Talk Description to Me

Episode 52 - Birds

May 22, 2021 Christine Malec and JJ Hunt Season 2 Episode 52
Talk Description to Me
Episode 52 - Birds
Chapters
0:46
Songbirds
7:48
Flight
21:16
Nests
25:16
Birds of Paradise
Talk Description to Me
Episode 52 - Birds
May 22, 2021 Season 2 Episode 52
Christine Malec and JJ Hunt

May is the perfect time of year for listening to and watching birds. In this episode, we talk about the visuals of our fine feathered friends -- colours, patterns, shapes, nests, and flight. Then Christine asks why sighted people are so transfixed by hawks, and JJ gets picked up by a flashy bird with sweet dance moves!  


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

May is the perfect time of year for listening to and watching birds. In this episode, we talk about the visuals of our fine feathered friends -- colours, patterns, shapes, nests, and flight. Then Christine asks why sighted people are so transfixed by hawks, and JJ gets picked up by a flashy bird with sweet dance moves!  


Support the show (https://www.patreon.com/TalkDescriptionToMe)

JJ Hunt:

Talk description to me with Christine Malec and JJ Hunt.

Christine Malec:

Hi, I'm Christine Malec.

JJ Hunt:

And I'm JJ Hunt. This is talk description to Me where the visuals of current events and the world around us get hashtag in description rich conversations.

Christine Malec:

May is a huge month for birds. And so today we are going to talk about birds but not necessarily in the describe every bird you've ever seen in context, but more in the context of bird behavior and the parts of birds lives that as blind people we don't get access to because it's what birds are doing when they're not chirping. And, and I'm really interested in this and how how birds move what they do with their time. So regardless of where you are, unless you're right on the equator, you are probably noticing a lot more bird life than usual. And that's because migrations are in full feather right now, birds are moving north and they actually move north and south. They move more energetically in the spring than they do in the fall. So they're very active, they're building nests, they're looking for mates, they're starting families, and there's lots of chirp action. So hopefully, unlike me, you're getting up for the dawn chorus because it's so beautiful. Um, but we were going to start today by talking about the most popular birds at this time of year, the songbirds. So, JJ, where should we start there?

JJ Hunt:

Why don't we just break down the basic look of songbirds because as you say they are everywhere right now and they are creating a soundscape for us. But it might be helpful to get an idea of the basic look of these songbirds. There are over 5000 different species of songbirds around the world. So this is going to be a bit of a general description, but it should hold up. So these songbirds tend to be a little palm sized birds, they are often remarkably beautiful, right? They are little tiny works of living art. But they but they share a fairly common shapes. So start by imagining an egg like a, you know, a regular chicken egg on its side in the palm of your hand. So that's kind of the body of the songbird, the underside of that egg is the belly. And where it curves up on the wide end, that would be considered the breast of the songbird, the little head of the bird sits atop that wide end. So it's got no narrow neck, no wide shoulders, the head is a very smooth extension of the body shape. So the body naturally tapers into this rounded head. And so if the bird's body is egg-sized, then the head is going to be somewhere between a ping pong ball and a big marble, somewhere in that range. And then for the other side, for the tail end, imagine taking the narrow end of the egg and pinching it between your thumb and your forefinger and stretching it out a little bit to make the tail so that would be the tail of the bird and then the tail feathers, they extend out a few inches farther. And they tend to be thin and flat. So that's the basic body of the songbird. They have spindly legs that stick out of the bottom, just to the back behind the belly. And they tend to have very small delicate wings that are tucked close to either side of the body. So if a bird is just is not in flight, a little songbird is not in flight, then the wings tend to be tucked very close to the body so that visually, they almost look fully integrated as part of that body shape. So that's, as I say, pretty generic, right? Songbirds can be plump, they can be lean, they can have longer throats, their bodies can be either pitched upright or more horizontal depending on the bird. And the crown of the head might be distinct. But in general, that's the shape. And then you get the plumage, right, the feather patterns, the colors, and here's where songbirds get really remarkable. The coloring patterns, the feather patterns are really very precise and amazingly consistent within the species. And they're often absurdly vibrant. On a songbird, the crown on the top of the head, the throat, the breast, the nape, the belly, those might all be entirely distinct vibrant colors or different patterns. Often the colorings of songbirds are part of a color palette, so colors that work well together, maybe they are colors that harmonize together, or maybe those colors are in contrast, but they can really be the ranges is really all over the place. Sometimes these songbirds have what we would call natural colors, browns, earthy colors, and kind of rusty orange colors, but sometimes they can be outrageously vibrant as well. It's all over the map. And sometimes those colors are blended right. Sometimes you'll have part of a birds feathers that are blue, and they will blend into green and sometimes those color patches and with ruler straight edges. So for example, the male shining honeycreeper has tiny feathers that carpet the breast in the in a mottled royal blue and white. And as they curve down onto the belly, those the colors become more of a teal look. And then that those colors blend into bright line green under the wings and onto the rump. But the female of the shining honeycreeper is a bright, rich blue color, with black wings and a black throat. And that black throat has clearly defined edges, it looks like it's painted or sewn on. There's no blending between that black throat and the blue chest or breast. They are very sharp.

