein the dermatologist progressively removes layers of skin and examines them until only cancer-free tissue remains. Then minor plastic surgery repairs the damage. Many birders start seeing skin cancers when they’re significantly younger than I am, so wearing sunblock and a hat is as important a basic birding precaution as locking your optics in your trunk and being vigilant when alone on a trail.

I’ll have to be even more careful in the future, because people who’ve had carcinomas are very likely to get new ones. I’m going to figure out some way to protect my nose in particular, but overall, I’m not going to let this affect my birding anymore than I let the chance of a car accident or running into a bad person or a bear limit me beyond normal prudence.

Anyway, it’s not like staying indoors watching birds out my window is without hazard. My desk is next to my feeder window, and when I’m hard at work writing, I tend to play music and sing along, especially when I’m totally engrossed in something. This fall, I was working on a couple of projects at my desk on the second floor of our house, singing away, when suddenly two chickadee flocks arrived at once, so I cranked open the window while I was in the middle of singing "Part of Your World" from The Little Mermaid. The chickadees never seem to mind my singing—they’ve been known to sing a song or two themselves. Anyway, while I was leaning out the window singing at high volume, with one especially picky chickadee sitting in my hand sorting through all the mealworms, one by one, to find the biggest one, and four very impatient chickadees buzzing around my head yelling every chickadee swear word in the book at the one in my hand (notes which sound oh so sweet and happy to the unpracticed ear), I just happened to look down to see an elderly couple who’d been walking their dog—they were stopped, dead in their tracks, staring agape up at me. When I saw them, I stopped singing, and they looked mortified (as if they were the ones singing cartoon songs to chickadees!) and they slunk away. No, even indoors, birding has its hazards—in that case, it did mortal damage to my sense of dignity.

Sleeping Beauty is one of my all-time favorite movies, since I saw it at the Mercury Theater when it first came out when I was 6 or 7 years old. But who would have guessed I'd have been so literal in making Briar Rose my role model?! Something like that can damage a serious conservationist's credibility as well as sense of dignity.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

My tribute to Roger Tory Peterson in Sweden & America magazine

In 1996, when Roger Tory Peterson died, the Swedish Council of America wanted to publish a tribute to the famous Swede's life in their magazine, Sweden & America, and their editor wrote to me asking if I would write it for them. In retrospect, I suspect they asked me out of a misunderstanding, thinking I was Swedish because my married name is indeed Swedish. (I'm Irish and German with maybe a tiny smattering of Swedish. Russ is 100% Swedish.) But I went ahead and wrote it.

It was written just after the Ivory-billed Woodpecker had been declared extinct. Now Sweden & America magazine is also extinct—it's has been out of print for several years, but when I was rifling through my files looking for something entirely different, I came across my only copy. So here it is, since it's not available anywhere else anymore. You should be able to click on a page to see a readable size.






And here is my letter from Roger Tory Peterson, referenced in the article.

Letter from Roger Tory Peterson

This happens to be the very week that I received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association! So with that unexpected and thrilling connection to Peterson,  I have to add one more photo.

Chickadee Approved!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

More about Bird Tongues than a Normal Person Would Want to Know

Ruby-throated Hummingbird sticking out her tongue.
Ruby-throated Hummingbird showing off her tongue.

From the time I was a very little girl, I wondered about bird tongues. Well, actually, I wondered about all tongues. Dog tongues lolled out, dripping with saliva. Cat tongues were scratchy and much drier. My tongue was a big fleshy blob in my mouth and, if I tried paying attention to how it worked, I always ended up biting it. And every time I bit my own tongue, I wondered how birds could possibly not bite their tongues with those pointy, sharp-edged beaks. As I got older, I started figuring out that their tongue might be narrow—maybe even pointed—to fit into their beak, but it still seemed like it would be awful on the occasions when a bird did bite its tongue.

