The Science of Birds

By Ivan Phillipsen

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Subscribers: 89
Reviews: 1

Jerry
 Apr 4, 2021
I love this podcast! Every episode is fun and interesting. It never drags. Just the right amount of humor to keep things light without being annoying. Sometimes when I'm listening, I think "I wish he'd explain X, and then he does!

Description

The Science of Birds is a lighthearted exploration of bird biology. It's a fun resource for any birder or naturalist who wants to learn more about ornithology. Impress your birding friends at cocktail parties with all of your new bird knowledge! Hosted by Ivan Phillipsen, a passionate naturalist with a PhD in Zoology.

Episode Date
Bird Habitat: Temperate Grasslands and Prairies
2377

This episode—which is Number 64—is all about the importance of temperate grasslands as habitat for birds.

When we say “temperate grasslands,” we mean those generally occurring in the middle latitudes.

Temperate grasslands exist in several parts of the world. Some of them cover vast areas. Here in North America, we have the Great Plains as a “great” example.

The steppes of Mongolia and the Pampas of South America are similarly vast temperate grasslands.

Many, many bird species around the world depend on such grasslands for food and breeding habitat. Among them are raptors, sparrows, blackbirds, larks, pipits, a bunch of South American species in the ovenbird family, Furnariidae… and the list goes on.

But, unfortunately, temperate grasslands are also among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet. Many of the bird species that call them home are, not surprisingly, also in trouble.

Today, we’re going to dive into what makes temperate grasslands special, and why they’re so important to birds. I’ll give you several examples of bird species that depend on grassland habitats.

And we’ll also talk a bit about grassland conservation. Because you know we can’t get through this without a little gloom and doom.

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Nov 22, 2022
The Common Raven
2991

This episode—which is Number 63—is about the Common Raven, Corvus corax. This species is also known as the Northern Raven.

Few bird species in the world are as geographically widespread as the Common Raven. And few are as familiar and iconic. This is a really amazing bird.

Ornithologists and other scientists have studied ravens extensively, so we know quite a lot about this species.

Today, we’ll look at the basic traits of the Common Raven as well as its behavior, habitats, diet, reproduction, and more.

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Nov 07, 2022
Biogeographic Realms and Their Unique Birds
2081

This episode—which is Number 62—is all about the major geographic divisions among birds across the planet.

Why are bowerbirds found only in Australia and on the islands of New Guinea? Why are the birds you see in India so different from those in China? Does North America have any unique, endemic bird families?

Questions like these fall within the domain of biogeography. Biogeography is the study of where living things are found and why they’re found there—both in the present and the past.

Today, we’ll be sketching out the big picture of what types of birds are found where across the world map.

By learning the basics of bird biogeography, you can get a deeper appreciation for the uniqueness of bird communities in different parts of the world.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Oct 13, 2022
Ostriches
2295

This is Episode 61, and it’s all about Ostriches. These are the birds in the avian family Struthionidae.

Ostriches are among the most recognizable and charismatic birds. No living bird is bigger than an ostrich. If you’ve ever seen one up close, you know how impressive these giants can be. They’re amazing.

So I’m excited to dig into their biology with you today. You probably know a thing or two about Ostriches already, but let’s see if we can get a deeper understanding of them. We’ll look at their basic traits, their distribution, habitat, diet, and more.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website



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Sep 29, 2022
Feeding Wild Birds: Pros and Cons
2855

This episode—which is Number 60—is about Feeding Wild Birds. As in, humans providing supplemental food for wild birds.

This typically involves a contraption called a birdfeeder. When you or I hang up a birdfeeder, we’re feeding wild birds intentionally. This intentional feeding is what today’s episode is about.

Millions and millions of people all around the world feed wild birds intentionally. At such a massive scale, you have to imagine this would affect birds significantly, and in many ways. And it absolutely does.

Which brings us to the big question: should we or shouldn’t we feed wild birds? This is still being debated. By scientists, conservation organizations, and bird lovers everywhere.

Today, I’ll do my best to give you objective, scientific information about feeding birds. We’ll look at the pros and cons. Then, we’ll see if there’s any sort of conclusion we can come to at the end of the episode.

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Sep 15, 2022
Ask Me Anything About Birds - Aug 2022
2730

This episode—which is Number 59—is a bit different. Today, I’m going to be answering questions from my listeners. More specifically, these questions come from my supporters on Patreon.

