For the Birds Radio Program: Stranger than Fiction

Original Air Date: Nov. 23, 1989

This may or may not be a recast of 12-2-1987

Duration: 3′56″


(Recording of a Ruby-throated Hummingbird)

I’ve been collecting little-known facts about birds which are stranger than fiction. For example, most people know that hummingbirds can fly straight up, straight down, and even backwards–the design of the helicopter was based on their flight. But herons have also been known to fly backwards, at least for very brief periods. And during courtship, eagles, hawks, and ravens can actually fly upside down.

Bird gizzards are also strange and fascinating. Some gizzards are tough enough to bend steel needles or crush hickory nuts. One tree with hard nuts on the Island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean was believed to be doomed to extinction–not one new tree had germinated in almost 200 hundred years–about the same time as the extinction of the dodos. Then an ornithologist put two and two together–the hard nuts of this tree could not germinate by themselves–they had to pass through the gizzard of dodos to wear away their hard shells in order to grow. Since domestic turkeys have strong gizzards, scientists found that they could germinate new trees by first feeding the nuts to turkeys, and a species of tree may now be saved.

The Jackass penguin, the only penguin of South Africa and Namibia, dives for fish, but is too buoyant to stay under water for long–so this bird swallows stones to make itself heavier– it’s sort of an avian Pinocchio, who tied himself to a rock to stay underwater in his search for Monstro the Whale.

The urge to incubate during the breeding season can get so powerful that once in a while a bird ends up sitting on an entirely inappropriate object. Black-crowned Night Herons have been recorded trying to hatch toy blocks, and a Bald Eagle once spent weeks incubating a white rubber ball. One Black-headed Gull even tried to hatch an empty gun cartridge.

Nests of birds usually have only one function–to serve as egg baskets and cribs until the baby birds can fly. But the Penduline Tit, a European bird related to our chickadee whose name alone is stranger than fiction,, makes nests so warm and snuggly that some European children use them for slippers.

If human women think childbirth is difficult, consider the Kiwi–a flightless chicken-sized bird from New Zealand that lays eggs ten times the size of chicken eggs. Some mother kiwis die in the process. The father emperor penguin, in an effort to be a supportive husband, also sacrifices dearly in childrearing–he nestles his egg atop his feet, beneath his snug abdomen, for two whole months, unable to eat a bite. He loses about 50 pounds–half his weight–during that time.

The bird with the biggest beak relative to its body is the Sword-blled Hummingbird of the Andes. It’s bill is five inches long, significantly longer than the rest of its body. This hummer is dependent on a climbing Passion flower for nectar– the flower, in turn, requires this specialized bill for its own pollination.

Yep, all in all, some birds lead lives that are stranger than fiction.

(Recording of a Hummingbird)
This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”