I learned in elementary school science that mammals have taste buds on our tongues. In college, we learned that the tongues of birds are simple structures without the important refinements of mammal tongues, and are virtually devoid of taste buds, so birds have a poorly developed sense of taste, or none at all. Anyone with any insight at all could observe feeding birds making choices based on taste, but they were pooh-poohed by the professionals who could see clearly under the microscope that virtually all bird tongues are, indeed, lacking taste buds. James Rennie wrote, bravely but somewhat hesitatingly, in The Faculties of Birds in 1835:
These facts and many more of a similar kind... fully authorize us, we think, to conclude, that some birds at least are endowed with the faculty of taste; though this is expressly or partially denied by certain authors distinguished for accuracy of observation.
Rennie was right, though it took a long time to establish how, exactly, birds can taste without taste buds on their tongues. In ducks, large numbers of taste buds are found on the tips of the beak, four clusters on the upper and one on the lower, where the food first comes in contact with the mouth. In many birds, the taste buds appear to be located near the salivary glands. This needs a lot more research, but since this blog post is about the tongue, we'll leave taste out of the equation.

Mallard
The inner surfaces of Mallard bills have five major clusters of taste buds.

Tongues of all animals—mammals, birds, reptiles, frogs, and others—are intriguing structures. (I recommend Wikipedia’s article about them ). The tongue, like an elephant’s trunk and a few other boneless muscular structures that are used to manipulate items or move an animal around, is called a muscular hydrostat. (Check out Wikipedia’s article about muscular hydrostats ). These intriguing structures work, in large part, by having two or more sets of paired muscles, one along the length of the tongue, one across the width, and sometimes one or two running diagonally. Muscles work by contracting. When a muscle fiber is relaxed, it reaches its full length and narrowest width, and when it’s working, it pulls in to be shorter and thicker. The muscles of a muscular hydrostat work together, contracting and expanding, to give the animal control over the structure.

But a muscular hydrostat isn't enough for a complex organ like a bird tongue. In all higher vertebrates (including us!) the tongue is supported by a cartilage-and-bone Y-shaped structure called the hyoid apparatus. In birds, that hyoid apparatus is most exquisitely, and weirdly, developed in woodpeckers and hummingbirds, especially those species that stick their tongues out far beyond the tip of their beaks. 

Hyoid bones rest inside a sheath that keeps them lubricated and allows them to slide forward somewhat as the tongue is extended. The base of the hyoid bone (the bottom branch of the Y) extends all the way to the tip of the muscular tongue. The Y forks just in front of the throat, where most of the muscles controlling the hyoid attach. The two horns of the hyoid grow backwards from this area toward the base of the skull, and when they are fully grown, the sheath around them fuses with the skull. Special muscles that originated on the lower jaw attach at the fork of the hyoid to control the tongue. The hyoid horns of some species of woodpeckers are amazingly long, and can grow all the way around the back of the skull up to the top and, in some species, even above the eye socket. Some even extend into the nasal cavity! 

When a baby woodpecker hatches, the hyoid bones are still quite short, not reaching much beyond the base of the skull. A large tongue could get in the way when woodpecker nestlings and young fledglings are being fed by their parents, because they wrap their bill around the parents' bill as the adults regurgitate food into their mouth. I don't have a photo of that, but do have one of me feeding a flicker nestling so you can at least get an idea of how the young woodpecker's mouth works.

Northern Flickers
At this point, the hyoid apparatus isn't fully developed, when a longer tongue would just get in the way anyway.

As the hyoid bone grows, the woodpecker can extend the tongue farther and farther out. In flickers, it will eventually be able to protrude VERY far!

Left: The tongue of a short-tongued woodpecker such as a sapsucker, at rest and protruded. Right: The tongue of a long-tongued woodpecker such as a flicker, at rest and protruded. Notice how much longer the branched horns (in red) of the hyoid are in order to allow it to stick the tongue out so far. This is from a great website debunking anti-evolution groups, the TalkOrigins Archive, which has the best explanation of the hyoid apparatus I've ever read.

From Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife "Living with Wildlife"

A woodpecker or hummingbird’s tongue is as short and wide as it gets when the lateral muscles of the muscle hydrostat are relaxed and the horns of the hyoid bones are pulled all the way into the sheath. That’s when the tongue easily fits within the closed beak, with no risk of the bird biting it.