I have several “tiers” or “membership levels” on my Patreon page. Each level comes with perks. One perk for the “Helpful Hornbill” and “Awesome Osprey” tiers is getting to submit questions for episodes like this.

So, today, we’ve got a fun grab-bag of questions to ponder.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Sep 01, 2022
Wrens (Family: Troglodytidae)
2647

Today’s episode—which is Episode 58—is all about birds in the family Troglodytidae. These are the wrens.

Wrens are small, perky songbirds, most of which are some shade of brown.

All the species in this family of birds are found in the New World—In North, Central, and South America. All of them, that is, except for one species found in the Old World.

In this episode, we'll cover many aspects of wren biology: their behavior, voices, diversity, evolution, conservation, and breeding.

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Aug 18, 2022
Flocking Behavior in Birds
1828

This episode—which is Number 57— is all about the flocking behavior of birds.

Birds of many species spend at least part of their yearly cycle hanging out in groups. This could be just a handful of individuals or it could be a gathering of millions of birds.

Today, we’ll look at some explanations for why—as the saying goes—birds of a feather flock together. What benefits do birds get from forming groups like this?

We’ll also look at how flocks work. As in, their mechanics. For example, how do birds communicate and coordinate their movements in a flock?

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website



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Aug 07, 2022
How Bird Feathers Get Their Colors
2478

This episode—which is Number 56— is all about the colors of birds.

The diversity of color in bird plumages is one of the things we love most about these animals.

But bird plumages are impressive not only when they display vibrant colors plucked from the rainbow. Thousands of species aren’t what we’d call colorful, but they do have gorgeous, intricately patterned feathers in combinations of black, brown, and white.

Today, we’re looking at how feathers get their colors, from white to subtle earth tones to scintillating displays of wild iridescence.

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Links of Interest

  • Sponsor Link: Sign up through wren.co/birds to make a difference in the climate crisis, and Wren will plant 10 extra trees in your name!


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Jul 21, 2022
Flamingos
2759

This is Episode 55. It’s all about birds in the avian family Phoenicopteridae. These are the flamingos.

No doubt you already know a fun fact or two about flamingos. These birds are crowd pleasers that get a lot of attention. But today we’re doing a deep dive into their biology. I’m hoping that along the way, you’ll pick up some new flamingo trivia that you can impress your friends with.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Jul 08, 2022
Eggs: Incredible and Commendable
3390

This episode—which is Number 54—is all about bird eggs.

This is an important topic. Eggs are a fundamental aspect of bird biology. Recently, in Episode 49 of the podcast, I covered the topic of nests. So it seems like a logical next step for us to get the lowdown on eggs.

Oology is the science of studying bird eggs. So today, we are all honorary oologists. We’re egg-heads on a mission to better understand how baby birds come into the world.

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Book Recommendations


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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Jun 24, 2022
Avian Flu
2066

This episode—which is Number 53—is all about Avian Influenza. Or colloquially what we call the Avian Flu or Bird Flu.

Depending on where you live, you might have noticed news headlines in recent months about the frightening spread of Avian Flu among both domestic and wild birds. I thought you might have some questions about this emerging disease, and so here we are with an entire podcast episode on the subject.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Jun 12, 2022
Giant Birds: Go Big or Go Home
1727

This is Episode 52.

Today, we’re talking about bird species that are way, way bigger than your average chickadee or finch.

Our focus will be on evolutionary lineages that spawned some very large bird species. Species whose ancestors had been much smaller, millions of years earlier.

We’ll look at a bunch of interesting giant birds throughout history. Then we’ll talk about some scientific explanations for why these critters got so big in the first place.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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May 26, 2022
The Northern Cardinal
1963

This is Episode 51. Our bird of interest today is the Northern Cardinal, Cardinalis cardinalis.

This species is widespread across the eastern and southern US. It’s so well-known and loved that it’s the state bird for 7 states—more than any other species.

Northern Cardinals are among the most abundant birds in North America. They’re familiar denizens of backyards that visit feeders all year long. So it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that ornithologists have done a lot of research on this abundant and conspicuous species.


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May 06, 2022
Female Birdsong
1311

This episode—which is Number 50— is all about Female Birdsong.

Songs are one of the things we love most about birds. They define the soundscapes of the natural world.