Christine Malec:

There's something that I learned not too long ago, maybe the whole world knew this except for me. But birds eyes are fixed in their head, they can't move their eyes. And so what that means is that their heads are moving around all the time. And when I was a kid and I had little models or things of birds, the head always spun around. And I always thought Oh, that's broken. But no, it's actually the birds heads I guess when you watch them, they must be moving constantly.

JJ Hunt:

They are, they are. They rotate, swiveling -- ssht sssht sssht -- back and forth exactly like you say, like that toy bird with a rotating action. The birds are constantly doing that. And then moving the body as well to adjust where the head is facing because that tends to be how the how birds look, you know, they can raise a head, they'll tip their bodies up and down, they'll move their torsos. Not separatly, the whole body has to move. But really, it's that shifting of the head shift back and forth, back and forth, back and forth.

Christine Malec:

And if you were lucky enough as a blind person to have ever had a bird land on you, you'll have a vague sense of the the speed and precision and agility. But JJ, can you say something about watching an individual bird fly?

JJ Hunt:

We can take a look at a few different ones, some of them some of these descriptions of different flight patterns will reference individual birds and some cat will reference groups of birds. So a lot of birds use just what's called direct flight. So ducks, herons, shorebirds, they fly in direct flight, and that's when you fly straight and level continuously flapping your wings. And so this tends to be not super smooth, but not very jerky. This is this is a getting from A to B kind of flight where you moving in a straight line, wings flapping up and down, up and down. It's a very classic kind of flying, then there's gliding, where you can glide long distance without flapping your wings at all. There are lots of different kinds of birds who do this. Sometimes birds will catch an updraft or something and they'll just float around on that draft. But other times, the birds can fly in in that long straight direct flight, and then rest their wings and just glide on them for a little while. And then continue with the straight flight again. So ravens and owls hawks, they use that combination of straight flight with with the gliding brakes, and then you've got the hovering so hummingbirds of course are the classic hovers and they are incredibly light birds. You've held a bird in your hand before?

Christine Malec:

Yes/

JJ Hunt:

They're so incredibly light, and a hummingbird is one of the lightest birds around, so it can really hover. It's also got, a hummingbird has flexible shoulder joints, so it can hover and move in in all directions. It's one of the only birds that has a reverse gear. It's a little bit crazy watching a hummingbird move. So if you are watching a hummingbird, visually their wings are an absolute blur. The average North American Hummingbird flaps its wings in normal flight, about 50 Beats Per Second.

Christine Malec:

Wow!

JJ Hunt:

50 beats a second, that's just a normal flight. Holy. So when they're hovering their light little body, the hummingbird body, which is as I've described, but quite small, just seems to float in midair with a blur of color at either side. Visually, that's what it looks like. And then suddenly that hummingbirds zips two feet higher or two feet to the side, or six inches down or eight inches back. And it's almost like they've been transported there. The human eye cannot see the bird move from point A to point B, it happens too quickly. Zip! They're suddenly hovering a few feet away. And then suddenly, Zip! They're hovering a few feet away again. And then they'll dive toward -- if you've got a hummingbird feeder or something, hummingbird feeders have some kind of sweet liquid inside with little tiny holes. And what will happen is the hummingbird will dive toward the feeder, and it seems like like a smooth motion where they dive straight in and suddenly their needle like beak is in that tiny feeding hole. They don't have to hover around outside and poke around at it, it seems to be a smooth, zip! straight there. Their beak is in the little tiny feed hole, they suck up whatever liquid food they can get and then zip away again. And the movement is absolutely like a special effect where are there they are in one place and then they are six inches away. And then suddenly they are a foot away from there. Boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, they move all over the place.

