Inquiring readers: Victoria Grossack, FCAS, the author of this piece and an actuary, sent this highly interesting article about Jane Austen and mathematics, a first topic for this blog. Enjoy!
Janeites esteem Jane Austen as a literary genius. Her characters are exquisitely drawn and her dialogue can be wickedly funny. She also uses the stream of consciousness technique before it became popular. All devotees know her novels are classics.
What about Austen as a mathematician, however? She never promotes herself in this regard. Like most female authors in her day, she doesn’t promote herself at all, not even putting her name on her novels – but in her writing, her mathematical abilities are evident. In fact, she uses math in a way that would make most actuaries proud. (Note: Actuaries are specialized mathematicians who generally work for insurance companies, which is relevant to some of the math Austen uses.)
All animals do it, even though talking about it is not considered polite. We humans have sanitized rooms (or not) with air fresheners and running water. Remember how, when the pandemic struck, one of the emergencies was a run on toilet paper? Birds, mostly very different from us, have a different approach to the process. Here are five droppings about bird poop.
1. Bird droppings are important for spreading seeds. When a bird eats a berry, it often digests the fleshy part, but the seed passes through its system intact. When the seed comes out, along with the rest of the poop, the fecal material, which has a lot of nitrogen, serves as fertilizer. Because birds fly, this gives some plants the chance to spread their seeds far and wide. In fact, some plants, such as the wild cherry and the bird cherry, depend on birds to scatter potential offspring.
2. Humans also value bird poop as fertilizer. When bird (and bat) poop is used as fertilizer, it gets the fancier term “guano”. It turns out that the best bird poop for fertilizer is produced by seabirds, probably because they eat mostly fish. And one of the best known places for guano is a group of islands off of Peru, the Chincha Islands, which have a LOT of seabirds (the most common birds are Guanay Cormorants, Peruvian Pelicans, and Peruvian Boobies). I have ridden in a boat past these islands, which are whitish with droppings and still very stinky. The guide explained that only a few people were allowed on those islands, working to export the guano. This Audubon piece details how Peru currently harvests 21,000 tons per year from the Chincha Islands.
3. Guano islands can be of national importance. The Chincha Islands (Islas Chinchas) was of such strategic significance that Spain started a war (1865-1866) over these islands as it tried to take them back from their colonies. The United States even passed a law in 1856 allowing (encouraging!) U.S. citizens to take possession of unclaimed islands with guano deposits. The islands could be anywhere in the world, and were considered eligible as long as they were unclaimed and unoccupied (by humans, that is; birds were OK). Why was this so important? Because the guano was good, not just for fertilizer, but for saltpeter. As saltpeter was a critical ingredient in gunpowder, guano was a strategic reserve.
4. Birds poop differently than humans do. First, birds generally have fewer orifices in the nether regions. Human males have two, one for urination/reproduction and a second for poop, while human females have three, one dedicated to urination, a second orifice for poop, and a third for reproduction. Birds, however, usually have just a single orifice for all these functions, called the cloaca (note that some species, such as ostriches, cassowaries and geese, actually have phalluses). In order to reproduce, male and female birds rub their cloaca together to transfer sperm. Second, birds seem to be relaxed about voiding; they can even do it while flying.
5. Some birds clean their nests. Although places such as the Chincha Islands are literally known and protected for their guano, and obviously the birds using these islands don’t mind the great quantities of guano (the Peruvian booby even uses guano in the construction of its nesting sites), many birds are more fastidious. The nestlings produce fecal sacs, and some parents make a point of removing the fecal sacs. Why, exactly? It could be to reduce the smell, which could attract predators. On the other wing, some parents consume their offspring’s droppings, presumably because the droppings still contain some nutrition.
Enough about poop for the day! Thanks for dropping by.
Victoria Grossack is the author of the Crow Nickels, of which two volumes are available: Hunters of the Feather and Scavengers of Mind. They are about Sol, a thinker-linker crow who has a quest to save the Great Flock from climate change. “Try, and again try, till you win or till you die.” Junkyard Abner, Hunters of the Feather
Over the last several decades, humans have grown more accustomed to the idea of different parenting strategies. It turns out that birds have been using different parenting strategies for forever. Note that in one of my Crow Nickel novels, Hunters of the Feather, we learn that the Great Mother Bird let the breeding pairs choose different gifts to increase their chances of survival when the land was breaking apart. Of course, that’s fiction. But reality is just as wonderful and full of variety.