Even though humans have been surrounded by singing birds for millions of years, we still have some misconceptions about birdsong. Today’s episode is about a misconception of sex differences in birds… Of who sings and who doesn’t.

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Apr 19, 2022
Nests: Types, Construction, and Challenges
3122

This episode—which is Number 49—is all about bird nests.

There are tons of fun facts fun facts here, since nests are one of the more impressive aspects of bird behavior and breeding biology.

We’ll go over the functions of nests, the challenges that nesting birds face, nest site selection, the many types of nests, and nest construction.

That’s a lot to cover, but I’ll try to keep this at more of an overview level. This is sort of Bird Nests 101.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Apr 06, 2022
The Pecking Order: Dominance Hierarchies in Birds
1619

This episode—which is Number 48—is about the “Pecking Order” in birds. Or, to use the more technical term, dominance hierarchy.

Our focus will be on dominance hierarchies that we see among birds within a single species. White-crowned Sparrows beating up on other White-crowned Sparrows, for example, as opposed to White-crowned Sparrows beating up on another species, like Lincoln’s Sparrow. The latter would be an example of interspecies dominance. But today, we’re talking about intraspecies dominance. Meaning within species.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Mar 25, 2022
Gulls, Terns, and Skimmers (Family: Laridae)
2518

This is Episode 47. It’s all about birds in the family Laridae. This is an ancient evolutionary lineage that originated over 70 million years ago, when the world was still ruled by dinosaurs.

Besides gulls and terns, the family Laridae also includes the skimmers and the noddies.


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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Mar 10, 2022
Wallace's Line: Where Two Bird Worlds Collide
1160

This episode—which is Number 46—is about  a special place in the Malay Archipelago where two bird worlds collide. This region lies between Southeast Asia and Australia, between the Indian and Pacific oceans. And it’s crowded with about 25,000 islands, of all sizes.

Specifically, we’ll be looking at a geographic feature called Wallace’s Line. More generally, today’s episode will touch on the topic of biogeography.

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Feb 18, 2022
Solving Bird Mysteries with Forensic Ornithology
2944

This episode is all about forensic ornithology. This is a field where specialists use scientific techniques to identify bird species from trace evidence. Evidence like maybe a bit of feather, a bone fragment, or a smear of blood.

Forensic ornithology is used to solve intriguing wildlife crimes like smuggling and illegal hunting. But it’s also helpful in other situations that don’t involve criminal activity. We’ll get into that side of things too.

Like a murder mystery novel, today’s subject is, pretty much by definition, morbid. I’ll be talking a lot about dead birds. Blood and guts and all that. I prefer my birds very much alive, thank you, and I’m sure you do too. But, despite the gore, I think you’ll find that forensic ornithology is a fascinating topic. It’s worth learning about, to better appreciate the ways people fight to protect birds.

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Errors and Corrections

  • 10:32 - I said " Law enforcement offers..." when I meant "officers."
  • 32:55 - I said "Yellow-billed Cockatoos," when I meant Yellow-crested Cockatoos


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Feb 11, 2022
Coffee and Bird Conservation
1128

This episode—which is Number 44—is about the relationship between coffee production and bird conservation. 

We'll get into how do different types of coffee cultivation affect birds, and the conservation benefits of Bird Friendly Coffee.

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Jan 20, 2022
The Common Loon
2324

This episode—which is Number 43—is all about the Common Loon, Gavia immer. People in Europe may know it as the Great Northern Diver.

This bird is a symbol of the northern wilderness in North America. It’s closely associated with lakes and ponds in the boreal forests of the northern US and Canada.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website


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Jan 13, 2022
Awesome Things We Learned About Birds in 2021
2260

2021 is over, yo! So it's time for the Annual Review Episode! 

We’ll be looking back at some highlights of bird science in the year 2021. What fascinating things did ornithologists and other biologists discover about birds this year?

I’ve picked 5 studies to highlight for you. These are stories that, in most cases, were interesting enough to make the news.

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References

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Dec 30, 2021
Swallows and Martins
2916

This episode is all about birds in the family Hirundinidae. These are the swallows and martins.

Other than when they’re nesting, swallows are in the air almost all day long. This aerial lifestyle and that high-speed, erratic flight pattern can make it hard for us earthbound primates to get close looks at swallows.

