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Favorite bird?

Let us introduce this blog with a typical icebreaker question: "What's your favorite ___?"

I've had many people ask me what my favorite bird is. It has always been a question that leaves me stunned--- what to say? There are so many choices.

For example, Indian peafowl, my first "favorite bird". More specifically, the male, what most people would call a peacock. Big, showy, the iridescent indigo on its neck, even the long train full of ocelli, or eyespots that used to scare me as a kid (but it grew on me with time).

Or the white-breasted nuthatch, one of the first birds I was able to properly identify. Its presence at feeders was charming as it was territorial--- nuthatches have a flamboyant threat display where the bird will open its wings and tail, revealing these flashy white patches, and sway back and forth while beating its wings. All while upside down! They are one of the few birds that can walk down the side of trees, unlike the creepers and woodpeckers that walk up. They can do this because of their extra-long back toe, aka the hallux, which they hang off the bark by.

Here's another one of my favorite's: the chimney swift. Looking at their plumage, they look quite dull, with their dusky gray-ish brown feathers. But their flying abilities are extraordinary. Swifts spend most of their lives in the air: drinking, bathing, catching bugs while flying, even courting and mating! The only time they ever settle down is when they roost or nest. And while historically they would rest in tree hollows, the invention of the chimney provided them with a better home. Now, almost all swifts nest and roost in chimneys, hence their name. Fun fact: they build their nests with saliva!

Another one of my favorite birds is the yellow-bellied sapsucker. Unlike most woodpeckers, sap composes the bulk of their diet, getting them from sap wells they drill in trees. They drill two types--- deep, circular wells into a tree's xylem, the inner part of the trunk. They do this during the spring as they move up the tree. During the fall, when the trees lose their leaves, they drill shallower, rectangular wells into the tree's phloem, the part of the trunk that carries sap down from the leaves. This type of well is regularly maintained to keep the sap flowing. The sap that sapsuckers expose is food for many animals in the ecosystem, like migrating hummingbirds, bats, spiders, and others. Their niche is vital and unique, which is what I like about them.

My second place would go to the vulture. I love them, also, for niche-related reasons. Vultures act as a sort of janitor for the environment. Their stomach acids, which are highly corrosive, can kill a whole range of diseases, such as tuberculosis, cholera, and even rabies! So, whenever they scavenge on a corpse, they're killing the diseases on that corpse that may otherwise spread into the environment. While many people view them as dirty birds, they're actually quite hygienic, their bare heads keeping them clean alongside their stomach acids. My personal favorite is the bearded vulture, whose digestive system, containing an acid that has a pH level lower than battery acid, enables them to dissolve bones in less than 24 hours!

But none of these birds aren't my all-time favorite. That place would probably go to the crow. The whole genus Corvus, from the New Caledonian Crow to the American Crow. They're quite plain--- no iridescent feathers, no eye candy colors, and you can find them just about everywhere. They lack the showiness of the peacock and the aerial abilities of a swift. But they have a trait that they exceed every other bird in--- adaptability. As Charles Darwin stated, "it is not the most intellectual of the species that survives; it is not the strongest that survives; but the species that survives is the one that is able best to adapt and adjust to the changing environment in which it finds itself."

And the crow certainly represents that--- with their large forebrains, they have a flexibility in their behavior that allows them to quickly adapt to any kind of environment, whether it be an urban city or a boreal forest. Crows are birds of innovation, capable of tool use, a trait that only primates were thought to possess. The complexity of their social life is really quite incredible--- they play, constantly talk with their flock mates, and even maintain a long-lasting relationship with their parents, something most birds do not do.

In fact, they engage in alloparenting, which is when offspring are cared for individuals that aren't their parents. Older brothers, sisters, even neighbors help each other to raise their offspring each breeding season. They have been observed holding "funerals" for birds that have died. They can even recognize faces, and can even pass down information through generations (see the study done by John Marzluff).

Though these black birds are usually seen in media as dreary, bleak symbols of death, I think they're one of the most amazing animals to exist on the planet, a window into how much we can underestimate animals and their intelligence.

Well, there you go, some of my favorite birds and why. Signing off for now, Amber.


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