Cooperative parenting. I have to start with my crows, of course! Crows and many other corvids don’t chase off their chicks, but encourage offspring from prior clutches to stick around to help raise the next few years’ worth of nestlings. The helper crows learn how to take care of chicks, while the breeding pair gets babysitting.
Communal parenting. Ostriches prepare a scrape, their version of a nest, which is really just a scrape in the ground, so it’s aptly named. Several females will lay eggs in it. The females incubate the eggs during the day, while the males tend to the scrape at night.
Male-female pairs, in shifts, with the assistance of the community. The Emperor penguins of Antarctica take this approach, bonding with a mate, but also using the flock for assistance. After the female lays the egg, the male takes it between his webbed feet to keep it warm. Then the females go off to fish – this requires a long waddle to the water, and then time at sea – while the males huddle together and keep moving for warmth. Then the females return and take over.
Male-female pairs, with less reliance on the community. More penguins! African penguins (check out my review of Penguin Town) breed in Africa, so they do not have to huddle together for warmth (instead, these days, heat is a danger). Therefore, they form pairs that each raises a pair of chicks. The parents take turns fishing to feed themselves and to return to the nest to feed and to tend the chicks.
The parents share, but their duties are not the same. For example, female robins do the incubating, but the males help with feeding. This sounds very like the traditional human arrangement.
Female going it alone. In the tropics, where insects are plentiful, females often tend their nests themselves. Some males may perform elaborate dances to persuade a female they are worthy. See Dancing with the Birds for great examples of this! But in many species, females – such as hummingbirds – go it alone. This is easier to do when they live in places where insects are plentiful.
Males raising the young. Females, by definition, lay the eggs, but they sometimes leave them for the males to incubate and to raise. This is true of emus; the fathers raise the young.
Male-male pair bonds. Black swan families have many male-male pair bonds. They will invite a female for reproduction, because, by definition, you need a lady for eggs. However, after that they chase her off and raise the chicks themselves.
As there are something like 10,000 species of birds, I’m certain these are just a few parenting strategies. Note that these are explored in Scavengers of Mind, the newest volume in the Crow Nickels and a sequel to Hunters to the Feather.
As there are something like 10,000 different species, the answer, not surprisingly, is “it depends.” First, it’s hard to get a good answer on birds in nature, because they don’t have birth certificates. You need to tag them and track them over a number of years to discover the answer. Birds in captivity are easier to follow, but their longevity can be impacted by many things. They may live longer due to a lack of risk factors; they may die earlier because they are stressed by being held captive.
Just like infant mortality is often measured separately for humans, the first year of life for a bird is especially dangerous. Eggs, hatchlings, nestlings and fledglings all lack the ability and the experience to protect themselves. Before they can fly, they are the prey of the many – raccoons, other birds, their fellow nestlings (who push them out of the nest) and especially cats. Those who can fly may still make fatal mistakes in their first year. After that, however, lifespan can be measured differently.
Now let’s start by considering different species. Bird lovers are especially excited by “Wisdom” a 70-year-old Laysan albatross who nests on one of the Midway islands. She recently became a mother again. (Note that a bit of research published in 1988 shows that back then the longest-lived Laysan albatross was 37 years and 5 months – evidence that these sort of projects take years and needs to be followed for generations.)
The birds in the Parrot family are longer-lived than many. In captivity they can live between 40-60 years. Alex (named for Animal Learning EXperiment) was a grey parrot who lived “only” to the age of 31. His last words, the night before he died, to his trainer were “You be good, I love you. See you tomorrow.”
Smaller birds live shorter lives than larger birds. Hummingbirds in the wild tend to live between 3 to 5 years. I have often wondered about hummingbirds, and if the passage of time is somehow “variable” to them. I have only seen them during the day, when they seem to be living a sort of accelerated life, their wings flapping so hard that they hover and hum. It’s almost as if they’re on speed, which, I suppose, if you’re living off of little insects (they do consume these) and sugar water (nectar), is how you would react. On the other wing, at night, when the temperatures drop, so do they, going into torpor, in which their bodies slow down in order to conserve energy.