But these flappy little birds definitely deserve our attention. They have many charms and talents that—with a little patience—we can learn about and see for ourselves.

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Dec 23, 2021
Fire and Birds
2945

Ecologists and ornithologists have been studying the effects of wildfire on bird populations all over the world. Their research has resulted in many fascinating discoveries about the relationships between fire and birds.

Wildfires have been in the news a lot in recent years. In the western US where I live, enormous fires have been sweeping across California, Oregon, Idaho, and other states with increasing frequency and severity.

And who can forget the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia, which came to be known as the “Black Summer?” Then there were the thousands of fires that broke out in the rainforests and wetlands of Brazil in 2020.

This is all pretty bad news, no doubt. It can be gut-wrenching to watch beautiful wilderness go up in flames, not to mention towns and people’s homes. 

But if we temporarily set aside our emotions, we can take a more scientific, objective viewpoint to ask the question: 

Are wildfires harmful to birds and other wildlife, in general? 

It turns out there’s no simple “yes or no” answer to that question.

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Dec 07, 2021
Ask Me Anything About Birds - Nov 2021
2579

This is a special episode, and the first of its kind. I answer questions from my listeners. It’s a fun, mixed bag of bird factoids.

Who were these lucky people who got to contribute to this episode? The specific listeners who submitted questions were my supporters on Patreon.

Of course, the idea is that our discussion today will be interesting and informative to all of my listeners.

This Q&A session covers things like bacterial diseases, bike helmets, lemon-scented juncos, and baby owls!

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References


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Nov 16, 2021
New World Vultures
3056

This episode is about the seven bird species in the family Cathartidae: the New World vultures and condors.

This group includes species like the Turkey Vulture, Black Vulture, and Andean Condor.

Among these birds are some that people celebrate, or even revere. But others tend to get ignored, disparaged, or at worst, persecuted. I guess you could say our relationship with New World Vultures has been… complicated.

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Nov 03, 2021
How Birds Fly
2172

Birds, probably more than any other aerial creatures, have amazed and inspired us with the grace and power of their flight. So just how do they do it?

In this episode, we'll look at the physics and anatomy of bird flight.

I’ll start off with the basics of aerodynamics as it relates to bird flight. That’s the meat and potatoes of our lesson today. But we’ll also consider the different ways that birds fly—their different modes of flight. Last, we’ll examine some additional adaptations birds have that make them high-octane flying machines.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Oct 20, 2021
Penguins
3476

This episode is all about penguins. All penguins belong to the family Spheniscidae.

Penguins are among the most bizarre and specialized birds in the world. Few other birds represent such a departure from what we think of as the standard avian model. The specializations of penguins—their adaptations—serve them very well for a life of diving deep into the ocean and of surviving in extreme cold.

These birds are wonderful examples of how “life finds a way”—how animals can evolve into radically different forms, adapt to incredibly harsh conditions, and still manage to look pretty darn cute.

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Sep 29, 2021
Wetlands as Bird Habitat
2185

In this episode, we’re going to look at wetlands as habitats for birds.

We’ll start with how to recognize—how to define—a wetland ecosystem. Then, we’ll get into why these ecosystems are so important to birds. How do birds use wetlands as habitat? Next, I’ll highlight a few examples of bird species that depend on wetlands. Then we’ll talk about the conservation issues surrounding wetlands, and how their loss is affecting birds.

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Sep 15, 2021
Roadrunners
1952

This episode is all about the bird species in the genus Geococcyx. There are only two: the Greater Roadrunner and the Lesser Roadrunner. 

People in North America have revered the Greater Roadrunner for thousands of years. This bird features prominently in Native American and Mexican legends and lore. It’s usually depicted in a good light. Roadrunners are bold, clever, and fast—all admirable characteristics. 

They’re also large and conspicuous birds, so it’s not surprising that more than one culture has paid them some special attention.

Learn about the key traits of roadrunners and their habitats, diet, and breeding.

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Sep 01, 2021
eBird and Citizen Science
2508

eBird is a digital archive of bird observations. It’s a database of observations from across the planet. eBird users connect to the database via the Internet, to both contribute data and access data.

In this episode, we’ll start off by going over what exactly eBird is. Then, we’ll consider the characteristics of the scientific data that eBird users produce.