Christine Malec:

Can we talk about birds moving in groups?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, so the classic of course, is the V formation, right? This is used by migratory birds, geese and ducks. And the flock really is arranged in a V shape with the point of the V forward and each bird is slightly higher than the one in

Christine Malec:

Heh heh heh. front of it right. So you are goes a little bit higher and then moving back a little bit higher and then moving back a little bit higher. And what this does is takes advantage of a little bit of lift from the wingtip vortex of the bird in front of you. But this isn't actually discernible from the ground if you're looking at a V formation of birds flying overhead. You can't see that from the from the ground level it just looks flat. But they move in these long V's they tend to be one arm of the V tends to be a little bit longer and there are people who have studied this why this is there certain drags and you know when resistance so they're fighting but it's otherwise it's it's it's quite a distinct V shape. One of the

JJ Hunt:

It's quite a stirring sound as these geese get moving. things I always find interesting is these are used by these v shapes are common for Canada geese and ducks and such. And the Canada geese when you see a Canada Goose on the ground, it looks really different than a Canada Goose flying in the air. So on the ground, a the Canada Goose is quite a big bird, the end the body looks really quite plump. And the long wings again are tucked into the body so much so that they look like part of the body there they look fully integrated into the outline the silhouette of the body. A Canada Goose has pretty thick legs for a bird, the neck is often bent, kind of bent back and kind of tucked in a little bit. So the neck looks a little bit shorter than then it does when they fly when they fly. Canada geese lengthen out, their bodies lengthen, their feet get tucked in and their necks straighten with their pointed heads and bill's straight forward. So when they fly, they actually look like bowling pins on their sides. And their open wings are really fairly long. The wingspan of a Canada Goose is about twice the length of the body. And as you know, it takes some effort to get big bodies like that to start to fly. So when a flock of Canada geese is taking off, it can cause quite a commotion.

Christine Malec:

Even though we are. you and I, in an urban environment, do you ever have the experience at this time of year where you just happen to look up and oh my god, there's a big flock of something going by?

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, the classic V shape going overhead? Absolutely. I'm not sure what other... it depends on where you are. There are a couple of parks in Toronto that are very well known for their birds and the birding, and there you can find tons and tons and tons of birds. But mostly in this city what you'll find are a handful of birds like "oh there's a there's a cardinal in the backyard" or "there's a blue jay passing by". Or your yard might be well known to the birds to be a yard where they can pick up a little sustenance, so it'll be marked and you'll have a handful of birds that come to your yard at any given point. But mostly when you're in the city environment, what you're finding are birds on wires. So up, up up above, you get pigeons or crows or ravens up high on wire standing in lines on wires, and hawks. Hawks in the city are becoming much more of a thing. There are tons of hawks around around Toronto now.

Christine Malec:

So often when I'm out with friends, that's what will make a sighted person just stop in their tracks and like looking way up. And it's a hawk and they just stand in like reverential silence as the hawk goes by. And so can you say something about why it's so like, no other bird elicits reactions like that from sighted people in my experience.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, it's true. I mean, I imagine some of it is cultural, right? The idea of the Hawk, the hunter, there's a little bit of fear about a bird of prey like that. So I imagine some of its cultural, just what we've learned from, reading stories and hearing stories as kids. But some of it is the the way they fly. They do circle around and you get the sense the way they're circling overhead, that they are scanning the ground that, they are watching down below. And they've clearly got keen eyes, and you know what they're doing is looking for food, right? So there's that feel to it, there's an ominous quality to a hawk circling above or swooping in. I've also been in a park when a hawk will dive. There's a there's a cemetery near me where I go for walks, lots of beautiful trees, and I have seen hawks dive towards squirrels. Not get them. But you know, diving down really fast, missing, and then swooping back up and into the trees. So at any moment when they're circling overhead, I think one of the reasons that people are, excited and keeping an eye on them is because they might dive at any moment.

Christine Malec:

In getting ready for this episode JJ just nonchalantly slipped the word murmurations in and I acted like all cool. Like, yeah, sure, let's talk about that. But I don't actually even have a clue what that is. So JJ, what is a murmuration?

JJ Hunt:

Heh heh. Okay, so a murmuration. This is the flocking behavior of starlings. And it's one of the most remarkable flight patterns that exists. I've only ever seen this online, not in person. This is when hundreds, even thousands of birds fly together in a flock in a general location. They're not really traveling, it's not so much like a V formation where you're traveling from A to B. They fly over fields, or stands of trees, and the flock moves as a distinct group. So it shifts, it spreads, it flips in, it twists, it expands and contracts into into an endless array of finite shapes. Sometimes the birds are really close together, so the flock is dense. And therefore to the human eye, it looks almost like a solid shape that's moving about in the sky. And then sometimes the birds spread out, so there's more space between the birds. And at that point, the flock appears lighter and more delicate, and you think it might disperse, they might all just fly away. But they don't, they keep together in this one shape. And there's a fluidity to the movement of this shape. There's an uncanny grace and an artfullness to it. But there's also a mathematical precision to the way these birds are flying, to the movement. This is kind of goofy, but the movement kind of reminds me of artful computer screen savers. Remeber screen savers from decades ago? Oh ya. Oh? So some of these screen savers would be something attractive like colorful ribbons, or maybe like a virtual rendering of liquid or gases or something. And they would be programmed mathematically to move and shift in random ways. And the connection for me between that and a murmuration is this balance of, of the art full, seemingly random beauty and the intelligent precision of the way these shapes move. murmurations are absolutely mesmerizing. The way they shift, they fold, they change directions. It's like a murmuration is a singular shape-shifting entity that can move and contort itself. It is startling and it's ethereal. And it is one of those moments where, in the videos, there's usually a group of people watching a murmuration, and you will, you will routinely hear people gasp, because it's just so startling.