The common ostrich, one of the largest birds, has a lifespan of 40 to 45 years. The eggs are vulnerable, of course, but they are guarded by the community. A scrape (the “nest” but it is really just a scrape in the ground) will contain about twenty eggs, with the dominant female laying first and the other females laying afterwards. The eggs are incubated by the females during the day and the males during the day. And, if you are a human wanting an ostrich for a meal, you’ll only want one – and you’ll have to have a party when you crack it open, as one egg weighs 3.1 pounds.
What about all the other birds, the regular birds, the normal birds? The European robin has an expected lifespan of 1.1 years, but once you take out the first year, when mortality is so high, they live about 19 years. The longest-living American robin (that is known) is about 14 years in the wild.
Besides the threats in the first year that are true of nearly every species, some things kill birds en masse. Penguin chicks have died of starvation. West Nile virus has been terrible for some species of birds (crows, magpies and jays). Some migratory birds have died of starvation, while others have hit buildings.
The number of birds in North America has dropped by billions over the last five decades. Humans are happier when we see birds. Birds are also the canaries in the coal mine, letting us know when conditions are dangerous. And of course, birds, as the descendants of dinosaurs, are just plain cool. We need for them to stay alive, so let us all Live Long and Prosper.
Abner’s voice was raspy, and when he hopped into the sunlight, Sol saw that his feet were gnarled; his plumage, instead of the glossy black of most adult crows, was faded; some of the feathers at his neck were almost white. But the old crow’s eyes were still bright and dark and they twinkled as he surveyed the four young birds. “Your parents are the most successful breeders in the region,” Abner croaked. “Bet you didn’t know that, did you?”Hunters of the Feather
Hunters of the Feather is available on Audible, and wherever you usually get your stories. But I (Victoria Grossack) did not do the narration. Instead I teamed up with Eklund Gray, a man with a wonderful voice. Here are his answers to the questions I posed on the narration.
Tell us about yourself and your experience outside of narrating stories. Eklund Gray: I’ve been an avid reader all my life, and really began getting into audiobooks about 10 years ago. I was a “theater geek” in my younger days, performing in plays, skits, children’s shows, and even pursuing some professional acting gigs after high school, but Life took me in another direction. My other interests (in Art and Computers) led me to become a designer, and eventually, a web designer starting in the early 2000s. I’ve been happily working in that field for almost 20 years now.
How long have you been narrating stories? Eklund Gray: Not long! I would be fascinated to know how many folks began investigating audiobook narration as a result of the COVID quarantine, which is how I decided to give it a try myself. (Note from the editor: given the backlog at Audible for getting this approved, we know that a lot of folks tried it out.)
What made you apply to narrate Hunters of the Feather? Eklund Gray: Interesting question; anyone who is familiar with the ACX website knows that there is a vast repository of content waiting for narration — so what is the mysterious chemistry that brings together a specific work and a narrator? I think the cover art caught my design eye first off but the story concept itself just seemed really fascinating. The idea of a story told from a non-human point-of-view sounded like an exciting challenge.
Is there a section of Hunters of the Feather that you especially enjoyed? Eklund Gray: I certainly don’t want to divulge any spoilers, but I have to say the climax of the book was a powerful one-two punch, for me. Two aspects come to a head in different but powerful ways: Sol achieves a significant thinker-linker achievement, but then has to face the consequences of his actions and idealism in his “everyday” life (as do we all). As with the best stories of any kind, I found myself getting emotionally swept up as it all unfolded!
Are you a bird lover? Do you have any special stories about you and birds? Eklund Gray: I take early morning walks and have seen a variety of birds, including an owl — which was especially thrilling, as it swooped noiselessly over my head! — and I enjoy animals of all kinds, but I’m not sure if that qualifies me as a “lover”… ha! I think this book will get me to begin putting out bird feeders on my property again, a habit I stopped a few years ago when I moved from a different part of the country. The book has definitely made me more curious about corvids, and I will no doubt do more reading about them.