Here are some illustrations of the upper surface of woodpecker tongues (up to where the hyoid apparatus branches) from F.A. Lucas's1895 monograph, The Tongues of Woodpeckers, for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Division of Ornithology and Mammalogy.



Here is an illustration of the hyoid apparatus (showing just one full branch of the horns each) for an adult and a young flicker and an adult sapsucker. There are also illustrations of the surface of the tongue as it develops in some species. 




The tips of many bird tongues have specialized functions, making them even more complex and fascinating. Researchers of one study published in The Auk (Pascal Villard and Jacques Cuisin, How do woodpeckers extract grubs with their tongues? A study of the Guadeloupe Woodpecker [Melanerpes herminieri] in the French West Indies. The Auk 121(2):509-514. 2004) found that "the Guadeloupe Woodpecker does not spear grubs with its tongue but instead grabs them with the tongue's horny tip, which is barbed and coated with saliva, and pulls them out of the holes."

Flickers have a sticky tongue with a barb at the tip—when a flicker probes the subterranean tunnels of an anthill, a dozen or more ants may adhere to the surface each time the bird pulls in its tongue thanks to the stickiness. But flickers do not live by ants alone. When one hears an insect in the wood of a tree, it can hammer with its bill to make a hole down to the bug, and not have to widen the hole at all—once it exposes the tasty morsel, it can pull back its head and stick in just the thin little tongue to grab the grub and pull it in. Without that extrusive tongue, it would have to make the hole significantly larger in order to probe it with the bill open like a forceps. The tongue allows it to save time and get a higher percentage of food items, since every minute spent hacking into a tree provides more opportunities for a dangerous situation to force the woodpecker to fly off without the meal. I've never taken a photo of a woodpecker's tongue fully extended, but have a few with the tongue out at least a little:

Northern Flicker's tongue
Northern Flicker (Red-shafted)
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Red-bellied Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker

As a birder, whenever I got a momentary glimpse at a bird’s tongue, I was thrilled. But it wasn’t until I started taking pictures that I could get more than a quick look. Some tongues are wonderfully cool to see, especially when you understand enough of the bird’s behavior and diet to make sense of how that species’ tongue evolved. Others seem rather simple. Canada Geese have a human-looking tongue, or, really, one like a grazing mammal’s, because geese are also grazers.

Canada Goose
This Canada Goose disapproves of photographers

The serrations on their bill help them to rip into and pull grass. Geese don’t have teeth, of course, so can’t chew a cud to break down the silica-infused cell walls of grasses to make them more digestible, and as flying creatures, they can’t lug around a heavy cow-like stomach. So geese may eat grass but aren’t efficient at digesting it, as the slippery ground anywhere near a goose feeding area can attest. Their tongue, like ours, simply helps get food from the forward parts of the mouth to the throat.

Canada Goose preening
You can see the bill serrations on this preening goose. This photo would also serve to discuss feathered eyelids, but that's for another blog post.

I’ve not had the luck to ever see or get a photo of a duck’s tongue, but I know that many ducks have extraordinarily bizarre tongues, useful for holding in and swallowing food while straining out water and tiny mud particles.

The huge, bizarre tongue in the middle is that of a Cinnamon Teal! The complex one on the upper right is that of a Red-breasted Merganser. From Leon Gardner's 1925 monograph cited below.