Christine Malec:

Is there anything eerie about it? Or is it just beautiful?

JJ Hunt:

I would definitely say there's something eerie about it. What's eerie to me is that there's there's clearly some kind of communication amongst these birds that we don't understand, right? How is it that thousands of birds can choose how and when to move and shift? Is it about wind patterns? Is it about the scooping up bugs in the air? Like, what is it that is directing this hive mind to make the decisions it's making? When you think about it like that, it is definitely there's a, there's an eerie kind of quality to it. But really, the shapes that they come up with are really lovely. And the speed at which it moves is tends to be calm and graceful. So it's it tends to be more of a lovely calming kind of experience than then then a startling one in that regard.

Christine Malec:

Right. So here's one of those moments where I stand in for others like myself, and just acknowledge, I don't really know what a bird's nest looks like. And it's such a basic thing of culture that everyone knows about, but I don't know. So why don't you enlighten me and maybe one or two other of our listeners if we could talk about bird's nest nest for a minute?

JJ Hunt:

Sure. So the classic bird's nest is a bowl shape. Sometimes it has a flattened bottom, but it's generally a bowl shape, and usually made of tiny twigs, dry grasses, things like that. Maybe some soft, warm scavenged material tucked in there. So we moss or leaves or downy fluff that you'll find in, you know, fuzz on some kind of plant life or plant material. And sometimes if you're in an urban environment, or if there's too much garbage around, there'll be little bits of garbage tucked in there to these nests. These birds nests can be often very, very small and really quite cute. There's something about the size of them and the tiny twigs of the smaller than s tends to have tiny or twigs in there. But then you can get some pretty big nests for big birds. Like the bald eagle for example. Apparently a bald eagle can build a nest that is 13 feet deep --

Christine Malec:

What?!

JJ Hunt:

-- and 8 feet wide. Eight feet wide!

Christine Malec:

Get out!

JJ Hunt:

You can literally get stuck inside a bald eagle's nest. They're huge.

Christine Malec:

That's crazy.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, and they're not just tiny twigs. These are made with sticks that are bent and twisted in there. Yeah, totally. And there are other kinds of nest

Christine Malec:

Oh my god. Wow. too. So like barn swallows, for example. They make these kind of packed mud and straw nests. So barn swallows, they pack their nests up into the corners of open roofs or rafters or overha gs, that's how they get the ame barn swallows. And their ests look like like a half of a clay flower pot cut down the m ddle stuck against the wall righ . It's made of again, like bit of straw and dry grass and t en bits of mud packing it in t ere to hold it against the hig up on the roof line. And then ut of the top of that kind of ha f pot shape. You'll often fi d a row of baby swallows of lit le chicks that are poking thei heads out of the top with th ir pointy yellow beaks wide open and you will hear them if th y are there they are squeaky squ wky little things constant y chirping away. And the cliff o cave swallows build similar n sts again out of mud and straw. ut these ones are shaped more like cones or really funnels ecause they have holes on the op n ends. So you might find an e tire cliff wall packed, absolut ly lined with these mud funne s with the wide end stuck to th side of the cliff and an op n hole pointing out. And what h ppens is swallows will s ar up to those holes at speed ike they can really move swa lows. And they will soar up to those holes at speed and dart nside again, like totally sm oth. They don't necessarily hov r around the outside, they j st dart straight inside. Or mayb they'll come up they'll fly up nd they'll flip about the these are swallows or birds that have they're very good fliers. Th y're very speedy and deft and so not quite as like disappear eappear as a hummingbird. Bu getting there right, they wil flit back and forth. If they ere in like airplane battles, t ey'd be doing very well. T ey have really good movement, they can flit about and som times what they'll do is they' l fly up to those to their nests and they'll flit about and they' l feed the chicks inside. Som times they'll just perch th mselves on the side of the nes and feed the chicks that hav their mouths open. It can be i credibly loud. If there ar lots of nests in one lace and it's feeding time, t ese tiny chicks will squawk th ir heads off as the adults sw op back and forth delivering ood. Now, I know that you know, there's some birds that are really spectacular, and you're not going to see them in your local neighborhood park. But when you were doing your research, what was something that really stuck out for you is really spectacular to look at.