How do scientists make sure that data is of the highest quality? We’ll get into that too, as well as some useful tools that have been created using eBird data.

I’ll also give you some interesting examples of published studies on birds that used eBird data.

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Aug 21, 2021
Pigeons and Doves
2637

This episode is all about birds in the family Columbidae. These are all the world’s many species of pigeons and doves.

These birds are more exotic and interesting than many of us give them credit for. This is a widespread, diverse group that has been around for many millions of years. Pigeons and doves occupy many habitats across the planet, and they’ve colonized countless remote islands. Many of them are as richly colorful as parrots or songbirds.

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Jul 30, 2021
The Birds of Alaska
2138

Alaska is a truly amazing place that is still dominated by nature. It’s a wonderful region to explore for anyone who loves birds and charismatic megafauna. Many of Alaska’s vast natural areas are relatively intact. They offer endless opportunities for visitors to immerse themselves in raw nature.

I recently returned from leading a birding tour in Alaska and I was inspired to make a podcast episode about the Birds of Alaska. 

We’ll first get a sense of Alaska’s geography, then we’ll consider the major ecosystems of the region, and then we’ll get into some of the overall characteristics of the birdlife of Alaska.

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Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website


Thanks to my newest Patrons
for your pledges to support this podcast! I deeply appreciate your help and generosity. Cheers to: Michael R, Justin T, Anette S, David K, Jennifer, Henri-Claude B, Diana H, Jesse M, Pamela G, Carole P, Christine B, Teal, Vero, Emily R, Donna A, and Susan W!

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Jul 20, 2021
The Shoebill
1675

The Shoebill is a tall, gray bird that appears more dinosaur-like than most members of the class Aves. You aren’t likely to confuse it with any other bird. It possesses a unique and impressive combination of size, color, and bill shape.

The Shoebill is a top predator in certain kinds of swamps and wetlands in Africa. It terrorizes not only large fish, but other small aquatic animals, like amphibians and reptiles.

This almost mythical beast of a bird is one of the most exciting species in all of Africa.

This episode is all about the Shoebill, Balaeniceps rex. What it looks like, where it lives, how it behaves, and its conservation status.

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Jun 10, 2021
Artificial Intelligence in Bird Research
3030

We hear the terms ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘AI’ all the time these days. Beyond the issue of evil robots taking over the world, AI technology is helping scientists do some pretty amazing things in the field of ornithology.

In this episode, we’ll talk about what artificial intelligence is and give some interesting examples of how it’s being used to study birds.

We’ll also touch on some tools that use artificial intelligence to help you in your quest to identify birds.

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May 28, 2021
New World Warblers
3413

New World Warblers are all the birds in the family Parulidae. You’ll sometimes hear these birds referred to as ‘Wood-Warblers.’

New World Warblers are among the most celebrated and sought after birds in North America. We love them here. They’re colorful, they’re energetic, and many of them have pleasant little songs.

These birds have also been the subjects of many scientific studies over the years. Which is great, because it means there’s a lot that ornithologists know about the biology of these magnificent little creatures.

{Special thanks to Sue Riffe for permission to use her Kirtland's Warbler recording}

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May 12, 2021
Mate Choice and Sexual Selection in Birds
3080

This episode is all about how birds choose their mates and the evolutionary outcomes of those choices.

A lot of what we’re talking about today has to do with sexual selection, which is a special form of natural selection. 

In sexual selection, individuals compete for mates. This is when females and males choose their partners based on specific traits. Traits like plumage color or song, behavior, etc.

This choosiness has resulted in some spectacular features in birds. Many of the things we love most about birds are consequences of sexual selection.

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Apr 27, 2021
Sandpipers
2777

Birds in the family Scolopacidae include all the world’s sandpipers and birds such as godwits, curlews, snipes, dowitchers, willets, stints, and more.

We know these as familiar ‘shorebirds.’ They haunt coastal habitats from autumn through spring (Oct to Apr, or so). But in summer most of them migrate long distances to breed in the highest temperate latitudes or in the Arctic.

Learn about sandpiper diversity, evolution, feeding, and more in this episode.

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Apr 11, 2021
Bird Intelligence
2826

Our understanding of bird brains and intelligence has grown tremendously in the last couple decades.

Thanks to countless scientific studies, we now know that many bird species are highly intelligent. Some of them perform better than primates, dogs, and young children on certain cognitive tests.