Fortunately, I at least have illustrations of those thanks to a wonderful monograph about bird tongues that I found at a book sale at an ornithological meeting. The Adaptive Modifications and the Taxonomic Value of the Tongue in Birds, by Leon Gardner of the United States Army Medical Corps, was published as part of The Proceedings of the United States Museum in 1925, back when the U.S. government was sincerely focused on science. I managed to get a copy, discarded from the University of British Columbia library, at an AOU meeting back in the 90s. In Gardner’s introduction, he writes:
As is well known the tongue is an exceptionally variable organ in the Class Aves, as is to be expected from the fact that it is so intimately related with the birds’ most important problem, that of obtaining food. For this function it must serve as a probe or spear (woodpeckers and nuthatches), a sieve (ducks), a capillary tube (sunbirds and hummers), a brush (Trichoglossidae [a former taxonomic group for the honey parrots, or lorikeets]), a rasp (vultures, hawks, and owls), as a barbed organ to hold slippery prey (penguins), as a finger (parrots and sparrows), and perhaps as a tactile organ in long-billed birds, such as sandpipers, herons, and the like.
Many of the unique differences among bird tongues have to do with special adaptations of the tip. Woodpeckers, except sapsuckers, have a stiffened barb at the tip. Birds that drink nectar tend to have brushy tips to increase the amount of nectar they can take in.

Hummingbird tongues pull in the fluid in two different ways. Capillary action, the fluid drawn up in grooves along the narrow tongue structure, enhanced by the way the tip of the tongue is split, broadened, and brushy, is probably the less important. The simple act of lapping up the fluid (as well as gulping!) probably brings in a lot more. While feeding, the tongue extends and contracts rapidly—up to 13 times per second. And the two tips sort of cup up to maximize the amount of fluid in each gulp. Even though some hummingbird tongues are partly rolled, rather like a microscopic coffee stirrer, the hummer never “sucks” up the fluid. Russ Thompson's amazing YouTube video shows hummingbird tongue action as well as you're ever going to see it.



Sapsuckers, like hummingbirds, specialize on fluids, and the brushy tip to the tongue allows them to collect more fluid each time their tongue protrudes into a sap well. Cape May Warblers also feed on fluids, visiting sapsucker drill holes and also sometimes bird feeders with jelly or sugar water. And sure enough, unlike most warblers, their tongue has a brushy tip.

Cape May Warbler
Yes! My brushy tongue does help me lap up sugar water!

The tongues of six nectar or fruit-eating birds. 1. American Robin. 2. Cape May Warbler. 3. Venezuelan Troupial (same genus as many of our orioles).4. Green Honeycreeper. 5. Bananaquit. 6. Micronesian Myzomela (a honeyeater).

When I became a bird rehabber, I got my first opportunities to look carefully into the mouths of living birds. When I fed baby Blue Jays and robins, I could see that the tip of their tongue—what looks to us like the main surface—is shaped like an arrow, allowing it to neatly rest on the floor of the lower bill. That tip rests on the muscular hydrostat--the main tongue, which looks like a muscular stalk rooted to the floor of the mouth. That stalk controls the tongue to manipulate food items and then, when swallowing a large item such as a fruit, the bird can lift the widened back part of the arrow-like tip to help it pull the food item to the back of the mouth and down the hatch.

I took the following photos at the Reifel Migratory Bird Sanctuary in Vancouver this fall, on a dim, rainy day, so the photos are very grainy and poor, but oh, well. You can see the "arrowhead" tongue tip, and a bit of the supporting "stalk" (the main, muscular part of the tongue) below. The tiny spines on the surface of the roof of the mouth point in, helping keep the berry or crabapple from moving forward.

American Robin swallowing fruit using its tongue
Here you can see the flat "arrowhead" tongue tip. Where it rests on the main, muscular tongue is a little obscure but visible. 

American Robin swallowing fruit using its tongue
See the spiny roof of the mouth that keeps the fruit from moving forward as the robin works it down.

American Robin swallowing fruit using its tongue
Now you can see the whole "arrowhead"

American Robin swallowing fruit using its tongue
From this angle you can see the muscular tongue holding up the arrowhead. The wide part of the tongue tip, along with the muscular base, pushes the fruit down the hatch.

American Robin eating fruit
Keep pushing!

American Robin swallowing fruit using its tongue
Almost down the hatch!


American Robin eating fruit
Yum!

Waxwings swallow fruit in the same way.

Cedar Waxwing tongue
You can see the supporting "stalk" or muscular part of the tongue supporting the tip. 