JJ Hunt:

The birds of paradise are the most amazing. They're like the glam rock stars of the bird kingdom. Huck huck huck. Like if Jim Henson, elton john, and Lady Gaga, if they were creating a species of animals, they would have a hard time coming up with anything more wild and fabulous than birds of paradise. They are outrageous, and they're hilarious. So birds of paradise often have outrageous plumage, right, wild colors, strange forms, odd feathers. And again, the plumage will change shape and pattern. When these birds are performing or practicing their mating rituals. That's the thing about the birds of paradise is that they're not only as their coloring their, their feathering, wild and outrageous, but they have these crazy mating rituals, and they will change their shape, too to to perform them really well. So there's a BBC Planet Earth episode that showcases some of these really wacky birds. I've watched it a few times I really quite enjoy it.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

One of these birds has a dusty rose colored body and

Christine Malec:

Ha ha! appointed powder blue beak, and the top half of its head is bright yellow. The bottom half of the head is a shimmering emerald green color. And then all across the shoulders and down the back are these tall, wispy feathery feathers that stand straight up in the air. And so what this bird does is it It shoots its wings out to the side, puts its head down kind of bobs back and forth. And these feathers on their back stand straight up like Kramer's hair or something just like straight up and kind of squawking and jutting its head back and forth as it stomps around. Total y bizarre. Another one, the s x plumed bird of paradise is it name, it looks reasonably norma until it starts to dance. So it s got a jet black body with ong feathers that stick out o the back of its head, like hese feathers are as long as th body itself and they look like ires with little black flaps or flags on the end. And it's ot a shimmering breas plate that looks like side-by- ide blue and green fish scal s. And so what happens is, this bird will tidy up the forest as a performance space. So like l terally going around the fores and picking up dry leaves and y u know, shuttling them t the side and scrubbing branc es with bits of moss and bark. t cleans up the performance spa

JJ Hunt:

-- which makes the long head feathers flit about. And e before it begins its struttin ! And then what it does is it rises tall on it's very thin bla k legs, spreads its wings nto this really strange tut shape. So not wings spread to the side, but the wings kind f go low. If this was on a human it would be a skirt, a puffy s irt. That's how it arranges its black wings into a tutu shape. nd then it tiptoes back and fo th back and forth, and juts its head from side to side like M ck Jagger-- then the fish scales on the chest, they flip up and down like a burlesque dancer giving a peek under their skirt.

Christine Malec:

Ha ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

It's such a bizarre... it's so fantastic. And it's not the weirdest one.

Christine Malec:

Oh my god!

JJ Hunt:

The weirdest one is this bird called the Supurb Bird of Paradise. And again, this is a jet black bird, and I mean really black. This is one of the blackest blacks that is found in nature. So this black absorbs almost all light, it's really quite an astonishing black. What this bird does when it's presenting itself to a mate, the male will lean forward with his head down and then fan out his wings behind him into an oval shape. It makes a perfect oval around him kind of like making a backdrop behind his head. But this oval is actually wider than he is long, it's really wide. And from the front at the bottom of the oval is a neon teal, a really brilliant teal shape that looks decidedly like a big, wide, almost grinning mouth. And directly above it are two neon teal dots in exactly the same place where two eyes would be if this was a face. And because this birds feathers are so black, his head actually vanishes, it appears to vanish. It can't be seen against this black shape behind him.So what this bird is presenting to a mate is a giant neon teal smiley face against the black black backdrop. And then it dances!

Christine Malec:

Ha ha!

JJ Hunt:

It dances back and forth, bobbing up and down, while making a sharp clicking noise. It's totally mesmerizing. And I gotta say, if I met this bird in dance club, I would definitely give it my phone number.

Christine Malec:

Have you tried this on Lois?

JJ Hunt:

I should! Put some kind of big fan shaped backdrop behind me and then dance about clicking?

Christine Malec:

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah, neon get the neon going.

JJ Hunt:

Yeah, gotta get the neon in there. Oh, yeah, it's a look, I'm telling you. It's a look.

Christine Malec:

Now, this has never come up on the show before but I'm a total sucker for animal jokes. And so we're gonna leave on an animal joke, which is we're gonna make like a bird and get the flock out of here.

JJ Hunt:

Ha ha ha!

Christine Malec:

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Songbirds
Flight
Nests
Birds of Paradise