Is there anything special you do to help the environment? Eklund Gray: My current employer is a certified B Corporation, and provides support and incentives for environmental initiatives and sustainability of all kinds. Each month we have a “sustainability challenge” with tasks, both big and small, that can help minimize our human impact on the natural world. It has been both fun and rewarding, and I consider myself lucky to be able to participate in these activities in a meaningful way.
Thanks so much, Eklund, for contributing to the Crow Nickels!
“To answer that question, we need to start at the beginning, with the Urvogel – the world’s very first bird. The Urvogel was not a crow, mind you, but the bird from which all other birds are descended. She lived on a beautiful island – the biggest island the world has ever known – the only land the world had at the time. … the Urvogel was the origin of flight, of feathers,and of wisdom; she was the Great Mother Bird of all of us.” Hunters of the Feather
Corvids consist of crows, ravens, jays, magpies and treepies. They are considered among the most intelligent of birds (the parrot family is also pretty bright). New Caledonian crows are said to be among the most intelligent, with several being studied (by a real live princess! Auguste Marie Philippa, Prinzessin von Bayern!) in Austria. Yeah, that’s Austria, which is about half the world away from New Caledonia, a collectivity of France in the southwest Pacific ocean. They test crows for intelligence there, too, but I’m more familiar with the studies in Haidl, Austria.
The construction of novel compound tools through assemblage of otherwise non-functional elements involves anticipation of the affordances of the tools to be built. Except for few observations in captive great apes, compound tool construction is unknown outside humans, and tool innovation appears late in human ontogeny. We report that habitually tool-using New Caledonian crows (Corvus moneduloides) can combine objects to construct novel compound tools. We presented 8 naïve crows with combinable elements too short to retrieve food targets. Four crows spontaneously combined elements to make functional tools, and did so conditionally on the position of food. One of them made 3- and 4-piece tools when required.
Here’s more research, showing that crows are not just good at tool use, but that successful tool use improves their mood! Yeah, how do you tell if a bird is in a good mood? The scientists have a way for determining that, using a glass half-full (optimism, good mood) versus glass half-empty (pessimism, bad mood) approach, where the half-full glass is replaced by an ambiguously situated box.
Do crows also make art? Some people think so:
Stuart Dahlquist is in Seattle, so I assume the crows are as well, despite the German writing on the ashtray.
Watching a crow eagerly eye me for a peanut, I can’t help but wonder what it’s thinking about. Is it thinking the same thing as its flock mate, or is it having its own experience? Is it aware of me? Of itself? The conscious experience is such a fundamental part of humanity, it’s nearly impossible for most of us to envision life without it. And by extension, its hard for us to imagine that animals don’t experience consciousness too. But the fact remains that scientifically investigating consciousness, especially in non-human animals, has been slow and contentious. Among birds, this research has been all the more elusive. Which is why a study looking at subjective consciousness in carrion crows by Nieder et al. (2020)1 made an enormous splash this past fall, and resulted in a lot of misleading headlines. So why has consciousness been so difficult to study and how did this team attempt to do it?
What they found is that like primates, crows exhibit a two-stage process, where neuronal activity during Stage I mostly reflects the intensity of the physical stimulus, followed by a second spike in activity that reflected their perception. The patterns of activity in Stage II were so consistent, that the researchers could predict whether the crows would say they saw the light or not by looking at this activity alone. Most importantly, while the responses of the two birds were the same if the light intensity was bright and unambiguous, when shown faint lights, the two birds responded differently. Meaning that despite being shown the exact same stimulus, the two birds had different subjective experiences of whether they had seen it or not. There were also instances of false positives, where the birds indicated that they had seen a light that wasn’t really there. In these cases their brains behaved during Stage II just as they did when they had actually seen a bright light. This is important because it further demonstrates that the brain activity the researchers were measuring correlated with the crows’ subjective experience, rather than as a result of the intensity of the stimulus itself.
Corvid research blog
And crows like to have fun!
And there’s a great example of training crows to pick up trash at a theme park in France. Of course they have less work these days because of the pandemic.
