It makes sense that so many humans would feel such a fondness for birds, because the avian world is so vast. And with more than 10,000 described bird species in the world, some of them are bound to be a little unusual. But sometimes it’s the unusual that we find so lovable.
So from the weirdly wild to the wackily wonderful, here are 10 fun facts about some of our beloved feathered friends.
Crows hold funerals
Mourning is not well understood in the animal kingdom, but evidence suggests that some animals grieve in ways similar to humans. Elephants are the most well-known example, but crows also recognize death by holding funerals for their dead.
Words to know
Ambush: A surprise attack from a hidden position.
Avian: Relating to birds.
Impale: To pierce with a sharp object
Regurgitate: To bring swallowed food up to the mouth.
Theory: A set of principles on which an idea or activity is based.
A crow funeral is much like a human funeral. The birds will gather around a fallen crow and call to each other and pay close attention to their fallen peer. However, why they do it is not quite the same as human funerals.
While humans gather to mourn and remember lost loved ones, crows appear to do it to evaluate whether there is a threat to them. They aren’t mourning so much as investigating whether their fellow crow died from something that could also pose a danger to other crows. Crows aren’t alone in this behavior. It’s common among corvids, a group of highly intelligent birds that also includes ravens, magpies and jays.
Hummingbirds can fly backward and hover in place
Teeny, tiny hummingbirds are a sight to behold, and their flight skills are nothing short of spectacular. They can, of course, fly forward and up and down, but they can also fly backward and even hover in place, the only bird with this capability.
It has been said that hummingbirds’ impressive flight capabilities inspired helicopters, but there is no proof of this. It is true, though, that researchers are studying how hummingbirds’ flight capabilities might make drones more efficient.
Some birds cover themselves in ants
Many birds, particularly songbirds, are known to engage in a behavior called “anting.” This is when the birds pick up ants in their bills and then wipe or rub them on their feathers, often repeating the process with many ants at a time. This unusual behavior has been observed in more than 200 bird species, including cardinals, robins, crows, great horned owls and wild turkeys.
Why birds do this isn’t exactly understood, but researchers believe it may have to do with maintaining their feathers. It also may help control parasites and other organisms on their feathers.
Anting is most common in late summer and early fall, when many birds are molting, so scientists believe it may have to do with soothing their irritated skin when their feathers are quickly being replaced. And while ants are the most common choice for anting, other insects have been used as well, including beetles and millipedes.
Owls swallow some of their food whole
Birds don’t have teeth, so they rely on other means of eating and digesting their food. In the case of owls, they swallow small prey like mice and voles whole, letting their digestive system do the work of separating the digestible and non-digestible parts. The bits they can’t digest, like feathers and bones, collect in their gizzard, a muscular part of a birds’ stomach.
And how do all those undigestible bits come out? The same way they went in. The owl’s gizzard will contract all those bits to squeeze out most of the liquid, then the owl regurgitates the pellet. Regurgitating pellets isn’t unique to owls. Many other birds do it as well, including other birds of prey, egrets, herons and kingfishers. When an owl’s catch is too big to swallow whole, they simply rip it into pieces, swallowing the smaller-sized chunks.
Northern shrikes impale their food
Life in the animal kingdom isn’t always cute, and that’s certainly the case with northern shrikes. These birds are unusual among songbirds in that they often eat small birds and mammals, along with insects. They don’t always eat their catch right away, though. Sometimes they store it for later, which they do in an unusual way.
Shrikes are ambush hunters, catching their prey with their feet and then diving to the ground with it to finish killing the animal. When they aren’t prepared to eat their catch, they look for a sharp object — barbed wire, a sharp stick or branch or something similar — and impale it so they can keep it safe for a future meal.
Northern shrikes, mostly light gray and white with black markings on their wings and around their eyes, are a winter bird in northern Illinois, spending summers on their breeding grounds along the northern edges of Canada’s boreal forests. On sunny winter days, look for them perched atop utility lines or at the top of bushes and trees. They stick to the same territory all winter long, so if you see one nearby you may see it occasionally throughout the season.
Woodpeckers can peck really fast
Woodchucks don’t chuck wood, but woodpeckers definitely do peck wood. And they peck it for many reasons. Sometimes they are looking for an insect meal, while other times they are trying to create a cavity for a nest or roosting spot. In the spring, woodpeckers can be downright annoying when they drum away at wood and other surfaces while trying to attract a mate.
All that pecking really adds up — to as much as 8,000 pecks per day. And it’s not just the quantity of pecks but the speed with which they can do it that is impressive. Downy woodpeckers can peck as fast as 16 times a second. Is there anything you can do 16 times in a single second?
Pigeons can recognize humans
Not good with faces? Pigeons are, and it’s faces in particular that they recognize. Even with a change of clothes, pigeons are able to recognize specific faces. And they seem to use this ability to stay away from people who aren’t friendly to them.
Scientists tested the theory by having two researchers of similar build and skin color but wearing different colored lab coats feed pigeons. One ignored the birds after providing the food, while the other chased the birds away. Then they repeated the feeding session again, but with neither person acting hostile toward the pigeons. On the second and subsequent sessions, the pigeons avoided the researcher who chased them away in the first session. Even when the two researchers switched lab coats, the pigeons avoided the originally mean researcher.
Crows are also said to be able to recognize people and even remember which humans are good and bad. Some crows have even been known to leave “gifts” for humans who feed them.
Blue jays collect paint chips
If you find patches of paint missing from your house, you might just have blue jays to blame. As unusual as it may sound, the jays sometimes hoard chips of paint, usually light-colored paint, to use as a source of calcium in the spring. Why do they need calcium? To lay eggs. Many paints contain limestone, which is a good source of calcium.
Hoarding paint chips seems to be most common in the northeastern United States, and researchers believe it’s because acid rain is common there. The acid in the rain depletes calcium content in the soil, causing blue jays to seek another source.
Some birds can sleep while flying
You’ve probably heard the phrase “sleep with one eye open,” but it’s not just a silly expression in the avian world. Some birds actually can sleep with one eye open, and some can even sleep in flight. Seriously.
How do they do this? Well, birds don’t sleep quite as deeply as humans do. They usually sleep for just brief spells until being startled awake by predators, other nearby birds or weather conditions. Some birds are also capable of what is called unihemispheric slow-wave sleep, or USWS. This allows birds to quickly jump into action if they are threatened but also rest if conditions are safe. This form of sleep is so effective that it allows the birds to sleep with one eye open or even while flying.
The ability to sleep in flight is particularly useful for birds during long flights. One long-distant migrant, the alpine swift, can even fly for 200 straight days because of its ability to catch some shut eye while flying.
Turkey vultures puke in self-defense
Turkey vultures eat dead animals almost exclusively, but it’s far from their only disgusting — at least to humans — behavior. They have a pretty effective defense mechanism too. How do they keep potential threats at bay? They vomit on whatever happens to be threatening or harassing them. They can really hurl too — launching their vomit as far as 10 feet. And as you might expect, puking on potential predators is pretty effective at keeping them at bay. Turkey vultures are the most well-known animal pukers, but some gulls, terns and herons have also been known to engage in the act.
You’ve probably already been convinced that turkey vultures are just about the grossest birds out there, but there’s one more thing that might make your stomach turn. They also poop on their feet to cool off. When they poop on their legs, it moisturizes the skin, and that moisture can evaporate like sweat does, which cools them.
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