Cedar Waxwing tongue
Same thing from another angle

 Not all birds need to manipulate their food with a tongue, and for some of them, any normal tongue would get in the way. Swallows and nightjars fly into most food items at high speed, their food going straight down the hatch. Swallows use their tongue for manipulating nest materials and, in some cases, eating other items, so although it’s somewhat reduced, their tongue is still functional. But nightjars use their feet to scrape out a little nest spot on the ground, and eat nothing more than flying insects. Their tongue is nothing more than a tiny vestigial flap in the back of the mouth.

Fred the Common Nighthawk
"Fred the education nighthawk" His tongue is just a tiny flap that you can't see from this angle.

Birds that gulp fish down whole, such as loons, herons, and pelicans, need their tongue to get out of the way while swallowing.

American White Pelican
The tongue is just that thickened blob at the base of the throat--the rest is all pouch!
Great Blue Heron
The gray tip of the tongue and pink fleshier area with side "horns" is the forward part of the tongue, attached to the most muscular area. The little processes that we can see are not related to the hyoid, but are simply part of the complex tongue shape that allows it to use the tongue for manipulating nesting materials and manipulating fish to swallow them head first. 

Most birds that carry fish back to the nest to feed their young use their feet to carry one fish at a time (like Bald Eagles and Osprey), or eat the fish first and regurgitate them to their young (like herons). Herons can regurgitate a dozen fish or more onto the nest floor for their young to grab. Terns can easily carry one small fish at a time back to the nest. They usually nest on the shoreline fairly close to good fishing areas.

Puffins pursue fish many miles from the nest. They don’t regurgitate food, and can’t manage very large fish, so in order to provide enough food for their young, they must carry as many fish at a time as possible. The normal catch is about a dozen fish per trip, but Audubon’s Project Puffin website cites a record-breaking puffin carrying 62 fish in Great Britain! (I wish I had a photo of a puffin carrying fish.)

It’s fascinating to see puffins flying with so many fish, and even more thrilling to realize that they caught them one by one. How is it possible to catch a fish when you already have 5 or 10 in your beak? Puffins have several important mouth adaptations to accomplish this amazing feat. First, the soft gape where the upper and lower mandibles join is stretchable, allowing the edges of the bill to be parallel even when holding fish. The ability to hold the bill edges parallel and the strong hook at the front of the bill keep fish from getting sliced or falling out. When a puffin catches the first fish, it holds its specially adapted, slightly spiny muscular tongue against the roof of the mouth, which bears longer spines pointed backward to hold the fish in place as it catches the second, and then the third, and on and on. That muscular tongue is just the right tool, working with the specialized bill and the perfectly appointed roof of the mouth.

Atlantic Puffin
The perfectly appointed puffin!
Here are some random photos of other bird tongues:

California Condor
Condors use their muscular, somewhat raspy tongue to shovel blobs of dead animals down the hatch. In other words, they use their tongue much as we humans use ours.

Gray Jay
Gray Jays have amazing salivary glands that can coat meat that they cache with a gluey saliva, protecting it from decaying. Their tongue helps them swallow food, push food into their throat pouch, or retrieve the food out of that pouch.

Red-breasted Nuthatch
Nuthatches use the noticeably barbed tip of the tongue to probe into tree crevices.

I got my greatest insights into bird tongues, in a most visceral sense, when I rehabbed a fledgling Pileated Woodpecker. That's when I learned not just how long their tongue is, but how they use it to probe about in tunnels, feeling their way where bugs might be. I do not know a single person who got the inside scoop on Pileated Woodpecker tongues the way I did, but this was in the 1990s before I was doing much photography, so you'll have to take my word on this. My little Gepetto liked to sit on my arm, his beak inches from my ear, and stick his tongue right in, running it around every fold. I don’t know if he was optimistically rooting around for grubs, curious about ears that stick out so bizarrely and un-aerodynamically, practicing his tongue technique, or what, but I’m still the only person I’ve ever known who was French-kissed in the ear by a Pileated Woodpecker.

Tom and Gepetto
Even young boys know better than to let a Pileated Woodpecker within reach of their ears. This is Gepetto, but my son Tommy is wisely keeping his distance.