This is just a small sample of the examples of crow and corvid intelligence, and the reason I was inspired to start the Crow Nickels. More examples later!
“Which is first, bird or egg?” Sol asked. … But the creature, after crunching up and swallowing down its snack, answered Sol’s question. There is no first; there is no last; life is a circle; it has always been a circle. Egg to bird to egg to bird. And around again. Hunters of the Feather
This blog has been posted for the 12 Days of Christmas. The 12 days of Christmas, according to Western traditions, run from Christmas Day through January 5, which is the day before Epiphany. Epiphany, if you need a reminder, or if you never knew, is when Western Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi who presented valuable gifts to the infant, Jesus.
However, I’m not here to explain Christian traditions, but to talk about the birds in the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas.” The song has many birds: one partridge, two turtle doves, three French hens, four calling birds, six geese a-laying, and seven swimming swans. The rest of the gifts are either five golden rings – perhaps the recipient only had one hand? – or a bunch of people. What would true love do with leaping lords? Are the birds more practical gifts? Perhaps the birds were meant to be eaten?
The gift on day one is a partridge in a pear tree. Partridges have certainly been eaten a lot, but you don’t actually find them in pear trees, as they stay on the ground. Nor would a pear tree have any leaves in winter. One suggestion is that the inexplicable pear tree comes from the French word, perdrix, which means partridge. Perdrix sounds very much like “pear tree.”
The two turtledoves make a gift that needs little explanation. A pair of turtledoves used to be a common symbol of a new couple, as they made such a strong pair bond. However, in northern Europe, they wouldn’t normally be around during the Christmas season, as they migrate south for the winter. On the other hand, perhaps the true love kept turtle doves as a hobby – or for food. Certainly humans consumed plenty of squabs in the past.
Three French hens are given on the third day of Christmas. Certainly these would have been consumed, unless they produced eggs – a possibility as hens and not roosters are specified.
Four calling birds comprise the gift for the fourth day. Most people these days assume these are songbirds, which would certainly make a nice gift. Who wouldn’t like singing birds? However, there’s another interpretation, in which the “four calling birds” is a corruption of “four colly birds.” Colly used to mean coal colored. Perhaps these were my dear crows?
We skip over the fifth day, golden rings, to the six geese a-laying. Everyone knows geese were eaten, and there’s no reason their eggs wouldn’t be eaten either. In fact, goose eggs are larger, fattier and more nutrient-rich than chicken eggs. The eggs have a more intense flavor, however, so may not appeal to everyone.
The last species of bird mentioned in the song is on day seven, the seven swans a-swimming. Swans have always been perceived as elegant, and for a long time they were rare, so eating them was only permitted for royals and a privileged few. Seven swans a-swimming would have been a very precious gift. Nowadays, they are rarely consumed, although given how they are proliferating – they are not endangered at all – perhaps that will change.
May you enjoy the rest of the Christmas season!
Saffira reported on other local species that were suffering, species the azure jay knew had experienced great losses to their flocks. “The ochre-marked parakeets, the golden parakeets, the seven-colored tanagers, the three-toed jacamars – all lost many members to starvation since just the last solstice, and parents have trouble feeding their chicks. No one has seen a Spix’s macaw for years, although I’ve heard a few are held captive by the humans,” finished Saffira. Hunters of the Feather
There are many warnings about pollution, the climate crisis, and all that we humans are doing to harm the environment. These warnings are well-deserved, because the dangers are real.
However, so many dire warnings can be discouraging. Isn’t anything getting better? Yes, some things are. Take a look at the following from Science Daily: “U.S. pollution regulations meant to protect humans from dirty air are also saving birds. So concludes a new continent wide study published today in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Study authors found that improved air quality under a federal program to reduce ozone pollution may have averted the loss of 1.5 billion birds during the past 40 years. That’s nearly 20 percent of birdlife in the United States today. The study was conducted by scientists at Cornell University and the University of Oregon.
“Our research shows that the benefits of environmental regulation have likely been underestimated,” says Ivan Rudik, a lead author and Ruth and William Morgan Assistant Professor at Cornell’s Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management. “Reducing pollution has positive impacts in unexpected places and provides an additional policy lever for conservation efforts.”