In this episode, we look at how intelligence is defined and some evidence for it in birds. We have a look at the avian brain and consider how intelligence evolved in birds.

Which birds are the smartest? Which birds are numbskulls? Have a listen and find out!

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Mar 28, 2021
Vermilion Flycatcher
1148

The Vermilion Flycatcher (Pyrocephalus rubinus) is a charming bird found in the arid southwest of the United States, as well as in Mexico and down to southern South America.

This bright red flycatcher is a favorite of birders and bird photographers. Join Ivan as he introduces you to the basic features of this species. 

We’ll also take a look at some interesting questions, like “Why are the Vermilion Flycatchers of Lima, Peru so dark and sooty-looking?”

Note: Some ornithological authorities have now split this species into several. Under this new classification, the birds found in the US, Mexico, and northern South American are Pyrocephalus obscurus, not P. rubinus.

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Mar 07, 2021
Cats vs Birds
2258

Join Ivan as he wades into the conservation quagmire surrounding house cats and their effects on wild birds.


First, we’ll look at the status of house cat and feral cat populations around the world. How are all these free-ranging cats affecting our wild birds? 


Many scientific studies of this issue give us some answers. Research also provides guidance for how best to solve the problems that cats create for birds. Some approaches are more severe than others.


We’ll also go over a few ways that responsible cat owners can help protect their local birds as well as keep their kitty happy.


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Feb 24, 2021
Finches
3262

All about the ‘true’ finches, the species belonging to the family Fringillidae. 

These small songbirds are found in many places around the world. Most of them specialize in eating seeds. 

Not every bird we commonly call ‘finch’ is a member of this family. And the family includes many birds that don’t have the word ‘finch’ in their common name. Confusing? Yes. We’ll try to clear some of this up for you.

Learn about the key features of finches as well as their global distribution, evolution, feeding, and more.

There’s lots of fun stuff to know about these charming birds!

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Feb 05, 2021
How Birds Survive in Winter
2387

Winter can be a cold, dark time when food is scarce. Birds fight to stay alive during this season by using a variety of behavioral and physiological adaptations. Many of these are the same things you and I would do. But birds also have some amazing, unique adaptations to winter that we can only marvel at.

Learn how birds generate heat and conserve it, and about the challenges they face in the cold season.

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Jan 24, 2021
Kingfishers
2777

Kingfishers—all the birds in the family Alcedinidae—are the focus of this episode. There are many species of these charismatic birds living across the world.

Learn about their key features, global distribution, evolution, feeding, and more.

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Links of Interest


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Jan 10, 2021
5 Awesome Things We Learned About Birds in 2020
1996

Despite much of human civilization grinding to a halt in 2020, research on birds continued to be published in scientific journals.

Through this research, we learned many new things about our avian friends.

In this episode, let’s look at 5 interesting bird studies from 2020. If you want to learn more about them, check out the links below.

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At the end of the episode, I share a little personal note. :) Happy New Year!

  1. A global analysis of song frequency in passerines provides no support for the acoustic adaptation hypothesis but suggests a role for sexual selection
  2. Dense sampling of bird diversity increases power of comparative genomics
  3. The evolution of a tropical biodiversity hotspot
  4. Phenological synchronization of seasonal bird migration with vegetation greenness across dietary guilds
  5. The phantom chorus: birdsong boosts human well-being in protected areas

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Dec 31, 2020
Ducks, Geese, and Swans
2822

This episode focuses on the biological family Anatidae. This family includes the over 150 species of ducks, geese, and swans in the world.

First, we highlight the key features shared by these birds, as well as some differences among them. We also discuss their diversity and distribution.

We continue by examining the duck’s bill and the various things these birds eat.

Breeding, migration, and conservation round out our look at this fascinating group of birds.

Along the way, we goof around and have some fun.

Links of Interest


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Dec 20, 2020
Bird Party: Mixed-Species Flocks
1844

Sometimes birds of many feathers flock together. Mixed-species foraging flocks are seen in forests all across the world. Different combinations of species are found in each region.

First, we talk about what mixed-species flocks look and act like. Then we get into the major scientific hypotheses for why these flocks exist at all.

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Dec 12, 2020
Peregrine Falcon
2102

This episode is all about the Peregrine Falcon (Falco peregrinus), of the family Falconidae.

