For the Birds Radio Program: Stranger than Fiction

Original Air Date: Dec. 2, 1987 Rerun Dates: July 15, 2016; Oct. 3, 2007; Nov. 12, 2002; Jan. 16, 2001

Some birds can fly upside down, a tree almost became extinct because it needed Dodos, and the Jackass Penguin is an avian Pinocchio. Some birds have tried to incubate very inappropriate items.Children can use one bird’s nests for slippers. One hummingbird’s bill is longer than it’s entire body.

Recording was reworked from 1987.

Duration: 3′53″


(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–that’s a wonderful sight.

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 200 hundred years–about the same time as the last 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– sort of an avian Pinocchio, who tied a rock to himself to stay underwater in his search for Monstro the Whale.

Birds have a strong need to incubate during the breeding season. Usually that keeps them tight on their eggs, but once in a while they end up 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, makes nests so warm and snuggly that some European children use them for slippers.

If humans think childbirth is difficult, consider the Kiwi–a flightless chicken-sized bird from New Zealand that lays eggs ten times the size of hen’s eggs. Some mother kiwis die in the process. The male emperor penguin also sacrifices dearly in childrearing–he nestles his egg atop his feet, beneath his snug abdomen, for two whole months without ever eating. He loses about 50 pounds–half his weight–during that lonely 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.”