It’s not just the regulations, of course. By reducing our consumption of fossil fuels, by wearing clothes that keep us warm or cool, depending on the season so that we don’t need to use heating or air-conditioning, we are keeping the air cleaner.
What about wind turbines? Are they good or bad for birds? Well, it’s true some birds die from wind turbines, they are killed much more often by pollution, building, and, alas, cats.
There are some birds safe from cats, such as the albatross, too large and too far away. From Wikipedia on the albatross: “Albatrosses are the most efficient travelers of all vertebrates on the planet. They expend zero energy soaring hundreds of miles over the ocean each day using dynamic soaring and slope soaring. They have a tendon in each shoulder locking their wings fully-extended, so once aloft and soaring across a fair breeze they never need to flap their wings. Like some vultures they hunt by smell, sensitive to the odor of carrion and other biological processes.”
Rüppell’s vulture (Gyps rueppelli), also called Rüppell’s griffon vulture, named after Eduard Rüppell, is a large bird of prey, mainly native to the Sahel region and East Africa. The current population of 22,000 is decreasing due to loss of habitat, incidental poisoning, and other factors. Known also as Rüppell’s griffon, Rueppell’s griffon, Rüppell’s griffin vulture, Rueppell’s vulture and other variants, it is not to be confused with a different species, the griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus). Rüppell’s vulture is considered to be the highest-flying bird, with confirmed evidence of a flight at an altitude of 11,300 m (37,000 ft) above sea level.
These birds are brightening up the skies that we have made a little cleaner for them. Of course, I must include a photo of an Alpine chough, the highest flying corvid, a cousin to my crows.
On sunny days, through the dark green needles, Sol could see clouds in the blue, blue sky. “How high can you fly, Father? As high as those clouds?” Father laughed, and said he could not, although some species of birds could fly that high. Like the alpine chough, a type of corvid that lived in faraway mountains. – Hunters of the Feather
Biodiversity is important everywhere, to humans as well as to birds. Healthy waters – fresh, salt, and in-between – enables a healthy planet. Here are excerpts from three articles showcasing different activities.
Centered around the small archipelago of Tristan da Cunha in the Southern Atlantic, governments and ecological organizations have created the fourth-largest marine protected area on Earth, and the largest in the Atlantic Ocean.
Spanning 265,347 square miles, Tristan da Cunha is almost three times as big as the island of Great Britain, and will protect tens of millions of native and migratory birds, rare migratory sharks, whales, seals, golden undersea forests of kelp, and penguins—collectively valued as a UNESCO World Heritage Site—from illegal mining, fishing, and other extractive activities.
The government of the small UK territorial island announced on Thursday that, in partnership with the UK government, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and National Geographic’s Pristine Seas Initiative, it would conserve its surrounding oceans to help achieve the goal to “secure protection of 30% of the world’s oceans by 2030.”
In a historic move to resurrect the largest dam removal project in the U.S., Oregon, California, the Yurok Tribe and the Karuk Tribe signed an agreement on Tuesday to push forward on dam removal.
The dam removal project is essential to the tribes in the region — the Klamath River on the Oregon-California border — and will reopen hundreds of miles of river access to salmon that have been blocked for more than a century, in what is seen as one of the largest salmon restoration attempts in U.S. history. The removal would drain large reservoirs and reshape California’s second-largest river.
When the Antarctic blue whale – the largest and loudest animal on the planet – was all but wiped out by whaling 50 years ago, the waters around South Georgia fell silent.
Twenty years of dedicated whale surveys from ships off the sub-Antarctic island between 1998 and 2018 resulted in only a single blue whale sighting. But a whale expedition this year and analysis by an international research team resulted in 58 blue whale sightings and numerous acoustic detections, raising hopes that the critically endangered mammal is finally recovering five decades after whaling was banned.
These efforts make such a difference. If you know of more, please let me know.
As he saw through his host’s eyes, he was again bewildered. He supposed his host was in a tree, but it was a tree unlike any he had ever seen, with long droopy branches, and something hanging from them. Were those leaves? He had never seen any leaves like those. And the tree, bizarrely, was not standing on land but in water — could trees do that? Hunters of the Feather