Learn about this incredible bird's key features, its global diversity, feeding behavior, and more.

Links of Interest


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Dec 05, 2020
What Is a Species, Really?
2626

The definition of ‘species’ isn’t as simple as you might think. In this episode, we look at the methods ornithologists use to identify and name bird species. And we discuss the challenges they face in this work.

We begin by highlighting the reasons that scientists need to classify birds as species.

Next, we get into several definitions of ‘species’ and the pros and cons of applying these.

We then look at several case studies of birds to see how they’ve been classified.

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Nov 29, 2020
Pelicans
2260

Summary
Pelicans are large, peculiar waterbirds with a unique way of feeding. Using their long bills and throat pouches, they scoop up fish and other prey from water. Some pelican species plunge dive from the air, others work in cooperative groups to improve their chances of fishing success.

In this episode, we focus on the family Pelecanidae. We go through the characteristics of pelicans, with a focus on their bill and throat pouch.

We also discuss the feeding strategies of pelicans, how they breed, and their evolution.

Finally, we touch on some issues about the conservation of pelicans.

Along the way, we’ll do some myth-busting. There are several misconceptions about pelicans that we need to address.

Links of Interest

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Nov 19, 2020
Feathers: Form and Function
2223

Summary
The feather is one of the most iconic symbols of nature. Feathers are indispensable to birds, serving many critically important functions. 

In this episode, we explore those functions after looking closely at the anatomy—the structure—of a feather.

We discuss the 6 types of feathers: contour feathers, flight feathers, down, semiplumes, bristles, and filoplumes.

Some functions we explore are flight, insulation, and camouflage.

Links of Interest


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website


Errors and Clarifications

  • Error - At 00:44, I used the word ‘historic,’ when I should have said ‘historical.’
  • Error - At 06:13, I goofed on the word ‘stratum,’ saying ‘strateum’ by accident.

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Nov 12, 2020
Brood Parasites Are Devious Birds
1782


Summary

Brood parasitism is a strange and fascinating behavior that we see (in one form or another) in several hundred bird species.

This is where a female lays an egg in the nest of another bird. The parasite female flies away and never sees her offspring. The host bird or birds are fooled into raising the foreign chick as their own.

Learn about which types of birds use this breeding strategy, including cuckoos and cowbirds.

We’ll discuss the various tactics used by both the parasites and their hosts in this evolutionary arms race. And we’ll get into some ins and outs of the evolutionary process in these birds.

Links of Interest


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

Errors and Clarifications

  • At 07:38, I say that the only obligate brood parasite bird species in North America is the Brown-headed Cowbird. But the Bronzed Cowbird (Molothrus aeneus) lives in Mexico year round and breeds in some southern American states (AZ, CA, NM, TX, and LA).
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Nov 05, 2020
Woodpeckers
2213

Summary
Learn about the amazing birds in the family Picidae—the woodpeckers. These charismatic birds have a suite of adaptations that make them excellent at the job of excavating wood. 

In this episode, we first summarize the key features of woodpeckers.

Then we’ll look at the evolution and modern-day diversity of the family.

We discuss many of the special adaptations of woodpeckers, which they use as they go about their day, foraging.

How woodpeckers breed and communicate and a bit about their conservation status round out the episode.


Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode


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Oct 29, 2020
How Do Birds Sleep?
1718


Summary
When birds disappear at night, where do they go and what are they doing? Most of them are sleeping, of course. But sleep in birds differs greatly from what you and I do.

In this episode, we discuss the most important functions of sleep in birds. Then we get into the evolution of sleep in birds.

Along the way, we’ll talk about the similarities and differences of sleep between birds and mammals like us.

Last, we cover where and how birds sleep, regarding location, posture, etc.


Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

Errors and Clarifications

  • I said that the fossil of the bird-like dinosaur Mei Long (“Sleeping Dragon”) was discovered in 2010. It was actually discovered in 2004
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Oct 22, 2020
The Biggest Global Threats to Birds
1795

Summary

Birds around the world are in trouble. Their populations have suffered major declines in the last 50 years.

What does the latest research tell us about the causes of these declines? What are the biggest threats to our most vulnerable bird species?

You can probably guess some of the answers, but you might be surprised by some of what you learn in this episode.

We’ll cover the top five major threats in some detail.

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Oct 13, 2020
Hummingbirds
2207

Episode: 8

Summary

The remarkable behavioral and anatomical features of hummingbirds are what make them so endearing to us. The way they fly, their colors, and their penchant for flowers have all made hummingbirds rock stars of the avian world.

In this episode, we focus entirely on the hummingbird family, Trochilidae. 

I’ll first give you an overview of hummingbird evolution. Then, we’ll discuss their present-day diversity and distribution.

Then we dive into an assortment of fun topics about hummingbirds, including flight, metabolism, and breeding.

At the end of the episode, I talk about feeding hummingbirds-- how to do it right and some of the interesting consequences.

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Research Citations


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Sep 22, 2020
Vision in Birds
1426

Episode: 7

Summary

It can be argued that, of all the animals, birds are the best at seeing stuff. Most species have an excellent sense of sight.

In this episode, I’ll first introduce you to the anatomy of a bird’s eye.

Then, we’ll look into (see what I did there?) how birds perceive color and their visual acuity.

And last we’ll talk about the difference between monocular and binocular vision in birds.

Research Citations

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Sep 22, 2020
Bird Songs - Part 2
1171

Episode: 6

Summary

This episode is Part 2 of 2 about Bird Songs. 

In the last episode, Part 1, we talked mostly about the “how” and the “who” of bird songs. We haven’t really talked about the “why,” the purpose of all these vocal sounds. This episode begins by looking at the functions of bird songs and calls.

Then we get into variation in bird songs, at several levels, including among species and among geographic regions.

You’ll also learn about some interesting subtopics like the dawn chorus and female songs.

Research Citations

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Attributions


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Sep 22, 2020
Bird Songs - Part 1
1302

Episode: 5

Summary

This episode is Part 1 of 2 about Bird Songs. 

The voices of birds dominate nature’s soundscape. Bird songs and calls can be heard in almost every environment on the planet. 

In this episode, I’ll cover the characteristics of bird songs and how they are produced. We’ll also get into the question of whether bird songs are learned or instinctual.

Research Citations

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Attributions


Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Sep 22, 2020
Migration in Birds
1910

Episode: 4

Summary

The annual long-distance movements of birds are amazing feats of endurance and navigation.

Learn about the various forms of migration and other annual movements in birds. We’ll cover many concepts related to migration, including timing and orientation, staging areas, and flyways.

Research Citations

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode


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Sep 22, 2020
The Biodiversity of Birds
1435

Episode: 3

Summary

Birds are an incredibly successful and diverse group of animals. 

In this episode, you’ll get an overview of the origin of avian species diversity and its present-day distribution across the planet.

I offer some definitions of ‘biodiversity’ with respect to birds. We’ll discuss why this diversity is important.

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Research Citations‍

Errors and Clarifications
Clarification - 07:25 - I say that the Clements Checklist has 10,721 bird species. This is true. However, this number includes about 160 extinct species. So this means there are 10,561 extant (i.e. living, non-extinct) bird species on the planet today.

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Sep 22, 2020
Competition Between Bird Species
1384

Episode: 2

Summary

Learn about the ways that different bird species compete with each other over food and other resources.

I first talk about the concept of the ecological niche, since this is so important to this episode's topic.

Then, I get into the different forms of competition between bird species and present the possible outcomes of that competition. 

Lastly, I briefly touch on the general approaches that scientists take in studying interspecies competition in birds.

Links to Some Things Mentioned in this Episode

Research Citations

Errors and Clarifications

Error - 23:04 min: I say that the second type of competition between species is "exploitation interference". I meant to say exploitation competition. I make this error repeatedly in this section. My apologies!

Link to this episode on the Science of Birds website

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Sep 22, 2020
The Origin of Birds
1507

Episode: 1

Summary

Learn about the deep evolutionary origin of birds and follow their history up to the great extinction that happened 66 million years ago.

First, I discuss what we mean when we say “bird.” What characteristics separate modern birds from other animal groups?

Then I discuss the evidence—both historical and recent—that scientists have used to determine the evolutionary history of birds. 

Finally, we arrive at the answer of where birds fit on the tree of life.

Research Citations

Errors and Clarifications

Error - 05:39 min: I say that scientists have genome sequences for 'all living birds.' What I meant was that we have genome sequences for representative species within each of the living bird families.


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Sep 19, 2020